At Work in the Cranberry Bog

Museum shows cranberry bog harvest with handcrafted tools

A cranberry bog at Kingston, Mass.

A cranberry bog at Kingston, Mass. The ditches are used to channel water for bog flooding, an important part of cranberry cultivation.

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When cranberries are cooking, have you ever wondered why you can hear the berries popping in the pan? Or why, if one falls to the floor, it bounces? 

Those unusual actions are due to the cranberry's unique design, which features air pockets in each berry. When the berry is fresh from the cranberry bog and healthy, the pockets are full of air, giving it a good bounce. When the berry deteriorates, the pockets deflate and the bounce is gone. When fresh berries are cooked, the air inside heats up, causing them to explode.

Cranberries have been a part of our culture since native Americans introduced the wild fruit to the early New England settlers in the 17th century. The Cape Cod Pequots and the New Jersey Leni-Lenape tribes called the cranberry "ibimi" (or bitter berry), but it was the Pilgrims who gave the berry its modern name. To them, the shape of the plant's bloom resembled the head of the sandhill crane, a heron-like bird common to the area, so they called the fruit a "crane berry," which later evolved into "cranberry."

Just a short walk from Plymouth Rock on Cape Cod Bay, where the Mayflower landed in 1620, is the Cranberry World Visitors Center. Sponsored by Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc., the center includes a small museum celebrating a farming industry that has been a part of local life in southeastern Massachusetts for almost 400 years.

Ray Poole, a tour guide at the center, can answer any questions a visitor may have about the cranberry.

"When the Pilgrims landed, the cranberries were growing wild," he said. "The native Americans helped them out with food and shelter, and showed them the berries that grew in the bogs. They showed them how to make pemmican, which was dried cranberries and dried venison mixed with lard. They made it into hamburger-size patties, baked them in the sun, then put them in baskets made of reeds to store for the winter. They were a source of vitamins and protein."

The native Americans also showed the newcomers how cranberries were "magic healers." Poultices made from crushed cranberries could draw poison from an arrow wound, and heal cuts and scrapes. Native American women used cranberry juice to dye rugs and blankets. A century later, American sailing ships carried barrels of cranberries on their long sea voyages as a source of vitamin C to ward off scurvy among their crew.

A member of the heath family, the cranberry grows on small, creeper-like evergreen vines in bogs that were originally formed by glacial deposits in the Ice Age. The vines require an acid-peat soil, plenty of fresh water, and a seven-month growing season. Today cranberries are grown commercially in southeastern Massachusetts, northern Wisconsin, and the Pacific coastline of Oregon and Washington.

"Henry Hall of Cape Cod was the first grower to commercially cultivate cranberries," Ray said. "In 1816 he noticed that wild cranberries on his land grew better when the sand blew over them, so he began transplanting the vines, fencing them in from his cattle, and covering them with sand. The sand had to be hauled in on wheelbarrows. Hall's experiments were copied by other farmers, and soon cranberries became an important part of Cape industry. Some of the bogs 'round here are more than 100 years old and have been handed down from one generation to another. There's no need to replant the vines, because if they're undamaged, they'll survive indefinitely."

Even today the bogs are spread with a shallow layer of sand every three or four years. The sand compresses the vines and causes them to put out new roots and take in additional nutrients.

According to Ray, it was John "Peg-Leg" Webb, a 19th century New Jersey cranberry grower, who first noticed the cranberry's "bounce." The story goes that, because of his wooden leg, he couldn't carry his berries down from his barn loft. So, he poured them down the steps. He discovered that only the firmest fruit bounced to the bottom. Bruised or rotten fruit stayed on the steps. This observation led to the development of the first cranberry bounceboard separator. The "bounce" of the cranberry is still used today as an indication of freshness, with the best bouncers sold fresh in groceries. The rest are processed to make juice, sauce and relish.

The growing and harvesting of cranberries over the next two centuries was a basic process that involved back-breaking physical work and just a few hand-made tools, "hand" being the operative word.

A diller is a 19th century hand-held planting tool made of iron that looks a bit like a hammer. Small vine cuttings were laid side by side in a shallow trench in the bog. The grooved end of the diller was used to press the end of the cutting into the damp soil. Small hand-held hoes were used to cover the ends of the newly planted vines and to weed between them. It took three to five years from the first planting to the bearing of fruit.

"Everyone designed their own tools," Ray said. "These people were smart. They didn't have much schooling, but their needs got the old cogs grinding."

Ripe cranberries lie on mats of closely woven vines about 4 inches thick. They were first picked individually by hand, but as the industry developed through the 19th century, local growers designed and made hand tools to speed up the process.

"They made wooden scoops with teeth that combed the vines, and they emptied the berries into six-quart buckets," Ray said. "In the 19th century the scoops were square, but by the 20th century they were rounded. As there were more cranberries, they kept developing more tools. Those scoops were used until the 1950s. The teeth went under the plants, then you rocked the scoop back to pull off the berries, leaving the vines intact. In the later ones, the berries went into a container behind the rake and you emptied that into a barrel. Pickers got tokens for every container they put in the barrel, and they got paid for the tokens."

In the 19th century, litter bearers carried the barrels (or wooden boxes, hauled by wheelbarrows), from the fields to the processing center. Women and children were a major part of the labor force.

At the sorting center, the berries were put through a hand-cranked winnowing machine, where a blade created air currents to blow leaves and debris off the fruit. They were then spread on a sorting tray to be hand-sorted. The next step was a separator, where they were "bounced" down a series of wooden shelves for a further sorting. The quality of the berry depended on how many bounces they survived, with six or seven being the top number. By the 1930s, locally-made wooden belt-driven machines were used, combining the winnowing and separating processes. After the sorting was completed, the berries were packed and shipped to all parts of the country.

The cranberry industry in southern Massachusetts has always been family and community oriented.

"There was a celebration for the harvest," Ray said. "It began Sept.1 and everyone worked together. Today we have the Massachusetts Cranberry Harvest Festival every year on the Columbus Day weekend." FC 

Jill Teunis is a freelance writer living in Damascus, Md.