Tuesday, October 20, 2015

A Bit of Cranberry History

In this 1906 postcard, Cape Codders pick cranberries by the six-quart pail, the standard measure by the 1870s.
It's cranberry season in the sandy outskirts of Provincetown, in the very low spots where the water tends to pool up in the spring rains. You can look for them off of Province Lands Road, on either side, in the low spots before the road rises to meet Race Point Road on the little hill near the Province Lands Visitor Center. There are also wild cranberry bogs in the very low spots of the dunes, sometimes quite near the trails used by the dune tour and the folks staying out there in the old dune shacks.
Cranberries are one of only three fruits that are native to North America, along with the blueberries, which you'll find around Provincetown in early summer, and Concord grapes, which inspired the name given to Martha's Vineyard by British explorer Bartholomew Gosnold when he visited the island in 1602. Gosnold also gave Cape Cod its name on May 15th, 1602, after having named it Shoal Hope that morning, but that's another story, told in my article about Cape Cod's 413th Birthday, sort of...
In the 1906 postcard above, these folks seem to be in groups, perhaps families, each harvesting the cranberries in their allotted area, marked out in plots of equal width running the length of the bog. It looks as though this may have been a wild bog where everyone was to have an equal chance to gather a fair share of the berries. Read my article from last autumn to learn about Provincetown's Cranberry Vote of 1773, enacting the law which provided for stiff penalties for anyone caught poaching the berries before the season. The dollar fine mentioned there may not seem like much, but a 100 pound barrel of cranberries shipped to be sold in Philadelphia in 1868 brought 58 cents, so a buck was a lot of money. Cranberries had become a food source for those early New Englanders, and a valuable commodity for trading as well.
This 1910 postcard, hand tinted from a black a white photo, shows the newly
developed rocker scoop, with its long fingers pushed along beneath the vines
and then "rocked" back to pluck the berries, which rolled down into the scoop.
The use of the humble cranberry dates back to the year 1550, when Native Americans began using it not only as a medicine to apply to wounds, and as a dye for blankets and rugs, but also as a staple of their diets. Crushed cranberries were often blended with dried venison and rendered fat to make pemmican, which may have been the world's first energy bar. In 1620 the Pilgrims met the Native Americans, who showed them many uses for cranberries, and in 1683 the settlers made their first cranberry juice.
In 1816 Captain Henry Hall accidentally became the first to cultivate cranberries, at his home in Dennis, in the center of Cape Cod, when he cut down a stand of tall trees on his property. He hadn't realized that without the trees acting as a windbreak, sand would blow in and cover his cranberry blog. He though that this "mistake" had surely ruined the bog, but noticed with some delight that his cranberries actually grew better than ever that year, leading him to begin experimenting with using sand to cover the bogs to varying degrees and at different times of the year. Eventually, he hit on the combination of factors that would best maximize his crop.
By the 1820s, Cape Codders were growing cranberries in sufficient quantities to ship them to be sold in a growing European market. By 1843 Eli Howes was actively cultivating his Howes variety of cranberries in East Dennis, a few miles east of Hall's land, and by 1847, Cyrus Cahoon was busy developing his Early Black variety just a few more miles to the east, in the town of Harwich.
In 1850 cranberries became a source of vitamin C for fishermen, whalers and sailors who ate them to ward off scurvy while they were away at sea for months or years at a time, with any other fresh fruits or vegetables onboard being consumed within the first few weeks of the voyage. Over the next few years the first cranberry scoops began making harvesting the berries quicker and easier, and in 1854 the first census of cranberry acreage reported 197 acres in Barnstable County, which comprises all of the towns and villages of Cape Cod.
This unusually warm weather coming this week should make it a pleasure to grab a bucket and take a stroll out through the bogs. If you do go out picking cranberries, don't confuse them with bearberry, which are also red berries growing on little vines on the ground, but are generally smaller and kind of shiny, and humans shouldn't eat them in large quantities.
Although I'm not sure how the dearth of rain this summer will have affected the cranberries, they should probably be ripe by now, likely with more of them ripening over the next few weeks. They may be a bit smaller than usual due to the lack of rain, but if there were enough bees to pollinate them well, we should have plenty of berries to pick.

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