Cranberrying in Shirley

Cranberrying in Shirley

The cranberry (vaccinium macrocarpon) is a native American plant which appears in the wild from the Carolinas to Quebec. It was first cited under its popular name by the missionary John Eliot in 1647. The name is of German origin: kraan [crane] + bere [berry] and may have been derived from the “crane”-like shape of its flower (though this has been disputed).

Cranberry culture was first attempted at Cape Cod in 1816. The first (unsuccessful) commercial venture was in 1847. By 1866, however, cultivation was sufficiently widespread that a Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association was launched. A second such association was formed at a “cranberry convention” in 1888.

Early cranberrying was typically a family (or extended family) activity, but the work was hard and by the late 19th Century most of the labor was supplied by Finnish and Cape Verdean immigrants.

In 1912, one grower (Marcus Vrann) began canning berries under the “Ocean Spray” label and in 1930 attempted to control their price by a merger with his principal rivals. However, the effort (which would have involved over 90% of production) fell victim to the antitrust laws. Vrann then discovered that there was a loophole in the law: agricultural marketing groups were exempt. He therefore proceeded to form a marketing co-op under the Ocean Spray rubric.

It was the dominance of the Cape growers that made inland cranberry cultivation increasingly uneconomical.

In Shirley, cranberrying flourished from the 1880s to the early 1900s, then gradually declined to World War I and died out completely shortly thereafter.

The Shirley bogs were developed primarily by Edward E. Edgarton, whose principal business prior to his death in 1912 was the suspender factory on the Catacunemaug. Edgarton operated two bogs: one in the vicinity of the Shirley airport, which he owned outright, and one off Holden Road, in which he was the principal shareholder. Edgarton said that the income from these ventures paid for the $3,000 house that he constructed at #1 Harvard Road in 1900 (see photo) — a building that, in somewhat altered form, still stands.

The Holden Road bog (which I currently own) had a rather strange history. Although carried on tax records as owned by Edgarton, it was actually the property of his first wife, Emily, who predeceased him in 1907, while specifying that it should pass after his death to their daughter, Lizzie.

In 1883, Lizzie Edgarton had married one Samuel H. Longley, who is not remembered by any of the local Longleys — possibly because he lived most of his life in Worcester. He did, however, correspond in his later years with Ethel Bolton, who incorporated certain of his “recollections” (though not of cranberrying) in her 1914 history of Shirley.

Lizzie, who apparently remarried a gentleman named Smith (also of Worcester), remained owner of the Holden bog until her death in Florida in 1942. Lizzie and the second Mrs. Edgarton did not get along. Edgarton’s son-in-law, Austin Maxwell, in a letter to Gerald Jubb, wrote that during a visit to her in Worcester “Mrs. Smith accused my mother of undue influence on the old man’s will. This made my mother very angry so we never visited again”.

In 1944, Emma Walker, then Shirley tax collector, deeded the property to Ralph I. Evans, upon his payment of delinquent taxes totaling $10.01 for 1942 and 1943. The transaction was subsequently clouded by an apparent lack of effort to contact Lizzie’s heirs (three daughters, resident in South Carolina) who, on at least one occasion, were reported to have visited Shirley in a futile effort to claim their inheritance.

The bog was part of the 200-acre Esther Evans tract that was purchased by Stanley McNiff in 1985 and, as a wetland, being unsuitable for development, was sold to yours truly in the same year at the “bargain price” of $10,000 (some 1,000 times what Ralph Evans had paid for it only four decades earlier).

In 1985, with approval from the Conservation Commission, an effort was launched to restore the Holden bog dykes and clear the meadow areas of vegetation that had grown up in the 60-odd years since harvesting had ceased. While there has been no attempt to return the area to formal cultivation, the general outline of the old layout is now clearly visible and hopefully will remain so for historic purposes. Cranberries, though limited in quantity to those occurring naturally, can still be picked at the site.

The Holden Road meadow (actually a number of meadows separated by canals) was constructed with the assistance of John R. Holden, a minority shareholder, who, prior to his death in 1909, lived in what is now the McDougall residence on Center Road. The growing area was bordered by dykes on the north and south. The one on the north separated it from a reservoir that could be used to flood the plants for pest control and to protect them from frost prior to the October harvesting. The one on the south ran along a discharge area that flowed into Spruce Swamp Brook (see diagram).

A memoir by Maxwell, states that “with a horse and some hired men [the land was initially] leveled and [the] retaining dykes built to flood the area each fall so the berries would not freeze”. A small dump cart on portable wooden tracks was employed during construction and later used to transport sand from dunes on the east side to cover the vines and inhibit the growth of weeds. (Some years ago, I found one of the original rails, 2″x4″x6′, with metal clamps at both ends, along with an 18″ cross bolt and a pair of iron cart wheels. These are the only physical remains known to this amateur archeologist!)

Maxwell writes that Edgarton “took us one spring day to the bogs … to let the water run off. He did this by lifting the gates which slid up in their wooden guides. At the Lancaster meadow there was no pole handy to use as a lever, so he cut a sapling about two inches by ten feet and with a piece of rope tied around the center gate just easily raised the gate. It was quite a sight to see all that water released at once as most of the meadow stood covered by three or four feet of water”.

The workers appear to have gathered to relax and eat noonday meals at a still-intact well at the eastern end of the reservoir dyke (see photo). Their labors were not light. Bob Holden once told me a story (possibly apocryphal) that his great grandfather strolled by one day and sped a young lass among the workers with whom he became instantly enamored. According to Bob, she accepted an impulsive offer of marriage on the spot, as a means of escaping from further back-breaking toil as a harvester.

Prior to the turn of the century, berries from the south bog were dried, ripened and boxed in the barns of houses owned by Edgarton on Lancaster and Leominster roads. Maxwell reported that in 1899 the sale of cranberries paid for the Edgarton residence on Harvard Road. “In the cellar he had a cranberry winnowing machine which consisted of a hopper on the top … into which a half-bushel of berries could be dumped; then by turning a crank a fan blew away the chaff and leaves while the berries dropped down on narrow shelves and bounced into various boxes. Sound berries bounced best and went into a no. 1 box; frozen or other defective berries bounced poorly and went into trash boxes.” None of the Shirley machines survived, though I have seen them at the Cape. Miracles of Yankee ingenuity, they (and numerous other pieces of equipment) were designed and built by the growers themselves, since the activity was too limited to entail mass production.

The Holden Road crop was processed in a “cranberry house” at the left of John Holden’s residence (see photo). Dances were held on the second floor of the building (which my father demolished in 1940) at the conclusion of each fall harvest. According to Maxwell, skating parties were held in the iced-over bogs in winter.

Many unanswered question remain about an enterprise that was of tangible economic value to the Shirley community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Surprisingly, there is no reference whatsoever to it in Bolton’s history, perhaps because she was primarily interested in town residences and the people who lived in them. Therein perhaps lies a message for historians of the future: go after your oral histories while those who can offer them remain among the living.

(A talk by Arthur S. Banks to the Shirley Historical Society on July 12, 2002)

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