The Wampanoag "sour berry" (aka cranberry) has a celebrated history on the Island.
by Geraldine Brooks
Martha's Vineyard Museum
They are the last berry to ripen, a vivid red reminder of the turning of the year. In late September, if you know where to look, you can find them at your feet—plump, blushing orbs partially hidden by a mat of delicate, small-leaved vines. By mid-October they will be ruby red and gleaming, ready for picking.
For thousands of years Wampanoag Indians on Martha’s Vineyard relied on sasumuneash, or ‘sour berries,’ to see them through a hard winter. “It was a harvest for survival,” says Jannette Vanderhoop, writer and illustrator of the children’s book, “Cranberry Day: A Wampanoag Harvest Celebration.” Wampanoag would store cranberries in earthen pits deep enough to prevent freezing, and draw on them for a rich source of vitamins when other plant food became scarce.
From the late nineteenth century until the 1930s, cranberries were an important commercial crop for Wampanoags and other Vineyarders, who found ready markets in wealthy New Bedford. The Indians harvested wild cranberries from their traditional tribal lands near Lobsterville Beach, using a system of flags to signal when the berries were ripe for picking. In 1898 a Mashpee Wampanoag, Asa Peters, patented a cranberry sorter to separate the berries from sticks and leaves. The Aquinnah Cultural Center has one of his machines on display. The Center also has an oral history presentation where tribal elders such as Gladys Widdiss, who was born in 1914, recalls getting up at 4 am to travel to the bogs on her grandfather’s ox cart. Her mother would save food all summer long in order to be able to pack a lavish picnic to be shared on the dunes when the picking was done.
In those days, the tribe would pick for three or four days and crate up berries to sell. Today, Cranberry Day is the second Tuesday in October, and is an excused absence for Wampanoag children enrolled in Island schools. Picking takes place all morning, and when backs are sore and arms tired, everyone gathers around a bonfire for songs, drumming and storytelling. That night, celebrations continue at a potluck dinner, which is open to the public, at the tribal building in Aquinnah. While the wild berries were always important to the tribe, cultivated bogs also became a common sight across the Island following English settlement in 1641. Cranberries in the wild prefer low-lying areas with peat moss, but over time, farmers developed methods for creating bogs by leveling and sanding plots in areas that can be flooded and drained on a schedule to control pests and prevent vines from desiccating in the winter winds.
Until the 1960s and ’70s, cultivated cranberry bogs were an integral part of the Vineyard landscape. “There were bogs up and down Lambert’s Cove Road,”recalls Eugene W. Bergeron, a landscaper from West Tisbury. “Just about everyone in that area had a bog in their backyard.” Duarte’s Pond was once a commercial cranberry bog, as was an area around Cow Bay in Edgartown. Vineyarder’s generally harvested with wooden scoops, or by hand—a backbreaking and labor-intensive task unlike the large-scale mechanical harvests seen on the Cape today.
There, bogs are flooded and machines go through, shaking the plants to loosen the berries that then float to the surface to be scooped and sorted, also by machines. Because the older Island methods were so labor-intensive, commercial harvesting began to decline with the shortage of workers during World War II. Bergeron is now working with the Vineyard Open Lands Foundation (VOLF) on an ambitious project to restore a historic, 1880s Vineyard Haven bog at Cranberry Acres (on Lambert’s Cove Road) to commercial, organic production.
The up-land area around the bog had been turned into a campground in the 1970s, and was part of a picturesque 45-acre parcel of land bought by VOLF in 1982. “We aim to show that you can have sustainable agriculture, protect wetlands and habitat, restore a historic rural landscape, and offer public access at one and the same time,” says Carol L. Magee, the project manager. From a public walking trail that circles the site, she points out ripening cranberries that will be sold to the public in combination with organic berries grown on the Cape in October, with sales to benefit the restoration project. On the bog, VOLF workers painstakingly hand-weed and re-sand the recently replanted areas. “We use traditional methods,” she says. “Everything is done without heavy equipment.”
They may also be purchased at Morning Glory Farm. Work on the site is being carried out in stages, as funding permits. Magee one day plans to restore the old processing shed—a charming barn that is a Lambert’s Cove landmark—as a cranberry museum. “The berries used to be wheeled up to the second floor of the shed and dumped through a hole into sorting machines,” Magee explains. She has two of the original machines from the site that will one day be part of the museum display.
Early in the project, Magee says she was lucky to meet Robert and Kristine Keese, who pioneered organic cranberry production on the mainland and have become consultants to VOLF. Like many cranberry growers, Robert Keese had been a fisherman, scalloping in Alaska and returning to his Cape farm in the off season. His concern for the effect of chemicals on marine life led him to adopt organic methods, and he found there was a growing market willing to pay a premium price for pesticide-free berries. Because most Cape bogs were started by fishermen in their downtime, he says, there are a lot of nautical terms: “When you go on the bog, you say you’re going on board—when you leave it, you’re going ashore.”
There are other terms that reveal the long history of cranberries in this region. When organic farmers today use liquid fish emulsion to improve the soil in their bogs, they buy a fertilizer called Squanto’s Secret, named for the Squanto who helped the Pilgrims. But Jannette Vanderhoop thinks the product is misnamed. She believes the fertilizer should really be known as “Squant’s Secret.”
Squant was the wife of the legendary Wampanoag giant, Moshup, who created Martha’s Vineyard, or Noepe, by dragging his toe through the sands and separating the island from the mainland. Legend says Squant was the first caretaker of the cranberry bogs. Through the use of her natural fertilizer, she continues to care for them, even today.