Nearly everyone has enjoyed the several products derived from the fruit of the cranberry, but few people are familiar with the ecology of this interesting plant or the role it has played in many local economies and histories.
Today the cranberry industry is an important. part of the agricultural economy only in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Wisconsin. But many other parts of the country were at one time involved in cranberry production.
Suffolk County on Long Island was once the third largest producer of cranberries in the nation. Although the Long Island cranberry industry was wiped out by a series of disasters culminating in the great cancer scare which removed the fruit from our Thanksgiving and Christmas tables in 1959, all is not lost. The Cranberry Bog Preserve near Riverhead is now a mecca for students of unusual plant and animal life, as well as a haven for people who simply enjoy a tranquil oasis in a rapidly growing population center.
The Pilgrims along the coast of Massachusetts were introduced to the cranberry by local Native Americans. Soon they were harvesting the fruit each fall. In addition to a delicious sauce, the Pilgrims made a brilliant red dye from the fruit.
Commercial cranberry farmers had to imitate what the coastal Pilgrims had naturally: flooding in early spring and in the fall to protect the blossoms and fruits from frost damage, and sanding in the spring to provide a good substrate for new shoots to root in and to keep down the number of weeds.
The cranberry has a large range extending from Minnesota to Newfoundland, and into Canada on the north, then south to Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey and the mountainous regions of North Carolina. Three different species cover this range: the mountain cranberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) of northern Canada and northern New England, and the small cranberry (V. oxycoccus) and large cranberry (V. macrocarpon) which cover the remainder of the range.
The large cranberry is generally the more widespread species on the more southern coastal bogs and marshes. It is also the species from which most modern commercial varieties have been derived. Being members of the heath family Ericaceae, these plants are tolerant of sandy, acid soils typical of the bogs in northcentral and northeastern North America, so it was here in the wetland habitat of the bog that early settlers found the cranberries to be most abundant, its low creeping evergreen vine traversing the surface of the bog floor among the sphagnum moss, and other unique, rare and beautiful bog flora.
Bog habitats were a common site on Long Island when the first Europeans arrived in the 17th century. However, while the early settlers of Massachusetts, and later New Jersey, were soon developing a cranberry industry, Long Island settlers showed little interest in this fruit, other than occasional household ventures into the bog each fall to collect the berries for their homemade products. Islanders were more interested in farming other crops and developing their milling industry along the banks of Long Island’s numerous coastal streams and rivers.
The relatively large areas of low lying freshwater wetlands along the banks of the Peconic River provided ideal conditions for the creation of mill ponds. Consequently, the milling industry became a major part of the economy in Riverhead, a community that developed along the Peconic’s banks. The water mills were used to power sawmills and grind grain.
With the advent of the industrial age, gas and coal began to replace water as a source of energy. Engines began to do the work of the old water mills, and by 1870, the local millers along the Peconic were desperate for an alternate source of income.
In 1870 Warren Hawkins and Bull Overton of Bayport in the town of Islip, experimented with cranberry plant cultivation with highly successful results, and the news spread quickly to the millers along the Peconic. By 1875, many of them went to work preparing their lands for cranberry production as they began to understand the requirements for cranberry production, which include an abundant supply of flood water from either a natural or artificially created body of water, an irrigation system of ditches, weirs and pumps, and low, level wetlands.
Once a source of flood water was established, the backbreaking task of ditch digging, dike building, and dam and weir construction had to be initiated. Generally, ditches were dug around the perimeter of the wetlands. This served to drain the wetlands so they could be worked more easily. All vegetation was then cleared away and the wetland was scraped, removing the upper four to six inches of vegetation and organic material, leaving a bare muck and sand substrate behind. The material that was removed from the wetland was used for creating dikes around the bog.
Additional drainage ditches were then dug across the bogs, and the bog floor was graded to assure even flooding and to facilitate drainage. A weir was placed at each end of the bog, and flooded bogs were drained either by allowing the water to flow naturally downgrade to the Peconic or by pumping the water back into the main pond. When finished, the larger cranberry farms consisted of 10 or more separated bogs.
The final step before planting was to haul in sand and lay it on the bog floor to a depth of at least four inches. In this sand substrate, the cranberry vines were planted.
The laborious and time-consuming nature of the process is documented in the following from records of the Cranberry Bog Preserve Committee.
In 1885, two brothers, M.H. and S.H. Woodhull, purchased land near present day Sweezy’s Pond and Wildwood Lake in Riverhead and began preparing it for cranberry cultivation. In the first year, working until the Christmas season, a small crew was able to prepare 10 acres, which were not sanded until the following spring.
The cranberry vines were set in May 1886. During that same year, 15 more acres were graded. In the spring of 1887, these additional acres were sanded, using the muscle of as many as 35 men who were paid $1 a day to move sand in wheelbarrows which they pushed along planks out onto the bog. Once sanded, the 15 acres were then planted with vines imported from New Jersey and Cape Cod at a cost of $4 per barrel.
Not until 1889, approximately four years after the Woodhulls’ first planting, was the first harvest made, and only 10 bushels were harvested and sold locally. In 1892, however, 21,600 bushels were harvested and sold for $2 per bushel-a huge success for a new industry. By the 1920s ten major bogs were in operation, employing 50 people year-round and many more during the harvest season.
From spring to fall the bogs along the Peconic bustled with activity. In the spring, winter flood waters were drained and vegetation was evident one or two weeks later. Flowering began toward the end of June and continued until full bloom was reached around the 4th of July. During the spring, protection from frost had to be afforded the blossoms. The flowering period was critical because the extent of pollination would determine the size of the fall crop. For this reason, honeybees were particularly important to the cranberry grower, and a bee’s nest in the adjacent oak woodland was a cherished resource.
Although sanding in the spring helped to keep down the weeds on the bog, weeding was still an important job. It was a common sight in the old days to see gangs of weeders crawling over the bogs on hands and knees, pulling out weeds and throwing them into their weed baskets or using scythes to mow them down. As late as the 1930s these weeders were paid as little as 10¢ an hour. By the 1940s extensive use of chemical weed killers greatly reduced the laborious task of weed control.
Several variables could affect the size of the harvest. Poor pollination during the flowering season fungus diseases, viral diseases and insect attack were all potential threats to the cranberry farmer. Viral diseases like “false blossom of cranberries” could adversely affect fruit development. The black-headed fireworm (Rhopobota vacciniana) and the cranberry fruit worm (Naevana vaccinii) were well known for their respective foliage and fruit damage which could literally wipe out a year’s crop.
Up until the 1930s, however, there were no major problems with the Long Island cranberry crops, and autumn along the Peconic would find the bogs covered with harvesters. In later years a motorized picker resembling a gasoline powered lawn mower would rake through the vines and force the berries back into the catcher. Since there were no local processing plants, the berries had to be sold locally or rapidly trucked to New York City and other population centers.
Trucking and storage were critical operations. The stored crop was vulnerable to fungus rots and to breakdowns in temperature control. Optimum temperature for storage was 36 to 40° F, but this range was far from easy to maintain in the early 1900s. Crop losses of 30 percent or more were sometimes experienced by unlucky farmers. For these reasons, long distance shipment by truck was not possible.
After reaching its peak in the 1920s, the cranberry industry on Long Island began to decline. For one thing, the smaller bogs of the island could not compete with the larger operations in Massachusetts and New Jersey, and without a local processing plant the Long Island growers could not get as much money for their crops as could the growers in other parts of the country. By 1936, the number of major bogs in Suffolk County was down to about six. Then disaster struck.
The fireworm was suddenly a major problem. This insect would lay billions of eggs on the cranberry plants in spring. The defoliating capability of the larvae was devastating, and elaborate spray systems had to be established to carry insecticide to all corners of the bog. Such a system was too expensive to be practical, so many of the remaining farmers gave up the fight.
A few growers managed to keep going but rising labor and trucking costs made it difficult to show a profit. Then, on November 9, 1959, the final blow was delivered when the Department of Health, Education and Welfare announced that the weed killer amino triazole, used extensively on cranberry bogs throughout the country, had been shown to cause cancer in laboratory mice.
The cranberry industry all over the nation went into shock on “Cranberry Black Monday.” The Long Island industry was all but finished. By 1965, only the old David Marsh in Calverton was still in operation. In 1974, this bog also ceased commercial production. Long Island’s cranberry days were over.
Drive the roads along the Peconic today and you can still see the remains of the old bogs. The Woodhull bog at Sweezy Pond is now a part of the Suffolk County Park system. The old David bog at Swan Pond is visible from River Road near the present-day site of the Grumman plant in Calverton. It is no longer managed or harvested as the cranberry plants in the bogs have decreased as the other naturally occurring species have seeded in, taking their natural place in the bog ecosystem**.
The naturalist finds these bogs unique and interesting habitats. Many species of plants that flourish on the bogs are difficult to find elsewhere on Long Island. There are the insect-eating pitcher plants and sundews, for example, and the rare and protected white fringed orchid. Animal life is equally unique, especially for an area where habitats are rapidly disappearing. The old ponds that were once so important as a source of flood water now support sunfish, chubsuckers, pickerel, and others.
Amphibians and reptiles, like the large spotted salamander, pickerel frog, dusky salamander, green frog, hognose snake, milk snake, musk turtle and painted turtle, commonly use these wetlands for breeding and feeding areas. Song birds, shorebirds and waterfowl also find the bog and its surrounding aquatic and upland areas a reproductive feeding and nesting habitat. The list of mammals living on or near the bogs is long and varied – mink, skunk, weasels, muskrats, bats, and flying squirrels.
Besides providing habitat for a number of rare and unique species, the bog vegetation and soils act to filter out potential water pollutants and stabilize the watershed, thereby helping to maintain the water quality of the Peconic River.
For these reasons, environmentalists argue that the bogs should be preserved, and protected from development. The bogs that are still in private ownership, however, are subject to development and, with no other way to use these lands, many owners are looking for buyers.
Fortunately, the park system of both Suffolk County and New York State will protect many of the bogs. In addition to the County Park at Sweezy’s Pond, a state park soon to be established in East Hampton at Napeaque Meadows will protect some last remaining patches of natural cranberry bogs.
It is good that these wetlands are protected, for whether one is a naturalist looking for rare and unique species or just someone looking for a peaceful walk in the outdoors, the cranberry bogs are a beautiful and fascinating place to visit. Here during the season one can sample the fruit that was once so important to the local economy of eastern Long Island. The decaying weirs and dams serve as reminders of days gone by, when a few Long Island millers had to dramatically change their lifestyles and the shape of the land around them in order to survive along the banks of the Peconic River.
**Author’s note: While additional cranberry bog habitats were lost since this article was originally published in the 1977 November-December edition of The Conservationist (Swan Pond in Calverton mentioned in this article for example became a golf course) conservation legislation and public land acquisitions have afforded added protection for wetlands and other natural habitats in Suffolk County. These include the 1977 NYS Freshwater Wetlands Act and major acquisitions by NYS, Suffolk County Parks, and some of the local towns. Additionally, in 1993 the Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission was created as part of New York State’s Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act providing further protection from development to over 100,000 acres in Suffolk County.
Illustrations, from above: A Suffolk County Cranberry Bog in the early 20th century (courtesy Suffolk County Historical Society); A Long Island cranberry bog (courtesy Peconic Land Trust); and The Cranberry Harvest, Island of Nantucket,oil on canvas, 69.5 x 138.4 cm, signed b.r.: E. Johnson 1880.