Tens of thousands of years ago, receding glaciers carved out cavities in the land that evolved into cranberry bogs. Newly formed kettle ponds filled with sand, clay and debris formed the perfect environment for vines to spread across the South Shore, Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Massachusetts was born with cranberry bogs. For two hundred years, it has been where tradition has met innovation.
Wampanoag People across southeastern Massachusetts have enjoyed the annual harvest of sasumuneash - wild cranberries - for 12,000 years. Some ate berries fresh while others dried them to make nasampe (grits) or pemmican - a mix of berries, dried meat and animal fat which could last for months. Medicine men, or powwows, used cranberries in traditional healing rituals to fight fever, swelling, and even seasickness.
Europeans exploring and settling New England in the 16th and 17th centuries were not surprised to see sasumuneash. Many were familiar with European cranberry varieties which grew in the boggy regions of southern England and in the low-lying Netherlands. The English had many names for the fruit, but “craneberries” was the most common because many thought the flower resembled the head of a Sandhill crane.
Cultivation of the cranberry began in 1816, shortly after Captain Henry Hall, a Revolutionary War veteran, of Dennis, Massachusetts, noticed that the wild cranberries in his bogs grew better when sand blew over them. Captain Hall began transplanting cranberry vines and spreading sand on them. When others heard of Hall's technique, it was quickly copied. Continuing throughout the 19th century, the number of growers increased steadily.
While initially criticized for tinkering with vines, the idea of growing and selling cranberries commercially soon caught on, and local landowners eagerly converted their swamps, wetlands, peat swamps and wet meadows into cranberry bogs. By 1885, Plymouth County boasted 1,347 acres under cultivation; Barnstable County had 2,408. By 1900, the number of acres tripled, making Cape Cod a household name. “Cranberry Fever” struck and the industry boomed. As late as 1927, the cranberry harvest remained so vital to local and state economies that Massachusetts children could be excused from school to work the bogs during harvest season.
Expansion fueled innovation. Growing cranberries demanded long hours of back-breaking work. Farmers eagerly sought new tools to build better bogs and harvest cranberries more efficiently. In the 1880s, wooden cranberry scoops started to replace traditional hand-picking; sorters and screening equipment soon followed. Expansion also meant new workers on the bogs. Although many growers still relied on traditional family and community support during the harvest, demands for higher wages provided opportunities for newly arrived immigrants from Finland and the Cape Verdean Islands seeking better economic opportunities and the chance at an improved life.
Expansion and increased global demand also meant the need for a system of grading and branding berries. New agricultural co-ops like the Cape Cod Cranberry Sales Company set market prices for berries and regulated distribution to ensure that growers received the fairest prices for their berries and customers got the best product.
By 1871, the first association of cranberry growers had formed and now, U.S. Farmers harvest approximately 40,000 acres of cranberries each year.
Today, the industry continues to grow and evolve to meet new demands and tastes for sweet, sour and everything in between. Cranberry growers remain innovators - as flexible and adaptable as ever. Recent slow and local food movements rekindled interest among consumers in food origins, offering growers a chance to showcase their craft and passion with new audiences.