The humble cranberry gets dressed up for visitors and harvest time in the bogs
Picking, corralling, and loading are not in most leaf-peepers’ repertoires. Since nearly three-quarters of Americans reportedly have never heard of a cranberry bog, perhaps that’s not surprising. But to experience a new way to see fall’s colors — head for the southeastern Massachusetts cranberry harvest.
Nestled among the towns between Carver and Harwich are more than 14,000 acres of cranberry bogs. October brings a brilliant crimson carpet from which rises the better-known seasonal skyline of gold, orange, and yellow.
For more than 25 years the bogs have inspired Gail Marie Nauen, a Carver resident and painter (www.gailmarienauen.com).
“The tall pine trees provided the shade patterns on the floating pinks, reds, and peaches that make up the cranberry harvest,’’ Nauen said, recalling a recent scene. “Tomorrow, with another sunrise, the berries will take on a whole new look.’’
The harvest can often be seen from the side the road; the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association publishes a harvest route trail guide. But the bogs in their most vivid hues are a short-lived phenomenon.
Fortunately, you need not rely on the whims of Mother Nature or guess the harvest schedule. Venues exist that not only showcase the harvest, but also appeal to history buffs, bird-watchers, foodies, and festival-lovers.
The annual Cranberry Harvest Celebration is one. Held each Columbus Day weekend in Wareham at
Makepeace, the world’s largest cranberry grower, has been cultivating cranberries since the 1800s. This fall it will harvest 1,590 of its nearly 2,000 acres. All of its bogs have names, many of them Native American. Wankinco is the largest bog at 75 acres and half-acre Jacoby is one of the smallest.
A highlight of the Harvest Celebration is a continuous display of the three-phase harvesting process of picking, corralling, and loading. Visitors can witness an impressive transformation as 10,000 pounds of cranberries are extracted from the fields over the course of the two-day event.
A machine with “beaters’’ knocks the berries off the vines after water has been added to a dry bog. An internal air chamber causes them to float to the surface, millions of the ripe red berries bobbing in the water.
Next, a crew garbed in wet-suit-like waders “corrals’’ all the berries with a boom, encircling the fruit and pulling it to one side of the bog. The berries are then suctioned through a hose up into a pump truck, where they are washed, then vacuumed up into a tractor trailer and shipped for processing.
Flax Pond Cranberry Co. of Carver employs the dry harvest technique — now used by only 5 percent of North American farms. Jack Angley, who with his wife, Dot, has owned the 100-acre farm since 1967, said dry harvest has a beauty of its own.
“It is only during dry harvesting that one can see the russet beauty of the turning vines and the colorful patterns created as the harvesting machines pass through the unpicked sections,’’ Angley said.
The term for cleaning and separating the fruit is called “screening,’’ and the Flax Pond property includes a screening house dating to the 1890s. Today the building serves as a museum and monument to cranberry history. Among the antiques on display is a 1926 Bailey separator, which sorts the good berries from the bad based on their “bounce,’’ and by size, which was an important factor in the price paid by brokers. The tiniest fruits were called “pie berries,’’ ones only a baker could love.
It was on Cape Cod that commercial cultivation of the cranberry began. The fruit is native to Massachusetts.
“God decreed cranberries do well here,’’ Angley said wryly. “We have the sand, swamps, and temperature that make the industry possible. The warmth and moisture provided by the proximity of the ocean prevents frost from being a big problem.’’
The vast expanse of paved blacktop surrounding Patriot Place in Foxborough conceals a pristine preserve tucked beyond the concrete, where on a recent weekend a steady stream of young families and older dog-walkers enjoyed the half-mile nature trail.
Besides cranberries, the Patriot Place 32-acre wetland landscape includes plant life such as white water lily, wild celery, swamp white oak, and red maple. The wildlife include deer, foxes, great blue herons, and swans.
The crane, an elegant bird that once graced the bogs in greater numbers, is said to have inspired the fruit’s name: The shape of its head resembles the berry’s flower.
The history of all things cranberry is housed in the Harwich Historical Society Museum at Brooks Academy, located in a building that itself is a period piece. Displays chronicle settlers being taught by Native Americans to use the berry also as a dye and medicine, and document the world’s first commercial crop in 1846 by Captain Alvin Cahoon.
According to Desiree Mobed, the society’s director, Cahoon and others helped invest in commercial cranberry production, buying and developing low, swampy land previously thought to be worthless and growing an industry.
A morsel of Yankee ingenuity sometimes hiding in plain sight — and sure to bejewel the landscape for some time to come.
Meg Pier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.