Among the many thousands of well informed persons with whom the cranberry is a staple article of food throughout the autumn and winter, and who especially derive from its pungent flavor sharp relish for their Thanksgiving and Christmas turkey, not one in ten has any definite idea as to where the delicious fruit comes from, or of the method of growing and harvesting it. Most people are, however, aware that it is raised on little "truck patches" somewhere down in New Jersey or about Cape Cod, and some have heard that it is gleaned from the swamps in the Far West by Indians and shipped to market by white traders. But to the great majority its real history is unknown.
Yet the cranberry culture is an industry in which millions of dollars are invested in this country, and it gives employment, for at least a portion of each year, to many thousands of people. In the East, where the value of an acre of even swamp land may run up into the thousands of dollars, a cranberry marsh of five or ten acres is considered a large one, and, cultivated in the careful, frugal style in vogue there, may yield its owner a handsome yearly income. But in the great, boundless West, where land, and more especially swamp land, may be had for from $1 to $5 an acre, we do these things differently, if not better.
The State of Wisconsin produces nearly one-half of the cranberries annually grown in the United States. There are marshes there covering thousands of acres, whereon this fruit grows wild, having done so even as far back as the oldest tradition of the native red man extends. In many cases the land on which the berries grow has been bought from the government by individuals or firms, in vast tracts, and the growth of the fruit promoted and encouraged by a system of dikes and dams whereby the effects of droughts, frost, and heavy rainfalls are counteracted to almost any extent desired. Some of these holdings aggregate many thousands of acres under a single ownership; and after a marsh of this vast extent has been thoroughly ditched and good buildings, water works, etc., are erected on it, its value may reach many thousands of dollars, while the original cost of the land may have been merely nominal.
Large portions of Jackson, Wood, Monroe, Marinette, Juneau, and Green counties are natural cranberry marshes. The Wisconsin Valley division of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway runs through a closely continuous marsh, forty miles long and nearly as wide, as level as a floor, which is an almost unbroken series of cranberry farms. The Indians, who inhabited this country before the white man came, used to congregate here every fall, many of them traveling several hundred miles, to lay in their winter supply of berries. Many thousands of barrels are now annually shipped from this region; and thus this vast area, which to the stranger looking upon it would appear utterly worthless, is as valuable as the richest farming lands in the State.
In a few instances, however, this fruit is cultivated in Wisconsin in a style similar to that practiced in the East; that is, by paring the natural sod from the bog, covering the earth to a depth of two or three inches with sand, and then transplanting the vines into soil thus prepared. The weeds are then kept down for a year or two, when the vines take full possession of the soil, and further attention is unnecessary. The natural "stand" of the vines in the sod is so productive, however, and the extent of country over which bountiful nature has distributed them so vast, that few operators have thought it necessary to incur the expense of special culture.
One of the best and most perfectly equipped marshes in Wisconsin is owned by Mr. G.B. Sackett, of Berlin. It is situated four miles north of that village, and comprises 1,600 acres, nearly all of which is a veritable bog, and is covered with a natural and luxuriant growth of cranberry vines. A canal has been cut from the Fox River to the southern limit of the marsh, a distance of 4,400 ft. It is 45 ft. wide, and the water stands in it to a depth of nine feet, sufficient to float fair sized steamboats. At the intersection of the canal with the marsh steam water works have been erected, with flood gates and dams by means of which the entire marsh may be flooded to a depth of a foot or more when desired. There are two engines of 150 horse power each, and two pumps that are capable of raising 80,000 gallons per minute.
When, in early autumn, the meteorological conditions indicate the approach of frost, the pumps may he put to work in the afternoon and the berries be effectually covered by water and thus protected before nightfall. At sunrise the gates are opened and the water allowed to run off again, so that the pickers may proceed with their work. The marsh is flooded to a depth of about two feet at the beginning of each winter and allowed to remain so until spring, the heavy body of ice that forms preventing the upheaval that would result from freezing and thawing - a natural process which, if permitted, works injury to the vines.
There is a three-story warehouse on the marsh, with a capacity of 20,000 barrels of berries, and four large two-story houses capable of furnishing shelter for 1,500 pickers. The superintendent's residence is a comfortable cottage house, surrounded by giant oaks and elms, and stands near the warehouse on an "island," or small tract of high, dry land near the center of the great marsh. The pickers' quarters stand on another island about 200 yards away.
A plank roadway, built on piles, about two feet above the level of the ground, leads from the mainland to the warehouse and other buildings, a distance of more than half a mile. Several wooden railways diverge from the warehouse to all parts of the marsh, and on them flat cars, propelled by hand, are sent out at intervals during the picking season to bring in the berries from the hands of the pickers. Each picker is provided with a crate, holding just a bushel, which is kept close at hand. The berries are first picked into tin pans and pails, and from these emptied into the crates, in which they are carried to the warehouse, where an empty crate is given the picker in exchange for a full one. Thus equipped and improved, the Sackett marsh is valued at $150,000. Thirteen thousand barrels have been harvested from this great farm in a single season. The selling price in the Chicago market varies, in different seasons, from $8 to $16 per barrel. There are several other marshes of various sizes in the vicinity.
The picking season usually begins about Sept. 1, and from that time until Oct. 1 the marshes swarm with men, women, and children, ranging in age from six to eight years, made up from almost every nationality under the sun. Bohemians and Poles furnish the majority of the working force, while Germans, Irish, Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, negroes, Indians, and Americans contribute to the motley contingent. They come from every direction and from various distances, some of them traveling a hundred miles or more to secure a few days' or weeks' work. Almost every farmer or woodsman living anywhere in the region of the marshes turns out with his entire family; and the families of all the laboring men and mechanics of the surrounding towns and cities join in the general hegira to the bogs, and help to harvest the fruit. Those living within a few miles go out in the morning and return home at night, taking their noon-day meal with them, while those from a distance take provisions and bedding with them and camp in the buildings provided for that purpose by the marsh owners, doing their own cooking on the stoves and with the fuel furnished them.
The wages vary from fifty cents to a dollar a bushel, owing to the abundance or scarcity of the fruit. A good picker will gather from three to four bushels a day where the yield is light, and five to six bushels where it is good. The most money is made by families numbering from half a dozen to a dozen members. Every chick and child in such families over six years old is required to turn out and help swell the revenue of the little household, and the frugal father often pockets ten to twenty dollars a day as the fruits of the combined labors. The pickers wade into the grass, weeds, and vines, however wet with dew or rain, or however deeply flooded underneath, making not the slightest effort to keep even their feet dry, and after an hour's work in the morning are almost as wet as if they had swum a river. Many of them wade in barefooted, others wearing low cowhide shoes, and their feet, at least, are necessarily wet all day long. In many cases their bodies are thinly clad, and they must inevitably suffer in frosty mornings and evenings and on the raw, cold, rainy days that are frequent in the autumn months in this latitude; yet they go about their work singing, shouting, and jabbering as merrily as a party of comfortably clad school children at play.
How any of them avoid colds, rheumatism, and a dozen other diseases is a mystery; and yet it is rarely that one of them is ill from the effects of this exposure. As many as 3000 or 4000 pickers are sometimes employed on a single marsh when there is a heavy crop, and an army of such ragamuffins as get together for this purpose, scattered over a bog in confusion and disorder, presents a strange and picturesque appearance.
Indians are not usually as good pickers as white people, but in the sparsely settled districts, where many of the berry farms are situated, it is impossible to get white help enough to take care of the crop in the short time available for the work, and owners are compelled to employ the aborigines. A rake, with the prongs shaped like the letter V, is used for picking in some cases, but owing to the large amount of grass and weeds that grow among the vines on these wild marshes, this instrument is rarely available. After being picked the berries are stored in warehouses for a period varying from one to three weeks. They are washed and dried by being passed through a fanning mill made for the purpose, and are then allowed to cure and ripen thoroughly before they are shipped to market.
From statistics gathered by the American Cranberry Growers' Association it is learned that in 1883 Wisconsin produced 135,507 bushels, in 1884 24,738 bushels, in 1885 264,432 bushels, and in 1886 70,686 bushels of this fruit. By these figures it will be seen that the yield is very irregular. This is owing, principally, to the fact that many of the marshes are not yet provided with the means of flooding, and of course suffer from worms, droughts, late spring or early autumn frosts, and extensive fires started by sparks from the engines on railroads running through the marshes. These and various other evils are averted on the more improved farms. So that, while handsome fortunes have in many cases been made in cranberry growing, many thousands of dollars have, on the other hand, been sunk in the same industry. Only the wealthier owners, who have expended vast sums of money in improving and equipping their property, can calculate with any degree of certainty on a paying crop of fruit every year.
Chicago is the great distributing point for the berries produced in Wisconsin, shipments being made thence to nearly every State and Territory in the Union, to Canada, to Mexico, and to several European countries. Berries sent to the Southern markets are put up in watertight packages, and the casks are then filled with water, this being the only means by which they can be kept in hot weather. Even in this condition they can only be kept a few days after reaching hot climates. - American Magazine.