Friday, October 14, 2005
Check out Carlisle's Cranberry Bog
Last week a friend and I were walking the dike trails on the Cranberry Bog off Curve Street when we ran into the farmer, Mark Duffy, who stopped to talk with us about the harvest scheduled for this weekend, October 15 and 16.
Each year a small portion of the crop is dry-harvested by hand to be sold as fresh berries. Then the bog is flooded, causing the berries to float to the surface, ready for wet-harvesting. Mechanical beaters resembling modified ride-on mowers are driven back and forth over the bog to separate the berries from the vines. Inflatable booms guide the masses of red berries across the top of the water to a waiting conveyor belt that loads the berries into trucks which take them away to be made into juice.
In 1986 the Lowell Cranberry Company sold 151 acres to the town of Carlisle and an adjoining 159 acres to the town of Chelmsford. Carlisle's portion includes 40 acres of cranberry bog and a barn. The rest of the acreage includes ponds and open space. The ponds lying in both towns are needed as a water source for flooding the cranberry vines, done both for harvesting and to protect the vines from intermittent frosts.
Anyone who stays in the farming business must be philosophical enough to tolerate uncontrollable fluctuations in weather, insects and crop prices. This year the berries have been slow to turn red, and this may reduce the price of the crop. Last year Duffy's cranberry harvest was unexpectedly low, but he said the year before that was tremendous. Duffy has seen prices vary from a low of eight cents a pound to a high of ten times that amount. He's expecting to get around 30 cents a pound this year, though he said at least 50 cents a pound was needed to make a profit.
Half of the 40 acres of cranberry bog were in very poor condition when the town acquired the property, but the other half has been maintained and improved over the years by Duffy, who holds a long-term farming lease. In the last few years he began work to level and reclaim the unused half of the bog, but that work has slowed, pending a better financial climate. Duffy noted that it costs thousands of dollars per acre to replant a cranberry bog because the new vines must be planted by hand, watered daily, and then hand-weeded until they are strong enough to yield a crop about two years later.
Massachusetts cranberry growers face stiff competition from growers in Wisconsin. Duffy said that half of the bogs in this state are 10 acres or smaller, while the average size in Wisconsin is 70 acres and the yield per acre is double ours. This presents a long-term challenge for Massachusetts cranberry growers. Duffy said that one way many farmers are coping is to take on other jobs part-time. He is a good example, though he may be the only cranberry farmer who "moonlights" as a dairy farmer.*
All kinds of interesting wildlife can be found at the bog, including deer, fox, geese, great blue heron, mink, otter and beavers. In fact, it was a beaver dam blocking one of the water-control structures that had brought Duffy to the bog last week. Removing the dam did not seem like a permanent solution to me, because a beaver lodge stood not far away. Duffy shrugged and said the beavers might replace the branches in a single night, but it would take them awhile longer to replace all the dam's mud. Beavers have been sharing the land with him about as long as he has farmed there.
If you have never seen a cranberry harvest, bring your family along to the bog this weekend to see the cranberries being gathered on one of the town's most beautiful conservation lands.
*Mark and his wife Tamma tend their dairy herd at Great Brook Farm State Park.
The Carlisle Cats Club
One of the pleasures of living in an old house is discovering tidbits of the people who have dwelt there before. One tidbit that has come my way is a tape of stories told by Alton Hall Blackington, who had a radio program called Yankee Yarns in the days after WWII. I can remember hearing the program from time to time — Boston Blackie, as he called himself, speaking with a rich Maine accent, telling various tales of New England, some notable for their charm, others for their strangeness, a few for their horror.
One was titled "The Carlisle Cats Club," and it concerned my house, which at the time was occupied by James E. Taylor, a man who fancied cats. Next to the house, on the right as you face it from the street, stood a barn, and in the barn was the Club, described as a nightclub where "some came as couples but many of the girls were unescorted, and everybody drank." Inside there were beds for about 30 cats, some with shawls, others with rags, and still others with straw, depending on the cat's preference, as well as 30 dishes, each labeled with a cat's name. Mr. Taylor described their menu: generally soup to start, followed by salmon or mackerel, meat and potatoes, and a dessert of cream or peanut butter.
Alongside the barn was the cemetery, where a row of headstones marked the resting places for cats who had passed on. Three of them were for cats who had contravened Mr. Taylor's strict rule that the cats were to leave the birds alone. The three, tough old toms, were caught in flagrante delicto devouring a baby pheasant, feathers and all. They were placed in detention for a week in a cage inside the club, where the other cats passed them "with heads down and eyes averted." At the end of the week they were executed, a stern example to the other cats who knew better than to offend their benefactor.
There was also a maternity ward in the house, on a pantry shelf among the jars of fruits and vegetables, occupied at the time of Blackie's visit by a mother named Arnold with five kittens. Picking up one of the kittens, Mr. Taylor remarked, "Someday he may be president, but right now he ain't got his eyes open." Though the club was in the barn, the cats did spend time in the house, especially on cold nights when the cats would beg Mr. Taylor to let them in. "Where did they sleep?" asked Blackie, "In the kitchen?" "Not so you'd notice it," retorted Mr. Taylor. "They'd pile right on my big bed. Gorry, if I got up in the night for a drink of water, I'd have to move about three bushels of cats afore I could get out of bed."
The barn is gone, and there is no trace of the graves nor of the gaggle of cats that once roamed the house, but it's pleasant to think about what it must have been like in the very rooms where I live.
© 2005 The