Friday, October 13, 2006
Sixty years ago at the Cranberry Bog
As if this fall's colors weren't dazzling enough, nature and Carlisle cranberry farmer Mark Duffy will join forces next weekend, October 21, to stage another brilliant feast for the eyes and the appetite. The annual harvest at the Cranberry Bog on Curve Street is a crimson pageant that has continued each fall since 1904, when James W. and W. Clifford Nickles, Carlisle brothers who had bought the land and started the bog a year earlier, reaped their first cranberry harvest.
"I was 12 or 13 years old when I started working at the bog in 1943," he began. "We would work all summer, but I worked on the harvest too." Martin isn't sure how he heard that the bog was hiring workers. "I was living in Lowell at the time. I heard that Alec Fecteau, who ran the bog, was coming around to the end of my street to pick up [workers] there in his 1941 Ford pick-up truck. So I just went down and got a job." At that time the bog was owned by the Lowell Cranberry Company, which bought it from the Nickles family in 1922. By the 1980s, the company owned 310 acres around the bog, about half of it in Carlisle, the other half in Chelmsford. In 1986 each town purchased its respective land for open-space and recreation. Carlisle's 151 acres include about 40 acres of actual cranberry bog, leased by the town to Mark Duffy, who also manages Great Brook Farm.
Weeding the cranberries
At first, Martin and "about nine other people" worked continuously in the summer, weeding the berries. He remembers "three or four kids and some old Polish and Greek ladies from Lowell who did the weeding. We had a hook that would go down in the ground and loosen the weeds," he explains, "and we'd put them all in a bushel basket. We were paid 40 cents an hour, and we'd work an eight-hour day." To the comment that this must have been backbreaking work, Martin smiles in agreement.
Martin worked on the harvest on weekends and whenever he was not in school. His first job was to take "all the picking boxes out from under the building [the Bog House] and put them around the bog for when they started picking." When the cranberries were ready for picking, Martin and his coworkers would use wooden scoops to collect the berries. "The scoop went underneath the berries, you just rocked it back and the berries fell into the scoop," he explains. "They have a wooden scoop at the Barrett-Byam Homestead, the historical house in Chelmsford."
During harvest time, the Lowell Cranberry Company hired a number of workers. "People came from all over to pick," Martin recalls, including German prisoners of war from Fort Devens and firemen from Lowell. He points out that this was wartime and young men in Carlisle were in the military. According to Martin, the POWs were kept apart from the other workers and he never had a conversation with them or their guards. Pickers earned 50 cents a bushel and would make $12 or $13 a day, "a lot of money," Martin comments.
In the 1940s and '50s, some Cranberry Bog workers lived at the Bog House, which was built in 1905. Martin remembers that Fecteau, his wife and his brother lived there, and "a woman named Lillian Allen." Two older men, full-time workers, lived in shanties on the property. There were two blind men who used to make boxes for shipping berries: "They would have everything precut, so all they had to do was pick up the parts, put them in a jig, put the sides on them and nail them shut." To this day Martin marvels at the accuracy of the blind workers nailing the boxes.
Backbreaking work for
50 cents an hour
Another of Martin's jobs during picking was "to put four or five bushel boxes [of cranberries] on a wheelbarrow and wheel them up to the dike so they could be brought by truck to the building to be sorted." More backbreaking work, and Martin agrees, noting that he earned 50 cents an hour for the wheelbarrow work. "Not bad," he comments, "because farmers at the time were paying $1 a day.
A machine sorted the berries, the same machine that is still being used today. "A good berry will bounce," Martin says. "They'd put the berries in the sorter and the ones that bounced across the opening were good berries. A rotten berry would just roll, and we would get rid of it." Hand sorting involved plucking the green berries from the conveyer belt and discarding them. "I did some sorting too," says Martin. "I was sorting one time, and I found out that I could stop the [conveyer] belt by pressing my leg against it. Mrs. Fecteau caught me. 'You're not adult enough to do this type of work,' she said, and she put me on something else.
The healthy berries were packed and taken to Chelmsford at the rail head to be sent to distributors. Martin points out that the berries harvested today are used as juice berries because they were bruised by the beaters. Fresh berries that have been dry-harvested are bagged and sold at Great Brook Farm State Park
Although work at the bog was hard, Martin clearly enjoyed his three years there and retains indelible memories of a special time. He remembers watching the abundant wildlife — turtles, deer, beavers, snakes. "And the Canada geese — about two families of geese would come to the bog, lay their eggs and raise their young." He was less fond of the muskrats who tried to live under the dikes: "They would get into the dikes and we'd have to fix them. We would cut sod from a field across from the bog and put it into the dike to hold it in place. That was hard work, and digging out the ditches once in a while was backbreaking, too."
Water has always been important to the bog, even though wet-harvesting wasn't done in Martin's time. "I wasn't involved in it, but in the spring and fall when there was a threat of frost, people would be up all night watching the temperature," Martin remembers. "The bog would be flooded to save the berries, but you could only flood so many times before you'd run out of water." The water came from Chelmsford's Baptist Pond or Heart's Pond and was kept in three reservoirs at the back of the bog.
After Martin stopped working at the bog, he became a stonecutter and polisher at Fletcher's Quarry in Westford, where he remained until 1992, with time out for service in the Korean War. "I got drafted in '51," he says, "and I served in Texas, but I did go to Germany with the First Armored Division."
Before he leaves, Martin shares one of his favorite bog stories. "One time during picking time, I found a bottle — one of the beavers had brought it up from the bottom to block the spillway. It was a Coca-Cola bottle from the Boston Bottling Company — it had Boston written on the bottom. Somebody must have thrown it there many years ago." He chuckles at the memory.
Martin plans to go to the Cranberry Harvest as he has done for many years but now as a spectator. He is still fond of cranberries: "I have cranberry juice mixed with orange juice every day for lunch," he reports.
© 2006 The Carlisle Mosquito