The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 24, 2008

Cranberry Bog conservation land is rich in history, wildlife and trails


The Bog House can be seen beside the cranberry bog off Curve Street. (Photo by Marjorie Johnson)

One of the most pleasant ways to spend a beautiful fall day is to take a stroll around the only working cranberry bog in Middlesex County – right on Curve Street. The 310-acre Cranberry Bog conservation parcel straddles the boundary between Carlisle and Chelmsford in the northwest section of town. The 151-acre Carlisle portion of the land, which includes the 40-acre working section of the bog, was purchased by the town in 1986 from the Lowell Cranberry Company. At the same time, the town of Chelmsford purchased the remaining 159 acres of the Lowell Cranberry Company property.

The Cranberry Bog conservation land provides a wonderful system of trails which wind across the working section of the bog, along the nearby reservoirs and into the woods in Chelmsford. The land is rich in wildlife. Activities include an interpretive trail, cross-country skiing, hiking, birdwatching and horseback riding. The trails are used frequently and the bog is one of the most popular walking spots in Carlisle.

Interesting features

Beaver activity can be seen at the Cranberry Bog.(Photo by Helen Lyons)

The most obvious feature of this conservation parcel is the actual cranberry bog. Forty acres of the land are leased to Carlisle Cranberries, Inc., owned and operated by Carlisle resident Mark Duffy. According to the Carlisle Land Stewardship Committee’s 2007 baseline assessment of the property, approximately 19 acres are in active production. A series of educational signs which describe cranberry farming and harvesting are placed along the old farm roads that criss-cross the bog. The annual cranberry harvest begins in mid-October.

In addition to the commercial cranberry operation, a small circular “4-H” cranberry bog can still be observed between the active bog and Curve Street. This bog was maintained for many years by the 4-H club, but has not been used for several years and is now becoming overgrown with small trees.

Two ponds or reservoirs, one to the north and the other to the west, are used to supply irrigation water to the bog. These ponds offer spectacular views and are home to a variety of wildlife including herons, owls, beaver, spotted salamanders and otter. River Meadow Brook, formerly known as Hale’s Brook or Great Brook, flows through the Cranberry Bog and south from the bog under Curve Street toward Old Morse Road.

Hiking trails

Walking trails surround and cross the working section of the cranberry bog. These wide trails were originally (and still are) used to allow farm equipment access to the bog and irrigation ponds. This portion of the trail system is very flat and easily managed and is used quite frequently by dog walkers and families with small children. The bog trails allow wonderful opportunities to view nature, particularly around the shores of the ponds.

From the active bog area, one trail breaks north into the woods toward Chelmsford. A pleasant 3/4 mile walk brings the hiker to a small point surrounded on three sides by water. This is a perfect spot to relax and enjoy beautiful vistas across the water while observing a wide variety of birds, beavers, turtles and dragonflies.

Another trail beginning on the south side of Curve Street near the Bog House, follows River Meadow Brook into the woods. Portions of this heavily wooded trail are muddy during high water season. Several smaller trails connect this “Otter Slide Trail” to Daniel’s Lane and Hart Farm Road.

A long history (see Map. )

According to Susan Pickford, (History of the Chelmsford Carlisle Cranberry Bog, 1991) before the land was converted into a cranberry bog, it was a grazing meadow and marsh along River Meadow Brook. During the 19th century, there was a tremendous increase in cranberry production and by the mid- 1830’s Middlesex County was the leading cranberry producer in the state.

In 1903, Warren and James Nickles of Carlisle bought more than 400 acres of land in Carlisle and Chelmsford, and in 1904 they began work to create a cranberry bog on the site. By 1905, the operation had developed 24 acres of cranberries as well as 15 acres of squash, five acres of cabbage and five acres of pumpkins. That same year, at a cost of $9,000, the Nickles brothers built the four-story Bog House to house the cleaning, sorting and storage of cranberries and other produce. Over the years the Bog House (or Squash House as it was alternately called) was used as a caretaker’s house, and the large upper story was used for dances for workers and pickers. In 1912, the business was incorporated as the Nickles Cranberry Company.

The Nickles brothers had also purchased water rights that allowed them to control the discharge of water from Heart Pond in Chelmsford. Several structures were built to control irrigation or flooding of the new cranberry bog. Dams were built in Chelmsford at Heart Pond and near Elm Street. Dikes were constructed and an outlet control structure was built on Curve Street near the Bog House. According to the baseline assessment, water control structures on River Meadow Brook were not new. The first was built in the mid 1600s for a corn mill, and several others were later added for flour, saw, and clothier’s mills.

In 1922, Dr. Franklin, a biologist and Director of the state-funded Cranberry Experiment Station, and Arthur Handy, purchased the Cranberry Bog for $6,500 and formed the Lowell Cranberry Company. Over the next several years the company expanded the bog area to 37 acres and hired a year-round manager. The managers and their families often lived in the Bog House. After the deaths of Handy and Franklin, ownership of the bog passed to Handy’s two daughters, Dorothy and Hazel.

According to Pickford, until the late 1980s, cranberry harvesting at the bog was done using hand scoops or by hand picking. These methods produced a harvest of dry cranberries, which were brought to the Bog House where they were screened, sorted, boxed and shipped to a wholesaler. Harvesting took four to six weeks, after which the bog was raked and trimmed.

Until the 1940s, most of the laborers were local, with workers arriving by truck from Lowell and surrounding towns. Local teenagers would also work at the bog after school and on weekends. During World War II, German prisoners of war were brought in from Fort Devens to work the bog and later the work was done by migrant workers.

In 1987, after the bog was purchased by the town, Feathers Farm, Inc., of Bryantville, Massachusetts was contracted to operate the Cranberry Bog using organic farming techniques. A series of difficulties, including a late harvest, resulted in a heavy crop loss, and the town chose not to continue its relationship with Feathers Farm. Instead, in 1988, the town signed a one-year lease for the operation of the Cranberry Bog with Frank Wojtas Jr., who had been the bog manager for many years before it was sold to the town.

Since 1989, Mark Duffy, operating as Carlisle Cranberries Inc., has held the contract for cranberry production. He is also the lease holder of the farming operation at Great Brook State Park.


According to Pickford, the Carlisle Conservation Commission (ConsCom)contacted the bog owners Dorothy and Hazel Handy as early as April, 1970 to express interest in the land. In 1985, George Pappageorge, husband of the deceased Hazel, was ready to sell the land. The Cranberry Bog Subcommittee of the ConsCom suggested that the town purchase the cranberry bog in order to preserve open space and the rural character of Carlisle, agricultural land, water resources, wildlife habitat (and linkage to Great Brook State Park) and areas for passive recreation (including hiking, horseback riding, fishing, biking, cross country skiing, skating, wild berry and grape picking).

The May 1986 Annual Town Meeting voted to authorize the town to purchase the 151-acre Carlisle portion of the bog, to appropriate $1,816,540 for the purchase and to apply to the state for partial reimbursement from the Self-Help Fund. In December of 1986 the town bought its portion of the cranberry bog from the Lowell Cranberry Company. The property was purchased completely with Carlisle funds.

In May 1988, the state approved Carlisle’s Self-Help application in the amount of $1 million with five conditions: that the project be closed out by December 31, 1988 (subsequently waived), that a joint management district be formed with Chelmsford and the state, that a district management plan be prepared, that off-street parking be established and that a land survey be prepared. In November 1989, a district-forming bill was passed by the state legislature and signed by the governor. The act was to take effect upon favorable Town Meeting votes in both towns. At the 1990 Annual Town Meeting, Carlisle voted to form a regional conservation district and to accept the Chelmsford-Carlisle Conservation District Management Plan contingent upon Carlisle’s receipt of the $1 million in Self-Help Funds. In October 1990, the state informed Carlisle that it was canceling its Self-Help project, although Chelmsford was given its Self-Help funds. Since Carlisle did not receive Self-Help funds, no regional conservation district was formed, and no district management plan was adopted.

Many users

Today, the town uses the Cranberry Bog parcel primarily for agriculture, passive recreation, and as a wildlife habitat. The Tenneco Gas Pipeline Company has an easement on a small portion of the land which is used for the transmission of natural gas via an underground pipeline.

The bog has the most intense agricultural use of all the town’s conservation lands and farming has occasionally come into conflict with others. Over the years, complaints about noise from irrigation pumps and visually unattractive housing for pump equipment have been made, and some neighbors have complained about the use of large quantities of water for flooding and irrigation of the bog. Others felt that bee hives used to aid in pollinating the crop were too close to walking paths. Although Carlisle Cranberries, Inc. uses integrated pest management techniques to decrease the total amount of pesticides used, there remains some concern about pesticide use in the area. On the other hand, there have also been complaints of excessive dog and horse residues left on the paths, illegal use of snowmobiles and illegal night-time parties.

As a result of construction debris used in dike construction in 1994, the state imposed a fine and ordered the town to create an “education program,” and in response educational signs were installed around the bog.

Wildlife sightings

According to the Carlisle Trails Committee website, the Cranberry Bog is home to a wide variety of birds and wildlife. Signs of beaver, fox, muskrat and mink activity are frequent. When snow falls, otter slides can often be found on the Otter Brook Trail on the south side of Curve Street. The wide-open vistas allow visitors to watch migrating hawks in the fall. Carlisle resident and avid birder Tom Brownrigg has sighted over 129 species of birds in the Carlisle section.

The Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP), a part of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, has designated land in the area of the Cranberry Bog as a Core Habitat for two species of special concern: the Blue-spotted Salamander and Spotted Turtle. Recently, the Blandings Turtle, which is on the state threatened-species list, was observed at the bog. In 2006, the NHESP also officially certified a vernal pool within the Cranberry Bog conservation parcel. ∆

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