The Nantucket Conservation Foundation owns and operates the two remaining commercial cranberry bogs on the island. Over 230 acres are currently being cultivated and harvested at both the Milestone Bog and Windswept Bogs. In addition to continuing the tradition and history of 200 years of cranberry framing on Nantucket, the Foundation is also committed to preserving the fragile wetlands, hardwood forests and open spaces surrounding the bogs as part of its overall mission of protecting the island’s fragile and unique ecosystems.
The cranberry, along with the blueberry and Concord grape, is one of North America’s three native fruits that are commercially grown. Cranberries were first used by Native Americans, who discovered the wild berry’s versatility as fabric dye and healing agent and food. By mixing mashed cranberries with deer meat, they made a survival food called pemmican, or pemican. They also believed in the medicinal value of the cranberry, using the berry in poultices to draw poison from arrow wounds. Native Americans also taught early settlers, including the Pilgrims, about the properties and benefits of this unique fruit. According to folklore, cranberries were given to the Pilgrims to be served at the first thanksgiving meal in 1620.
Cultivation of the cranberry began around 1816, shortly after Captain Henry Hall, of Dennis, Massachusetts, noticed that the wild cranberries in his bogs grew better when sand blew over them. Hall began transplanting his cranberry vines, fencing them in, and spreading sand on them himself. When others heard of Hall’s technique, it was quickly copied and commercial cranberry farming in the US was born. Legend has it that Captain Hall also discovered the “bouncing’ method of sorting good berries from bad when he reportedly noticed that good berries bounced when dropped down a flight of stairs and good berries did not. The discovery that cranberries has a small pocket of air inside of them also helped in revolutionizing the “wet” process of harvesting that relies on the berries to float to the surface of a flooded bog (see our section on harvesting).
History of Cranberry Farming on Nantucket
Cranberries have been grown on Nantucket since 1857 and were an important part of the Island’s economy until just prior to World War II. The Nantucket Conservation Foundation’s stewardship of the Island’s two remaining commercial cranberry bogs began in 1968, when Roy Larsen, Walter Beinecke, Jr., and Arthur Dean joined forces to purchase the assets of what was then known as Nantucket Cranberries and incorporated the Milestone Road Cranberry Bog’s total of nearly 1,000 acres into the holdings of the Foundation. In 1980 the Foundation decided to retain ownership of the land but lease the cranberry operations out to Northland Cranberries. The bogs were ably tended by Northland but the economics of renting the land, growing the fruit and shipping off-island proved to be too much for the Wisconsin based company and in 1992 the Foundation went back to running the cranberry farming. Today, the Nantucket Conservation Foundation enlists the services of over a dozen fulltime, and, at harvest ten part-time, employees to manage the vast and complex operations of the cranberry bogs.
Major Events in the History of Cranberry Farming*
(* Dates listed in red pertain to Nantucket/Nantucket Conservation Foundation)
- 1500 – Native Americans use cranberries for food, dyes and medicine
- 1620 – Pilgrims learn to use cranberries from the Native Americans
- 1659 – First English settlers live on Nantucket
- 1683 – Cranberry juice made by settlers
- 1816 – Captain Henry Hall first cultivated cranberries in Dennis, Massachusetts
- 1820’s – Cranberries shipped to Europe for sale
- 1850’s – Sailors use cranberries to prevent scurvy at sea
- 1854 – First census of cranberry acreage – 197 acres in Barnstable County, MA.
- 1857 – Cultivation of cranberry bogs begins on Nantucket
- 1863 – Abraham Lincoln proclaims first national Thanksgiving
- 1868 – 100 lb. barrel of cranberries sold for fifty-eight cents in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- 1912 – First cranberry sauce marketed, Hanson, Massachusetts
- 1930 – Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc. formed as a grower owned marketing cooperative
- 1947 – Walk behind mechanical dry harvesters replaced hand scooping
- 1950’s – With all 234 acres under cultivation the Milestone Cranberry bog in Nantucket is the largest contiguous bog in the world
- 1959 – Tom Larrabee, Sr. begins work as a field hand at the Milestone Bog
- 1960’s – First successful water harvesting; cranberry products diversify and market expands
- 1968 – Roy Larsen, Walter Beinecke, Jr., and Arthur Dean purchase the assets of what was then known as Nantucket Cranberries – the property becomes part of the Nantucket Conservation Foundation
- 1969 – Tom Larrabee, Sr. is named Milestone Bog manager
- 1980’s – International markets developed for cranberries; demand for cranberry juice and juice blends rise dramatically
- 1980 – NCF purchase the 105 acre Windswept Cranberry bog off of Polpis Road
- 1982 – Northland Cranberries, Inc. of Wisconsin leases bogs from NCF
- 1992 – The NCF takes back over farming operations from Northland Cranberries
- 2002 – Foundations hosts the first “Cranberry Open House” (to be renamed later “Cranberry Festival”) at the Milestone bogs. Estimated attendance: 500 people
- 2003 – Windswept Bog receives organic certification for its 25 acres of cultivated bogs
- 2009 – Tom Larrabee, Sr. celebrates his 50th year as bog manager; his son, Tom, Jr., is named co-manager of the bogs
- 2011 – The 9th Annual Cranberry Festival attracts nearly 6,000 visitors
*Information provided in part by the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers Association