Blueberries on the Barrens:
By Ronie Strout
Did you know that Washington County, Maine can be proud of the fact that the first naval victory in the War of the American Revolution was won in Machias Bay? Washington County can claim other first, the first sardines, the first lobsters, and the first blueberries were canned “Down East.” Clarence Day writes that Washington County was canning blueberries for a generation or more before they were canned commercially elsewhere in the United States.
The blueberry industry began on “the barrens,” a wild, desolate treeless tract of land many thousand acres in extent. The barrens are located chiefly in the towns of Beddington, Deblois, Cherryfield ,Columbia, and townships numbered Eighteen and Nineteen.
Tradition says that the Indians were burning over the barrens to promote the growth of blueberries long before the first white settlers entered the valleys of Pleasant River and the Narraguagus.
Mr. Day writes that the first reference to the barrens seems to be made by Alexander Baring who saw them while on a journey through Washington County in 1796. Alexander Baring wrote: ”In the corner of No. 12 (now Columbia) between 11 (Cherryfield) and 5 (Harrington) there is a plain of two or three miles in diameter very poor and barren. The soil is perfectly barren and covered with a short kind of heath and no wood. It has the appearance of having been burnt but the soil is so hard that it can never have been good.” Here is the evidence that the barrens had been burned over many years before 1796 and that they were then much smaller than now.
Gathering blueberries on the barrens was a public privilege for more that a hundred years after the nearby towns were settled. Whole families came from near and far to obtain berries for their own use and for sale. A news item of 1860 reads: “The pickers are doing a smashing business on Epping Plains just now. They gather about forty bushels a day and sell them for seven cents a quart. Purchasers carry them to Rockland and to Bangor to market.”
The Civil War brought a demand for canned food for the Union Army, and several factories began to can fish, lobsters and blueberries. It has been stated that as early as 1866 blueberries were being canned in Cherryfield, and Milbridge. The berries were gathered from Epping Plains and some days they used 300 bushels of berries.
About 1868 Arthur L. Stewart began to can blueberries at Cherryfield and founded the oldest blueberry canning concern now in business in this country.
In 1883, Maine’s Secretary of State, in his Statistics of Maine, lists only six factories that were packing blueberries. They were: Cherryfield, A.L.Stewart; at Columbia Falls, Joseph A. Coffin and the Columbia Falls Packing Company; at Harrington, A.M.Nash & Co.; at Machias, Burnham & Morrill; and at Milbridge, Jasper Wyman & Co. The six factories employed sixty-two hands during the packing season.
For several years after the canning business began, the public still considered the berries on the Epping Plains to be common property; that all changed in 1871 when William Freeman, a lawyer living in Cherryfield decides that the public was trespassing.
Freeman asked the packers to pay him a royalty of half a cent a quart on the berries that they received from his land, since he believed they had stolen from him. Most all agreed except the William Underwood Company and Freeman filed a suit against the company. After a five year legal battle the case came before the Supreme Court of the State of Maine. That court upheld the verdict of the lower court and awarded Freeman damages amounting to $1,176. The court also established the right of owners of blueberry land to collect “stumpage” on berries gathered on their property.
About this same time the blueberry rake came into use, some were made of wood and wire sometimes called saltbox rakes. Around 1882 Abijah Tabbut, already making metal rakes, adopted the ideas of another Columbia Falls man, Franklin P. Tabbut, and the present Tabbut rake came on the market. The fanning mill that was ever-present in the fields was the one used by farmers for winnowing grain.
The berries were picked and shipped by boat before the Washington County Railroad was opened in 1899. A writer of those early days says: “During the fall of the year flat-bottomed vessels from Boston would come up the Narraguagus River and often swap flour and other needed commodities for blueberries.”
Eben Allen of Columbia Falls reported that in the season of 1899 it was estimated that the Wyman factory at Cherryfield put up eleven thousand bushels and the other four factories in Cherryfield, Harrington and Columbia Falls, seven thousand bushels each. This made a total of thirty-nine thousand bushels in the three towns. At $1.28 a bushel paid by the factories the value of the fruit would be nearly $50,000. Add to this, Allen said “the money paid by the factories for wages and the money received for berries shipped fresh, and it will be seen that the amount of money distributed is no small sum.”
In 1922 the frozen blueberries came onto the market and increased from less than six percent to 21 percent of the total crop. The canned berries averaged about eleven million pounds annually during the period of 1938 to 1942.
Today the blueberry crop has involved from people gathering berries on the barrens by hand, by the Tabbut rake in 1882 and machines in 2004. Now more than 230 years later another lawsuit is going on with the growers and the Companies on the price of berries.
My father Orrin L. Worcester told me how his parents would go onto the barrens and pick berries to send to the market fresh by train every summer. They would take large tents and spend days there on Township 25. After all the expenses were taking out their profit for the year 1916 were $221.97. and in 1917 their profit was $269.38. and in 1922 my grandmother Ronie Worcester wrote that they earned better than $300.00. In my grandmothers journal she wrote that they were paid to haul the blueberries at 40 cents a bushel and paid to pick the berries anywhere from $1.50, $2.50 to $3.00 a bushel.