Whittlesey’s Cranberry Marsh

The Tribune Rural Editor Visits Whittlesay’s Marsh

BY E.E. SCHROEDER

When one sits down to enjoy his dish of cranberry sauce or slice of cranberry pie at Thanksgiving time he is not reminded of the highly developed agriculture which is needed to produce the popular berry which has become famous along with roast turkey and mincemeat pie.

The writer recently enjoyed dinner at the S.N. Whittlesay cranberry marsh at Cranmoor and later was taken for a trip over the marshes and given an explanation of the methods used to produce high quality berries.

The Whittlesay marsh is among the oldest in Wisconsin and ranks as one of the three largest in the state in acreage and also production, per acre. According to the “History of Wood County” the marsh was started in 1871 when wild berries were first harvested. Later as scientific methods were discovered Mr. Whittlesay was quick to grasp their importance and applied them to his own marshes.

The writer knows little about the culture of cranberries and this story is not intended as a treatise on the subject. It is intended as a story of what he saw and learned in several hours jaunt over the marshes. Much of this may not be news at all to many readers and again some of it may be incorrectly stated. If the latter is true it is unintentional.

To begin with we learned that cranberry marshes must be scalped. That means that the rough surface soil must be removed in order that a level firm seed bed can be secured on which to plant the tame berry. We learned further that certain kinds of fertilizer are needed and provided which makes the berry develop to its fullest. Commercial fertilizers are applied in the middle of June.

It was further learned that the common variety of berry on the average marsh is known as the Bell and Cherry. The Late Howe berry is replacing the former variety as it is firmer and more pleasing in appearance to the purchaser. The Late Howe is an eastern variety and are shipped from the east not as seed but as the young plant which must be transplanted into the fresh, slightly moistened, and well prepared seed bed.

Require Attention

Cranberries require a great deal of attention through the blossoming, ripening and harvesting season. In fact they must be carefully watched the year around. Growing in lowlands means that frosts are more common visitors than to other crops on high ground. Flooding the marshes in the only means of combating this arch enemy of the cranberry grower. This process of flooding at once calls into play a highly developed system of engineering. Huge dependable reservoirs on higher ground than the marshes must be available to provide sufficient water on short notice. Heavy embankments are thrown up around these reservoirs to hold the water in check in flood season and prevent washouts. Gates are installed at the lower levels to control the water supply into the marshes as needed.

The marshes themselves must have ditches into which the water can drain when the danger period is over. These latter ditches must also be well constructed, with gates to hold the water on the marshes until no longer needed.

The Whittlesay marsh has more than a thousand acres within its limits, but a large part of it is used for water control. Harry, a son of S.N. Whittlesay, is in charge and is laying plans to increase the acreage until the marsh ranks as the largest in the west. Formerly connected with the Nekoosa-Edwards paper company, he has turned his energy toward the cranberry “game” and finds it fascinating, judging from his enthusiasm.

The elder Mr. Whittlesay has been in the business for many years and his election to the board of directors of the Wisconsin Cranberry Sales company is a compliment to the membership as well as to him. He has followed the growth of the industry and knows the advantages and shortcomings.

He can tell many interesting incidents of the time before men with rakes took the place of hand pickers. Many men and women were needed in those earlier days. A dance hall was a common part of the equipment on every farm. Every evening the pickers would enjoy themselves to the strains of old fashioned music. Mr. Whittlesay recalls the time when a wooden tramway with trucks carted the berries from the marshes in the Cranmoor district.

During the winter season the cranberry marsh does not present the busy scene common to harvesting time. But there is important work to be done. Many loads of sand are hauled over the surface to add to the porous condition of the soil. A special quality sand can only be used to advantage.

A visit to the packing house on the Whittlesay marsh was also of interest. The latest in grading devices simplified the sorting of pie berries from the others. Fanning mills blow the twigs and leaves and other rubbish from the harvested berries.

Though a story of this kind could be made to include many other interesting features lack of space prevents. A visit to any of the good marshes, of which the Whittlesay marsh is one, impresses the visitor of the extent of the work, the care, the experience and trials involved in successfully catering to the palate of the American consumer for this particular variety of kitchen delicacy.

Mr. Whittlesay ranks high among cranberry growers. His well kept marshes and buildings are ample proof of his success. His son is succeeding him as manager and should meet the continued success which the Whittlesay marshes have enjoyed. The visit to their home and the trip over the marshes will be an event not soon forgotten.

Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune (Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin) Feb 15, 1928

Image from CranLib photostream on flickr

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From the History of Wood County by George O. Jones (1923):

HISTORY OF WOOD COUNTY

…In 1855 Abner Whittlesey’and his family came west to Illinois, settling in Galesburg, where Mrs. Whittlesey died. Mr. Whittlesey soon after went to Lockport, Ill., and from there to Berlin, Wis., where he engaged in the cranberry business; this was in the late sixties. In 1870 he came to Wood County, and, together with his son, Sherman Newell Whittlesey, bought six 40-acre tracts of marsh land and established the Whittlesey Marsh, they and Theodore Bearss and Ralph S. Smith being the first cranberry growers in the township. In 1880 ….

…Sherman Newell Whittlesey, subject of this sketch, coming to Illinois with his parents in 1855, was reared in Galesburg and attended the grade schools there and the high school at Lockport, from which latter he was graduated in 1867. He then spent a year in Chicago, and while there took a course in the Chicago Business College, after which he came to Berlin, Wis., and in 1870, with his father bought the 240 acres of marsh land mentioned above and established the Whittlesey Marsh in Wood County, coming here to live in 1871; his first residence in Wood County was in Centralia.

He at once began the raising of cranberries, wild berries being the only ones grown here at that time and his first crop yielding 150 barrels of this variety. As the industry developed he applied scientific methods to the cultivation of his marsh, cutting ditches, scalping the land, and cultivating the berries by the most modern methods available, on which lines he has conducted all his subsequent operations.

From 1878 to 1884 he was engaged in the mercantile business with Frank Garrison at Centralia, under the firm name of Garrison & Whittlesey. In 1884 Mr. Whittlesey and family hired parties to run their marsh while they went to South Dakota. In that state they first took a tree claim of 160 acres, then a preemption claim of 160 acres, and, after proving up on this property, they took a homestead of 160 acres, building up one of the finest farms in Faulk County, S. D. They bought adjoining land until they owned 1,200 acres. At the same time they operated a farm of 320 acres in southeastern Nebraska, which they owned, alternating their residence between the two farms, and thus conducting, with the assistance of hired help, three separate enterprises at the same time, the third being their marsh in Wood County.

In 1892 they returned and took up their residence on the latter property, and here they have since made their home. They have been very successful in the industry and have become very prominent and popular residents of the community. They have increased their holdings to 1,100 acres, 67 acres of which are in cranberry vines. In 1921 they raised and sold 600 barrels of berries, getting as high as $17 per barrel for part of them. The place is well improved and is provided with adequate buildings for care of the crops. Mr. Whittlesey employs several men during the busy season. He has become an expert cultivator and has enjoyed a successful career in every way. He was formerly treasurer of the city of Centralia and of Port Edwards Township, and later of Cranmoor Township.

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*     *     *     Cranberry Recipes     *     *     *

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Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune (Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin) Nov 1, 1945

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