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Reaching Back to the Island's Past
The Cranberry Bogs on Martha's Vineyard

Story and Photographs by Paul W. Bagnall

Back in 1982, the Vineyard Open Land Foundation (VOLF) purchased Cranberry Acres off Lamberts Cove Road from Manny S. Duarte’s widow. According to VOLF’s 2020 newsletter, Cranberry Acres was an abandoned, overgrown campground, and the VOLF acquired the bog and the surrounding 45-acre property to bring cranberry production back to life.

In the late 1880s, by VOLF chairman Eric Peters and project manager Carol Magee’s estimates, Cranberry Acres planted “Early Black” and McFarland varities of cranberries. The age of the cranberry barn, by Ms. Magee’s estimates is circa the late 1800s.

The cranberry industry started in the late 1860s after the whaling industry died out. The cranberries vines grew behind the dunes with high fresh water tables, or low lying areas where soil is not well drained.
According to an interview with Craig Kingsbury by Oral History Curator Lindsey Lee, cranberry bogs were all over the island. Among those were Dutton’s bog in Edgartown, Kidder Bog in Oak Bluffs, Flynn bogs on the south shore, two bogs by Lake Tashmoo, Eben Bodfish’s bog off Lamberts Cove Road, the Will Look bog, Howland’s Chase bogs, and Goethals bog. A four-acre bog was owned by A.C. Smith on the north shore, as well as another bog by Mill Brook in West Tisbury.

The great hurricane of 1938 severly damaged the Island’s cranberry bogs. When Mr. Duarte purchased Cranberry Acres in 1940, cranberries were selling at $32 per barrel (a cranberry barrel equals 100 pounds or 45.4 kilograms). After Mr. Duarte’s purchase, he commenced refurbishing the 150- to-200-year-old bog, according to a Vineyard Gazette article published in 1965.

Mr. Duarte successfully brought the remaining two bogs back into production, but another setback came from decreased demand due to World War II. The value of cranberries decreased and by 1965 cranberry barrels were selling at $5, forcing Mr. Duarte to pivot and turn the cranberry bog into a campground in 1970.

Wampanoag tribal elder Kristina Hook recalls being picked up in an ox cart by her uncle Jack Belain during the 1950s and picking up other family members from around Gay Head (Aquinnah) and bringing them down to the Aquinnah bogs on Cranberry Day, a traditional Wampanoag holiday held in the Fall. The harvest would last for a month before first frost, the cranberries were harvested with wooden scoops like the laborers used at Cranberry Acres.

There was also a larger two-handed scoop used to gather the cranberries. “[The two-handed scoop was] heavy too in having to dump out the water, and when we were kids, we were tasked with running back and forth with a bucket, so whoever was working the scoop didn’t have to go anywhere.” Hook said, describing the scooping process.

According to Hook, climate change is good for inundating the weeds that choke the cranberry bogs when it’s dryer for a longer period, and the dark green cranberry vines sometimes get buried in the peat of the bog. The cranberry bog in Lobsterville has a culvert on Lobsterville Road and flushes the brackish water out of the bog
when it gets too full.

“It drains when it needs to, as much as it has to,” Hook said, noting the Wampanoag’s leave the control of the water up to nature. “[The Wampanoag’s] prefer to leave control up to the Earth.”

Traditionally, half bushels of cranberries went into a basket that was put in a hole in the ground with a lid over it as a rudimentary dry cellar in antiquity. Cranberries have been a significant cultural and food resource for the Wampanoag’s for thousands of years.

The Wampanoags are planning to remediate their cranberry bogs to lessen the effect of climate change over the last few years. The project entails physically putting sand on the cranberry bogs as one possible solution to promote more cranberry growth and lessen the amount of existing weeds in the bog.

In the 1990s, Ms. Magee and VOLF Trustee Ivo Meisner took cranberry growing classes at Cranberry Experiment Station in Wareham. There they met Robert “Bob” Keese and his wife Kristine, who had the first organic cranberry bog outside of Plymouth, Mass.

Cranberry Acres was certified organic in 2000. The replanting process began in 2002 and took five to seven years to replant the rest of the bog.

Ms. Magee and other volunteers sort the cranberries into boxes and are bagged by grade using a winnowing machine from the 1920s restored by Mr. Keese. The bags are weighed at half pounds, and last year the VOLF sold the cranberry bags at local farmstands for $12 per bag.

More information about the VOLF’s mission can be found at vineyardopenlandfoundation.org