BLUEBERRIES

By Gordon Lord


THE FIELDS OF MANY COLORS

What is more beautiful than a blueberry field? Nothing unless you are the blueberry raker or hand picker slaving in the 90 degree merciless heat. The fields of this delicious and healthy fruit could well be called the fields of many colors. After the fields are burned, in the fall or early spring, the color changes to charcoal (or black). During the springtime, if a field is going to be harvested in August when the leaves begin their rebirth, the color gradually changes to varying shades of green. A very few weeks later as the blueberries white blossom emerges, the field, much like a chameleon adds white to its color. In mid July as the blossom begins its transformation to a berry, a gorgeous blue is added to the continuous color changes. In early August the field is nearly covered with blue just in time for its harvest. The blue disappears upon harvest, and shortly along comes Jack Frost, bringing the most magnificent color of them all to the whole field, with many beautiful shades of red that last for weeks. Near the end of the year, the blueberry field again takes on its final color change as the white snow gently covers the land.

Having been brought up among the blueberry fields of Crawford, my family was involved in all aspects of the business. This was no different than our neighbors, except my father also trucked berries to the canning factories. My grandmother, Lydia Davis had blueberry fields, which my father tended for her. She handled the harvesting herself. Dad did this for about 16 years until my uncle Carleton Davis came home from overseas at the end the war, and he took over. At some point in the mid 30s, Dad obtained the McDonough property on the Arm Road across the town line in Alexander. This property also had a few berries, however the fields had been neglected, and had grown up into a miniature forest. Shortly after that purchase he obtained another available field behind Grandmothers off the New Road. That proved to be a good field.

In Crawford during those days it was common to jump from one job to another due to the short time needed for the projects. During blueberry season it seems everyone dropped whatever they were doing and raked blueberries. In those days everyday folk were similar to today’s migrant workers, only they stayed at home. During the 30s and 40s, I recall only three permanent jobs in Crawford. They were the schoolteacher, the mailman Rupert Day and Ollie Seavey the postmaster. (No postmistresses then)

We were introduced to blueberries while still in diapers. Mom worked in the fields all day during harvest season and there were no baby sitters in those days, we joined her there for the two or three weeks of the picking season. Besides working our own families fields every day during the harvest season, Dad would truck his berries to A. L. Stewart and Sons Canning Factory located along the railroad tracks on Eaton Street in Calais every night.

At five or six years of age, we kids started to rake the berries. This is very young by today’s standards. As we continued to get older our work load increased, and we helped father at his many duties. We helped rake the berries, which was the only paid job. Ninety percent of our berry raking earnings were for clothing. We loved to dog-ear the Sears Roebuck catalogue marking the page of our favorite garments. Ninety percent of our earnings went for clothes; it was fun to pick out our own. We would also help with the loading and unloading the berries on and off the truck. After the harvest, we would pull the competing small trees out of the ground by hand, roots and all. We would help with mowing the fields with a hand scythe after harvest season and we would help spread the straw to cover the berry patches for burning, then we would help with the burning. We would also help line off the strips to separate each raker's territory during the harvest.

One enemy of the grower was the fruit fly maggots that found their way inside the berries. The canning factories tested each load for these tiny white creatures. If too many were found, the whole truckload was rejected, causing a tremendous loss to the grower. We also helped dust the berries with the necessary pesticides, to destroy this unwelcome intruder.

John Dudley, Alexander Crawford Historical Society hard working editor, at that time worked at the Calais factory as an inspector for the State, testing for maggots

Other blueberry enemies are both deer and bear. Coming out late at night, they can eat and tramp down many berries. Just prior to harvest we spent many a night watching over the berries, although more often we left around 9pm. The owner was legally allowed to protect his crop and jacking (using a light) was allowed. However one better not get caught jacking anywhere but in his own berry field.

Maine is the major player in the production of wild low bush blueberries. In 1992, Maine produced 31% of the total blueberry crop in North America, including the high bush blueberry so popular in other parts of our country.

RAKING BLUEBERRIES

Of course blueberries are only picked by hand when small quantities are needed. When they are to be sold commercially, a hand devise, called a “rake” is used. This lightweight metal rake has tines, very similar to the teeth of a comb. Using its handle, the rake is pushed forward with its tines flat on the ground, then the rake is pulled up through the berry bushes. The berries that the rake passed under, now laying on the rake tines, are then dumped into the raker's half-bushel blueberry basket. When filled, the two baskets were carried to a common area, where the berries are winnowed.

Blueberry season usually starts in our area during early August. The owner or his helper will already have the dividing strips lined off with twine before the rakers arrive each day. The strip defined each raker’s area to work. When each strip is finished, rakers move on to the next available strip. There is no jumping around; strips are taken in order.

The raker normally had his own rake and half bushel baskets. When two baskets are full, the raker carries them to a winnow machine to winnow the berries. The winnow machine is a mechanical devise designed to remove unwanted material like leaves, twigs, green berries, over ripe berries, etc. from the crop. In the past the winnow machine was turned by hand, but by the late 30s we had purchased a motor driven machine. The berries were dumped into the top of the machine, and the winnow machine blows away the undesired leaves and other lightweight debris. It also had a belt about 24 inches wide, which by design separated most unwanted berries from the good ones. The good berries were put into a half-bushel box, which was placed in front of a stake with the raker's name on it. The grower would tally each box, in front of that stake daily to determine the pay at so much per bushel.

On a “shocking” note regarding winnowing machines, one day uncle Vinal who was always playing pranks on people and I arrived at the machine at the same time. When we were finished, I said, “I have to go to the woods to pee.” He said “ Mary Moraisey, (the elderly lady everyone tried to beat) is coming, so just pee on the sparkplug and she will have to restart the motor when she gets here.” Of course I did and, well, I must have recovered from the vicious lightning strike as I’m still here. I was quite young and didn’t know any better. I didn’t tell my parents because I thought I was the bad one.

The most berries I have ever heard of anyone raking in one day was 33 bushels, an astronomical figure. This happened about 1939 –40 at the Gussie Hayward field on top of Day Hill in Wesley. There was competition between, Elba Darling, Paul Seavey and, I believe the other was, Milton Hunnewell, or Gene Moraisey and they were within one bushel of each other at the end of the day. I do not recall the winner. They literally ran between their strip and the winnow machine. I recently came across a 1926 Calais Advertiser, which states, ‘The Misses Della Seavey and Althea Davis were the champion girl blueberry rakers in Crawford, raking as high as twelve bushel per day and always wear that bright sunny smile”. It is possible that our Mom and Della never knew that this was mentioned in a newspaper. Della later on married Adin McKeown.

With an excellent crop of berries, and good strips, 20 bushel would make a great day normally. At the age of about 18, twenty bushels was the most I ever raked. Today berries are measured in pounds, not bushels. The pay for raking was considered quite fair most seasons. Usually a man would earn more raking berries than on any other job he had. Best of all, and it often happened, whole families raked the delicious fruit, which was a major factor in the their household income, albeit a very short season.

In the 30s, blueberry boxes were one-half bushel and made of wood, stood upright, with a nailed on wooden top for transporting the berries. Around 1940 the industry changed to a same size one-half bushel box, which laid flat, therefore no top was needed. Today these boxes are plastic.

TRANSPORTING BLUEBERRIES

After a long day in a blueberry field and all other workers had gone home, Dad, my brother Lawrence and I, would load up the days crop onto the truck for delivery to A. L. Stewart and Sons canning factory in Calais. We would also pick up berries for Lemuel Wallace, Harry and Earl Seavey and my grandmother, all located along the New Road. Also on Route 9, we picked up those berries from Bill and Bessie Cushing and Elliot Hatt. By this time, we would have a good-sized load. Then off to Calais we would go, over the rough, dirt road to Route 1 where we found (and felt) our first asphalt highway. After arriving and waiting in line, eventually it would be our turn to unload our berries.

Hopefully, by 8 or 9pm, we would leave for home, only to repeat the same procedure the next day. On some occasions we were turned around at Calais and sent to Stewart's Factory in Cherryfield because Calais could not handle that day’s volume. Many Canadian growers also used the Calais plant. This made it rough as this very perishable product could not survive many hours in a box. The berries would get soft and wet very quickly from self generated heat, which made them unmarketable. It was early morning before we arrived home from Cherryfield. After I received my driver’s license at age 15, I would make these same trips alone..

The A. L. Stewart and Sons, blueberry-processing company opened its doors in Cherryfield in 1866. The first canned blueberries were cooked in an open pan over a brick-oven fire. In the 1940s freezing plants were built to freeze berries, which today is more popular than canning. In 1980, after 114 years as one of the nations major low bush blueberry processors, A. L. Stewart was sold. A Nova Scotia firm, Oxford Frozen Foods, purchased the entire Cherryfield operation including its expansive blueberry barrens. I believe the Calais and Machias facilities were also included in the sale.

CUTTING AND PULLING THE UNDESIRED BUSHES

What happens to a blueberry field after the rakers have completed their season? Now the backbreaking chore of preparing for the upcoming burning of the field begins. One chore is getting rid of any plant that is not a blueberry bush. Mostly it’s the small trees or saplings that spring up every year. Dad’s method was to pull poplar and similar bushes out of the ground root and all with a gloved hand. These little trees made it more difficult to rake the next raking season. They also created unwanted shade. The other method, not as successful but much easier to do was to cut each bush with a hand scythe. Pulling out the tree, roots and all, eliminated that tree from coming back another year. Simply mowing allowed the tree to regenerate again the following years. Also with that method stubble would be left which made it more difficult to rake, meaning lost berries. Some growers used a horse drawn mower on their berry ground, but our ground, like many others, was too rocky to do that. The job of eliminating as much foreign material as possible was a big job for the berry farmer.

SPREADING STRAW

Oat Straw or meadow hay was used to fuel the fire for the burning of the blueberry field. An intense fire was needed to burn as many blueberry bushes as possible. Dad would locate a farmer somewhere between Princeton and Houlton who had planted oats. If the price was fair, he would purchase as much straw as we needed and haul it to his fields. The straw, which was left over after threshing, had no value but when dry, it made an excellent fire. Every autumn we made the trips north to search for it. We had no telephone, nor was there any nearby, which made it difficult to contact others. Sometimes mail communications were used. After arriving at the blueberry field with a truck heaping full of straw, the straw was unloaded from the truck in all sections of the field to be close as possible to where it would be spread.

The next job was to spread the straw. Straw was spread by hand, with one arm holding as much of this loose straw as possible. The other hand and arm was covering each and every berry patch with the straw. The better the spread, the better the burn, the better the crop.

BURNING

After the mowing and the spreading of the straw, the field was burned. Today the fields are burned every other year, and harvested every other year. During earlier times, the fields were burned once every third year. Any field that has been burned has no crop the next season. The crop of berries following the year of no crop was by far the greatest crop of all. That year’s crop was known as a new burn. The following years crop, known as “old burn” would be reduced to perhaps only 25 to 50 percent of the previous year. Rakers were never happy to have been required to rake these sparse old burn crops, but that was part of the job. The growers paid more per bushel for raking the old burn, but the day’s gross pay was usually less.

Burning may be done either during the fall, or during the following spring, whenever conditions are safe. Often springtime is most safe, when the fields are dry enough and snow still lingered in the woods. Under safe conditions, three of us, Lawrence, Dad and I would be able to burn the fields alone. At times though, a few neighbors or friends would be needed. The fire equipment would be hand pumped, back mounted water tanks, called Indian tanks, There would be tanks for most workers, and a shovel or two, for beating on the fire. Now a home made burner was needed, but after being built it was used for years. This devise, a hollow metal tube, was about five feet long with one end heated and bent about twenty degrees. A rag was stuffed into the bent end and kerosene was poured into the other end. That saturated the cloth that acted like a wick. Now we’re ready for the burn. A man would now light the wet cloth and walk in a predetermined direction taking into consideration wind direction, buildings and other factors. As he pulled this lighted burner along beside him through the straw, the burn begins. Hopefully there was a good burn and a fine crop would be enjoyed in two years.

With the burning process over, the ground blackened, it may be another year before this field would again feel any human feet treading upon it.
 

Raking berries at Sam Coopers ca 1935, note the weeds; Meghan Day raking in 1996, note lack of weeds

Terry Sprague and Billy Hyward with home made (ca 1940) field cleaning machine; Clariice Perkins watches McFarlane use winnowing machine in 1996

 David Davisís tractor mounted raking machine : Fletcher Perkins and his walk behind picking machine