On the wall of the cookhouse at Memory Lane Heritage Village in Lake Charlotte, Halifax County, Nova Scotia, a weathered sign warns all comers against picking cranberries or foxberries between August 1st and an unspecified date in October, by order of the municipal Cranberry Committee.
The Village recreates life and work along the rural Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia from 1940 to 1950, which is well outside of the late nineteenth century that I usually study. And so this sign, while intriguing—the Cranberry Committee!—had remained a mystery to me. But when I recently stumbled across a reference to a similar decree against picking cranberries in the municipality of Barrington, Shelburne County, in 1887, my curiosity finally got the better of me.
What I found, from the 1880s to the 1950s, were community-led efforts to maintain the viability of a rural commons for wild harvesting alongside the commercialization of an increasingly valuable agricultural commodity. The Otter seemed like a good place to share some preliminary bits of this story of rural environmental change and continuity, a story that prefaces larger questions about rural politics in formation and transition.
In the fall of 1887 the Cape Sable Advertiser in Barrington reported, “cranberry picking is all the rage at Port la Tour, principally among the female class. The law prohibiting the picking of cranberries until the 25th of September, has been very well observed. On Monday the law was off and people availed themselves of the opportunity to get all they could. … [E]very barren was literally teeming with men, women and children.” The law had been passed by the Barrington Municipal Council earlier in the year in response to “a petition largely signed” and forbade picking “on any unenclosed lands,” having berries in one’s possession, and buying or trading berries before the open season. The punishment was no joke: five dollars or five days in prison, doubling with each subsequent offence.
In 1893 the provincial government passed the similar “Act to Encourage and Protect the Growth of Cranberries” in Guysborough County in response to “several petitions.” The provincial law was later amended to include Richmond and Cumberland Counties (1895), Halifax County (1905), Antigonish County (1918), and Yarmouth County (1950). The municipality of Shelburne also passed a cranberry picking law in 1915, setting a closed season for harvesting from “any common or unenclosed lands.”
The first commercial cranberry ventures in Nova Scotia began in the 1870s. By the early 1890s cranberries were an established, if still minor, commodity in the province and had begun to replace berries imported from New England. Before the turn of the century, the provincial Department of Agriculture was including information about the cranberry industry in its annual reports. The cultivation of cranberries was celebrated for its ability to generate substantial revenue from “bogs, swamps, back borders, [and] unreclaimed pestiferous spots, that detract from the value of … farms,” a potential new source of income for farmers who might otherwise have been tempted to join the rural Exodus.
Alongside these commercial ventures, wild harvesting on common and unenclosed lands continued for home use. Fresh cranberries store well, making them an important contribution to winter diets. They also circulated in informal seasonal rural (Mi’kmaw and settler) economies. And increasingly, as the market grew, direct income was also available from wild harvesting.
Cranberry laws were in line with other state regulations on natural resources in the late nineteenth century, including closed seasons and quotas for game animals and fish. Seemingly harmless, even ecologically beneficial, regulations of this kind served to extend non-indigenous authority over the wild spaces of Canada. Increased pressure on natural resources coincided with continued enclosures of land. For example, throughout 1887 the Cape Sable Advertiser also ran a notice from the lightkeeper at Bon Portage warning that “persons found berrying, gunning or trespassing in any way whatsoever” on Shag Harbour Island would be “prosecuted to the utmost extent of the law.”
Unlike blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, or most other wild berries that grow in Nova Scotia, cranberries will ripen after they have been picked. Although early picking is not ideal, it would still provide poachers with a marketable product, while stripping commons berry patches of fruit and damaging developing plants. This is perhaps why cranberries, and closely related foxberries, were the only wild food plants to receive legal intervention of this kind. Blueberries, which were already being marketed commercially by the 1870s, were not the subject of provincial legislation until 1917 with a law against the use of rakes for harvesting—another prohibition against stripping and damaging common berry patches.
The politician who entered the petitions for Guysborough county in 1893 argued that “the [cranberry] industry was one of great importance to his county, amounting to many thousands of dollars yearly, and the picking of the berries before they were ripe had an injurious effect on the business.” There is no evidence of commercial cultivation in Guysborough County at this time. It appears, instead, that this was a plea to protect the viability of the wild commons—to be used for both commercial and personal use. The descriptions from Barrington suggest the situation was similar there. It is worth noting, however, that as the formal industry progressed across the province, these laws also ensured that wild harvesters would not beat cultivated berries to market, scooping sales and lowering prices.
The political and economic interrelationship between wild and cultivated cranberries was illustrated anew by events after 1949 when the removal of the wartime embargo on American fruits and vegetables resulted in “the immediate collapse” of the Nova Scotia cranberry market. Almost certainly at the behest of industry, the provincial cranberry law was revised in 1950 to further encourage municipalities to make and enforce bylaws against early wild harvesting. But the people of Clam Harbour, Halifax County, who found their common cranberry barrens “looted” by “outsiders” who “picked patches clean overnight,” appealed to the same law to assert the continuing importance of the rural commons.
In 1950 a complaint was made to the Halifax County Municipal Council, following which the Clam Harbour berry committee, if it existed at all before, became a much bolder presence in the community. They posted signs and patrolled their common patch. They also turned the opening day of the picking season into a local holiday, the annual “Cranberry Capers,” which were held through the 1950s. Covering the event in 1954, the Halifax Mail-Star reported that the families that owned the four properties that made up the thirty acres of the Clam Harbour cranberry barrens, “had no objection to outsiders picking on their private property, providing that they did right by the land.” An estimated 24,000 quarts were picked that day and the barrens remained open to the public for the rest of the fall.
Burris (Bub) Russell, a lifelong resident of Clam Harbour, now in his eighties, remembers “cranberry day” fondly as a very popular community event that drew people from all over the county and beyond. He recalls going down to the beach first thing in the morning and picking a pillowcase full of berries. People arrived before sunrise, armed with flashlights and headlamps. A small admission fee was charged on opening day, the funds going toward the maintenance of the community cemetery. Only one fellow refused every year to pay the admission. A canteen was set up, often selling steamed clams dug from the nearby flats.
Bub recalls hundreds of people spread out across the barrens picking cranberries. In fact, his descriptions are remarkably similar to the scene described in Barrington in 1887, pointing to important continuity in rural culture and practices into the mid-twentieth century. Bub also described the big ceramic urns that his mother used to store berries through the winter, as well as the many ways that cranberries were eaten. He smiled as he remembered cranberry sauce for dessert topped with fresh cream, noting that “everyone had a cow in those days.” Cranberries from the Clam Harbour barrens were also sold locally; Bub sold them to his neighbours for $1 a gallon. He believes that the Cranberry Capers were discontinued in the early 1960s when one of the landowners bought out the others and began a process of formal enclosure that had been resisted up to that time.
Bub also reminded me that the cranberry barrens that I know today in Clam Harbour were once much bigger, that the tide and winds have worn away the coast over the decades, so that the landscape is now very different than it was in the 1950s. Likewise, much about the culture of rural places in Nova Scotia has changed. Tracing practices of wild harvesting may offer a way to narrate the social and political significance of some of these transformations.
 “The Cranberry Boom,” Cape Sable Advertiser (Barrington, NS), October 13, 1887.
 Minutes of the Barrington Municipal Council, January 11, 1887. Held by the Municipality of the District of Barrington.
 Debates of the Nova Scotia House of Assembly, April 18, 1893, 270. A bill on same the subject passed the Legislative Council in 1892, but did not receive assent before the session was adjourned. Debates, March 31, 1892, 124.
 An Act to Encourage and Protect the Growth of Cranberries, Statutes of Nova Scotia (SNS), 1893, ch. 43. The title of the act was changed in 1900 to An Act to Protect the Growth of Cranberries, Revised Statutes of Nova Scotia (RSNS), 1900, ch. 62. In 1923 the cranberry law was incorporated into the new Agriculture and Marketing Act, RSNS, 1923, ch. 64, s. 118-121. The amendments mentioned appear in SNS, 1895, ch. 40; SNS, 1905, ch. 42; SNS, 1918, ch. 27; SNS, 1950, ch. 41.
 Minutes of the Municipality of the District of Shelburne, January 1915 Annual Council Meeting, Book IV, 1909-1919, 283. Shelburne County Archives. I suspect that other jurisdictions passed similar laws.
 See Robert A. Murray, Nova Scotia Cranberry History and Development, 1872-2000 (n.p.: Nova Scotia Cranberry Growers Association, 2001).
 “Cranberries Yield $800 Per Acre,” Liverpool Advance, August 20, 1884. Among other cranberry-boosting newspaper articles, see “Tusket Items,” Yarmouth Herald, September 29, 1881; “Cranberries: A Promising and Profitable Area of Fruit Culture,” reprinted from the Halifax Chronicle in the Berwick Register, February 2, 1898 and the Yarmouth Herald, March 1, 1898. The Nova Scotia Fruit Growers Association (est. 1863) began including enthusiastic discussion papers about cranberry culture at its annual meetings in 1885, published in its annual reports.
 The notice was published weekly throughout 1887 in the Cape Sable Advertiser beginning October 6, 1886.
 Debates of the Nova Scotia House of Assembly, April 18, 1893, 270.
 This is supported by Murray, Nova Scotia Cranberry History and Development.
 Nova Scotia, Department of Agriculture and Marketing, Report for the Year Ended November 30, 1949 (Halifax, NS: Kings Printer, 1950), 140.
 “Angered By Berry Patch Looters,” Halifax Mail-Star, October 18, 1950.
 Minutes of the Halifax County Municipal Council, March 17, 1950, 67. See also “Angered By Berry Patch Looters.”
 “Cranberry Frolic Assists Cemetery, Hospital Funds,” Halifax Mail-Star, October 15, 1954.
 Burris (Bub) Russell, interview by the author, November 2014. On the Cranberry Capers, see also “Cranberry Frolic.”
Latest posts by Sara Spike (see all)
- Canadian Coastal Histories workshop and public keynote events - November 17, 2021
- Call for Papers – Canadian Coastal History Workshop - October 9, 2020
- “a salubrious, saline exhalation”: Fog and Health in Colonial Newfoundland and Nova Scotia - August 27, 2020
- Ode to a Christmas Tree Baler - December 20, 2019
- Phenology and Local Knowledge in Early Twentieth-Century Rural Nova Scotia - April 8, 2015
- Cranberry Capers: Wild Harvesting in Nova Scotia, 1880s and 1950s - December 10, 2014
- Sights worth looking at: Agricultural Exhibitions in Nova Scotia - August 20, 2014
This is a terrific post, Sara! I’m pleased to see that you made connections to other efforts to enclose common resources (fish, wildlife, forests, etc…). Your cranberry case, however, provides a fascinating twist. Conservation law could be used to protect access to a common resource for self-provisioning, local home use, and small-scale commercial purposes.
I wonder if anyone else has come across similar cranberry conservation regulations in other parts of Canada.
Great piece, Sara. Myself and Elizabeth Mancke will be presenting on the regulation of seabird harvesting in 19th-century Newfoundland, in terms of both the subsistence and commercial economies, at ASEH 2015 in Washington, and I see many similarities here with our research.
Thanks Sean and Mark for your comments. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece. It was fun to get these initial thoughts out.
Yes, I’d love to know if anyone has encountered similar laws elsewhere.
Sean, yes, the “twist” was a surprise for me and it opens a nice opportunity to think through local experiences and meanings of resource regulation.
Mark, your seabird project sounds great! Would be interesting to compare these different areas of regulation.
Excellent article, Sara. I was too young to participate in the annual cranberry harvest but I can recall my parents going.
Thanks for doing this Sara, good job.
A couple of things to add.
First, for reasons I have been unable to determine, there was a cranberry crop failure this year at Clam Harbour, and other local picking spots. One local retailer, who sells berries picked by a few local people, reports that this year they said there were none to be found and he thinks they had to move to more inland sites to find any. I thought this might be an exaggeration, but when I checked for myself there were literally none to be found at Clam Harbour, even in the lesser known spots.
Second, at our last Heritage Dinner at Memory Lane, in the Cookhouse where you first saw the Cranberry Committee notice, I talked to a few local people and their recollections were pretty much the same as Bub Russell’s. They all remember paying a fee at the entrance to the beach (although they were not sure if it was per person or per vehicle) and that the money collected was used for the Cemetery Fund. One person, who grew up in Clam Harbour agreed with the others, but also added that this came to an end when one new resident of the village, who was Catholic, objected to the money going to one denomination (the Clam Harbour United Church (built in 1894), previously Presbyterian).
My last comment is in regard to the changes to the area where the cranberries grow. This has undoubtedly changed since we moved to Clam Harbour in 1970, there being significantly less areas with berries. However, I’m not sure that this reduction in area is due to erosion because I don’t think the shorelines have changed a lot. What has changed significantly is the presence now of a lot more alders and spruce trees covering what was much more open when we first arrived. Not sure why this is the case.
See you next year at Clam Harbour when hopefully this year’s lack of berries will hopefully prove to be an anomaly.
Very interesting article Sara. I can remember when we first moved here in the early ’70’s before the Provincial Park was established, and the beach was used as a drag strip for cars, and the dunes for camping etc. The dunes where often strewn with bottles and garbage, which of course wasn’t great for the cranberries. I agree with Gordon Hammond about the new growth of spruce and alder in the dunes. One used to be able to walk all through that area on paths between cranberries. Now it’s almost impossible. It would be great if the Provincial Park would spend a bit of $$ and open up those areas again!
Thanks for a great read!
Hi Bernadette, Gordon, and Charlotte. Thanks so much for reading and for your great comments. I’m looking forward to continuing on with this project and your recollections will be very helpful. Thanks again for your continued support of this research.
Oh also, Gordon, yes, as we’ve previously discussed, my experience this year supports your observation about the absence of berries. I picked in Clam Bay this year and we managed to fill our buckets, but the berries were very scarce compared to other years. Doing the historical research for this piece, I learned that these failures do happen unexpectedly from time to time (in addition to more explicable failures from frost, etc.), so here’s hoping that the cranberries will be back in Clam Harbour next year!
Sara, I was very glad to see this post on the schedule after talking to you about it so long ago. And I was even more pleased to see what an important contribution it is (and will be) to environmental history!
As you say, rural people were harvesting wildland resources like cranberries long before the commercial industry of the 1880s, but the research you’ve done in this period really uncovers a relatively unknown practice. It prompted two questions for me.
First, I’ve recently been trying to quantify total caloric outputs from Maritime ecosystems, and this work on wildlands has reminded me to consider what you call “an important contribution to winter diets.” These forms of production (just like irish moss and mussel mud fertilizers) were usually ignored by census officials, but your post suggests there may be other ways to estimate the productivity of these spaces. Do you get any sense from those Dept of Agriculture records (or from your own local knowledge) how much was produced in a county, or from an acre/hectare of cranberry bog? It would be interesting to compare those figures with modern yields from industrial operations, as we are doing with other parts of Maritime agriculture.
Also, the comments by Gordon, and Charlotte, above, seem to indicate that some sort of wildland ‘management’ was important for maximizing berry yield (i.e. some degree of clearing in wetlands helped ‘open’ the fields). This was certainly the case with blueberries in PEI. In that sense some of these lands are not wild at all, and that compares nicely with William Cronon’s _Changes in the Land_ and other environmental histories of the region. Do the sources say much about management practices like burning, clearing, logging, and of course the (new?) practice of flooding cranberry land?
Hi Josh, thanks for your comments and questions.
I’ll answer the second one first. It isn’t clear to me yet to what extent various wild cranberry barrens across the province would have been actively managed prior to the 1960s, but I think it’s safe to say that there would have been some form of intervention pretty well everywhere — and of course we always have to be careful with words like “wild.” (I know, for example, that cattle were grazed on some cranberry patches.) With this in mind, it seems to me that the most useful way to frame the different harvesting practices is to emphasize the distinction between commons and enclosed lands — at least in terms of making distinctions between who might have had access to these resources.
Many of the early cultivated berry patches were originally “wild” patches that were “improved” with active management and thus enclosed. It is common to read about dams being built to regulate water flow; flooding for harvest began on a large scale in the 20th century, but patches were flooded already in the 1880s to keep off frost. Other dams were used to drain bogs that were too wet. Investments and practices such as these moved the berries into the category of “cultivated.”
The Department of Agriculture and the Fruit Growers Association were only interested in cultivated berries but their reports do give stats on production and yield of those. The FGA also published discussion papers from its annual meetings in which growers discussed real and potential yields per acre. I have some newspaper articles encouraging cranberry cultivation that similarly discuss yields and potential revenue. For wild/commons picking, I have a few scattered newspaper articles that quantify local harvests.
I’m a summer resident of Cape Breton, and pick, every summer, about 20-25 gallons of wild berries — blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, foxberries, strawberries, gooseberries, sometimes Saskatoon berries, and cranberries, which my wife puts up for jam. I pick the cranberries, believe it or not, in June when we arrive. They are still good in that following June, and by then taste like very large foxberries. That I can do that, in June, says a lot. It suggests that nobody picks berries anymore. Only very rarely do I ever encounter somebody else with a pail in the various spots where I go…. And this is a mystery to me, given how expensive these things are in the stores.
It’s interesting how Charlotte’s remarks about drag strips and cars at the beach intersects with Ben Bradley’s work on rowdy behaviour in Canadian parks and beaches in the twentieth century.
Interesting article Sara! You might look for aerial photographs at the National Air Photo Library in Ottawa. They would show the growth of spruce and alder, and whether the shoreline changed with erosion. Maybe this is just a personal peeve, (the result of too many foragers taking wild leeks from woods that I understand to be “mine” and they understand to be “wild” ) how do you determine what is commons and what is enclosed? Isn’t the notion of the commons particular to place and time and class? See, if you haven’t already, Nancy Turner’s wonderful work on the harvesting of traditional plants in BC to complicate the distinctions between cultivated and wild crops.
Hi Tony, thanks so much for sharing your experience. Wow, cranberries in June! Yes, that certainly does say something about changes in rural practices. I can imagine those areas were once probably picked clean every year.
Hi Joanna. Yes, it seems to me that in practice definitions of “the commons” are always locally-determined and have never been unanimous — like you, the lighthouse keeper (or his employer) in 1887 didn’t share the opinions of his neighbours. Nevertheless, what I see here is the persistence, into the second half of the twentieth century, of a widespread, locally-articulated notion, shared by many rural landowners and others (ie. not class-bounded), that private ownership does not preclude common access to the resources on that land — whether for commercial or personal use. There are many reasons why we begin to see this notion diminish (though not disappear) in the later twentieth century. It is also worth reiterating here that I am writing about a so-called low-impact activity, berry picking, and not something like logging, which would be a very different story.
There’s a fictional book called Breadfruit (set in Tahiti, totally different context), in which the central character is temporarily thrown in jail by the French gendarmes for mussel hunting along a coast near an airstrip where she traditionally “foraged” in her childhood.
Not sure if this applies to the Nova Scotian context or example but I’m wondering about the sorts of connections between “nature” and colonization/colonialism you think may exist here?
Or at least the imposition of protective controls by a local power (in the case of Tahiti imposition of foreign authority) but in this case, real authority over the natural playground that would have also provided sustenance to an indigenous population but one that could have been depleted by over-foraging at a certain time of year or some version of perceived hooliganism.
In my reading of Manitoba Ministry of Agriculture discourses they also praised the farmer’s productivity as your DEA report praises the cultivation of the cranberry. The Manitoba Agriculture Reports (still in publication) often described what was produced and how much and varying seasonal elements (e.g. qualitative accounts of the strawberry crop), indicating a persisting state obsession with “knowing” the agricultural goings on at a provincial scale.
In a modern industrial contexts, high bush and wilder kinds of cranberries virtually disappear from the map of production, (you can find them only in specialty stores or stores that deal with local berry providers in the case of Manitoba), while the more conventional cranberry types are the ones that come under cultivation as a marketable crop (especially in B.C.).
I find the trade relations event with the U.S. (1949) interesting as well, because I also saw changes in Canadian trends in marketable cultivation take place when American imports could compete with Canadian products; the agricultural industries that survive in Canada tended to be the ones that were more aggressively productive (e.g. tomatoes in Ontario, or apples in Ontario that would often be shipped across the border to New York State).
Also it may be worth noting that in Manitoba, the wild blueberry crop here (and Saskatoon) which appears to be the most important wild berry crop in the province is consistently gathered and marketed by our native community, including in the form of syrups and through local native market niches (like Neechi Commons), while others have tended to pursue berry foraging here in a more recreational context or have inherited their foraging habits (also in the case of wild mushrooms) from their elders/parents/generation before.
Hi Naomi, Happy new year and thanks for reading.
Regarding the connection to colonialism, yes, of course, as I mention in the essay, any “resource management” initiatives like the ones I describe were/are foremost efforts to extend settler authority over Indigenous lands, whether in Nova Scotia, Tahiti, or Manitoba.
The ways that the formal agricultural industry for cranberries continued to develop in the second half of the twentieth century are mostly outside my research at the moment. But I can confirm, as you say for Manitoba, that the emphasis was on a particular species (Vaccinium macrocarpon; of which there are now numerous varieties), while other wild berries did not receive intensive cultivation. The notable exception being blueberries, which continue to be a major export crop for Nova Scotia.
I love this article! I want more! Are there other detailed historic accounts of the precariousness of wild harvesting vs. cultivation and formal vs. informal economies? Thank for you writing this piece and making it publicity available!