Cranberry Capers: Wild Harvesting in Nova Scotia, 1880s and 1950s

Photo: Sara Spike, 2014

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Notice posted in Clam Harbour, Nova Scotia, c1950s. Courtesy of Memory Lane Heritage Village and Eastern Shore Archives, Lake Charlotte, Nova Scotia
Notice posted in Clam Harbour, Nova Scotia, c1950s. Courtesy of Memory Lane Heritage Village and Eastern Shore Archives, Lake Charlotte, Nova Scotia

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.”[1] 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.[2]

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.”[3] The provincial law was later amended to include Richmond and Cumberland Counties (1895), Halifax County (1905), Antigonish County (1918), and Yarmouth County (1950).[4] The municipality of Shelburne also passed a cranberry picking law in 1915, setting a closed season for harvesting from “any common or unenclosed lands.”[5]

Advertisements for cranberries from the New Glasgow Eastern Chronicle, October 14, 1880; December 19, 1889.
Advertisements for cranberries from the New Glasgow Eastern Chronicle, October 14, 1880; December 19, 1889.

The first commercial cranberry ventures in Nova Scotia began in the 1870s.[6] 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.[7]

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.”[8]

Cranberry blossoms. Photo: Sara Spike, 2013
Cranberry blossoms. Photo: Sara Spike, 2013

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.”[9] There is no evidence of commercial cultivation in Guysborough County at this time.[10] 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.[11] 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,”[12] appealed to the same law to assert the continuing importance of the rural commons.

Cranberries ripening in Clam Harbour. Photo: Sara Spike, 2013
Cranberries ripening in Clam Harbour. Photo: Sara Spike, 2013

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.[13] 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.[14]

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.[15] 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.

Cranberry patch in Clam Harbour, showing changes to the landscape. Photo: Sara Spike, 2014
Cranberry patch in Clam Harbour, showing changes to the landscape. Photo: Sara Spike, 2014

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.

[1] “The Cranberry Boom,” Cape Sable Advertiser (Barrington, NS), October 13, 1887.

[2] Minutes of the Barrington Municipal Council, January 11, 1887. Held by the Municipality of the District of Barrington.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] See Robert A. Murray, Nova Scotia Cranberry History and Development, 1872-2000 (n.p.: Nova Scotia Cranberry Growers Association, 2001).

[7] “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.

[8] The notice was published weekly throughout 1887 in the Cape Sable Advertiser beginning October 6, 1886.

[9] Debates of the Nova Scotia House of Assembly, April 18, 1893, 270.

[10] This is supported by Murray, Nova Scotia Cranberry History and Development.

[11] Nova Scotia, Department of Agriculture and Marketing, Report for the Year Ended November 30, 1949 (Halifax, NS: Kings Printer, 1950), 140.

[12] “Angered By Berry Patch Looters,” Halifax Mail-Star, October 18, 1950.

[13] Minutes of the Halifax County Municipal Council, March 17, 1950, 67. See also “Angered By Berry Patch Looters.”

[14] “Cranberry Frolic Assists Cemetery, Hospital Funds,” Halifax Mail-Star, October 15, 1954.

[15] Burris (Bub) Russell, interview by the author, November 2014. On the Cranberry Capers, see also “Cranberry Frolic.”

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Sara Spike

Sara Spike, PhD, is a cultural historian of rural communities and coasts in Atlantic Canada. She is currently a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, where she is writing a cultural history of fog in Atlantic Canada.

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