Because of an editing error in the American Journal yesterday. English settlement of North America near Plymouth Rock was characterized incorrectly. Jamestown, Va., was the first permanent settlement in 1607 and remained the only one until 1620 when landings began near Plymouth. (Published 11/22/90)
PLYMOUTH, MASS. -- In the cranberry bogs of southeastern Massachusetts, all is quiet. From their low, flat beds tucked among the pitch pines and scrub oaks, the berries have been harvested and sent away to end up alongside turkey dinners or inside millions of bottles, juice boxes or cans.
At the corporate headquarters of Ocean Spray, the giant cranberry processor, and its Cranberry World visitor's center here, life is quite hectic. Each year, more than 250,000 people flock to the center about one mile north of Plymouth Rock on the waterfront in this town where the English settlement of North America began 370 years ago.
At Cranberry World, which is open on Thanksgiving Day, displays and tour guides gush forth a cornucopia of facts, lore and free samples, elevating the humble cranberry to the status of a fruit celebrity.
The cranberry, which takes center stage this week as a quivering, ruby jelly concoction next to the turkey, is in many ways an American success story. Almost unpalatable in its natural state, it has emerged through the wonders of modern marketing into a year-round product that soon will push Ocean Spray to its first billion-dollar sales year.
The small, red berry is one of just three economically important fruits native to North America, along with the blueberry and the Concord grape. It grows in the wild only on low vines in the sandy soils of Massachusetts and New Jersey.
Long before their "discovery" by English colonists, cranberries were used by the woodland tribes of New England. Indians crushed them to make dyes and pounded them into dried venison and deer fat to make a dish called pemmican, a very portable food that could sustain travelers on long trips.
Whether cranberries were served in any form at the first Thanksgiving in 1621 is, like so many issues having to do with the Pilgrims, swathed in myth. There is no direct evidence that cranberries were eaten at the original three-day feast, but certainly they were available.
In any case, mention of the berries began appearing in colonists' diaries and cookbooks in the mid-17th century. The name comes from the drooping, pointed cranberry blossom, said to resemble the head and beak of a crane.
Sometime between 1810 and 1820, a Cape Cod man named Henry Hall began cultivating the wild cranberry vine in the town of Dennis. The vines, which grow to about six inches above the ground, thrive in an acid-peat soil beneath a layer of clean sand.
Almost all of the world's cranberries are cultivated on about 25,000 acres in just five states -- Massachusetts, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Oregon and Washington. Some also grow in British Columbia, near Vancouver.
Originally, the harvest, which comes in mid-October, was done by hand. Later, colonists devised the wooden cranberry scoops that line the shelves of gift shops here, but today machines do most of the work.
In a "dry" harvest, used to gather as much as 15 percent of the crop, mechanical tines gently strip berries from vine. Because this method leaves more berries unbruised, it is favored for gathering those sold as whole fresh fruit.
The bulk of the crop is harvested by the newer "wet" method, which takes advantage of the air pocket inside each cranberry that makes it float. Using dikes and ditches, growers flood fields to a depth of about two feet.
Then they drive mechanical reels through the bog, creating turbulence just strong enough to loosen berries and allow them to pop to the surface. The floating berries are corralled with floating booms onto conveyor belts and are put into waiting trucks.
This year's Massachusetts harvest should yield about 200,000 tons, probably a decline from 1989 because of an early snowfall and cold snap after last Thanksgiving. In a normal year, Massachusetts is the top producer, harvesting about 40 percent of the whole crop, followed by Wisconsin with some 30 percent.
Another landmark in cranberry history came in 1930 when three cranberry growers founded Ocean Spray as a farmers' cooperative. The company, which sells 80 percent of the world's cranberries, remains an independent cooperative whose stock is held by about 700 cranberry growers and about 100 grapefruit growers, allowed to join in the 1970s.
In the early days, Ocean Spray ran a modest, seasonal operation, supplying cranberry jelly for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners and bottling an extremely tart version of cranberry juice. In 1959, the company almost collapsed in the first Great American Food Scare. Just before Thanksgiving, federal authorities announced -- mistakenly, it turned out -- that a herbicide used on a small part of the cranberry crop could cause cancer.
"You had panic, mass panic," said Ocean Spray spokesman Skip Colcord. "The words 'cancer' and 'food' had never been associated before then. The business almost went under. Sales plummeted."
Ocean Spray recovered, but the growers sensed a shaky, seasonal market niche and decided to do something about it.
First, they made the basic drink sweeter and friendlier to mainstream America's taste buds. Because straight cranberry juice is so tart, it is always sold after being diluted with water and sweetened with corn syrup. Thus do bottles always refer to cranberry juice "cocktail."
In the late 1960s, Ocean Spray introduced its "Cranapple" blend and made marketing history. Since then, the company has broadened its line into a year-round panoply of juices, blends, dried snack bits, sauces and fresh fruit in an array of containers. In 1981, the company pioneered the "brick pack" with its own straw and transformed the children's juice business.
Now, Ocean Spray is a Fortune 500 company battling for supermarket shelf space with the biggest names in the food business. The biggest constraint, according to Colcord, is not the competition but the berry itself. Consumers are buying every berry that can be picked, a situation for which each grower no doubt gives thanks.