The Harwich Historical Society Museum at Brooks Academy features Cape Cod’s largest exhibit dedicated to interpreting and presenting the history of Cranberry Culture on Cape Cod. The wild cranberry, one of only three species of fruit native to North America, was first domesticated here.
The name Cranberry is said to derive from “Crane Berry,” a reference that explains the name as coming from the resemblance between the flower of the Cranberry and the head of the Crane, a bird once commonly found on Cranberry Bogs.
Wild cranberries were widely used by Native Americans wherever the berries grew, as both an important food crop and colorful dye. When the English came in 1620, the Natives taught them to use the berry for food, medicine, and as a dye. Settlers quickly incorporated the fruit into their diets.
Cranberries require odd conditions to grow and thrive. They do best in bogs, low shallow bowls of acidic peat soil, where plenty of sand and water are available. The composition of a cranberry bog is unique and consists of four layers, clay, gravel, peat and sand in ascending order. Each performs an important function to the overall ability of the bog to thrive. By the turn of the 19th century, residents had staked out their bogs, or “Cranberry Yards,” and families would typically harvest their supplies of the berries from them.
In 1816, Henry Hall, whose “yards” were near the beach, noticed that when sand blew over his vines, rather than killing the plants, it made them thrive. He began to experiment with ways to plant the cranberry vines, and succeeded in raising a heavy crop. His experimentation led to the development of the cranberry as a viable commercial crop. This was no small accomplishment since soil conditions did not encourage conventional farming.
Harwich led the way to introducing the cranberry to the world by producing the first crop for commercial sale. In 1846, Captain Alvin Cahoon is credited with producing the first such crop from a bog near Pleasant Lake. The venture spread quickly, with others in other towns, counties and states planting their own bogs and producing their own crops for the growing markets.
Because of Harwich’s historical connection, and the active and ongoing tradition of cranberry farming, the museum features a permanent exhibit of what is the largest collection of pictures and artifacts related to the history of cranberry culture available to the public on Cape Cod.
The Cranberry was important in many ways to producing the community we live in today. It provided a needed source of income to many families during the economically depressed decades following the Civil War. It also encouraged emigration by people from the Cape Verde Islands who had been involved in New England’s whaling industry, on the decline in the latter part of the 19th-century.