Were you to visit Presque Isle — a small peninsula on the Erie, Pennsylvania lakefront — during any mid-nineteenth-century autumn, you’d likely see marshes thick with cranberry bushes. The largest marsh of all occupied the peninsula’s middle. September’s arrival would see the berries at their reddest, a development that summoned the folks of Erie County to their harvest.
The picked cranberries would go into jellies and preserves or into stalls at public markets. And in doing so they precipitated a tragedy of the commons: greedier sorts would steal a march on their unsuspecting fellows, leaving them to find the marshes of Presque Isle bare of fruit. The phenomenon became so acute that in 1841 the state legislature of Pennsylvania intervened. It deemed such deviousness to be “contrary to the peace and dignity of the commonwealth.” To this end, it forbade the picking of cranberries on Presque Isle from “the first of July” to “the first Tuesday of October.”
The establishment of an official cranberry season did little to discourage overeager harvesters. In boats they passed through a channel that enters the peninsula from a western bight of Misery Bay, rowed northward through a large pond, and then forced their way through shrubbery and between tussocks of sedge until the treasured berries came into view. With a large rake they scooped them up, taking immense quantities in minutes. And with each season, the dastardly practice had more civic-minded Pennsylvanians crying foul.
Their complaints continued until in 1865 the city government of Erie found itself compelled to act. It passed an ordinance that charged the committee of councils on public grounds with the task of selling at auction the right “to pick and gather and appropriate to [one’s] own use, all the cranberries.” The successful bidder not only had dibs on all the cranberries on Presque Isle; he also had police power over them. With right to the crop itself he bought the right to fine any poacher upwards of $100 (about $2,800 today).
The financial solution understandably brought new complaints, this time from people of modest means. Sale of rights to the cranberry bog, a natural treasure that ought to be held in common, they regarded as unjust. In response to the outcry, city solicitor Phineas Crouch stepped forward with what he deemed a more equitable solution. On September 16, 1867 he introduced a resolution for the establishment of a Cranberry Day, which, as its name implied, gave to the citizens of Erie “the right and opportunity to pick cranberries on the peninsula on the day appointed.” And in his evidently great wisdom, Crouch saw to it that the resolution included a ban on the use of rakes.
The weeks preceding the inaugural Cranberry Day saw the marsh guarded by a detail of armed sailors from the Commodore Perry. The day arrived accompanied by a clear sky, mild temperatures, and little wind. Many people had camped overnight beneath the trees. Day break saw Misery Bay littered with row boats, sail boats, and even steamers. And those crafts themselves were packed with passengers, tents, pillows, provisions, and blankets. A thousand people descended on the cranberry shrubs that day, the sailor sentries directing them this way and that, all grubbing after their share. Some four hundred bushels were picked by the day’s end. Yet, as so often happens in life, some unlucky comers went home with mere handfuls.
Regardless of any one individual’s haul, a good time was had by all. The air was redolent of the sweet gale bushes that had been trampled underfoot in the rush. People picnicked on the few dry areas surrounding the marsh, and when sunset came they lit campfires on the beach and spent the night beneath the stars.
Despite its popularity, Cranberry Day ran out of juice after only a few seasons. Skeptics considered it a “delusion and a snare.” It was celebrated once or twice more, and that was it. At any rate, the possibility of a later revival was foreclosed by a blight that killed off most of Presque Isle’s cranberry shrubs in the early twentieth century. Yet love of cranberries themselves endures undiminished among Americans. And you can indulge your love for them with the recipe below.
Cranberry Orange Relish from Recipes for Eatmor Fresh Cranberries (c. 1950)
2 cups sugar
4 cups Eatmor Cranberries
2 Sunkist oranges, quartered and seeded
Put raw cranberries and oranges through Waring Blender or food chopper. Add sugar and mix well. Chill in refrigerator a few hours before serving. Makes one quart relish. This relish will keep well in the refrigerator for several weeks. Try quick freezing Cranberry Orange Relish.