Making Wild Berries: Commodities, Place and the Iconic

Originally published at Stillwater Historians, June 17, 2012.

imageIn 1871 a dispute on the blueberry barrens came to the Maine Supreme Court.  Freeman v. Underwood pitted a large land owner, initially more interested in timber than berries, against a cannery operator, whose interests included pretty much anything you could seal in a can.

As it happened the “wild” lowbush blueberries of the downeast region of Maine were highly conducive to canning.  They were small, sweet, and compared to other types of berries, held their form better when subjected to the canning process.  Put another way, they didn’t squish so easy!  They had properties that lent themselves to mass production for widespread distribution.  As importantly, they were available in droves, bucket-fulls, cart-loads, from land that was considered of little value or utility otherwise.


MIT Press, 2011.

In Chapter 13 of Blake Harrison and Richard Judd’s volume, A Landscape History of New England, I began an exploration of the blueberry industry in the downeast region.  However, in that piece issues of size and scope restricted me to about six pages on the development of the industry itself.  My larger purpose in that context was to explore the ways in which we define landscapes by looking at connections and connotations.  The geological and quaternary history of the downeast region created a near-coastal zone of crushed granite and basalt churned by a moving glacial margin into gravelly soils that are maladapted to cultivation, but that support several varieties of lowbush blueberries.  I played with the notion of the shifting coastline of the last ice age, making the case that it should be taken into account when we seek to define coastal spaces today.  Here is a region characterized by the reality that anywhere within 100 miles or more of today’s land/sea margin is a landscape that at one time shared that very distinction—an area known to geologists as Maine’s “drowned coast”.  The connections between these “coasts” can be found not only in deep time, but also in the economic development of the region.  I use the chapter to focus primarily on the canning industry and how it united through technology and mass distribution resources of both land and sea, blurring typical lines between fisheries, agriculture, and industry.

(Click here to view a surficial geology map from the Maine Geological Survey. Notice the dark pink area just westward of Machias.)

Any fifteen page chapter is likely to be a littered highway of unexplored questions and concepts that were momentarily compelling but cast aside in favor of focus and coherence.  In my case, the blueberry industry, relegated to just a few pages, presented such opportunities.  William Underwood was an innovator in canning, a process that was being refined and adapted to a wide variety of food products in the later decades of the nineteenth century.  By the turn of the twentieth century the downeast region would become a world capital for the canning of seafood, particularly sardine herring.  But in fact early experiments with the technology were applied to fruits and vegetables and lobster and shellfish meat as well as salmon.  Canning was an almost artistic process of reconciling the physical and chemical properties of the resource with the procedures required to put in the can, seal it, and preserve it there.  Some commodities adapted better than others.

Canneries tended to situate themselves near the resource and near the transportation links through which they could access a customer base.  Thus, many of the blueberry canneries sprung up in the small harbors of the downeast region—in proximity to the barrens and to the harbor.  Naturally, when they did, they dramatically increased the demand for the berries.  The vast expanse of barrens abuts the towns of Cherryfield, Columbia Falls, Deblois, and a number of the still unorganized “townships” and “plantations” of the region.  Because the interior of the region was slow to populate, much of this expanse remained a commons well into the nineteenth century.  However, the growing demand for the berries and the competing demands for kiln wood for the lime industry, as well as timber for milling, building, and fuel, created collective action problems, and problems of ownership and stewardship on the barrens.  Some landowners had purchased large tracts in order to capitalize on the sale of the timber upon them—but many such tracts either abutted or included areas rich in berries.

This became particularly problematic as berry producers focused more heavily on yield.  It was widely known that the berries grew best when the barrens were burned in regular cycles.  However, it needed to be a controlled burn that would consume the bush above the surface but not penetrate too deeply into the soil to harm the root structure.  Producers had adapted burning techniques borrowed from the region’s native tribes, who had relied on the availability of berries for centuries.  However, when fires escaped human control as they so often tended to, they could easily threaten or consume the timber investments of adjacent landowners.  William Freeman was just such a landowner.  In his complaint to Underwood in 1871 he noted that the actions of berry pickers on his accumulated lands had cost him upwards of $40,000.  He complained that not only did they lose control of their fires in tending the bushes, they also deliberately burned woodland space around the edges of the barrens to make way for more berries to grow in its stead.  They were also using his grasses for feeding their teams, his timber for their fires and encampments, and of course turning an increasingly handsome profit off of berries from his land.  To Freeman the pickers were, imposing upon my good nature and kindness, while I pay heavy taxes for their benefit.  And they were doing it in the service of Underwood and his cannery.

Freeman’s concern was not just the threat of damage to his woodland investments, but increasingly, the value that was being systematically extracted from his land holding by “trespassers” on behalf of cannery owners like William Underwood.  Unfortunately the pickers themselves—the actual trespassers—were largely migrant, seasonal workers.  It was difficult to hold them legally responsible for much of anything.  But Underwood was reaping profits from their labor, without compensating the landowners from which they extracted the raw materials for his operation.  The state’s Supreme Court determined in 1877 that Underwood, despite the fact that he did not directly violate the private property rights of Freeman, had in fact benefitted from such violation and was therefore liable to compensate him.  In their opinion they wrote that Underwood, by purchase and possession of the berries, although acting in good faith and in ignorance of the want of title in their vendors, assumed thereby an ownership and exercised a dominion over the property, which rendered them liable in trover to the true owner

The Freeman v Underwood decision effectively closed the commons on the blueberry barrens of downeast Maine.  Thereafter, the cannery operators were forced to contract the pickers through piecework arrangements and to lease the ground from the landowners to authorize their access.  The “wild” blueberry had been enclosed within economic and legal controls.

One of the interesting aspects of this story for me is the process through which things become iconic.  The case of the “wild” Maine blueberry is a particularly interesting one because it was the ability to mass produce the berries and distribute them widely that made the wild blueberry iconic and made it synonymous with the place from which it came.  The barrens themselves occupy a particularly remote and seldom visited region of the state.  Were it not for the industrialization of their preservation and distribution, precious few people would even know they were there.  Today blueberry production is a carefully controlled agri-business, complete with chemical pest control, fertilization, and efforts like the one recently reported in the Bangor Daily News, to promote pollination by importing bees in trucks to tend the crop and stimulate greater yield.  All for the product that will then be marketed far and wide as “Maine wild blueberries.”