Chippewa County MI

The Cranberry Industry
Near Whitefish Point & Vicinity

By William H. Clarke (April 1947)

Contributed by Paul Petosky
Photo of Wm. H. Clarke taken around 1888

In June 1875, at the age of 9 1/2, I arrived at Whitefish Point to make my home with my uncle, John Clarke and his wife, Priscilla. I got passage from Sault Ste Marie on a sailing vessel that had on board the Light House Keeper and family for the Whitefish Point Light House. The vessel came in as close to shore as was safe and anchored using the vessels Yawl Boat to land passengers and household goods, after which the vessel went on up the lake to Two-Heart River to load square timber. We arrived at the Point about 11 A.M. and on inquiry I learned that my uncle lived at a place called Little Lake 3 miles from the Point but if I waited until evening there would be man by the name of William Hawkins that had a girl friend living near my uncles, and he would likely be going there to see her. He was a Fisherman, and at that time was on the Lake . So I waited and along about 2 o’clock in the afternoon who should come along but my aunt and Miss Powell, Mr. Hawkins girl friend. So I went home with them.

My uncle in his early life followed the fishing industry and at one time fished at Whitefish Point. Three miles west of the point was a small inland lake with wild cranberries growing around the shores. He thought that if they grew wild, they also should grow cultivated. At that time the cultivated cape cod berries were selling for $3.00 per bushel. So he looked up the description of the land which would take in a part of the lake. The next year he fished out of Marquette with his younger brother, James M. Clarke. In the summer of 1874 his brother, James, took the fishing rig and went to Duluth, and my uncles went to the land office at Marquette and homesteaded 160 acres, the land he had the description of. Previous to this he had obtained literature from agricultural department on the cultivation of cranberries.

He arrived at Whitefish Point on July 4, 1874 and built a small house. When the house was built, his wife arrived. A short time after my uncle arrived, another man and his wife moved in, a Mr. Alex Barclay from Munising. I never learned the particulars about whether they had met previous and had it so arranged. Mr. Barclay also had taken up a homestead adjoining my uncles. Mr. Barclay also built a house. That summer and fall they worked at preparing land for planting into cranberries. Each family owned a horse, and when winter arrived they went to cutting cord wood making a team of the two horses, hauling the wood to Whitefish Point. After my arrival, my uncle related to me about the terrible storm they had in February 1875. That winter, Lake Superior was supposed to be frozen over. They had a snow fall of about two feet of loose snow. A gale of wind came from the Northwest, and the snow blew in off Lake Superior so thick that one could not see ten feet. Their house had 8 foot walls and a peak roof with roof boards running up and down. They were both in the house when the storm started and remained inside. Along in the afternoon they remembered about their neighbor, Mr. Barclay, whom they saw going across the Little Lake before the storm started. They became alarmed and thought they had better find out if he returned. So they went to go out the door and found it so blocked with snow that they could not get out. The house was completely buried in snow, just the stove pipe showing out the peak of the roof. So in order to get out they pried a couple of the roof boards off and crawled out through the roof. My aunt would not remain in the house alone so she also crawled out through the roof. To get through the roof they put a chair on top of a table which helped in the climb. After a hard fight with the elements they got to the neighbors home and found he had arrived but had a hard time to find his way. After the storm was over they tunneled through the snow to the house door and used the tunnel the remainder of the winter.

In the summer of 1875 we got about two acres planted to cranberries. In the winter of 75 & 76 we got out timber for a log house, and in the spring of 76 started to build the house some distance farther back in the timber where it would be more sheltered from the Lake winds. That summer we got another 2 acres planted to cranberries. That year my uncle sold the horse and got a cow. As it takes about three years after planting cranberries before they begin to bear much fruit, in order to keep living, some other source of income had to be resorted to. So as seine fishing (A seine is a large fishing net that hangs vertically in the water by attaching weights along the bottom edge and floats along the top) was good, a seine was bought and when the weather permitted we would fish, and work on the farm when we couldn’t fish. In 1880 another setter arrived at Little Lake. It was William Hawkins. The same William Hawkins that was courting Miss Powell in 1875. They were married in the fall of 1875. Mr. Hawkins also came with the intention of growing cranberries, and purchased some land from Mr. Barclay. By the way, Mrs. Hawkins and Mrs. Barclay were sisters. By this time the cranberries were beginning to produce a fair crop. To harvest the crop, Indians from Garden River and Sugar Island (these were Chippewa Indians) would come and pick berries and have a regular camp meeting. The hand picking was adopted for a few years and then it became apparent that some other means of harvesting had to be adopted as there was not enough pickers to harvest the crop in the short time before a frost. So the farm was divided up into small fields of from one to two acres and an earthen wall separating each plot high enough to hold water enough to cover the vines a couple of inches over the tops. The berries, being very buoyant, would float up as far as their stems would allow them.

My uncle purchased a steam tractor and pump flooded the plot that we wished to pick. There was a main intake ditch and from that there was branches to the different plots. The pickers were supplied with rubber boats and raked the berries off with a rake made for the purpose. The berries were then scooped up with a wire bottomed scoop and put in frames made of lath and dried. By this mode of picking, one man, if the berries were thick could pick 15 or 20 bushels per day. The cranberries mature in a very short time. They blossom in July and by the first of October they are ripe and ready to harvest.

In 1884 my uncle’s brother, James M. Clarke, his wife and four children arrived to embark in the cranberry business. He also took up a homestead. In the year 1888 W.B. Quigley of St. Louis , Missouri and my uncle John Clarke formed a partnership and purchased some land 7 miles from Little Lake near the Vermillion Point Life Saving Station. It was an ideal location for a cranberry farm as there were several small lakes close by which would supply an abundance of water for irrigation and flooding. As I had worked in the business with my uncle since [nine years old I worked here until the land] was gotten ready and planted to vines. The first crop was picked by hand as the vines were not firmly rooted enough to stand raking. In 1897 we harvested 1600 bushels off the twenty acres. I worked on this farm for ten years, then joined the Life Saving Service which is now [the] Coast Guard. After I left this farm my Uncle sold his farm at Little Lake to Mr. and Mrs. Frank House. He bought out W.B. Quigley’s interest in the farm at Vermillion and remained on it until his death in 1914. After his death there was no one to look after the farm so it soon grew up with grass and brush which choked out the vines and it is now gone back to a wilderness.

More on the Cranberry Farm