Cranberry Harvesting Rake | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Cranberry Harvesting Rake

Wisconsin Historical Museum Object – Feature Story

Cranberry Harvesting Rake | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeCranberry rake

Cranberry rake

Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object # 1973.121

EnlargeCranberry Raking Contest

Cranberry raking contest, 1944

Cranberry Raking Contest, 1937. Jesse Mike, a Winnebago Indian (wearing checkered shirt) won the championship by raking 10 field boxes (about 40 quarts each ) in 20 minutes. Source: Image from the Wisconsin Magazine of History, March 1944

EnlargeCranberry harvest

Cranberry harvest

Cranberries being wet harvested in Warrens, Wisconsin, the self-proclaimed cranberry capital of Wisconsin. View the original source document: WHI 43246

EnlargeCranberry plant

Cranberry flower

Cranberry plants in the pinhead stage of growth, when small fruits are starting to bloom. When blooming, the plant's flowers resemble the head and neck of a crane, which may be how they got their name. Source: Image courtesy of Teryl Roper, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Handmade all wooden cranberry rake used for harvesting cranberries in Grand Marsh, Wisconsin, early 20th century. (Museum object # 1973.121)

The cranberry, Wisconsin's official state fruit, grows on vines in peat or sandy marshes. In the early days of cranberry harvesting, the berries were picked from the vines by hand: a time consuming and expensive task. In 1872, one Berlin, Wisconsin cranberry marsh alone employed 1,500 pickers at a cost of $52,000. That same year an engineer by the name of W.T. Cosgrain suggested a new method: flood the cranberry marshes until the berries floated on top of the water, and then use rakes to remove the fruit from the vines. In "raking the flood" the cranberry handrake is swung in a back-and-forth motion, the teeth of the rake combing the cranberries from the vines. Using this new method, each worker harvested 15-20 barrels a day instead of the usual 8 or 10.

The early models of harvesting rakes were patterned after small scoops used by growers in the eastern United States. The first cranberry handrakes were constructed entirely of wood. Later, to make the rakes more durable, the teeth were covered with metal. Through the years, additional minor modifications in structure and design were made, until the use of hand rakes began to decline in the 1950s in favor of even more efficient harvesting techniques.

Flooding marshes to harvest cranberries is still common practice today. While cranberries can be either dry or wet harvested, the most prevalent method is the water harvest. To harvest in this "wet" manner, the growing beds are flooded and a "water reel" agitates the water, dislodging the fruit from the vine. The floating fruit is then corralled and loaded onto trucks for delivery to a receiving station. Wet harvested fruit is used for processed cranberry products like juice and sauce. It takes about 4,500 cranberries to produce just one gallon of cranberry juice.

Dry harvesting uses mechanical harvesters, which were developed by Wisconsin growers, with teeth that lift the berries from the vines. The berries are then loaded into bins and shipped to receiving stations to be cleaned and packaged as fresh fruit.

Originally called "crane berries" because the cranberry plant's stem and blossoms resembled the neck, head, and beak of a crane, cranberries are one of only a few commercially available fruits native to North America. Some Native Americans believed that the tart berry had special powers to calm the nerves, and the fruit was a staple in their diets. Native Americans ate cranberries fresh, baked them into breads and created cranberry poultices used to treat wounds. They also used cranberries in making pemmican: a mixture of dried meat, fruit, and fat.

Once introduced to the cranberry, Europeans also grew to appreciate the fruit. Early French voyagers who explored Wisconsin's waterways often bartered for cranberries with Native Americans. Sailors began to take barrels of cranberries to sea with them to provide vitamin C for the prevention of scurvy. Wild cranberries were considered such a valuable commodity, in fact, that an old Wisconsin law doled out a penalty of $50 for the offense of picking or having in one's possession unripe cranberries before the 20th of September.

Cranberries are still big business in Wisconsin, with about 150 cranberry marshes occupying a total of 110,000 acres in 18 counties. Wisconsin marshes produce more than half of the cranberries consumed by Americans each year, making Wisconsin the top cranberry producing state for many years running. Cranberry festivals, which often include tours of harvesting operations, are held across Wisconsin each fall.

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[Sources: Hintzman, A.J., C.W. Estes and W.W Morris. "Wisconsin cranberries : production, varieties, utilization, markets" (Madison: Wisconsin State Department of Agriculture, 1953); Stevens, Neil and Jean Nash. "The Development of Cranberries in Wisconsin." ("Wisconsin Magazine of History", March 1944, vol. 27, no. 3); various cranberry-related websites online.]


Posted on September 14, 2006