The Blueberry Queen
How a New Jersey Town Celebrates its Pioneer
By Elisabeth Ginsburg | Online Only | Mar. 21. 2011
Whitesbog, in the southern New Jersey Pine Barrens, was once a classic company town. In its heyday between the two world wars, the surrounding bogs yielded thousands of barrels of cranberries and blueberries every year, harvested and processed by about 600 seasonal workers. The village, built between 1890 and 1925, was a self-sufficient hub, with worker housing, a general store, pay office, processing and storage buildings, and a schoolhouse.
Unlike many towns in the Pine Barrens that have been overtaken by the forest, Whitesbog lives on as a historic site. Its survival owes much to Elizabeth Coleman White (1871-1954), farmer, naturalist, entrepreneur, writer, and speaker. "Suningive," the 1923 house where she lived and worked, is one of more than two dozen original buildings that still stand in the village; it is now the headquarters of the Whitesbog Preservation Trust, founded in 1982 to preserve the town.
Whitesbog's history dates to the mid 1700s, when an iron-production boom in the Pinelands led to the establishment of the Hanover Furnace, several miles northwest, on the site of the present day Fort Dix. Water for the furnace was diverted from local streams into a network of canals and ponds, which endured after the iron industry died out in the early 19th century. At that time, the land, cleared of trees and degraded by the ore-extraction process, was worth little. White's grandfather, James Fenwick, took advantage of the low prices and purchased a 490-acre tract in Whitesbog in the 1840s. By 1857, Fenwick was harvesting the cranberries that flourished in the acidic soil alongside the old canals.
Fenwick's son-in-law, J. J. White, a Quaker machinist and inventor, expanded the farm to more than 3,000 acres, pioneered the systematic establishment and planting of bogs, and, with his wife, Mary, wrote a book on cranberry cultivation. Elizabeth Coleman White was the oldest of the couple's four daughters. After graduating in 1887 from the Friends Central School in Philadelphia, she went to work in the family business. In 1911, around her 40th birthday, White began a public campaign to defend cranberry growers against charges of child labor abuse. Her efforts were successful, sealing her reputation as a leader in the all-male New Jersey cranberry business. At about the same time she read a United States Department of Agriculture pamphlet on blueberry culture. The blueberry pamphlet inspired her to contact botanist Frederick Colville to ask for help in developing strains of local blueberries that could be cultivated alongside the cranberry bushes.
Local residents, known as "Pineys," supplied the original plants. "She paid the Pineys generously to bring the best wild blueberry bushes to her," says Ted Gordon, chairman of the Whitesbog Preservation Trust's Education Committee. Colville's breeding efforts succeeded, and in 1916, Whitesbog produced the first commercial crop of New Jersey blueberries, which were marketed as Tru-Blu-Berries. In 1927, White took the blueberry business to the next level, founding of the New Jersey Blueberry Cooperative Association.
White sited her large farmhouse, Suningive, to face the bogs. Her own words—"The cranberry bog would serve as lawn"—are engraved on a large stone at the rear of the dwelling. Suningive's ground floor, now restored to its original appearance, contained an office and a small infirmary. Injured workers were often treated by the owner, who had studied nursing.
Elizabeth White cultivated another of her passions, native plants, in a garden by the house and elsewhere on the property. She collected and propagated species including Franklinia trees, sand myrtle, and Pine Barrens gentian, as well as hollies and heathers, some of which still grow today around the village. She was a recognized authority on native plants, writing articles for the local and national press and appearing on radio broadcasts. In her eighties, she established "Holly Haven," a native plant nursery located near Whitesbog.
Mark Szutarsky, who heads the Whitesbog Preservation Trust's Landscape and Garden Committee, says that he and garden volunteers are in the process of removing non-native species from White's garden, evaluating what is left of her original plantings and acquiring replacements for missing species. The group has already restored "the triangle field," White's first blueberry-testing area. "It's filled with heirloom varieties," says Mark Ehrenfield, a Whitesbog Preservation Trustee and USDA plant scientist.
After White's death in 1954, her relatives continued growing cranberries on a smaller scale, but the labor intensive blueberry business was abandoned. It flourishes elsewhere in southern New Jersey, and the state ranks as the second largest cultivated blueberry producer in the United States. Whitesbog village was sold to the state in the 1960s and is now part of the Brendan Byrne State Forest. The Whitesbog Preservation Trust has leased the property from the state since 1982, and recently concluded a five-year capital improvement project. Partially funded by a grant from the New Jersey Preservation Trust, the project stabilized many of the 28 remaining structures. The next step, according to Executive Director Susan Burpee Phillips, is to expand the property's interpretive and historical programming. "We have to ask, 'How do we interpret and use every building?'"
Whitesbog is quieter now than in White's time, though it is often animated with the voices of visitors and volunteer workers. In the village center, the restored General Store is open on weekends, and the little Agriculture Experimental Cranberry Substation has been restored to look as it did in the 1920s. The annual Blueberry Festival, held every year in June, draws hundreds of visitors. Elizabeth White's house, possessions, writings, and even a few of her blueberry bushes maintain her presence in Whitesbog, Marks says: "Everyone in the area still knows her name."
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