“Red Gold” — The History of the Long Island Cranberry Bogs
They called it “red gold” – and they didn’t mean potatoes, ducks, shellfish or other agricultural products commonly associated with Long Island. Red gold meant cranberries…
No discussion about Long Island cranberries can start until there’s a basic understanding of the function of the Pine Barrens. East Enders talk about the “Pine Barrens” all the time, but what are they really? Not just a forest, the Pine Barrens is a unique ecosystem comprised of pitch pine woodlands, pitch pine-oak forests, coastal plain ponds, swamps, marshes, grasslands, and streams which exist above the aquifer (water permeable rock) and serve to purify East End drinking water. In order to thrive, cranberries require acidic soil, a stable supply of fresh water and low-lying areas often formed by glacial deposits – all characteristic features of the Long Island Pine Barrens. Late in the 19th century, some local inhabitants in and around the Pine Barrens recognized that the area provided favorable conditions for cranberry growth, especially along the Peconic River.
By the late 1800s, nearly three dozen cranberry bogs existed on Long Island, most along the Peconic River. The largest bog was known as the Woodhull Bog, which was started by the Woodhull brothers in 1885. Cranberry bushes take 4 years to mature until fruit-producing; the brothers harvested their first crop in 1889. By 1892, the Woodhull Cranberry Bog was singlehandedly producing over 21,000 bushels of cranberries each year and continued to be one of the most successful on Long Island for more than 40 years.
By the turn of the 20th century, the East End was the 3rd largest cranberry producer in the United States; unfortunately, by mid-century, the East End cranberry growers struggled to remain competitive with other growers in New Jersey, Massachusetts and Wisconsin. Those states had manufacturing infrastructure including flash freezing processing plants; Long Island didn’t have a flash freezing plant and East End cranberries had to be manually sorted, picked and dried. This labor intensive process was expensive and time consuming; by 1976, the last remaining cranberry bog — the Davis Bog in Manorville — finally shuttered its remaining cranberry harvesting operations. The Davis Bog had been in operation since 1879.
Though Long Island no longer has an active stake in the cranberry industry, Long Islanders can still see the remnants of this once booming industry at Riverhead’s Cranberry Bog Nature Preserve, operated by the Suffolk County Parks Department. Cranberry Bog Nature Preserve is a 165-acre preserve located on what remains of the Woodhull Bog just off Lake Avenue in Riverhead. It’s a wonderful place to hike, with sights of the Little Peconic River, various plant life, bird species, reptiles and other local wildlife. The trail is 1.1 miles long, and hikers will come across what’s left of an old Woodhull pump house as well as the wooden bridge crossing over the bog.