6.27.2021

A Bear in the Berry Patch

Blueberries and Raspberries

My great-grandfather Edward Scheer, homesteaded just outside of Bigfork and, because he had a wagon and a team of horses in the early 1900s, was often called upon during blueberry picking season.  He would haul folks to Cameron Lake or Coon Creek, both favorite locations, and pick them up days or even a week later. These ambitious berry pickers would bring everything they needed to can the fruit while they camped.

Lots of Blueberry Picking Parties ~ Bigfork Settler 8-10-1905

“Blueberry picking is one of the chief industries in this section of the country at this time, the crop is fair but the plum and cranberry crops are poor, much poorer than common.

“This year will long be remembered by the Bigfork country people as yielding an exceptionally large crop of mosquitoes and they are as plentiful now, the 10th of August, as they have been any time during the season.  No one who does not live in this country and suffer the pests can imagine what a terror they are.

“The Misses Effie and Emogene Wenus came up from Effie yesterday to join the berry pickers. Messers. Patrow and Ed. Saunders and their wives and Miss Elsie Dakin came up Tuesday bound for the blueberry grounds near Cameron Lake.

“Many blueberry parties are seen going out for a week or so picking excursions these days.  Cameron Lake seems to be the most objective point.”

Clara (Nelson) Stiener was born in 1905, and she remembers picking blueberries and raspberries with family not for fun, but so they would have fruit to eat in the winter. Her parents, John and Emma, homesteaded 77 acres on the northwest side of Deer Lake, and she would help pick berries.

“Now the two kinds which were very good and could be canned readily were the raspberries and blueberries.  The reason we had so many of those two kinds was that the area was burned over often. The settlers didn’t worry about fires starting in the area if it got dry and then fires would travel, leave a large, burned acreage and on this acreage in two years you would find the berries ripening in both blueberry and raspberry areas.  Mother and dad and my sister and I went picking blueberries together. Almost across the lake from our cabin was an open area on which grew beautiful blueberries. In fact, people from Grand Rapids would come out in a bus and stay overnight and pick them.  But we would go across the lake in the morning and come back in the afternoon.  We would have as much as 25-35 quarts of berries with us.  And then, of course, we had to spend time after that cleaning them and picking them over and canning them.  We would have as many as 50 quarts of blueberries canned before the season was over.

“The raspberry patch was over land, so mother and Edna and I walked there.  It was about a mile and a half.    And that also was in a burned over area and our berry picking would last maybe three weeks. We’d start when they started to ripen and then if there was a good amount of rain, they’d carry on for quite a while.  And I remember that we had over 100 quarts of wild red raspberries canned in one season, one particularly good season. On two occasions my mother didn’t mention it to us, but told us afterwards, that when we were in the berry patch, she looked up and she saw a bear eating some berries. Mother said to us, “Get up here and stay right close to me.”  We didn’t know why she said it, but, of course, we did it.  Then later she said she didn’t want us very far from her because she didn’t know how close he would come.  But he disappeared.” [Steiner Family book is in the Itasca County Historical Society Archives] 

I also remember a time when my brothers and sisters and I were picking blueberries with my Grama at great-grampa Scheer’s when a bear was spotted in our berry patch.  Like Clara’s mother, my mom and Grama urged us kids to come closer to them to pick.  It wasn’t until the next morning, when we were eating blueberry pancakes, that they told us there’d been a bear in our midst. I don’t remember if I read the book “Blueberries for Sal” by Robert McCloskey before or after that summer, but I have always thought of one with the other.

Wolfe’s 1920 Blueberry Endeavor

In July 1920, after his duties as superintendent ended for the school year, Professor Horace Wolfe decided to try his hand in an entirely different occupation.  Since wild blueberries had become plentiful in the region, Wolfe decided to procure them to be sold in Minneapolis and southern Minnesota.  He signed on with the Minnetonka Fruit Package Company as a local manager.  The company made crates and shipped blueberries by railroad as far away as orders came from.

Based on the bumper crop of 1919, Wolfe was anticipating this would be a lucrative enterprise. He received a sizeable shipment of crates and put a substantial advertisement in the Itasca News. He explained that six dollars a bushel would be paid for blueberries, and that he would pick up full crates at Deer River, Mack, Jesse Lake and Spring Lake

Unfortunately, 1920 did not yield anything like the previous year. The blueberry crop is very light and picking is hard.  At $6 per bushel there is no profit in picking and very few berries are coming into the market.  There seems no hope of a revival of the crop; there are many berries yet green but lack of rain stunts them.” [Itasca News 8-7-1920]

Wolfe did not try again in 1921, and neither did any other Deer River businessmen.

Record Years

1903

~ “The only requisite needed to have plenty of ‘burries’ put up for the winter is the price of the sugar.  There never was a better crop of berries than this year’s.” [Itasca News 8-1-1903]

1919

~ “Blueberries are a whopper crop and are selling at 10 and 12 cents per quart.  W.J. Gibbs of Inger shipped out 38 cases yesterday.  Raspberries are also a large crop and will be ripe in a week.” [Itasca News 7-12-1919]

~ “The blueberry crop, the largest known to the Indians in this section, is now about at its fullest.  Everywhere blueberries may be seen or smelled.  Indians are bringing them in by the wagon load daily and shipments run from fifty to a hundred bushels a day.  The price paid pickers is $4 per bushel.” [Itasca News 8-2-1919]

1927

~ “Reports from every section of this area are to the effect that all berry crops are the heaviest in years.  The strawberry season is in full swing and producing a large yield.  The blueberry crop also promises heavy. In another ten days their harvest will be general.  Another crop of equal promise is the raspberry.  The late spring held the vines back until all the danger of frost passed.  During the next month thousands of dollars’ worth of blueberries and raspberries will be picked here.  The blueberries are the heaviest crop since 1919.” [Deer River News 7-14-1927]

Fresh Berries

According to Minnesota Grown (https://minnesotagrown.com) and their Facebook page, berries are getting ripe, so wherever you travel in Minnesota, you can find farmer’s markets, roadside stands. and places to pick your own.

Since I do not need to can quarts and quarts of fresh fruit for winter use, I prefer to use fresh blueberries and raspberries right away, often just eating them with granola and yogurt. But how could I say no to Cream Raspberry Pie, especially the version with chocolate ice cream. And it was very good!

Cream Raspberry Pie

From Rural New-Yorker Journal, August 1926

“Line a pie plate with a rich pastry; fill with sweetened raspberries, cover with an upper crust, but do not pinch down.  When cooked, cool the pie, then lift the top crust and pour upon the fruit the following mixture: One cup whole milk, one tablespoon granulated sugar, one-half tablespoon cornstarch, made smooth with a little of the cold milk, and the whites of two eggs beaten stiff.  Scald the milk, add cornstarch and sugar and cook three minutes (until thickened). Add egg whites and chill.  Pour into the pie, place the top crust back in place and set aside to chill.”

Barbara Swell, who included this recipe in her collection, “Old-Time Farmhouse Cooking” (2003), stated that “the suggested cream filling is not good…an insult to fresh summer raspberries.  Fill the cooled pie with softened vanilla or chocolate ice cream instead, and freeze until serving time.”

The Rural New-Yorker was a weekly periodical founded in 1850 and was published for over one hundred years. Its tagline in 1926 was “A journal for the suburban and country home.

I will take my four-year-old grandson to pick berries this summer, though it will be at a berry garden as the patches of my childhood are long gone. He loves all berries, so it won’t matter what we get. He loves muffins, pancakes and ice cream, so whatever we make will be happily eaten. And I think we’ll look for “Blueberries for Sal” on our next trip to the library, after we pick berries!

2 Comments

  1. It’s interesting to remember that picking and preserving fruit was very important for people so they could get their vitamin C and D. My grandmother, Olive, didn’t like picking blueberries, but she did it anyway because my grandpa liked them. I remember that some people loved picking blueberries and if they found a good patch that year, they would keep it a secret. My great-great-aunt died of a heart attack while she was picking blueberries. She was 66 years old. It’s my understanding that she liked picking blueberries, so she died doing something she liked. Hopefully, a bear didn’t scare her to death. I remember going blueberry picking a few times with my grandmother and an aunt, and we were always mindful of bears.
    I enjoyed your article!

    Liked by 1 person

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