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    Unveiling the Hidden Harvest: Dare County’s Cranberry Legacy

    December 8, 2023

    Cranberries? In North Carolina? Of course—it’s well-known cranberries like colder weather in the mountains, but cranberries in Dare County?

    As it turns out, cranberries do, in fact, grow in mainland Dare County. The bogs that make up so much of Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge support a native crop, although according to state botanists, there are not many of them, but they are certainly there.

    Cranberry harvesting in Dare County
    Cranberry harvesting in Dare County. Photo: Outer Banks History Center

    However, at one time, it seemed the cranberries growing on mainland Dare County lands were so abundant that they were being harvested commercially.

    Under the headline of Cranberries from Dare the November 18, 1916 edition of the Elizabeth City Daily Advance wrote that Dare County cranberries were available at Eagle Grocery where they were “ displayed in the window…”

    An “inquiry about them brought from Mr. Scott the answer, ‘Why, yes, they came in today from Dare County.’”

    Mr. Scott then went on to mention that he had some Massachusetts cranberries “over there in the back of the store, so you can take your choice.”

    The idea of growing and harvesting cranberries in the swampland bordering the Outer Banks first appeared in North Carolina newspapers in 1869, which predates the creation of Dare County in 1870.

    The August 5, 1869 edition of the Elizabeth City North Carolinian reprinted and article published in the Norfolk (VA) Journal.

    “We have several times called the attention of our people to the raising of cranberries,” the article begins. “In the seaboard counties of Virginia and North Carolina, they grow wild in some of the swamps…”

    By the 1890s, a number of newspapers had taken note of the cranberries coming from Dare County and were suggesting advocating for investment in a commercial crop. The Economist and Falcon of Elizabeth City heard from the Staff Correspondent in a letter from Nags Head dated July 10, 1893.

    After extolling the beauty of Nags Head and abundance of fresh seafood, the correspondent writes about mainland Dare County, noting that cranberries “are produced abundantly in Dare, and cranberry land well situated for cranberry culture, are at the head of market price.”

    He goes on to note that cranberry acreage in Cape Cod was going for $1000 an acre, “while in Dare County lands better located for cranberries sell for two to five dollars an acre.”

    It is not completely clear when the commercial harvest of the crop began. Whenever that commercial harvest may have started, there is something about it that is unique—there is no evidence that any of the cultivars were ever introduced in Dare County. The cranberries that delivered to market were naturally occurring fruits.. All cranberries are Vaccinium macrocarpon—the scientific name—but as is almost always the case commercially, certain characteristics are selected for in farm production. Today, there are more than 100 varieties of cranberry cultivars.

    But Dare County never seemed to plant any of these varieties. It is not even certain if the bogs were actively farmed. There is reason to believe the harvest was simply taking advantage of nature’s bounty.

    Tom Midgett harvesting Cranberries Dare County
    Tom Midgett harvesting cranberries in Dare County. Photo: Outer Banks History Center

    There also does not appear to be any record of how bountiful the harvest was, nor, for that matter, when the commercial harvest of cranberries began or even ended.

    One of the best records we have is a series of photographs Aycock Brown took from 1949 to 1953 of residents of Stumpy Point and Manns Harbor on the mainland harvesting cranberries.

    Brown, who lived on the Outer Banks, was a remarkable photographer, a sometime journalist, and a full-time promoter of all things Outer Banks.

    It does not look as though what he was photographing was a commercial harvest, especially his 1949-1950 images of three local girls picking cranberries. It is possible the picture of Tom Midgett taken in 1952 is a commercial harvest, but if so, it’s very apparent the harvest would have been a supplemental income at best.

    The cranberries are certainly still there, however. They are, though, largely inaccessible in bogs stretching north from US264 as it heads west from Stumpy Point. At first glance the bogs look like an endless field of marsh grass and scrub trees, but a step into that world is to sink thigh deep into the muck of ancient bogs and a sparse crop of cranberries.