Festival celebrates a ruby-red harvest

Chatsworth, N.J., is sweet on the local crop: cranberries

Short Hop

October 05, 2003|By Arline and Sam Bleecker | Arline and Sam Bleecker,Special to the Sun

Every October, the small New Jersey town of Chatsworth metaphorically paints itself red -- cranberry red, to be exact.

Like some ritual seasonal sacrament, the town bursts forth in fall to celebrate the ruby-red fruit. You might say cranberries spawned the town, or at least resurrected it.

Ordinarily, Chatsworth's population hovers around 1,200. But in two weeks -- Oct. 18-19 -- as many as 100,000 visitors are expected to fill the town. They will come for the annual Chatsworth Cranberry Festival, flocking by the carload to this cranberry oasis in the heart of the Pine Barrens, a coastal plain of pigmy and pitch pines about a 45-minute drive from Atlantic City and the beaches of the Jersey Shore.

This time of year, the scrubby low-lying landscape of the Pine Barrens erupts with a profusion of red, ripe cranberries in the same way Amsterdam boasts tulips in spring. In fact, the cranberry crop in Chatsworth is the third largest in the United States, after Wisconsin and Massachusetts.

Back in the late 1700s, Chatsworth was known as Shamong, and its wealth derived from iron deposits used to supply cannon balls in the Revolutionary War. Not until the mid-1800s did cranberries play a role in the growing economy. At that time, the town contained one church, two stores, one school, a wheelwright and blacksmith shop, a railroad station and about 20 houses. The population was 389. It doesn't seem that much bigger today.

Before the Civil War, Chats-worth went upscale, becoming a destination for the scions of Astors and Vanderbilts and their kind, who stepped out of railroad cars to vacation here or at the nearby Jersey beaches. After the collapse of the iron and glass industries, though, the town increasingly relied on agriculture.

The annual cranberry festival is mainly a street fair, but its true purpose is a fund-raiser to benefit the continuing restoration of the town's once-noblest building. The long-neglected White Horse Inn -- a clapboard, two-story structure on Main Street -- was owned by a Pine Barrens baron when the railroad still passed through here.

The festival and the restoration have been going on for two decades, though from the looks of the White Horse Inn, the fund-raising needs to continue.

On a festival day last year, the town is abuzz with humanity, with many folks clad in cranberry-colored togs or shades thereof. By 10:45 a.m., traffic gluts Chats-worth's main drag.

A gaggle of corporate types, presumably here from nearby Ocean Spray, discourse on Craisins, the clever name for the company's sweetened and puckered-up cranberries.

At a standing-room-only coffee shop downtown, a waitress jokingly suggests to an arriving local that, next time, he should call for a reservation. Meanwhile, she eases his waiting time with some muffins -- cranberry, of course.

Festival exhibitors, sporting cranberry-hued aprons or T-shirts, line the streets. More than 160 vendors sell everything from cranberries to crafts. Many of the divine baked goods tendered here -- such as cranberry-apple dumplings in caramel sauce -- actually are made in a bakery in nearby Medford.

While much of the festival's bric-a-brac seems to us like yard-sale material, the food is a berry-borne bacchanalia, and we could feast to our hearts' content.

For those interested in witnessing the actual harvesting of the "rubies of the Pine Barrens," tours can be arranged at historic Whitesbog, in Browns Mills, a short drive from festival central. A $7 fee gets you a two-hour tour that includes a 20-minute documentary before a spin in a 30-passenger vehicle for views of acres of berries bobbing gently atop the water.

During our festival visit, Neva Moore, a fifth-generation "cranberry," as she refers to herself, drove us around her private 42 acres of bogs in her cranberry-red van.

"Cranberries are such a staple in our house," Moore says, "that all we don't eat them on is pizza."

They also are different from any other agricultural commodity, Moore says. In fact, their shallow waterborne tracts and the method of picking them remind us of rice paddies. But the colors are almost otherworldly. Tethered on threadlike stems, the buoyant fruit creates a vast palette of crimson that, in sunlight, glistens like gemstones.

Poised at the edge of a bog, Moore's husband, Sam, stands atop a Rube Goldberg-like contraption that resembles a rickety loom on steroids. Pickers, clad in rubber leggings, wade in the water and, using gigantic hoses, vacuum the berries toward Moore's machine with the alacrity of croupiers sweeping chips from a roulette table.

Though harvesting arrives just in time for Thanksgiving, in all likelihood the cranberries you will eat this Turkey Day will be last year's crop, Moore says. She proffers a few berries -- hard as marbles -- in her palm. These are the jewels of Chatsworth, she says.

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