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Cranberries: Marstons Mills' Claim to Fame

From the blog of local historian Jim Gould

Posted October 31, 2010

(also see Jim Gould's Blog on

the Cranberry King Abel Makepeace 

and John F. Hamblin's Oral History on the Bogs of the Mills

The first local cranberry grower was Russell Hinckley of what was to be Gifford Farm. However, he overlooked the potential of his own fine swamp, and picked berries on Sandy Neck, where he gathered 12 bushels to win first prize in the 1849 County Fair.


By the 1860s several Newtown families farmed cranberry bogs on the upper reaches of the Marstons Mills River. At the western source of the river, Luther Hamblin built a bog on land he had acquired in 1858; the bog is still harvested by the Hamblin family.


Another pioneer was Isaac Sprague Jones, who was born in 1801 in his father’s 1786 house where River Road curves west. Mr. Jones set out cranberries next to his house on an acre and a half on the west side of Muddy Pond, which was originally located between River Road and the ponds, and on 5/8 acre on the other side of the road. His nephew Thomas Jones Jr. also had a small bog to the south on Muddy Pond.


At the north end of this marshy area a bog of nine acres was planted by his second cousin Jedidiah Jones, whose son Frederick worked it. It was inherited by “Uncle Jikker” James Crocker, husband of Jedidiah’s granddaughter.


All four of these small bogs were probably created by the time of the Civil War.

In 1864 Newtown’s swampy potential was recognized by outside investors. Captain Samuel Nickerson of Cotuit brought in his nephew, the successful whaling master Seth Nickerson Jr., and Capt. Alexander Childs, as well as the Harwich pioneer cranberry growers Emulous, Zebina and Benjamin Small.


They bought a bog on the west side of Muddy Pond from Thomas Jones, Jr., and gave an eighth interest to the only local investor, Nathaniel Hinckley, owner of the downstream grist mill who vigorously defended his rights to the flow of water.


The transformation from the small individual bog of a few acres to large scale production was the product of the enterprise of Abel D. Makepeace, known as the Cranberry King. Before 1875 he had a harness maker shop at the west end of Hyannis, where there is now a pretty town-owned park.

Abel Makepeace was a great experimenter in crops, growing turnips and potatoes, as well as a variety of berries. At the back of the park is a swamp, the headwaters of Stewarts Creek, where he first tried to grow cranberries. What was needed was a big swamp.


In 1875 Abel Makepeace made his first investment in Newtown, in 87 ½ acres of Muddy Pond, which he bought from Thomas Jones Jr. for a thousand dollars.


Mr. Makepeace alone could hardly pay such a large sum of money, so a quarter came from Boston investors Clarence A. Gay and an eighth each from Charles C. Poor and George F. Baker. The latter was to be the main source of Makepeace’s investments. Mr. Baker was a Boston cranberry commission merchant who had established the first New York cranberry commission house in 1857, but was born in Hyannis, son of Capt. Timothy Baker.

Two years later, in 1877, Mr. Makepeace bought 19.11 acres that was known as Baker bog, from Cynthia, widow of Ellis Hamblin for $552.75. This bog was on the west side of River Road above what was then Crocker or Black Pond, now misnamed Muddy Pond. Today’s Muddy Pond west of River Road used to be called Crocker or Black Pond; the original Muddy Pond, now gone, was east of River Road.


George Baker owned a quarter, and one eighth each was owned by Makepeace, Zebina and Emulous Small, George and A. C. Snow 2d of Harwich, and fractions by others.


Mr. Makepeace’s diaries show that the purchase price was but the starting expense of creating a working bog. Much engineering, clearing maple trees, digging surrounding ditches, damming the stream and channeling water flow, leveling the sloping turf, spreading sand, and planting vines, was all done by heavy hand labor, assisted only by horses.


Quite a lot of this engineering was done by Stephen Crocker Hamblin, born nearby in 1851 to Luther Hamblin. In 1878 Stephen married Ruhamah, the widow of Makepeace’s brother Alvin, and Makepeace helped them build the house at 950 River Road overlooking Baker Bog. Makepeace finally moved here from Hyannis in June 1880, saying that he didn’t want his sons to grow up in the city.


He paid Stephen and Ruhamah rent while he supervised work in the bogs, including the new 14 acre Santuit Bog built by Stephen. Later Makepeace moved to West Barnstable. Finding more big marshes on the mainland, he had Stephen build the Wankinko Bog in Wareham, where 30 year-old Stephen Hamblin died of unknown causes, surely after hard wet labor in the swampy ground. His widow remarried to the Cotuit whaling captain Seth Nickerson Jr., one of the first investors in Newtown cranberries.


The cranberry grower Malcolm Ryder told John Hamblin that the three Makepeace bogs Baker, Santuit and Big Bog were the most productive in this area. Makepeace’s Big Bog, or Marstons Mills Bog completely altered the hydrology of the area, filling in Muddy Pond, moving the herring run from Middle Pond to a new course to the south, and canalizing the river. In 1888 Makepeace created the Marstons Mills Cranberry Co. including the three bogs, with Baker as President, himself as Treasurer, and Emulous Small as third trustee. This company dominated cranberry production for the next century.  Barnstable Patriot 8 Oct. 2010.

Picking Cranberries
Photo Courtesy of C. Crocker

Jedidiah Jones' Bog.  Originally the bogs were picked by families.  Later many were Cape Verdeans.

Jedidiah Jones Bog

Wet Harvesting of cranberries

The bog is flooded, and scoured by a water-reel harvesting machine that whips through the vines and knocks loose the berries, which float to the surface

wet harvesting cranberries

Coralling the cranberries

The loosened cranberries are corralled into floating red masses by a wooden boom and dragged to one side of the bog, where they can be loaded. To protect the harvesting machine and the boom tender from pits dug by muskrats and natural hollows, white plastic flags are posted on dangerous spots

coralling cranberries

Cleaning and Conveying the Cranberries

Cranberries are lifted on a conveyor belt to the top, where they are sprayed with water to remove the vines and debris, which can be seen below in piles of trash. As the truck fills with berries, it moves forward to even out the load. The loaded trucks cross the canal to deliver the load to a receiving center.  Some  bogs in Marstons Mills are farmed by the late John Hamblin, fourth generation of the family that pioneered growing in the area

Conveying Cranberries.

Screening Cranberries - ca. 1905-1929

A cranberry screening machine, which separated spoiled berries from good ones by a bouncing process, but still required skilled women to handpick the berries before they went into shipping boxes

screening cranberries.jpg
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