Blueberry Picking Season – 1920 Style
I just had a wonderful piece of blueberry pie, so in tribute to my favorite pie, favorite berry, and an occupation I find quite relaxing, I am posting a scene from my novel The Queen City that takes place in 1920 and depicts some of my characters taking the blueberry train north of Marquette to go blueberry picking.
Enjoy, and may you have blueberry pie sometime in your near future.
On this beautiful August morning, Kathy McCarey felt all was finally right again with the world. This time two years ago, the war had still been raging, but now some good might be detected as having resulted from it. She would never cease missing Frank, but the worst pain of his loss had been dealt with, and while a day never passed without her thinking of him, she found life remained abundant about her. Jeremy had come home from the war, and a year ago, he had married. Now Kathy and Patrick were expecting their first grandchild. Jeremy had met his bride, Caroline, while training downstate at Fort Custer; after the war, he had gone back to Battle Creek to visit her family and bring her home to be his wife. Caroline missed her family downstate, but Kathy felt once the baby was born, her daughter-in-law would adjust to the change of location and feel her life was complete, just as Kathy had felt when her first child, Frank, had been born. She had become a mother so many years ago, yet Kathy found it hard to believe that only her baby, Beth, was still at home. And now Beth was a big girl of ten and would be running off to get married before she knew it, but by that time, Kathy imagined she would have Jeremy’s children to spoil.“Mama, hurry, or we’ll be late!” Beth shouted.
The girl had learned to yell for her mother’s attention, and usually Kathy heard her. At first, the deafness had been difficult for Kathy, but she soon found she knew her family so well, she could guess what each one wanted even if she only caught a couple words. She had become very good at reading lips, especially when speaking to people outside of her family. At other times, her family might speak loudly to her, but because she was not facing them, she pretended she did not hear them; she had found that a little exaggeration of her deafness helped to prevent many unnecessary family conflicts.
“Thelma’s already waiting outside,” Beth continued to holler.
Thelma was making her annual summer visit. Kathy felt the girl was a good companion for Beth, old enough to watch over her, yet young enough to play with her. That Thelma was a bit slow for her years made the two girls all the more compatible. Kathy had often feared Beth would become a tomboy because she only had older brothers to model herself after, but Thelma was decidedly feminine with her fancy white gloves, expensive dresses, and refined taste in music. And Thelma had not yet acquired any of those silly notions about boys that so many young women had these days. Kathy had been married at Thelma’s age, but Thelma was a late bloomer, and Kathy was thankful because then Beth was less likely to get any ideas while so young. Thelma’s eccentricities actually dissuaded several young men who might otherwise seek her hand solely from interest in her father’s wealth.
“Mama!” Beth hollered again.
“I’m coming,” Kathy called. She had promised to take the girls blueberry picking. Last year a huge forest fire near Birch and Big Bay had resulted in this summer’s mammoth blueberry crop. A “blueberry train” had been organized to take people to the berry fields north of Marquette so they could spend the day filling their pails. When Kathy heard reports that people were returning with tubs full of berries, she was determined to go; she just hoped the fields were not completely picked over; she longed for blueberry pie and did not want to disappoint the girls.
Kathy, Beth, and Thelma soon walked to the train at the depot with a few dozen Marquette residents, all fiercely intent upon blueberry picking, and even more intent on having a good time. Smiles and general gaiety marked the group, for it was a pleasant summer day, with a slight breeze to cool them from the sun’s rays, and the low humidity meant the woods would not be stiflingly hot. True Marquettians are always ready for an excuse to get out of town, no matter how much they love their distinguished city of sandstone and scenic views; they have an innate desire to get lost among trees, to forget civilization’s existence, to renew their spirits amid Nature’s serenity.
The train trip was uneventful, but all the more pleasant for it. Quiet yet eager conversations filled the railway car, and Kathy found herself surrounded by several of her acquaintances. Marquette’s population now surpassed ten thousand, but it remained small enough that if everyone did not know everyone else, people were sure to have mutual friends and acquaintances. Because she could read lips, Kathy could better converse on a noisy train than most of her neighbors with perfect hearing. She felt she hadn’t known such fun since long before the war. Thelma and Beth occupied themselves by looking out the windows. Beth tried to count the birch trees, but she soon gave up—they flew past so rapidly. Thelma willingly entertained her younger cousin, pointing out pretty little meadows or oddly shaped trees. They spotted a few deer, including a princely young fawn. The morning sun glistened through the trees, casting a medley of sunshine rays through the train windows. The ride felt all too short on such a glorious morning, but after a long day of berry picking, they knew they would all appreciate the shortest return trip possible.
When the train stopped at the berry fields, the passengers scurried across the meadows and copses, laying claim to large shady trees under which they could leave their excess belongings until lunchtime. Several people had brought multiple buckets, one even brought a small washtub. People went off with one pail, returned to place it under their claimed spot, set off into the fields to fill a second, and then started on a third. Little fear existed of anyone stealing berries amid such a multitude of overflowing bushes.
Kathy selected a spot for lunch while Thelma led Beth across the berry patches; Beth anxiously followed her cousin, but her enthusiasm was not bound to last.
After fifteen minutes of berry picking, Beth was tired enough to want a break. Thelma, too focused on picking berries to bake a pie for her father’s visit next weekend, ignored her cousin’s complaints.
Seeing that Thelma wasn’t paying attention, and that her mother was across the field, Beth decided to quit picking and go for a walk by herself. As she crossed the fields, she spotted another girl close to her age. She did not recognize the girl from Bishop Baraga School, but that did not matter. Beth went over to introduce herself; in a few minutes, the two girls were best friends, chasing each other and playing hide-and-go-seek among the trees; they completely neglected the blueberries, save for trampling over some of the bushes.
When Kathy looked up, she was concerned not to see her daughter near Thelma, but after a minute, she saw Beth and the other little girl. Having known Beth’s work ethic would not last long, she smiled to see her daughter had found a friend. Kathy returned to berry picking until Thelma had picked her way in the same direction. When the two were close enough, they started to chat and momentarily forgot about Beth until Thelma heard her scream from across the meadow.
Thelma told her aunt what she had heard, and then Kathy, who had not heard anything, quickly looked about for the source of her daughter’s cries. Then Beth came running toward her mother, her dress ripped, her eyes filled with tears, clutching the handle of her berry pail, only half connected to its handle so that the berries were haphazardly plunking from the bucket to the ground as she ran.
“Beth, what’s wrong?” asked Kathy, rushing to take her girl in her arms.
“I saw a snake! I nearly stepped on it before I saw it,” she said between sobs. “And that girl, Amy—I hate her—she just laughed, and she picked up the snake and shoved it at me; it hissed and tried to bite me!”
“There, there, dear. There aren’t any poisonous snakes around here. What color was it?”
“Green, and it was really big, like this.” Beth held up her hands to indicate a foot and a half.
“Ha,” laughed Thelma. “It was just a little garter snake. It won’t hurt you. I know a boy back in Calumet who keeps a half dozen of them as pets.”
Rather than be consoled, this news ran shivers up Beth’s spine.
“There, dear, it’s okay,” said Kathy. “It wasn’t nice of Amy to do that, but it didn’t hurt you any. Now tell me, how did you rip your dress?”
“Oh,” said Beth, forgetting she had intended to carry her pail in front of the rip so her mother would not see it. The snake ordeal had broken her cunning, so she had to confess. “I tore it on a branch while Amy and I were climbing a tree.”
“Well,” said Kathy, “it’s one of your older dresses, and I imagined you’d end up with berry stains on it, but I wish you wouldn’t climb trees.”
The mention of berries made Beth look to see how many she had picked. Then she discovered her bucket handle had broken. The bucket hung down at a forty-five degree angle. Inside, only six berries and some blueberry leaves were to be found.
“I lost all my berries!” she cried.
Twenty feet away, a young boy heard the lament. He had witnessed the snake incident and been unable to restrain from silent laughter, but now he felt sorry when Beth looked devastated by the lost blueberries.
“Come, dear,” said Kathy. “Let’s have lunch, and then we’ll fix your pail so you can still fill it this afternoon.”
“But I had it almost full,” sobbed Beth. “I wanted to pick two pails worth.”
In truth, the pail had barely been a quarter full, but Beth exaggerated her loss so her mother would not chide her for slacking in her berry picking.
Kathy and Thelma continued to console Beth as they found their shady tree and set up lunch. While they unfolded the picnic cloth, the young man who had witnessed Beth’s tragic scene approached. He waited to be noticed, then said hello.
“I saw you spill your berries,” he told Beth. “You can have my pail full if you want. I don’t really need so many.”
“Oh no, we couldn’t,” said Kathy.
“I insist,” he said, turning to Kathy. “It didn’t take me long to pick them, and I already filled two other pails this morning. I have all afternoon to pick, and I know little kids get tired quicker, so now she won’t have to pick all afternoon to make up her loss.”
Kathy was going to object again, but the young man said, “Please. I really do insist.”
“What do you say, Beth?”
“Okay,” Beth agreed, too surprised by such kindness to remember her manners.
“We thank you, Mr.—”
“I’m Henry,” he replied, although pleased to be called “Mister” when he was only fifteen.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Henry,” said Thelma, holding out her hand. “Would you like to have lunch with us?”
Henry did not wish to impose. He waited for permission from the adult.
“There’s plenty of food,” Thelma said. “Isn’t there, Aunt Kathy?”
Kathy smiled. “We have more than enough. Please join us.”
Henry accepted by sitting down. Thelma introduced everyone, explained that she was visiting her relatives in Marquette, then launched into her life story, which despite her short lifespan she described in enough detail that it could have rivaled War and Peace if written down. Beth sat quietly, too shy to say anything, but she adored the kind young man. Kathy emptied the picnic basket and spread out everything while Thelma continued to chatter.
“Henry, are you here by yourself?” asked Kathy, breaking in as Thelma paused before beginning to describe her life at age nine. Kathy was surprised the boy did not eat with his own family or friends.
“Yes, my pa is working for the Kaufmans over at Granot Loma. I usually work with him, but today there wasn’t much I could do, so he suggested I pick berries, and I’ll meet him when he’s ready to head home.”
“Oh, you’ve seen Granot Loma!” squealed Thelma, although less interested in Granot Loma than in gaining the boy’s attention. He was younger than her, but boys rarely spoke to her, so she was not choosy.
“Yes, it’s incredible. It’s so big, and it’s progressing beautifully.”
“What is your father doing there?” asked Kathy.
“He’s a carpenter, just like me,” Henry replied.
“You’re not old enough to work,” said Beth. “Don’t you go to school?”
“I did until this year, but from now on, I’m going to work with my Pa to help out the family. I have four younger brothers and sisters; the youngest one, Bill, is just two months old, so we need all the money we can get.”
Kathy smiled. She believed in the importance of education, but Henry seemed intelligent from his manner and speech, and a boy who helped his family was often of better character than one who received honors at school. It was unfortunate he knew tough times at his young age, but she suspected he might persevere all the more because of it.
“You look familiar,” she said. “Who are your parents?”
“My pa is Will Whitman, and my ma is Margaret. She was a Dalrymple.”
“I used to know Jacob Whitman and his wife Agnes. Are you related to them?”
“They were my grandparents.”
Then the names clicked in Kathy’s head. So this was Will’s son—Jacob and Agnes’s grandson. She had not seen Will in years—would not recognize him if she did see him. He must be middle-aged now, although she could only picture him as the little boy she had once gone sledding with. That meant, if Will were Henry’s father, then Sylvia Cumming was Henry’s aunt. Well, she mustn’t hold that against him.
“I remember your father when he was just a baby,” said Kathy. “When I was a girl, my mother was good friends with your family, especially with your grandma, and I think your great-grandparents. When your Grandpa Whitman moved the family out to his farm, though, we didn’t see much of them after that.”
“My pa did grow up on a farm,” Henry said. “But I never knew my grandparents; they died before I was born.”
“Mine and Beth’s grandparents are dead too,” said Thelma. “Grandpa and Grandma Bergmann I mean. We never knew our grandpa, but our grandma only died a few years ago.”
“Tell us more about Granot Loma,” said Kathy. She did not want to talk more about Henry’s family; his connection to the Cummings reminded her that Sylvia’s sons had come home from the war while Frank had been killed in France.
“Is Granot Loma as grand as everyone says?” asked Thelma. “It sounds like a castle in the wilderness.”
“Sort of is, like a castle masquerading as a log cabin,” laughed Henry.
He launched into a description of the Kaufman family’s magnificent mansion on the shore of Lake Superior. Intended as a summer home, it far outrivaled any cabin in the great North Woods, even those at the exclusive Huron Mountain Club. The Kaufmans had named the cabin for their children by using the first two letters of each of their children’s names to spell out Granot Loma. The famous architect, Marshall Fox, had been hired with several assisting architects to design the monstrous getaway. The main sitting room alone was to be a tremendous eighty feet long, forty feet wide, and thirty-six feet high. Henry did not know all the details, but he remembered those dimensions because they were so unfathomable. His parents’ entire house could fit into that one room. Stonemasons, plumbers, electricians, all were working constantly, yet completion of the building, already begun a year earlier, was estimated to take another five years. Rumor said the Kaufmans would build several smaller yet ornate cabins in the surrounding woods, one for each of their children, locally known as the “million dollar babies”.
“I just can’t imagine anything so grand in Upper Michigan,” said Thelma, jealous that despite her father’s own lumberjack prosperity, he would never be able to afford anything a quarter so splendid.
“Oh, great homes have been built here before,” said Kathy. “You’re all too young to remember the Longyear mansion, but it was a marvel in its day.”
“My pa told me about that,” said Henry. “He and my Grandpa Dalrymple were among those hired to take it apart.”
“It must have been quite a job,” said Kathy. “It was so enormous it filled an entire city block, and when the Longyears decided to move, the whole house was taken apart and shipped out East on railway cars.”
“My ma,” said Henry, “went inside it one day when my grandpa was working there. She got lost in it, it was that big.”
“It must be grand to be so rich,” said Thelma, although she had far more than most young ladies.
“Well,” said Kathy, “let’s have our cake and then get back to berry picking. I spied a good patch just before lunch, and I don’t want anyone to snatch it up.”
When the cake was gone, Henry thanked Kathy and the girls for their hospitality, then said, “I better get back to work. I promised to bring my ma back enough berries for two pies, and I want to bring some home for my grandparents too.”
“We’re glad you could join us,” Thelma said. She was sorry he was leaving; he was a cute boy; she wondered what chance she had to see him again.
Beth was more forward than her cousin. “Henry,” she asked, “can I go pick berries with you?”
“No, Beth, you stay with me,” said Kathy, not wanting to impose on the young man’s kindness.
“But Henry might know where the best berries are,” Beth said.
“She can come with me if she wants to,” said Henry. “I won’t mind.”
“I’m afraid she’ll be a trouble to you,” said Kathy.
“Oh, no,” he replied.
Kathy suspected he was only being kind, but she gave in. “All right, if you’re sure. Beth, you mind your manners, and be back in a couple hours so I don’t have to go looking for you and then miss the train.”
“Yes, Mama,” said Beth, clutching her berry pail, then disappearing with Henry.
Thelma looked after them, wishing she could go along, but she dared not ask—she knew she was no longer a cute little girl who could get away with joining a handsome boy. She stayed behind to help her aunt clean up the picnic.
“Don’t you want to go with them, Thelma?” asked her aunt.
“No, it wouldn’t be fair to leave you alone, aunt,” she said. She was embarrassed that her aunt should ask. She wanted to pick berries with Henry, but having Beth along would just spoil it anyway.
Kathy was pleased such polite young people existed as Henry and her niece, who was always attentive to her. It made her hopeful for the future. The war had not destroyed everything, not when such a beautiful day existed for berry picking, and when grand homes like Granot Loma were being built right here in Upper Michigan. She could not imagine having enough wealth to build such a home. But she was here to collect berries, not dollars, and if she wanted to make those pies, she had better get back to work.
Two berry picking hours later, Henry returned Beth to her mother. Then after saying goodbye, he started for the main road to meet his father and get a ride home.
“He’s so nice,” said Thelma, already starving for another look at the cute boy.
“Yes, the Whitmans were always good people,” said Kathy, thinking the Cummings did not count since they did not share the same name. Kathy thought Agnes would be pleased to know she had such a fine grandson. She wished Agnes could hear how beautifully Thelma played the piano. Agnes had taught Kathy to play and Kathy had first interested Thelma in the piano, and now Thelma was quite an accomplished pianist. Kathy wished Agnes knew how her influence lived on, although more than thirty years had passed since her death.
As they were stepping onto the train, Kathy’s thoughts were interrupted by Mrs. Quigley, whom Kathy knew from church.
“It’s a wonderful blueberry crop this year, isn’t it?” Mrs. Quigley said.
“Yes, I can’t get over how big the berries are,” Kathy replied.
“Listen to this,” said Mrs. Quigley. “I got me a cousin in Chicago, born there, lived there all her life. She called me up on the phone this mornin’ and when I told her I was goin’ to go pick blueberries, she asked whether I was bringin’ a ladder with me. ‘For what?’ I asked. ‘So you can reach them on the trees,’ she said. I said, ‘Blueberries don’t grow on trees, they grow on bushes.’ ‘Oh, I thought they was fruit,’ she says, ‘like oranges and apples.’ ‘They are,’ I says, ‘but lots of fruit grows on bushes.’ And then she got kinda mad at me and said ‘Well how was I to know?’ She ain’t never seen a blueberry bush in her life—only seen blueberries at the grocer’s. Can you imagine that?”
“How stupid she must be?” laughed Beth.
“Beth, we don’t use that word,” said Kathy.
“I’m not sure that she’s stupid,” said Mrs. Quigley, “but it goes to show you that livin’ in the city distorts a person. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere there wasn’t all these woods and open country as we have around here.”
“Chicago must be horrible!” said Thelma.
“Well, some must like it,” Mrs. Quigley replied, “else they wouldn’t live there.”
“People only live there to make money,” said Kathy. “But they don’t realize how little money is worth it. I wouldn’t live there for a million dollars.”
“Me neither,” said Beth.
“Well, I’ve been to Chicago a couple times,” said Mrs. Quigley, “and it’s a dirty, noisy place. It’s nothing compared to the fresh air and clean water we have here. And it’s too crowded, not quiet like here where you can at least hear yourself think.”
“That’s true,” Kathy nodded as the train started to chug down the track, leaving the blueberry meadows far behind.
“Looks like you all made out well,” said Mrs. Quigley. “Must be nice to have helpers. Couldn’t get any of my family to come out. My husband just wants to lay around the house. I’ve three big boys, but do you think I could get one of them to come? Not that they’ll argue when it comes time to eat the blueberry pie and muffins. But I shouldn’t complain. It was a nice quiet day for me. A woman needs a break now and then, especially when she lives with all men. Nice to be out in the woods like this.”
Kathy smiled in agreement. She felt her spirit refreshed by these beautiful dark woods.
Everyone on the train felt content. Bending down all day to pick berries was hard work, but everyone had a full bucket to make blueberry muffins, blueberry pie, blueberry pancakes, blueberry cookies, blueberry jam, blueberries on cereal and blueberries on ice cream. For the especially brave, there would be blueberry soup, that looked like paint and tasted worse, but even these people had to be admired for their blueberry passion. Yes, it had been a fine blueberry-picking day.