Wisconsin’s history with cranberries goes back a long, long way

Jerry Apps
At one time, cranberries were associated only with Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Not today.

This is the time of the year, when the trees are turning color and dropping their leaves, and there is frost is on the ground in the morning, when I think about cranberries.  Maybe it’s because, in 1955, the first job I had when I graduated from college was raking cranberries.  By hand in a bog near Wisconsin Rapids. It was before the modern cranberry harvesting equipment was commonly used by cranberry growers.

Wisconsin’s history with cranberries goes back a long, long way.  Cranberries are native to Wisconsin.  They were well known to the Native Americans long before the first Europeans arrived in the state.  They grew abundantly in marshy areas, especially in Waushara and Wood counties.  Native Americans ate cranberries fresh; they ground them and mixed them with cornmeal and baked the mixture into bread.  They dried cranberries with wild game to make pemmican.  Sometimes they mixed cranberries with maple sugar to soften the berries tart taste.

Native Americans also knew about cranberries’ medicinal qualities believing that they calmed nerves.   They also were used as poultices to draw poison from wounds.  These early people in Wisconsin used cranberry juice to dye blankets and rugs.

What is the source of the name for this tart, native berry?  It is believed that the early Dutch or German settlers called the fruit “craneberries” because the cranberry stem and blossom resembled the neck, head and beak of the crane.

Early settlers in Wisconsin, who lived within easy traveling distance of a wild cranberry bog, picked cranberries for their own use long before anyone grew them commercially.  Edward Sacket of New York is credited with starting the first commercial cranberry operation in Wisconsin.  Around 1860 he purchased seven hundred acres of bog land covered with cranberry vines north of Berlin in Waushara County.  By 1865 he was producing more than 900 barrels a year of cranberries that sold for $15 dollars a barrel.  Soon other cranberry growers joined Sacket and Waushara County experienced a bit of a cranberry boom.

In addition to Waushara County, wild cranberries also grew in Jackson, Juneau, Monroe, and Wood Counties. In 1871, the first cultivated cranberries in the  Wisconsin River Valley were planted near present-day Cranmoor in Wood County.  By1895, the center of commercial cranberry growing had shifted to Wood County.

At one time, cranberries were associated only with Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Not today.  Cranberry juice and dried cranberries became popular throughout the year.  An international market emerged for cranberry products, especially when the health benefits of consuming cranberries was promoted.  Starting in 1994, Wisconsin led the nation in cranberry production out pacing long-time leader, Massachusetts.  

Have you tried dried cranberries?  They make a great snack.  A glass of cranberry juice is a most refreshing drink. besides, it’s good for you.

THE OLD TIMER SAYS: Cranberries are a year-around treat, low in calories, high in flavor.

Jerry Apps

Jerry Apps, born and raised on a Wisconsin farm, is Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of more than 35 books, many of them on rural history and country life. For further information about Jerry's writing and TV work, go to or contact him