It's gray and raining and about 65 degrees, but more than 70 people are lined up in a field in central Wisconsin, undeterred by the gloom — or the wait. Their eyes are fixed on a lagoon that's pink with thousands of floating baubles: cranberries.
In the Badger State, late September to late October is cranberry season, and hundreds of devotees and curiosity seekers have come to the Wetherby Cranberry Co. in Warrens for Harvest Day, when they tour the sprawling marshes by bus and literally dip their toes into the cranberry experience. For $10 extra, they can pull on a pair of hip-high waders and step out into the water to have a photo taken amid the cran-jewels.
Don't equate cranberries with Wisconsin? I didn't either until I moved to neighboring Illinois and dreamed of bog wading as I read the stats: Wisconsin produces about 60 percent of the country's cranberries and about 50 percent of the world's cranberries. It's the official state fruit and the state's largest fruit crop, both in value and acreage, with 21,000 acres and about 250 farms — most of which are family-run, with some six generations deep. The nearly $1 billion industry employs more than 4,000 people, and it has a deep history in the area, says Tom Lochner, executive director of the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association.
"Cranberries grew here in Wisconsin for eons," said Lochner. "The Native Americans collected and harvested them, and they used them for food, they used them for dye, they used them for medicine, and they traded them when early European settlers came in the mid-1800s," he said. Lochner said the European immigrants began cultivating cranberries themselves, and the commercial industry was born. Every fall, cranberry lovers flood the state for festivals, parades, and marsh tours here and farther north.
I'd arrived the night before, determined to immerse myself in a Wisconsin cranberry adventure, waders and all. As someone who commits obsessively to a theme, I opted to stay at Le Chateau: The Manor Bed & Breakfast in Wisconsin Rapids. The Queen Anne Victorian dates to 1889, when it was built by John Arpin, a lumber baron who also has a history with — you guessed it — cranberries. They grew wild on the land he used for his lumber business. The B&B offers a cranberry harvest package, which includes a gift bag with cranberry snacks and pamphlets with cranberry facts. Plus, guests have the option to tour Glacial Lake Cranberries, which now cultivates the cranberries on the land Arpin once used for his lumber. (I skipped the tour because it was open only to B&B guests, and for this article I wanted to find a marsh tour open to all.) I was delighted to find that Faye Collier, who owns the B&B with her husband, Bill, also likes to commit to a theme: Breakfast included, among other items, pumpkin cranberry bread with cranberry butter, cranberry raisin bread pudding, and cranberry juice.
I also chose the B&B for its location in Wisconsin Rapids. It's about a 50-minute drive from the Wetherby Cranberry Co., and much of the route travels along the "Cranberry Highway," which passes cranberry operation after cranberry operation on Highway 173 (there's also a giant Ocean Spray building; the company is a cooperative that works with local growers). I set out along the rainy road a little after 8 a.m., and, cranberry novice that I am, I eyed every water feature, be it ditch, pond, lake or puddle, manically wondering, "Is it a bog? Is it a bog? Is it a bog? Is it a bog?" I didn't seem to see any cranberries but reasoned that maybe the red simply wasn't popping beneath the gray sky, while noticing that the gravel along the road and the ruddy changing leaves had cranberry undertones.
When I got to Wetherby, a family-owned cranberry company that dates to 1903, it was clear that my eyes hadn't missed any cranberries earlier. There, in the marshes (confession: I didn't once hear the word bog from anyone in the business, only from my mouth and other visitors), the water was blushing and, it seemed, bouncing with the buoyant berries, so bright and surprising against the gray that they demand attention. All around, the fields are made up of low-lying rectangles (the cranberry beds) separated by dikes and surrounded by ditches. On a bus tour, we learned that the fruit doesn't actually grow in the water. Rather, the beds are flooded for harvest so the air-pocket-filled berries, which develop on scraggly vines close to the ground, rise to the top and can be more easily plucked up by the harvesting equipment and then sold fresh or processed.
After waiting nearly an hour in line for waders, it was my turn, and it was even stranger than I'd hoped it might be. With my rubber boots up to my hips, I slowly stepped into the chilly water and walked over the tangled plants that once held the berries. I plunged my hands in and the fruit felt buoyant, bouncy, light — somehow making the water feel thick and bouncy as well. Local helpers stood by to take photos for visitors, and I'd left my camera with a woman wearing a tiara and sash that said "Cranberry Princess." (I later learned that she was crowned at the Warrens Cranberry Festival in September, judged on a number of categories, including a brief cranberry food demonstration.) She saw me reach into the water and grab two handfuls of berries.
"You can throw them if you want!" she encouraged. And as I tossed them in the air like bouncy red balls, she snapped the best souvenir I could hope for.
After the tour, I hopped in my car and drove four miles to the Wisconsin Cranberry Discovery Center. The basement serves as a cranberry museum, shedding more light on the cranberry's history. (The name cranberry, for example, is inspired by the shape of the blossom that grows on the fruit in early summer — it looks like a sandhill crane; the fruit was originally called "crane berry.") Placards gave insights on frost protection that made me wish I'd listened more closely during my physics classes.
(When the temperature gets close to 32 degrees, cranberry growers turn on their irrigation systems so the water can freeze around the berries and protect them. "As water turns to ice, a small amount of heat is released, which helps protect the vines and berries from frost damage.")
Upstairs, in the retail space/ice cream shop, it was hard not to sound repetitive while perusing all the options: cranberry salsa, cranberry barbecue sauce, cranberry vinegar, cranberry ice cream, cranberry coffee, cranberry taffy, cranberry wine, cranberry beer, strawberry-flavored dried cranberries, chocolate-covered-cranberries. I left with cranberry-filled hands.
As I wound back down the Cranberry Highway, I looked at the marshes with a new appreciation and understanding, and the inner "is-it-a-bog?" monologue was quieted. I decided to make one final stop before leaving cranberry country: a place called Babcock Cafe, about a half-hour west of Wisconsin Rapids. The restaurant is a plain-looking building with beige siding — the only attention-grabbing things were a sign reading "World Famous Pies" and the packed parking lot. Lochner had mentioned this place when I asked if he had any favorite haunts for cranberry treats.
"The cranberry nut pie with a little ice cream on it," he said. "I would recommend that." When the executive director of the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers mentions a category favorite, you listen. The pie was delicious — it was the cranberry on top of my themed weekend.
Visit the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association to learn more at wiscran.org.