In a talk on life in earlier times, a local botanist said in effect that to effectively understand and study the Acadians and Planters one should look at the plants they cultivated for food and medicine.

This observation is undoubtedly accurate but what does it tells us about the Gaspereau people who in 1889 “raised and manufactured into pickles 15,000 barrels of cucumbers”? Or about the 19th-century farmers who cultivated the Aylesford bogs, in 1890 harvested 400 bushels of cranberries and less than a decade later increased this harvest to 10 times that much?

Can we assume the references in Eaton Kings County history to pickles and cranberries indicate a sour disposition among our farmer ancestors?

Despite the botanist’s astute observation, not really. Eaton is simply telling us that in this region cucumbers and cranberries were important crops in earlier days. In a commentary on fruit growing, we learn from Eaton that cucumber growing was important and that as early as 1892, J. Spurgeon Bishop “shipped the first carload of cranberries from Kings County,” and later was harvesting 5,000 barrels a season.

The early settlers first called this bitter fruit “craneberries,” perhaps because the curved stems of the vine resembled the neck of a crane. The settlers apparently learned that cranberries were useful from the Mi’kmaq who used them as food and to make a dye for various crafts. Eaton only has a few brief references to cranberries but the story of this old-time crop can be found in a book written by Robert A. Murray and published by the Cranberry Growers Association.

Released this spring, Nova Scotia Cranberry History Development looks at the pioneer growers in the province beginning in 1872. “It is fascinating to read the recorded details of the early development of Nova Scotia cranberries,” Murray writes in the book’s forward and anyone with an interest in history and its agricultural connection will agree. After all, from the Acadians onward, agriculture greased the wheels of society. We were once a country of farmers and our prosperity was once measured by the success of crops such as the Gaspereau cucumbers and wetland cranberries.

Like Murray, I found the records he presented of the pioneer cranberry growers fascinating. We learn for example that four of Nova Scotia’s cranberry sites have been farmed for over 100 years. In his research, Murray found documents dating back to 1866 which indicated pioneer cranberry growing started here in Kings County. Murray lists 29 pioneer cranberry sites that were in operation before 1900 and of these 12 were in Kings.

Murray also discovered that Valley people have bragging rights when it comes to cranberry cultivation. The first commercial cranberry planting in Canada took place in 1872 at Melvern Square. The pioneer grower was William McNeil who heads list of the 29 pioneers along with Henry Shaw, Waterville, and the farmer Eaton mentions in his history, J. Spurgeon Bishop, Auburn.

Many of the Valley’s Cranberry pioneers were of Planter stock. Planter descendants such as Bishop, Eaton and Woodworth were among the pioneer cranberry cultivators and can be found on Murray’s list – and, of course, on any list of pioneer fruit growers and farmers in this region.

(Anyone interested in Murray’s history of cranberry growing can find a copy at the Old Courthouse Museum in Kentville.)

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