Local strawberry legacy

Edgar County was the strawberry capitol of Illinois and shipped fruit across the country

By Gene Killion The Prairie Press
Posted 6/8/20

June is the month when strawberries begin to ripen in Illinois. I saw a row of them beginning to bloom in a small garden in Redmon last week, and the sight reminded me of when I was a youngster and …

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Local strawberry legacy

Edgar County was the strawberry capitol of Illinois and shipped fruit across the country

Posted

June is the month when strawberries begin to ripen in Illinois. I saw a row of them beginning to bloom in a small garden in Redmon last week, and the sight reminded me of when I was a youngster and picked berries in order to earn money to buy my cover-alls (now replaced by blue jeans) for the upcoming school year.

In the 1930s, berry patches were grown all over Edgar County. Some were large, covering several acres. The berries were taken to Vermilion and shipped by train all over the U.S.A. A wooden crate contained 24 basswood quart boxes.

The crates and quart-sized boxes were made in Newton, which is the hometown of a famous singer and movie star. Readers of a certain age have probably heard the version of “Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Rudolf, the Red Nose Reindeer” sung by none other than Burl Ives.

As a child, picking berries in those days to earn money meant rising around 4:30 a.m. Mother prepared a sack lunch of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and then going to a designated meeting place in Paris to be hauled in an open farm truck to the berry patch.

Hawkeye Drive — the road on the east side of our golf course — is where I remember a large patch belonging to Chester Boland. The old, collapsing barn is still visible just due east of the 11th green at Eagle Ridge. There was another patch where Memorial School is now located. Our home on Marshall Street was not too far from that patch so I walked there and did not need to ride the truck.

Local strawberry farmers purchased their plants from California, which in turn obtained the original plants from England. The berry plants were placed in rows about 1-2 feet apart providing just enough room to walk between each row. As the plants grew, tendrils formed long stems and were encouraged to grow straight in a line, forming the row.

Any blossoms forming the first season were removed to prevent fruiting. This procedure was called suckling and was necessary to get a good harvest for the next season. There are hundreds of varieties or cultivars grown today. I remember growing Primavera, Blakemore and Honeoye.

Weeds growing in the row were pulled by hand as no chemicals were available in those days to retard their growth. A hoe was used for weeds between the rows. In

the fall, wheat straw was spread over the rows to protect the plants from the freezing and thawing ground. The straw was removed in the spring and spread between the rows on the muddy paths.

Upon arriving at the berry patch, handled-container trays holding a total of six wooden basswood quart boxes were distributed. There was a person called the Patch Boss, who assigned a picker to one side of a row. Good pickers were given an entire row of their own. During cold mornings, the heavy dew was still on the leaves and our fingers became numb from the cold.

The outside edges of the rows were picked first because this is where the berries ripened first, and it prevented mashing the berries with knees or feet. Picking required spreading the leaves in the center of the plant and looking for ripe berries. Every so often fingers hit a short weed called a Bull Nettle and felt as if they were on fire. As we picked and wiped sweat off our faces, the Patch Boss was always walking across each row and checking for any missed berries. If the boss spotted any missed berries, the picker was sent back to the beginning of the row to start over. When that happened, the thought always ran through my head — where were those Bull Nettles that stung my fingers?

After filling the tray, I removed my straw hat and placed it gently in the center of the row to know where to resume picking. The filled tray was taken to the shed located at the end of the patch to be checked by the owner.

If the six quarts were not to satisfaction, we were set back to the patch to place more berries in the boxes. Only then did we get paid. The average rate was 10 cents a tray and later was raised to a whopping 12 cents. I was making big money.

In later years, various U-Pick patches were scattered around the county. A few of these come to mind, the patches of Winston and Priscilla Rhoads, Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Poynter, Mr. and Mrs. Bess and Paul and Sherry Staley.

After returning home from World War II, I had a berry patch where my home and honey packing plant are located on East Jasper Street, directly south of the O'Reilly Auto store. I paid youngsters 50 cents for a picked tray.

As my berries started blooming in June, I placed a hive of honeybees into the patch for pollinating the blossoms. Strawberries self-pollinated by the wind are often misshaped in what are called nubbins. When bees visited a berry blossom for pollen, larger and more uniform berries were created. Moving hives of bees to pollinate berry crops continues today.

I also grew a berry called the Vermilion berry, and University of Illinois personnel came to Paris to monitor the immaculate patch. I sold my crates of berries to local stores in Paris. Some of the stores converted my 6-quart trays of berries into an 8-quart tray. It was done by gently re-pouring the mounded berries into another box. I am not mentioning names and will be like Sergeant Schultz on Hogan's Heroes — “I know nothing.”

Picking berries all day long is a back breaking and monotonous job, and young boys working in that hot sun begin to develop some devilish ideas. I'm afraid to say that some of these boys broke under the pressure, and one of their most dastardly deeds was to spy a large woman in a nearby row bent over at the waist picking berries. When that happened a large, juicy berry was fired away at the unfortunate lady’s behind.

Quite a lot of these strawberry darts found their mark. Invariably, the lady snapped to attention, turned around and said, "Hey! Who did that?"

Of course, the miscreants were quietly and fastidiously picking their rows, and she never really knew which one fired the volley. Before the young rascal pitched his best fastball, he looked around to see where the Patch Boss was since getting caught meant the end of a lucrative job.   

When the strawberries come on this June, readers will know a little more about the history of this delicious fruit.

Nothing is any better than to pop a fully ripened strawberry in the mouth and savor the moment.