Exploring a Pioneering Blueberry Site Preserved in New Jersey

Reader Contribution by Meredith Sayles Hughes

Many, but not enough, food heritage sites are included in the US National Registry of Historic sites. One we came across recently entirely by chance, enticed along the way by farm stands overflowing with blueberries, is Whitesbog Village in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. The coastal plain Pine Barrens of South Jersey comprise over one million sandy acres, peppered with bog lands. 

On a late weekday afternoon, the quiet of the Village, featuring small roads built from what the locals call “sugar sand,” is compelling. It is immediately evident that teams of thoughtful dedicated volunteers from the Whitesbog Preservation Trust have labored long to keep this unique food historic site and its mission of education largely intact.

Established in the early 1900’s by Joseph J White as a “company” town dedicated to cranberry  growing, Whitesbog was the largest cranberry farm in New Jersey. Even today New Jersey is the third largest producer of cranberries in the US.

White’s daughter, Elizabeth C. White, was a plant pioneer who developed the first cultivated high bush blueberry at Whitesbog in 1916, working with USDA scientist Dr. Frederick A. Coville, a hybridization expert. Together they developed the first successful plantings derived from local varieties that had grown for millennia in the pine woods.

Visitors today can stand at their pioneering blueberry patch adjacent to the home Elizabeth White lived in all her adult life.  Her work not only produced a commercially viable blueberry, it also began the propagating, marketing and sale of blueberry bushes, an altogether new business. 

Both cranberries and blueberries thrive on acidic soils, so combining the two plants in extensive production of the two made sense.

The White family was enlightened for its time, and sought to benefit the knowledgable locals who worked hard to make the endeavor succeed.  According to the Whitesbog website, “Elizabeth devised a plan to tap this knowledge in order to locate the best possible plants in the area – in effect, to locate one bush out of 10,000 having exceptionally fine characteristics for propagation. …Only bushes having berries 5/8 inch or larger were sought. The effort was rewarded at $2.00 per bush plus the time required for relocating each plant and bringing it back. In addition, the finders enjoyed the distinction of having the bushes which they found named after them. Thus it was that the last generation of the highly skilled woodsmen-gatherers gave their names to the first cultivated blueberries.”

According to White herself, “Finally, Rube Leek of Chatsworth found a bush. I did not know it was anything special at that time and I used the full name in my notes….Coville called it the Rube which I thought was a poor name for an aristocratic bush. He finally suggested that we call it the Rubel. And the Rubel bush has really been the keystone of blueberry breeding. It is the one bush of which there are hundreds of acres planted just by divisions.”

Elizabeth White is included in the New Jersey Women’s Heritage Trail.

New Jersey apparently is among the first states to identify and officially promote the role of specific women in the state’s history.

Today you can visit Whitesbog, “ the village and the surrounding 3,000 acres of cranberry bogs, blueberry fields, reservoirs, sugar sand roads and Pine Barren’s forests,” every day of the year, from dawn to dusk, as their website points out, but buildings are open only for special events, tours, or by special request. 

In addition to Elizabeth White’s house, you can explore the general store, a worker’s house, a cranberry sub-station, and the agricultural museum.

Interested visitors are invited to call the office, (609) 893-4646, to schedule a special visit.

The site is part of the Brendan T. Byrne State Forest.

Photos by The Food Museum