Clare County Review & Marion Press Columns

Postcard from the Pines: Huckleberry Days

There will be a bumper wild huckleberry crop this year, weather and Mom Nature permitting. This is an unexpected treat and long overdue. For several seasons, Mom Nature has not been overly generous with these little back woods sweet treats. Drought, cool temps and persistent late frosts, as well as loss of habitat, have conspired against the little shrub and its tasty fruit.
Historically, folks in these parts have always hoped for a bountiful huckleberry crop. Canned, dried, or jammed, huckleberries have long been a staple in many larders during the winter months. Fern Berry wrote, and spoke often, of her girlhood and the family’s adventures on the Plains east of Marion. More than a century ago, my grandmother and her sister Crystal, by far the two youngest in a family of seven, came to the woods with their extended family to reap the bounty of the huckleberry crop.
Fern’s mother, Lillian, a longtime veteran of the harvest, came prepared with all she needed to deal with several bushels of the dark, sweet, pea sized fruits. Lillie, her girls, and sister-in-law, Jane, picked most of the berries and did so in the cooler morning hours. The berries would be cooked down in her wash boilers, and sealed into crocks for transportation, to be canned for pies and made into jam as soon as they returned home.
Fern’s father, Milt Beebe, was as the saying goes, “uncommonly fond of huckleberries.” And if you are such a devotee, you understand the lengths one will go to preserve this particular bit of summer, be it in a jar or in the freezer. If you are a devotee, wild huckleberries trump farm grown blueberries any time. Wild berries just aren’t as reliable as the domesticated and irrigated kind.
The younger members of the Beebe family considered the annual foray a vacation and berry picking only a minor distraction. Fern and Crystal reckoned that there was nothing better than a camping adventure into the piney woods.
The quest for the mighty huckleberry is age old. Even before this area was settled, the Native American population sought the berries. The diaries of early settlers make note of the abundance of the huckleberry.
It was noted in the August 6, 1903 Dispatch that, “Mr. and Mrs. William Conn were returning from a huckleberry expedition last Thursday evening and as they were crossing the bridge over the Clam River east of the Winterfield town hall, two of the stringers over one side of the approach to the bridge gave way and precipitated them into the water below. Mr. Conn escaped with a few bruises, but Mrs. Conn received severe internal injuries. Their wagon was badly broken and the horses bruised somewhat. Not to mention the loss of about nine bushels of berries.”
The article continues, “With the assistance of others they were rescued from their position and Mrs. Conn was brought to the home of her daughter, Mrs. Chas. Decatur and placed under the doctor’s care.”
Mrs. Conn’s injuries proved to be fatal from this most unfortunate and freak accident. And odd as it may seem, the loss of the nine bushels of huckleberries was a tragic loss and seen as such then. In all accounts, the loss of the huckleberries was mentioned.
When I was a kid, our Blevins Street neighbors, the Ettawageshiks, Fred, Jane, Frank and Tim, paid a visit to the Pines, and came prepared to pick berries. We found a well laden patch and all settled in for the pick. Mrs. “Geshik”, as she is remembered from her years at Marion High School, was always the teacher, and wasn’t about to let this opportunity pass her by. As she picked and sputtered about the quantity of mosquitoes, deer flies and gnats, she told us of how Native Americans and early settlers alike harvested and used the berries. She also kept reminding the boys to put more berries in the pail and less in the mouth.
As Mrs. Geshik took another breath to continue, she inhaled a bug, which caused her to cough, sputter, gag and laugh. Adding insult to injury, her efforts caused her to slide from her stool into the midst of the berry patch, spilling her berries and mashing more with her backside. Try as she might, she could not expel the bug, which really disturbed her. She was convinced that she was doomed to some form of poisoning or at the very least internal bug bites. Frank, Tim and I couldn’t help but laugh at her gestures and unladylike pose. I’m sure that didn’t help.
Mrs. Geshik retreated to our house where my mother served up hot tea and sympathy. The Ettawageshiks went home with more huckleberries in their bellies than in their pails. A few days later my mother took them a fresh huckleberry pie.
It could be another ten years before the next bumper crop. Plan to grab a pail and head for the huckleberry brush. Here are a couple of tips to help you while you pick. As your pail slowly fills, keep in mind the tasty huckleberry treats in your future which will make it all worthwhile, wear bug spray, and keep your mouth shut.

Leave a Reply