Wednesday, July 4, 2012

History of the Shawangunk Berry Pickers


The Northern Shawangunk Ridge was once home to a lively seasonal community of Berry Pickers who made their living foraging the wild blueberries which thrive along the wind-swept heights of what is now Minnewaska State Park and Sam’s Point Preserve.

Beginning in the early 1700’s, rugged men and women from the area would make the long, hard journey through untamed wilds to reach these precious fruits.  A road to the ridge wouldn’t be completed until 1850, and bears and mountain lions were common.

Makeshift tarpaper squatter shacks began to appear by 1862, and many pickers would return with their families each July and stay through the season.  A good picker could forage 35 quarts of blueberries every day, which would then be sold to the local general store and shipped to Catskill resorts and to the prosperous people of New York City.

It was the completion of Smiley Road in 1901 which really opened the door for the blueberry picking camps.  By 1920, many ramshackle shanties dotted the road which supported thriving communities for one month each year, but which were ghost-towns for the others.

The berry-picking communities were lively places inhabited by good, simple folk living close to the land.  After filling their baskets from sun up to sun down, the berry pickers would gather together and tell stories, play games, dance, drink and sing.  Some rowdy camps gained a reputation for being less “family friendly” than others.

The Berry Pickers were an industrious people who knew that blueberries bushes produce the most fruit the year following a wildfire.  When the season’s last berry had been picked, it was common for the Berry Pickers to set fire to the Shawangunk ridge.  The folks who started the blaze would often return to the local saloon and await the call for firefighters- the same berry pickers who started the fires were often the people paid to help put them out!

Following World War 2, the changing world economy meant the end of an era for the Shawangunk berry pickers.  The rise of commercial blueberry farming made blueberries an inexpensive and widely available commodity, and the reduced demand for blueberries harvested in the wild made it difficult for the Berry Pickers to return.

By the close of the 1950’s, the last of the Berry Pickers had packed up their belongings, and the shanty towns have remained silent ever since.

Many artifacts of this unique part of the American Heritage still remain, and several of the Berry Picker’s shanties still stand in testimony of this forgotten era.  A walk through Sam’s Point Preserve along Old Smiley Road reveals many examples; The Nature Conservancy now operates a nature preserve here which encompasses some of the most popular berry picking sites.

Each year, the nearby town of Ellenville celebrates this rich part of our history with the Shawangunk Mountain Wild Blueberry Festival featuring performances by local musicians, handcrafted gifts, cultural events, entertainment, and of course- blueberries!  

Ideally situated just minutes from Sam’s Point Preserve and the Shawangunk Mountain Blueberry Festival, the Hudson Valley Resort & Spa is the perfect place to stay when exploring the historic Shawangunk Ridge.  Adjacent to Minnewaska State park and surrounded by gorgeous Catskill Views, our beautiful par 71 championship golf course and full-service European health spa creates the perfect balance of Charm and Comfort.

Featuring indoor and outdoor swimming pools, an arcade center, tennis, basketball and so much more, you'll enjoy resort accommodations while exploring all the area has to offer!

Do you have a story to share about Blueberry picking in the Shawangunks?  Comment below, and tell us about it!

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