Friday, July 7, 2017

The Surprising History of Blueberries in the Shawangunks

Just minutes from the Hudson Valley Resort & Spa, the northern Shawangunk Ridge was once home to a lively seasonal community of transient families who made their living foraging fruits from the wild blueberry bushes which still thrive atop the wind-swept heights of what is now Minnewaska State Park and Sam’s Point Preserve.  

July is wild blueberry season, so we're taking a look at the surprising local history of these precious fruits and the impact they had on the development of our breathtaking mountain home.  

Beginning in the early 1700’s, rugged men and women from the area would make the then long, hard journey through untamed wilds to reach these precious fruits.  A road to the ridge wouldn’t be completed until 1850, and encounters with 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 to stay through the season.  A good picker could forage 35 quarts of blueberries every day- precious fruits which would then be sold to the local general store, delivered to Catskill Resorts, and shipped down river 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 connecting the berry ridge to the nearby village of Ellenville.  By 1920 this scenic carriage road supported several thriving communities of berry pickers who lived on the ridge for just one month each year while the berries were bountiful.

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.  Not all of the camps were family-friendly, though- over time a few rough-and-tumble camps gained a a reputation for rowdiness.

The Berry Pickers were an industrious people who knew that wild blueberry bushes produce the most fruit the year following a wildfire, so after the season’s last berry had been picked the Berry Pickers to sometimes secretly set fire to the Shawangunk ridge to ensure that the next season would produce greater profits.
The folks who started these blazes would sometimes return to the local saloon to await the call for firefighters- the same berry pickers who started the fires were often the ones who were 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 the tart treats an inexpensive and widely available commodity, and 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. 

More than 60 years later, many artifacts of this unique part of our local history still remain, and several of the Berry Picker’s shanties stand in testimony to this forgotten era.  A walk along the Old Smiley Road reveals many examples, and Minnewaska State Park now manages a public nature preserve here which encompasses some of the most popular berry picking sites.

Sadly, a series of wildfires in 2016 forced the closure of some of the treasured blueberry picking areas for the remainder of last summer, but this year the Berry Picker Footpath is open to the public, and Minnewaska State Park invites visitors to explore their miles of scenic hiking trails, crystal-clear sky lakes and gorgeous mountain views. 

Come celebrate the beloved berry!  The nearby town of Ellenville still pays tribute to this rich local history each year with the Shawangunk Mountain Wild Blueberry Festival which features performances by local musicians, handcrafted gifts, cultural events, entertainment, and of course- all things blueberries!  

Eager to pick your own delicious blueberries?  There's ample opportunity to try your hand at nearby Kelder's Farm which offers visitors a wide range of delicious and healthy farm fresh fruits and vegetables just ripe for the picking!   

Ideally situated just minutes from Minnewaska State Park and the Shawangunk Mountain Blueberry Festival, the Hudson Valley Resort & Spa is the perfect choice for exploring the historic Shawangunk Ridge.  Just 90 miles from NYC, you'll feel a world away.

Featuring indoor and outdoor swimming pools, Jacuzzi, sauna and steam rooms, a fitness center, game room, tennis & basketball courts and so much more, you'll enjoy resort accommodations while exploring all the area has to offer.

Planning a upstate getaway?  Give Hudson Valley Resort & Spa a call today and they'll help you make the most of your stay.

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