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History of Blueberries In North Carolina

Harold Graham Huntington and Blueberries in Pender County

Over seventy years of cultivating blueberries in Southeastern North Carolina
Harold Graham Huntington was born in Montclair, NJ in December, 1897. His father was in Dutch Guiana (now Surinam) working as a mining engineer and couldn’t return due to the difficulties leading to the Spanish American War. Harold’s father returned later, taught physics, and was a lecturer in the NYC area. During this time he invented a color mixing machine for use in teaching physics and continued a life long interest in botany, especially exploring bogs and swamps for orchids.

Harold Huntington attended Erasmus High School in Brooklyn, and Dartmouth College before he enlisted in the Army Air Corps during World War I. He earned his wings and flew biplanes. Before the war he was involved in the farmer cadet program that enrolled young females to learn about farming. His love of farming grew from this experience.

In New Jersey he often rode horses with his younger friend Virginia (Harrison). In the early 1920’s he worked as a janitor in a NJ mental institution to save money to purchase a farm. He and a friend, Louis Duremus, purchased a muck farm in Florida and began raising lettuce and celery. Due to bad market conditions and frost the project did not succeed. Later, he bought one acre in New Lisbon and was fortunate to meet Elizabeth White who became his mentor. Miss White’s interest in procuring new varieties of blueberries fascinated him. He also worked with Dr. Fred Coville, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  Later he expanded his farm to approximately 15 acres and began producing blueberry crops sold through the Tru Blu Association.

A breakthrough occurred when he developed a method of mass rooting of cuttings. The method used raised beds, root stimulants and tobacco cloth that covered the nursery frame. The production and sale of thousands of cuttings enabled him to save enough money to consider purchasing land south of NJ in order to produce a crop that ripened earlier than those in NJ. He and his father, Frederick Wolcott Huntington began researching soil types and climates along the east coast. They drove a Dodge touring car (some report a Model T) south along the tidewater areas of Virginia and North Carolina. He was searching for sandy and peat soil with a pH of slight acidity and cold enough winters for the blueberry bushes to ‘rest’ and become dormant during the winter season.

The varieties of blueberries in that time needed frost and freezing time to become dormant. They interviewed locals in Southeastern North Carolina  and learned that wild blueberries grew abundantly in the piney woods some miles from the Atlantic Ocean. They drove into Pender County, examined the available parcels for sale and found that Will Corbett was selling part of the Corbett Plantation. They walked along Mary Slocum road which would have been one of the boundaries of the new farm and spotted Venus fly traps and deeper into the land about a mile from the Beatty’s Bridge Road discovered a bog which later became named Shakey Bay because one could jump on one side of the 40 acre bog and another could feel the vibrations on the other side. It also looked very promising for cultivating blueberries.

In 1927, he purchased 1640 acres from Mr. Corbett and began the tedious task of clearing the land with mules, axes, and men. The first field that was cleared was about a 50 acre plot along the road. He planted some of his rooted cuttings knowing that the first crop would require three or four years to develop. At the same time he began rooting new cuttings across from the family home that was under construction. The sequence was clear the fields, plant bushes, and then take care of living accommodations.

During the 1930’s he purchased a tractor and eventually several tractors as well as a caterpillar tractor that was used to pull stumps and drag drainage ditches when they became clogged with brush. His first crop appeared in the early 1930’s and he sold it through the Tru Blu Association in New Jersey.

Year after year he cleared more land and planted more than 150 acres of blueberries. During pruning and spraying/dusting seasons more and more workers were hired. In late spring he hired pickers from the surrounding towns. At first the pickers were brought to the farm in flatbed trucks. Later, benches were installed in the trucks and in the 1950’s school buses were used to transport the workers. At the peak of his New Jersey and North Carolina production he hired more than 1,000 pickers and several dozen packers and field workers. It was during this time that he took 16mm movies of both farms, fields and workers. Each picker carried a cardboard tag with string attached to wear around their neck. At first punches were used to tally the number of pounds picked. After realizing that some of the pickers would counterfeit the punches, punches with special designs were ordered. The packers were paid according to the number of pints packed. Field workers and shed managers were paid hourly wages. Before each payday, Mr. Huntington would bring tens of thousands of dollars home, place it in a metal box under a bed and use it the next day to pay the pickers, packers, shed managers and field workers. Coin dispensing machines were thought to be unreliable so a large line of workers would queue to receive their pay in cash. Fortunately no robberies occurred.

During the later part of the 1930’s, he decided that irrigation would be useful during droughts and to help prevent frost damage to the early blossoms. He hired Cyrus Butler from Charlotte to engineer the pumping station and the wellhead. A Caterpillar engine was used to pump the water through six inch mains to the fields where sprinkler heads watered the crop. In order to water all the fields the main pipelines had to be moved and this required a crew of workers. The system produced enough water to supply the needs of a town.

Canker, a virus-produced disease, plagued the crops in the 1930’s and 1940s and the losses of production for several years were significant He contacted North Carolina State University to arrange experimental stations that would attempt to grow new varieties of blueberries that were disease resistant. He had experimental plots on the farm for both blueberries and grasses that were intended to be planted between rows to crowd out the local grasses that robbed the bushes of nutrients. African witch grass was one of the varieties grown. None of the grasses was found to be useful but new varieties of blueberries were developed. The Wolcott and Murphy varieties were developed in North Carolina. The Wolcott was named after Harold’s father, the Murphy for a local blueberry farmer. These varieties as well as others saved blueberry farming in North Carolina.

Source: John Huntington