There is beauty in those bogs.
Perhaps not the jaw-dropping kind of Alpine, coast-of-California or rainforest-of-Hawaii scenery, but a tranquil sort, such as you will find in Historic Whitesbog Village in Browns Mills, Burlington County, part of the Brendan T. Byrne State Forest
On a recent June afternoon, this visitor enjoyed blue summery skies, puffy white clouds, the ever-present pines on the horizon, white sandy soil, and cranberry bogs — mossy green now, but running crimson red in harvest season. Pinelands birds sang, woodpeckers drilled, frogs hopped for cover, and turkey vultures glided overhead. A breeze, which rustled the pines and scrub oaks, swept over the reservoirs and kept an otherwise sultry afternoon cool.
This is the modest splendor that inspired horticulturalist Elizabeth C. White — daughter of 19th century cranberry “mogul” Joseph J. White — to settle in the former company town; in fact, she was the only member of the White family to establish a permanent residence in the village.
Her home, named “Suningive,” was built and named by her in 1923, and White lived there until her death in 1954. The gardens that surround the house abound with plants native to the Pinelands, including wild rhododendrons, holly, and violets. The scent of myrtle mixes with the aroma of pine.
But Suningive is only one part of Whitesbog, a fraction of the 3,000-acre site, a village surrounded by cranberry bogs, blueberry fields, reservoirs, sugar sand roads, and Pine Barrens forests. Visitors can learn more through monthly walking tours of the village, usually held the first Saturday of the month at 1 p.m., and beginning at the refurbished 1920s-era general store. (In July, the monthly walking tour will take place on the second Saturday, as July 4 is a holiday.)
Each month there is a moonlight tour as well, also held on the first Saturday of the month, starting at 7 p.m. All walks are three to five miles in length, weather permitting and led by experienced facilitators. In addition, there are regular living history tours, where you can follow docents in period dress through the village’s many beautifully restored buildings. You can really dig deep into the lives of J.J. White and daughter Elizabeth, as well as other residents of Whitesbog, from scientists to berry pickers.
On Saturday, June 27, Whitesbog throws its 32nd annual Blueberry Festival, considered to be one of the finest old-fashioned festivals in the tri-state region. Celebrating all things blueberry — the official state fruit of New Jersey — this year is special as it is the cultivated blueberry’s centennial.
Traditional Pine Barrens folk art exhibits and demonstrations, fine artists, walking and wagon tours, six live bluegrass bands, kids’ activities, blueberry picking and, of course, yummy blueberry baked goods are all part of the celebration.
Gardeners can purchase native plants and blueberry bushes, and history buffs can explore Whitesbog’s museums, as well as shop for blueberry and cranberry preserves, crafts, Pinelands-themed books, and memorabilia in the Whitesbog General Store.
This was the former company store that served Whitesbog residents and workers from 1899 until the late 1960s. Goods were paid for by either cash or tickets issued to the pickers, and the storekeeper and his family lived over the store.
It was also the post office from 1923 to 1957, and you can still see the former postmaster’s office, as well as the old brass and glass combination postal boxes.
When you first enter Whitesbog, the eye will be drawn to the water tower, which sits behind the general store and visitor’s center. You cross over a small wooden bridge, with an adjacent pond where water lilies were just beginning to blossom when we visited. The workers’ cottages, of pine and cedar siding, and many with red tin roofs, line the main dirt “road.”
You can walk or drive the sandy roads that wind through the village, and will notice that several private residents have made their homes in some of the historic buildings. One, called “The Darlington House,” is now home to an entomologist, who must have a field day researching the array of insects in the Pinelands.
Officially called “Historic Whitesbog Village, Historic Center for Cranberry Cultivation, and Birthplace of the Cultivated Blueberry,” the site is overseen by the Whitesbog Preservation Trust (WPT). The trust is a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization, established in 1983 to restore the historically significant buildings and cultural landscapes of Whitesbog, and to provide interpretive programs and educational materials about the history, culture, and natural environment of the village. In 1988 Whitesbog was placed on both the New Jersey and the National Register of Historic Places.
The preservation of this unpretentious looking village, its structures and surroundings is vital, considering how densely populated New Jersey is, and how development continues to encroach, from the seashore, from Philadelphia, and even from northern New Jersey. Among other things, from Whitesbog we learn of rural New Jersey’s environmental resources, its agricultural and economic past.
Whitesbog was the family farm of J.J. White, which began its farming operations in 1857, growing cranberries. Skeptics warned that nothing except scrub oaks and pine trees would grow in this acidic soil, but White found that conditions were nearly perfect for his crop.
White used hundreds of migrant workers to harvest the crop and also retained about 40 full-time workers on-site. In the early 1900s, Whitesbog was the largest cranberry farm in the state, and White became nationally recognized.
When it was a thriving company town Whitesbog boasted a 600-foot long packing and storage building; a state-of-the-art factory; workers’ cottages that were said to be among the best on the East Coast; a school house; a water supply and fire suppression system; and eventually, its own electrical powerhouse. Many of these buildings have been restored and are used for living history events and tours, lecture halls, and museums filled with antique engines, agricultural tools, photographs, and memorabilia of the workers and residents.
In 1916 Elizabeth White, the eldest of the four White daughters, began to search for the best wild blueberry bushes in surrounding Pemberton Township. Later she collaborated with Dr. Frederick A. Coville of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and successfully developed the first cultivated blueberry, on her family’s farm. She also figured out how to package the fruit.
This was an especially fortunate discovery for the White family business, as harvesting blueberries took (and still takes) place in June and July, while their original crop — cranberries — were still growing, to be harvested in September and October.
During the harvests Whitesbog was a bustling commercial center, providing blueberries and cranberries not only to South Jersey, but to regional and national markets.
Perhaps Suningive is the real heart of Whitesbog, as it served as Elizabeth White’s home laboratory and office. The backyard, comprising cranberry bogs and experimental blueberry fields, is bordered by flora and fauna native to the Pine Barrens. White created a plant garden that gained international recognition for its esthetics, but also for the innovations in using native plants in landscaping.
Indeed, Whitesbog Village is included in the New Jersey Women’s Heritage Trail, because of White’s innovative contributions to horticulture.
One of the indigenous plants that abounds on the property is sphagnum moss, a wetlands plant found in bogs, cedar swamps, and other moist areas of the Pinelands. This moss can hold many times its weight in water, so it is excellent for preventing soil erosion and flooding.
In bygone days, Pinelands residents harvested and then sold sphagnum moss, and it was one of their more profitable cottage industries; harvesting, crafting, and sales of pine cones was another. In the past, sphagnum moss was also used to dress wounds.
A stone marker behind Suningive — a tasteful structure that reflects the aura of the surrounding Pinelands — contains a 1941 quote by White, encapsulating her love of the rugged surroundings:
“The cranberry bog would serve as lawn. It had . . . furnished the means for Suningive and inspiration for its garden. For 100 acres from the windows, it stretches to the distant, dark, encircling ring of pines.”
Historic Whitesbog Village, Historic Center for Cranberry Cultivation and Birthplace of the Cultivated Blueberry, 120-34 Whitesbog Road, Browns Mills. Open from dawn to dusk, 365 days a year. Walking tours every first Saturday of the month, 1 p.m., originating at the Whitesbog General Store, open Saturdays and Sundays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free admission and parking. (In July the monthly walking tour will take place on Saturday, July 11.)
32nd Annual Blueberry Festival, Saturday, June 27, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with crafts, music, food, tours, blueberry picking, kids activities, and more. Parking $10. 609-893-4646 or www.whitesbog.org.