Photo by Bruce Foster/Flickr CC
About 100 miles northwest of Madison, Wisconsin, County Road EW winds its way into a small town called Warrens. This is cranberry country, and the bogs stretch away from the road in neat rectangles. Warrens, population 350, is home to many of the families that have farmed these marshes for generations and also to Cranfest, the world's largest cranberry festival.
362 days a year, the residents of Warrens live by the cranberry's calendar: protecting the plants in the winter, watching for frost in the spring, pollinating in the summer, and harvesting in the fall. But for three days in late September every year, the residents of Warrens open their town to more than 100,000 visitors. If you're looking for cranberry cream puffs, cranberry fritters, pancakes coated in cranberry syrup, or cranberry cheesecake, this is the place for you.
The cranberry ice cream at the Warrens Cranberry Discovery Center is particularly popular. The gangly teenaged volunteer in charge of ice cream worked 17 hours the first day of the festival, and on the second day he told me incredulously, "I scooped my first cone at 7:30 a.m. today."
"I can't tell you how many women tell me they save their change all year long and cash it all in for Cranfest," festival president Vicki Nemitz told me.
Cranfesters, as they're called, are notorious for frenzied shopping, which is why I visited Warrens. I wanted to see what it takes to convince chronically frugal Midwesterners to spend like crazy. Festival president Vicki Nemitz told me, "I can't tell you how many women tell me they save their change all year long and cash it all in for Cranfest."
Instead of partaking in the extravagance, I found myself fascinated by Warrens and its traditions. After completing college, young adults often come back to Warrens to raise their own children on the same marshes they grew up on. And underneath the thousands of visitors, corndogs and funnel cakes, Cranfest is at heart a harvest festival in celebration of one town's livelihood.
Nemitz lives on a third-generation marsh with her husband and both of their grown children. Her son plans to take over the marsh someday and her daughter, a former Cranfest queen, runs a small business on the marsh. "It's a great way to raise a family," Nemitz said.
Photo by Dwyer Gunn
The first place I visited at Cranfest was the Cranberry Discovery Center, which is one of the largest permanent structures in Warrens. The Potter family, fifth-generation growers whose marshes prominently dot the land around Cranfest, founded the center to increase cranberry awareness and later donated it to the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association. In addition to the packed ice cream counter, the center houses a small shop and a cranberry museum.
The museum highlights the cranberry's all-American history--it's one of only three fruits native to North America and was introduced to settlers by Native Americans. A 1914 Model T touring car is displayed to illustrate the evolving role of technology in cranberry growing.
I next toured a local marsh a few miles outside Warrens on County Road EW. My tour guide was John Sager, a retired stockbroker-turned-cranberry grower. Unlike many growers Sager doesn't live on his marshes--at his wife's request. "I'm married to a girl from Chicago and she ain't going to live on a cranberry marsh," he explained to the bus of understanding Midwesterners.
Sager immediately dispelled a few pervasive cranberry myths. Thanks to Ocean Spray's bog commercials, many people think the plants grow in water. In fact, too much water kills the plants, which leaves cranberry growers particularly vulnerable to excessive rain.
Photo by Dwyer Gunn
The bogs are intentionally flooded only twice a year. Pre-harvest flooding elevates the light, air-filled berries a bit above the vines, easy pickings for the harvester machines. After the harvesters go through, the berries, severed from the vines, float to the surface of the marshes like bubbles. Aerial photos of the region during harvest time show acres of crimson lakes, and driving along County Road EW must feel like driving straight through the middle of a real-life red sea.
Cranberry growers follow a strict schedule for the remainder of the year. In the winter, they flood the bogs again and cover the ice with a layer of sand. The ice protects the plants from the Midwestern winter and the sand gradually seeps through the ice, replenishing the naturally sandy soil.
In the summertime, the marshes will buzz with the sounds of millions of honeybees and bumblebees, temporarily imported for pollination season. In town, meanwhile, people like Vicki Nemitz will be gearing up--finalizing vendor locations, selecting parade participants, lining up sponsors, and imagining what another year's festival will do for Warrens.