Cranberry Harvest - The Little Red Berry That Could

Maestro – a little geology music, please. Perhaps... something from Jurassic Park?

OK, here we go…  Once upon a time, long, long ago – about 13,000 years – in a land not so far away, the last of the Wisconsin glaciers are retreating to the north.  What they leave behind is a sandy and acidic soil punctuated with ice blocks, rivers and moraines.  It is a hostile environment for plants and animals alike. 

But as time quickly proceeds to present day – well, at least to the late 1800’s – the climate has warmed substantially and the area of Wood County (near Wisconsin Rapids) has become one giant bog filled with delicate but hardy vines holding millions of tiny red berries.  This is the lowly and humble cranberry: one of only three fruits that are indigenous to North America.  By the 1870’s, they have been ‘discovered.’

Vaccinnium macroparpon

Local native Wisconsinites who originally purchased the land handpicked the tasty treats that made great fresh fruit and preserves as well as sauces. And although at one time the state of Massachusetts claimed the position as #1 grower and producer of the crop, Wisconsin has now taken over that spot as the nation’s leader in cranberry farming – producing over 300 million pounds of berries annually from about 200 cranberry marshes in 18 Wisconsin counties.

Does that translate to prosperity for a state that is known as the Dairy Capital? I would say so. The industry provides employment for over 7,000 people and supposedly contributes over $300 million annually to the state’s economy!

Vintage cranberry crates

There is much to learn about the berry that, until 1930, when Ocean Spray introduced us to its Cranberry Juice Cocktail, was little more than an extra sauce served at Thanksgiving. My intention was to learn as much as possible about “the little red fruit that could” (Vaccinnium macroparpon) and the result was another trek – this time to Wisconsin Rapids and the area roads that are now known as The Cranberry Highway.

We left the suburbs of Chicago just before 2:00 on a Friday afternoon and headed north on Interstate 90-94. Just north of Madison, Wisconsin we turned onto State Route 39/51 and continued north to Route 73, where we turned west to route 13 and followed it into the town of Wisconsin Rapids, arriving just past 5:00pm.

Touring a Wisconsin Paper Mill

I was not quite sure what to expect. I had seen the signs for Rapids on every trip north I had ever taken. But I never had a reason to actually go there. Entering the city limits, the smoke stacks of the paper mills were the first sight to attract my attention. Previously American-owned Consolidated Paper, the plant was sold to a Finnish company and became Stora Enso North America in 2000. (Note: Late in 2007, the plant was sold to NewPage Corporation, based in Miamisburg, Ohio). We would be scheduled to take a tour of the plant on Saturday.

Papermillmill in Wisconsin RApids

Unfortunately, upon entering the facility, we would discover that a major equipment problem had shut down all of the paper making operations and we would see very little of the process which produces, globally, about 15 million tons of paper products and generates sales of more than $15 Billion annually.

I viewed the shut-down as somewhat of a blessing, since the entire operation is now so automated that it appeared that very few employees were being used and all we saw were giant rolls of paper that were moved about by robotic handlers. There was not very much to see today.

The paper mill ownership change seems to have presented the city of Rapids with a dilemma. My sense is that the city is one in transition – from a thriving metropolis mostly financed by a successful paper mill with thousands of employees, to a city and region reeling from the loss of hundreds (perhaps thousands?) of jobs in a time of unprecedented economic downturn and struggling to maintain its dignity and identity.

It is a city split in two by the majestic Wisconsin River, wondering on which side the recovery should occur.  It is however, a very pretty setting and a place that entices one to slow down and smell the coffee. The people we met were very accommodating, down to earth and easy to talk with. Tourism is not currently much of an industry here… but it probably should be.

I hear that walleyes are plentiful in the river and deer abound in the area. There is plenty to see and do in the Rapids area and we barely scratched the surface during our short visit.

The Mead Hotel

Hotel Mead - Wisconsin Rapids

Our first stop was the Hotel Mead, where we had reservations waiting. It is a beautiful and modern venue with all the bells and whistles, including two excellent restaurants and a great bar (more on those later).

The Mead’s own website sums it up very well: it is “central Wisconsin's premier lodging destination -- and the area's only full-service property…known for our accommodating service, lavish amenities and attention to detail, where guests applaud a pampered stay.”  As far as we could tell, the Mead does not embellish upon the truth. Our room was top notch and the whole place was as clean as a whistle from top to bottom. I can recommend it with absolutely no hesitation.

We were hungry and thought about trying one of the two restaurants at the hotel. But we felt like exploring (Heidi was somewhat familiar with the area – I was not) and found ourselves just west of town at what appeared to be a local favorite: the Homestead Supper and Country Club.

Accompanying a golf course, it was a converted old barn, with the bar on the lower level and the restaurant upstairs. A small but ample salad bar and tasty fish fry with American fried potatoes (wedges spiced with BBQ seasonings) were all that I needed after a long day and I was as happy as a Holstein at the feeding trough. The waitress was friendly and the food was good and reasonably priced. What more could I ask?? We drove back to the hotel, headed to our room and were asleep before our heads hit the pillow.


On Saturday morning, Lonnie Selje – the Executive Director for the Rapids area Convention and Visitors Bureau – joined us for breakfast at Herschleb’s, sort of a combination diner and drive-in. We enjoyed a simple but marvelously well-cooked breakfast and some conversation with the owner Tom Brehmer.

Tom is a 3rd generation owner who knows more history than the local museum and takes great pride in making the best home made ice cream anywhere. His specialty is cranberry ice cream – would you expect it to be any other kind?? Herschleb’s reminds me of the places I used to frequent as a kid. Were I to live any closer to Rapids, I’d eat breakfast there every day. (On yet another sad note and cogent comment on the times, Herschleb Ice Cream, founded in 1939, finally closed its doors in 2006)

After breakfast, Lonnie took us for a short tour of the town and some beautiful and well-kept homes, shared some history with us, then showed us the way to the paper mill for our tour.

Making a fresh batch of cheese

Making Cheese in Rudolph, WI

After the tour, we headed north a few miles to visit the Wisconsin Dairy State Cheese Co. in Rudolph, Wisconsin. Cheese making is such a cool thing to watch. And for a not-so-country boy like myself, it never ceases to amaze me how it is done. Of course the greatest thing is the fresh cheese curds that squeak as you chew them. We walked out with our purchase of about 12 pounds of fresh cheese of varying kinds… and of course a big bag of curds for immediate munching.


The highlight of the excursion and the whole reason that we made the trip to begin with was to be found about a dozen or so miles south and a bit west of Rapids, not far from Nekoosa, home of the Giant Pumpkin Fest (which we just missed). Our destination was Glacial Lake Cranberries, home of Cranberry Link.

At Glacial Lake Cranberries

Owned by Phil and Mary Brazeau-Brown, the cranberry marshes here have been in the family for three generations – since 1873 – and some of the plants have been producing berries for 75 years. The Brazeau name has been associated with the property since the early 1900’s. Upon meeting either Phil or Mary, it is easy to see that they both love what they do. They take great pride in managing a resource that encompasses about 6,000 acres of wetlands, only 330 of which actually produce berries.

More than half of the rest is dedicated to a water reservoir system and a forestry management plan. A tour of the operation would be a wonderful idea and great weekend excursion. Just make sure to set up a tour in advance with Glacial Lake or call Lonnie at the Visitors bureau in Rapids.

Even though the harvest is typically from late September and through October, there is plenty to see at other times of the growing season as well. Phil provided us with an excellent tour and plenty of info about everything from the geologic history of the area to the general history of growing cranberries in the area. He also treated us to a bird’s-eye close-up of the harvesting.

Harvest time in a cranberry bog

Everything from the “beater” machines that separate the berries from the vines to the giant floating corrals that move the berries to the elevators that carry the fruit to the waiting trucks is fascinating. From the state that is supposed to be the dairy capitol comes some of the best fruit that nature has to offer.

Glacial Lake also offers a short, pre-tour video to guests as well as gifts, books and fresh cranberries for purchase after the tour. I haven’t even mentioned the numerous health advantages provided by the cranberry… eat ‘em for health – eat ‘em for life! We thanked Phil for his time and the valuable information, not to mention the great pictures that we were able to get while watching some of the actual harvest take place. We headed back to Rapids for a well-deserved dinner… I was ravenous!

Sandhill cranes

Our short weekend was almost at an end. But the conundrum of where to have dinner still loomed. Although we had gotten a heads-up to try the Café Mulino (in the hotel), we decided instead to try the Grand Avenue Grill – also in the hotel. Dinner consisted of thirst-quenching Grey Goose martinis, hearty portions of tasty Ahi Tuna for Heidi and tender, flaky Alaskan Halibut for me. Dinner was excellent! We finished the evening with a marvelous piece of cranberry-apple pie with a huge scoop of vanilla ice cream… headed up to the room and fell quickly asleep.

As we headed out of town the next morning, we caught a glimpse of some huge birds roaming the fields. A little research confirmed my suspicions: they were the elusive and endangered Sand Hill cranes. It was an unexpected and awesome sight! My mind drifted back to the cranberry harvest; I smiled at the thought of the little berry sitting there undiscovered and lonely for so many thousands of years, and now enjoying its rightful and well-earned fame, fortune and place in the spotlight. It is no longer just an accompaniment at the Thanksgiving table.

Holding the tender and ripe cranberry

R. Karl

Special thanks this trip are definitely in order for:

  • The Hotel Mead
  • Herschleb’s
  • The Dairy
  • Glacial Lake and the Brazeau-Browns
  • The State of Wisconsin for another great excursion and especially to
  • The Vaccinnium macroparpon: the little red fruit that could!

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