Author, The Nimrod Chronicles
Editor’s Note: This story came from The Nimrod Chronicles, written by Mevissen and published in 2003.
Blueberry Smiths. The name has a Little House on the Prairie resonance to it. It conjures up images of a family- mom, dad, and the kids- hiking in the woods, syrup pails in hand, descending upon a patch of wild blueberries and picking enough for a couple pies and a batch of jam, plus some more to sell. Well, that’s less than half the story.
The patriarch of the Blueberry Smiths was William E. Smith. He was born in 1848 and traveled by wagon from Villard, Minnesota, to homestead the family farm in Bullard and Lyons Townships in 1892. Mr. Smith declared the local water to his liking and credited it with curing his kidney trouble “without a drop of medicine.” William and Alice Smith had six children: Nina, Mason, Pearl, Belle, Edward and Burt. With all that available manpower, the Smiths amassed 1,100 acres and ran a herd of 200 milking shorthorns. Mina married and left the farm. Pearl and Belle didn’t, and they herded cattle until pastures were fenced. Later, they taught school locally.
In addition to the milking shorthorns, the Smiths raised sheep, goats, turkeys, ducks pheasants, and chickens. Mr. Smith crowed about the quality of clover hay he raised. He was an avid hunter and, from the looks of the family photograph album, a successful trapper.
Beside his agricultural and sports endeavors, Mr. Smith was an advocate of harnessing energy from the Crow Wing River to power industry in northern Minnesota. He predicted a government dam to conserve water and prevent floods.
And he still had time to pick blueberries!
Blueberry picking was a hot industry around here at the turn of the twentieth century. Newspaper accounts relate that a ton of berries was loaded at Sebeka and Menahga railroad depots each morning causing delays in the Great Northern passenger train schedule. Another report cites 400 crates of blueberries being shipped from Menahga each day to all parts of the United States. In 1920, the Great Northern southbound train carried 1,800 crates of wild-grown blueberries. The reporter speculated that this represents half of the crop, the balance being transported by auto by the pickers themselves. These crates weigh about forty pounds and sold for $3.15 each. Wouldn’t you like to have the Doane’s Liniment franchise then?
An article in a July 1919 Sebeka paper relates complaints of many farmers that transient workers are leaving fence gates open and tearing down fences to drive their cars through the pines in search of berries.
Blueberries were delivered by horse-drawn wagons to railroad sidings until the advent of the automobile. Blueberry production waned as the twentieth century developed and stopped by mid-century.
Youngest Smith son, Burt, and wife, Alice, had two children, Bill and Betty, who still live on the original homestead. Betty lives in the family house, which was built in the 1920s, next to the old ice house which still stands. Bill and wife, Sandy, live next door. Do they still pick blueberries? No, but the legend lives on. Betty says she is still reminded of her family’s reputation as the Blueberry Smiths.
I noticed on a walk down the driveway that berries are setting on the plants now. The old timers say it could be a good year- cool spring and plenty of late rainfall. A bowl of fresh blueberries would taste good now. At $3.15, I’ll take an entire crate.