Columns and stories of life from the Fredericksburg area.
Blackberry competition got thorny
By Donnie Johnston
The Free Lance-Star
The blackberries are ripe, and it looks like there will be a good crop this year.
Now when I’m talking about the blackberry crop, I’m talking about the wild blackberry crop, the bushes that grow on the road banks and in the fields.
There was a time when I grew some cultivated thornless berries—which were larger and a bit sweeter than their wild counterparts—but I gave up on them because there was less adventure involved. Going out into the fields and coming home with a bucket of blackberries and bleeding arms and hands is much more intriguing.
The thrill of the hunt is as enticing as the berries.
I remember picking and selling 60 gallons of blackberries one year when I was in my early teens (I also picked several gallons for home consumption).
I got $1 for each gallon I sold. These days that may not seem like much money for the effort, but back then it was a veritable bonanza. I had friends that got up hay at every opportunity all that summer who didn’t make $60.
Many housewives (that word wasn’t a politically incorrect sexist slur but a noble occupation when I was growing up) made blackberry jelly back then—in addition to blackberry cobbler—and this wild summer fruit was much in demand.
Once the word spread that I was selling blackberries I started getting calls on an almost daily basis. Some women bought as many as 5 gallons but the usual sale was in the 1- to 3-gallon range.
I still remember where I picked berries that summer. Walter Apperson had a 50- or 60-acre pasture field. There were a dozen or so patches scattered about along a hillside and beside a creek.
As a general rule, large blackberry patches are difficult to negotiate because their thorny vines can create an almost impenetrable jungle. Picking around the outside is no problem, but getting into the middle of the patch is tough. And, of course, the biggest, juiciest blackberries are always in the middle of the patch.
But things are different in a pasture field. The cows had little paths all through that blackberry patch and almost every vine could be accessed without getting an arm ripped up—too badly.
I have often attempted to estimate how many blackberries that field produced that summer. I’m sure it was several hundred gallons, because I picked more than 60 gallons and I didn’t begin to deplete the crop. In fact, there were several neighborhood boys who discovered that field of blackberries, and we were soon maneuvering for picking rights and territory.
One afternoon I spotted Ronnie and Melvin Clark up on the hill with a bucket, and a day or so later Junior and Dickie Jasper were in there picking. The word was apparently out that I had discovered a blackberry gold mine, and everybody wanted to stake a claim.
I had to come up with a strategy to protect my territory so I started getting to that patch, which was about a mile and a half from my house, by 4:30 in the morning. I was there when the sun came up and thus able to get the newly turned berries before the competition got out of bed.
To those who know how much I hate to get up early, this all seems like a fairy tale, but it is true. That blackberry patch meant hard cash to me, and those who know me well also know that when I have dollar signs in my eyes I am willing to do whatever is necessary to protect my investment.
The hardest part of the blackberry picking job was getting the fruit home, where customers came to pick it up. Walking a mile and a half with a water bucket full of blackberries in each hand is no easy task.
I had to take my time, too, because if I jostled those berries too much the weight caused them to mash down. It would have been bad for business if I got home with a bucket that looked like it had less than 3 gallons of berries in it.
I had to make sure my customers knew they were getting their money’s worth because there was always one grumpy old lady who would bring along something to measure her purchase. Even that woman never left unhappy.
I recall other good blackberry seasons when I was growing up, but that one stands out. Putting $50 in the bank and having $10 to spend made for a great two weeks’ worth of work.
I still go out every summer and pick 4 or 5 gallons of blackberries, and I never fail to get excited when I drive down the road and spot a new patch in some abandoned field. For several weeks I eat blackberry cobbler, and each year I can a few for winter consumption.
Yes, I still get ripped to shreds by the thorns, but that’s just part of the game. I’m not going to let those blackberries go to waste if I can help it. When you grow up poor you learn not to do such things.