Elizabeth Coleman White’s efforts to cultivate blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) began in 1910 when she read the U.S.D.A. publication “Experiments in Blueberry Culture,” researched and written by Dr. Fredrick V. Coville. Realizing the potential value of such work, Elizabeth and her father decided to contact Coville and offer him their support.
In a taped interview in 1953, Elizabeth recalled her own experiences in this endeavor:
[Father and I] had talked about the possibility of adding blueberries to our cranberry crop, but we were not the first people to know that we had to have a uniform product. We knew the wild bushes were very, very different. We used to go around sampling these fruits and one would be too sour and one would be too flat, one would be too skinny and finally, we would come to one that father would call “peachy,” but we didn’t know how to propagate the plant. At that time, it was said among the farmers of New Jersey that blueberries could not be cultivated.
Despite the odds, Coville joined the Whites at Whitesbog, and by 1916, they had managed to cultivate and produce a blueberry crop for sale. However, they might not have succeeded if it hadn’t been for the efforts of locals, whom Miss White asked to remain on the lookout for blueberry shrubs with large berries.
These searchers were organized under either Jake Sooy or Alfred Stevenson and equipped with labels, bottles containing the preservative formalin, and an aluminum gauge with a 5/8-inch diameter hole. If a bush featured at least one berry of this size or larger, it was deemed a good candidate for cultivation. For their efforts, these workers were offered $2.00 per bush plus compensation for the time required to locate the plants and bring them to Whitesbog. In addition, the finders enjoyed the distinction of having the bushes they found named after them. As Miss White recalled in 1953:
In getting the early bushes, I tried to name every bush after the finder…and so I had the Adams bush found by Jim Adams, the Harding bush that was found by Ralph Harding, and the Dunphy bush that was found by Theodore Dunphy. When Sam Lemmon found a bush, I could not name it the Lemmon bush so I called it the Sam. Finally, Rube Leek of Chatsworth found a bush. I did not know it was anything special at that time and I used the full name in my notes….Coville called it the Rube which I thought was a poor name for an aristocratic bush. He finally suggested that we call it the Rubel. And the Rubel bush has really been the keystone of blueberry breeding. It is the one bush of which there are hundreds of acres planted just by divisions.
It’s still in cultivation, and I still consider it a good bush. It also enters into the inheritance in two or three directions of all the accepted varieties of the present day.
Acquiring the bushes was only the first step. The following account of their propagation was published in Success magazine in 1927:
Next we cut up the bushes into pieces, sometimes as many as a hundred pieces to a bush. These were planted under glass in carefully prepared propagating beds.
But for a long time we had very poor luck with propagation; only about 10% of the plants lived. Finally, we narrowed down to six varieties which seemed in every way suitable for commercial production, Rubel, Harding, Sam, Grover, Adams & Dunfee.
The first successful field plantings were probably made in 1912 at the present site of Elizabeth White’s house Suningive. The first plantings in which varieties were set in alternate rows for the purpose of cross-pollination were made just east of this location.
Thus, from the efforts at Whitesbog arose the business of propagating and selling blueberry bushes. As plants were sold across the country, New Jersey bushes became established in many states. The plants or varieties that were selected here are now grown extensively in North Carolina and Michigan, as well as Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, and New England. They are also grown in New York and Connecticut, although to a lesser extent.
The plants cultivated for production at Whitesbog yielded considerable profits even before the bushes were fully mature. In 1927, the 60-acre crop was estimated at 64,000 quarts, or 2,000 crates. Thus, figuring $10.00 a crate, the crop was worth $20,000. At its production peak, Whitesbog had 90 acres of blueberries under cultivation.