Elizabeth Coleman White was born to Joseph J. White and Mary A. Fenwick White in New Lisbon, New Jersey on October 5, 1871. She spent her early years in Springfield Township and Smithville. Around 1881, the family settled permanently in New Lisbon at Fenwick Manor, where Elizabeth would live until 1923 when she built her home Suningive at Whitesbog.
Based on Elizabeth White’s own words, we can infer that at least part of the time she attended local schools. Her formal education was completed at Friends Central School in Philadelphia, from which she graduated in 1890. Education, however, was a life-long pursuit for Elizabeth: she continued hers with extension classes at Drexel Institute of Technology (now Drexel University). Through the school’s records, we can confirm that Elizabeth took classes in dressmaking. Elizabeth may also have studied first aid and photography; however, Drexel’s records do not confirm this.
Elizabeth began to work at her family’s cranberry bogs in 1893, examining boxes of cranberries and giving workers tickets to track their labor and the amount of cranberries they picked. For a time, she lived at Whitesbog during the week with the superintendent’s family.
As Elizabeth spent more time working at Whitesbog, her father began to think of her as fulfilling an important role: she was a confidante in matters relating to the family’s business. Together, at Elizabeth’s suggestion, they began to explore the possibility of growing not just cranberries, but blueberries as well, at Whitesbog; however, at that time no one had yet cultivated blueberries with significant success. Then, in 1910, Elizabeth learned of Dr. Frederick V. Coville’s work with blueberries, and she and her father convinced him to come to Whitesbog, where they would support his further research. This research would eventually result in the cultivation of the modern blueberry, catapulting White into horticultural fame and earning her the nickname “Blueberry Queen.”
True to her nickname, the Blueberry Queen was one of the founders of the Blueberry Growers Cooperative Association (later known as Tru-Blu) and was the first woman member (and, later, president) of the American Cranberry Growers Association. She was also the first woman to receive the New Jersey Department of Agriculture citation, as well as numerous other awards and medals from horticultural societies in several states.
In 1910, the National Child Labor Committee published pamphlets that claimed that cranberry growers like White mistreated their workers. Elizabeth, however, believed these claims to be wildly exaggerated. As a result, in defense of her father and others, she corresponded with the NCLC and spoke on behalf of her father and other growers for four years, until the NCLC finally retracted its claims.
After this experience, improving the lives of migrant workers—in terms of housing, sanitation, and children’s education—became an important long-term goal for Elizabeth. In 1913, Elizabeth and her father joined with other residents of Burlington County to found Four Mile Colony (today known as the New Lisbon Developmental Center), a facility that cared for mentally disabled young men. Elizabeth would serve on this facility’s board of trustees from its founding until her death in 1954. In 1930 and 1931, she invited the Home Missions Council to come to Whitesbog primarily for care and education of the children of migrant workers; in 1931 she also served on the Migrant Farm Worker Housing committee at President Hoover’s Housing Conference.
Though White is known as the Blueberry Queen and an important part of her family’s cranberry operations, blueberries and cranberries were not White’s only horticultural interest: she was also intrigued with plants native to the Pine Barrens and the concept of using these native plants in home gardens. In fact, she styled her own garden at Suningive using native Pine Barrens plants; and, after her ideas had become more widely known through publications and on the radio, many visited Suningive to see her garden.
White experimented with one more type of plant: the American holly, ilex opaca. She even founded her own nursery business—Holly Haven, Inc.—and is credited with having helped to rescue the American holly from obscurity. She was even one of the first members of the Holly Society of America, founded in 1947.
White died of cancer on November 27, 1954.