"If you smell cucumbers, run the other way," Virginia Ferguson warned. "It means rattlesnakes are around." This warning, given to her by her fellow huckleberry pickers over 40 years ago, remains with her still today.
Beginning in the 1920s and continuing throughout the 1960s, New York's Shawangunk Mountains were home to a thriving industry of huckleberry pickers.
When summer rolled around, families fled the sweltering concrete jungles of New York City and New Jersey in exchange for the cool air and berry bushes of Sam's Point and the Shawangunk Ridge.
Buckets of Berries
As they arrived, families set up tents, lean-tos, and shacks across the ridge, forming instant communities where budding romances, new friendships, and past reunions rose and fell over the flicker of a campfire and the course of a short, sweet summer.
Each day, the berry pickers rose with the sun. Mothers, daughters, fathers, and sons alike packed a bottle of water and a can of potted meat, strapped on their berry baskets, and headed out into the wilderness of Sam's Point, in search of the perfect patch.
Braving the hot summer heat (not to mention brown bears, rattlesnakes, and mountain lions), they picked huckleberries from sun up until sun down, sometimes gathering 25 to 30 quarts a day, per person. These berries would be sold that evening at the general store, where merchants would then transport them back to the markets of New York City.
In the evenings, over dinner and drinks and lively conversation, the huckleberry pickers from all across the east, joined together in a profound sense of community and an intimate connection to the land.
For almost 40 years, the huckleberry community of the Shawangunk Ridge rose and fell with the seasons. But as WWII ended, the economy of the 1950s and 60s changed, and industry across the region shifted, the berry pickers slowly stopped making the journey. Some blame it on a more prosperous nation, some on the advent of cheap, cultivated blueberries, but no matter the cause, the effect remains the same. Today, only seven sites remain as evidence of an all-but-vanished Shawangunk community.
The Nature Conservancy, together with the Open Space Institute, is commited to preserving Sam's Point and the Shawangunk Ridge - the lands the berry pickers once called a home away from home. While the huckleberry communities of the 20s and 30s may be lost forever to history's grasp, the Conservancy is working to make sure that the lands and waters that once supported these families remains protected for generations to come.