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A Cranberry Legacy - The Crabbe Family And Double Trouble State Park

Dan Crabbe recalls the family business


The thousands of acres of cranberry bogs, pines, oaks and cedars off Pinewald-Keswick Road have belonged to the state of New Jersey since 1964, when Double Trouble State Park was born.

But for the Crabbe family of Toms River, Double Trouble was a second home for much of the 20th century.

And when Dan Crabbe visits the park, he goes back in time. He can still hear longtime picking boss Alfia (Fred) Masumeci bellowing at workers to make sure their wooden boxes of cranberries were free of vines and leaves.

"Pick clean! Pick clean!" Crabbe said at a recent presentation at the Berkeley Township Historical Society. "I can hear him now saying that."

It all began with Dan Crabbe's grandfather Commodore Edward Crabbe, who came to Double Trouble from Brooklyn in 1903. He liked what he saw. The tract was already a working sawmill and lumber operation. He bought roughly a thousand acres of swamp land, reservoirs, tea-colored streams and wetlands in 1904.

The Crabbe family would end up running the Double Trouble Company for more than 60 years, until the land was sold to the state.

For some Crabbe family members, Double Trouble is their final resting place. A small private cemetery is tucked away in the woods, surrounded by rhododendron and holly bushes.  Dan's sister Sarah, who died last June, rests there now with her father and grandfather and several others.

And when it's Dan Crabbe's time to go, that's where he will be too.

"I'm next," he joked.

Double Trouble was home to the Delaware Indians long before the Crabbe family arrived on the scene.

"Cranberries grew in and around Double Trouble long before the Pilgrims were here," he said. The Indians knew all about them."

First lumber, then cranberries

Later the Double Trouble tract was home to vibrant lumber and cranberry industries. Edward Crabbe bought the property primarily for lumbering. The sawmill came with the sale. Crabbe began cutting down the prized white cedars in the swamps to sell to shipbuilders.

"They would float the logs down Cedar Creek and cut the lumber," Crabbe said. "In New Jersey, lumber was the big thing. They used the American White Cedar for shipbuilding and shingles. Its first history was really lumbering. In the 1800s, it was a mill town before the Civil War. It was a town. It was actually on the map as Double Trouble."

Double Trouble workers used horses to pull the cedar stumps out of the swamp land. But as the marshes were gradually cleared of cedar, Edward Crabbe decided to make cranberries his primary business.

""They really went all out with the cranberries," he said. "He built the packing house. He laid it out and built it himself. It was one of the most modern packing and sorting houses. They took the cranberry vines and placed them in the bog area. At the end, there were eight separate bogs."

Like his father, Daniel "Mac" McEwen Crabbe, Dan Crabbe spent some of his younger years working in the family business - the Double Trouble cranberry company.

He worked in the bogs as a boy. He helped with controlled burns to keep them safe from forest fires. He and his father walked the bogs on cold autumn nights to guage if they needed to be flooded to protect the delicate cranberry plants and berries from freezing. The family skated on the ice on the flooded bogs in the winter

Cranberry harvesting back in the early and mid-20th century was a backbreaking venture. Workers had to bend down with heavy wooden scoops and comb through the vines for the berries.

Peak of production

During its halycon days, the Double Trouble Company employed five full-timers year round and between 50 to 60 seasonal employees for the harvest.

"It depended on the size of the crop," Crabbe said. "Most of the pickers came from Philadelphia. They were Italian. Whole families would come down. They were paid piecemeal, maybe 34 cents for a big box of cranberries. Come mid-September, they'd all arrive and it was a city. It was a lot of people and a lot of fun. They'd play bocci at night. They knew how to have fun."

Each picker was assigned a certain area to harvest. After they filled their wooden boxes, they'd hoist them on their shoulders.

"We'd give them a ticket and that's how they were paid," he said.

The boxes were supposed to be free of cranberry vines, but some pickers were not adverse to stuffing the bottom of their boxes with vines and putting the berries on top.

"It was backbreaking work," Crabbe said. "Lots of vines and leaves had to be removed. You had to make sure when you filled the box it was only berries. When I was out there, they always seemed to have a few cases of beer in a ditch. But no one would touch it until the end of the day."

The modern sorting machines at Double Trouble came about literally by accident.

One worker named "Pegleg John" was carting a big box of cranberries on the second floor of the packing house. One day he stumbled and fell and the berries went bouncing down the stairs.

"All the good berries went down the stairs," he said. "From that accident, they developed the sorting machines to separate the good berries from the bad ones. Berries that didn't bounce were thrown away."

The Crabbes eventually abandoned the dry harvesting method using scoops and opted for mechanical harvesters called "knockers" because they knocked the berries from the vines. Workers then herded the berries into booms. The berries were pulled into shore, where they were  sucked out of the water by a conveyer belt, then transported to the packing house.

"You can do all that with five people instead of 50," Crabbe said.

The berries were packed by local women, primarily from Bayville, who were looking to earn a few extra dollars, Crabbe said.

Time to sell

By 1963, the Double Trouble Company was coming to an end. Taxes were rising and Mac Crabbe was getting tired. Dan Crabbe had graduated from Cornell University and become an engineer.

"The company was just breaking even," Crabbe said. "My father was getting old. The family decided to sell the property."

The state of New Jersey got a bargain.

"We sold 1,500 acres for like $300,000," he recalled.

After the sale, his father leased several bogs from the state and continued to harvest berries for the next seven years.

"He made a little money with the wet harvesting," Crabbe said.

Other farmers leased the Double Trouble bogs from the state for many decades after. But the last leaseholder opted out in 2011. Last autumn was the first time in more than 150 years there was no cranberry harvest. Crabbe hopes that will change this year.

"It's not going to happen for awhile, until the economy turns around and the state gets somebody," he said.

But he still goes back to Double Trouble about once a month, to walk the bogs and woods that are so much a part of his family's history.

"It sent me to college," he said. "My kids all love Double Trouble. I just like to go and walk around there."

Mark Bernstein March 14, 2012 at 12:33 PM
This was an amazing story. Thank you for some of the history I love to read about in our area.

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