Jersey Reflections: New Identity

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Hammonton’s final Peach Queen was chosen in 1962. The next year, a Blueberry Queen was crowned and the town’s new identity took hold.

Hammonton, which just celebrated its sesquicentennial, wears the title of “Blueberry Capital of the World” proudly, providing what one source claims is 80 percent of the state’s blueberries and celebrating its main crop with an annual festival. But in the town’s early days, this fruit was not the one that earned Hammonton the attention of other areas.

Having been advertised by founders Richard Byrnes and Charles K. Landis as an agricultural opportunity, Hammonton soon developed into a fruit-growing community. In 1864, the town established a Pomological Society, which William McMahon’s The Story of Hammonton explains as “a mutual assistance group in which the farmers shared their knowledge of latest advances in farming and farm equipment,” and the Fruit Growers Union three years later on June 19, 1867.

McMahon declares that the agricultural union “is believed to be the first cooperative organization…in this nation,” and explains that uniting the farmers meant “rebates could be secured on freight rates and percentages from the commission merchants.” It was a risky venture since the cooperative’s methods could be construed as challenging the competitive market with socialistic tendencies.   

The Fruit Growers Union immediately focused on marketing its main crops—strawberries, blackberries and raspberries. While strawberries and blackberries were initially significant, both would eventually experience a decline while the raspberry offered a crucial advantage that would make it the town’s most important crop for a period. McMahon writes that “Hammonton’s early success with the raspberry was due to the introduction of the Ranere variety which from experimentation proved the most durable of any known type…it produced two crops in one season.” As bountiful as the raspberry was, it eventually succumbed to what McMahon refers to as the “threefold pressures of virus disease, labor problems and higher-income-producing crops.”

Hammonton and Vineland shared a success in grape production, but it was the peach that set the Atlantic County town apart, earning it the moniker of “The Peach City.” McMahon reports, “At one time peaches from Hammonton dominated the metropolitan markets and orchards scattered their blossoms throughout the countryside.”

The rise of the peach crop, which utilized considerable acreage in the town, occurred after the decline in raspberry production. The success of this crop lasted into the 20th century when, in May 1935, the town’s first Peach Queen was selected. In 1947, Hammonton held a peach blossom cavalcade that paraded more than 100 cars and drew an audience of 500. The cavalcade became an annual event with increased attendance each year.

McMahon writes that, in 1951, a peach festival with “more than 6,000 visitors descending upon the town to view the colorful handiwork of nature and take part in a motorcade…” was held. At the head of the parade was that year’s peach queen. The event was captured by newsreel cameras and photographers, but no one realized in the midst of the festivities that the “Peach City” brand was coming to an end.

In 1953, the town introduced a new reigning figure in the form of a Blueberry Queen who shared the spotlight with her peach counterpart. The addition was a way of acknowledging the success of the blueberry crops over the previous decades and, while the new title would be soon retired until the following decade, it signaled that the era of the peach crop was waning.

The final Peach Queen was chosen in 1962, closing a chapter on Hammonton’s history. The following year, the selection of a Blueberry Queen was revived and the town’s new identity took hold.

In 2009, the Washington Post reported that New Jersey blueberry cultivators “harvest about 50 million pounds of berries each year, making the Garden State the second-biggest blueberry producer after Michigan…Blueberry farms populate regions across New Jersey but are particularly plentiful around the Pine Barrens, an expansive forested area where the sandy soil provides a perfect growth medium… Compared with wild Maine berries, cultivated Jersey blues are mild and large, though dozens of varieties touch on every type of taste.”

The story behind the variety of blueberries and how Hammonton earned its existing title, however, is one that begins outside the confines of the town and in the cranberry bogs of the Pine Barrens.  

Next Week: Whitesbog 

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