Hammonton is known as the Blueberry Capital of the World, but few people know of the woman who made the commercial blueberry farm possible.
Elizabeth Coleman White grew up on her father’s cranberry farm in Whitesbog, Burlington County, where she and her father “would enjoy walking in the woods and picking blueberries,” Whitesbog Executive Director Susan Burpee Phillips said.
At the time, blueberries were a wild species, but White began to wonder whether the plant could be turned into a viable crop to complement the cranberry, which was cultivated late in the season.
In 1911, White read about a doctor named Frederick Coville, who was trying to do just that in Washington state. She wrote to him to offer the use of her land and labor — and a partnership was born.
“The collaborative efforts of Elizabeth White and Dr. Frederick Coville brought the wild blueberry into cultivation in a remarkably brief period of time,” Nancy O’Mallon, producer of the award-winning documentary “The Mighty Humble Blueberry,” wrote in an email.
“They began their collaboration in 1911, and five short years later, in 1916, they delivered the first commercial crop to the world,” O’Mallon wrote. “I’ve often wondered if such an endeavor had been initiated today, how long it would take? I suggest that is a question for blueberry scientists to answer.”
As part of her work, White collected more than 100 different varieties of blueberry, selecting the best ones using measures of texture and flavor. Some of those varieties are being restored to the original fields in Whitesbog, Phillips said, a project that should be completed by next year.
But White wasn’t only a cultivator. She was a strong advocate for the workers in the cranberry and blueberry farms, often immigrants and migrant workers, and pushed for better housing and schools for their children.
White was also the first woman member of the American Cranberry Association and helped organize the New Jersey Blueberry Cooperative Association, “the first true blueberry cooperative,” Phillips said.
When Phillips campaigned for White to be recognized in the New Jersey Hall of Fame, however, she came up short.
“Yeah, she didn’t win,” said Phillips — but Phillips is determined to try again.
O’Mallon said she would often ask White’s longtime assistant June Vail whether it was more difficult for White to accomplish everything she did as a woman in the early 20th century.
“June always seemed to indicate that Miss White never considered her gender to be an issue or limiting factor to her work,” O’Mallon wrote. “An extremely dedicated and focused woman, Elizabeth White had very specific goals for bringing blueberries to the world. Her dedication and focus enabled her to realize that vision.”
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