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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, 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.

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."

paddler March 11, 2012 at 09:59 PM
Great story, thanks!
Heidemarie March 12, 2012 at 01:01 PM
It was time that someone wrote an article about Double Trouble. Great park. Thanks!
Poindexter McSmash March 12, 2012 at 02:58 PM
Even back then, people who took a chance to help build this country, were put out of business from increasing taxes. Little by little, we are losing our heritage and our rights from the self proclaimed "over lords", who are slowly enlarging our government to fill their own pockets. How did this happen? And more importantly, how do we fix it?
Erik Weber March 12, 2012 at 06:39 PM
Pat - great work. A wonderful read.
James F. Fosbre IV March 13, 2012 at 01:26 AM
Great Story!!!
paddler March 13, 2012 at 02:04 AM
I love the paddle on Cedar Creek from Double Trouble State Park to Barnegat Bay to my home. For most of the trip there is no indication that you are in the 21st century. What an unexpected joy that trip is - thank you New Jersey park systems!
paddler March 13, 2012 at 02:06 AM
And how wonderful to know the history of the site that makes it possible. Thanks again, Patricia!
John March 23, 2012 at 06:04 PM
This was a nice article but you should check your facts - there have been several years that the Double Trouble bogs weren't harvested back in the 1970s and late 1990s-early 2000s when the price of cranberries crashed and the state's leaseholders got out of business. The story about John "Peg Leg" Webb did not happen at Double Trouble - that happened in the Cassville section of Jackson Township back in the 1840s, long before Double Trouble planted their first bog. See the Ocean Spray website or numerous books on the Pine Barrens, or just Google "John Peg Leg Webb" and you'll find lots of sites (including the Ocean County Historical Society) with the real story of John Webb.. This article is a nice story but has some folklore mixed in with the facts. Double Trouble State Park has a person that gives tours of the village and cranberry sorting house - all you have to do is make an appointment.
John March 23, 2012 at 06:13 PM
There's more to it than that. As with many family businesses that are passed down from father to son, eventually the younger generation doesn't want to work the same industry. From what Dan Crabbe said here, his father took over the business from his grandfather. When his father was looking to retire, Dan was doing other work and either did not want to or couldn't take over the company. So, it wasn't just increasing taxes that ended the company - it was a lack of interest from within the family to see it continued. At least they sold it to the state to preserve the land instead of selling to a developer.
Kathy March 24, 2012 at 07:35 PM
My dad used to clean a " Mr. Crabbe" s house on water street in toms river. There was a boat house garage underneath the house , the house is still there. I wonder if they were the same Crabbe family?!
marcy August 22, 2012 at 04:22 PM
yes . that he was from the Crabbe family. The youngest grandson Dan and the son Dan lived in Beachwood on the water near Beachwood yacht club.

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