A Strawberry Legend Lives On In Spratt
By Nelson Yoder
Present day visitors in the Spratt community on M-65 in Northern Michigan can admire many rolling acres of berry farms, but less obvious to the viewer is the long tradition of cash crop farming which started there.
As early as 1917, Frank Herron and his family which included wife Beulah, and later children - Nelson, Alva, Orville, Elden, Doris, Florence, Dale, Glen, and Kay, began with a vision to produce strawberries. It was a crop well suited to the climate and region of the Spratt area. They started with an acre of berries and peddled the fruit by horse and wagon in the city of Alpena. Later a Model T car became the market vehicle, and son Elden recalls, "We loaded the back seat full with crates of berries, and even tied them to the running board." Success in the venture prompted them to market in Rogers City and other towns throughout the north.
By 1930, Herrons and their neighbors, Cecil Black and Alger Herron were growing berries to supply southern Michigan markets. Bay City, and later Detroit became primary outlets for Spratt strawberries. Raspberries too became a popular item, and the farmers were kept busy filling orders. They trucked to the markets at night so the strawberries were there for the opening of the market day. It was during this time that tragedy struck the Herron family. Their vehicle was hit by a drunk driver, and 19 year old Nelson Herron was killed in the accident.
Cash cropping was a way of life for the farmers of Spratt. At least 100 farmers were involved in the production of berries. Varieties were also improving. The old original Dunlap stock was replaced by Premier and Robinson. During the WWII years, berries were shipped to Alpena, canned by A&P, and sent to England to aid in the war effort.
Early in the 1950's, the Alpena Berry Growers Association was formed. This group provided a cooperative marketing effort for the Spratt farmers. It provided a service, but Herron added, "Presently not nearly as many berries are grown. During those peak production years of the 50's, school children were bussed in from neighboring towns to pick for pay, and migrant workers were more common then on the farms."
Now farmers advertise: "Pick your own." Local pickers like Ann Rupinski of Hillman and Laura Eastman of Curran pick berries for resale. Ann and her nephew, Virgil, set up a strawberry stand in downtown Hillman, while Laura sells berries to Shirley's Café in Curran. Shirley Conrad treats her customers not only to a season of shortcake, but her kitchen produces berry preserves as a finished product.
Today's sumptuous varieties make picking strawberries less of a backbreaker, and the quart boxes fill up faster with plum size fruit. Midways which gradually replaced Premier and Robinson are now ceding to Guardian and All Star. Today it is possible to grow berries with all the desirable characteristics flavor, sweetness, texture, color, and size.
Spratt farmers like Herron find that berry pickers return year after year to reap a share of the berry harvest. Also new pickers find their way to the berry patch, and new friendships are made. Is there a sweeter way to make friends than over heaping boxes of beautiful, delicious strawberries?
Postscript: This story was written by Nelson Yoder, and it appeared in the Wilderness Chronicle, No. 8, Summer, 1986. After a number of years hiatus, the Wilderness Chronicle is again being published in Comins, MI through the Steiner Museum.