Business and Labor

The Portuguese Farmers Who Made Falmouth Strawberries Famous

In 1892, Manuel Viera Martins retired from whaling and bought a cottage in the Waquoit section of Falmouth, Mass. He and his 11-year-old son cleared the scrub oak and pitch pine off the land with axes. Then they planted strawberries. The next spring they picked their first crop. Over the next four decades, hundreds of farmers from the Portuguese islands would grow millions of Falmouth strawberries. They made the Cape Cod town the largest producer of the tasty fruit in Massachusetts—and, for a time, the United States.

Portuguese farmers in Falmouth

Today, Tony Andrews’ pick-your-own strawberry farm remains one of the last vestiges of the Falmouth strawberry juggernaut that peaked around World War II. But the Portuguese islands still have a presence in Falmouth. Kale soup is on restaurant menus, linguica and choriza on sale in the local grocery stores. St. Anthony’s Church celebrates a Day of Portuguese Mass.

And on Pentecost Sunday, the Holy Ghost Society honors its patron saint with a festa, serving free sopas to anyone who comes.

Falmouth Strawberries

Manuel Viera Martins, nicknamed Tio Calhau, may not have been the first Portuguese islander to plant strawberries in Falmouth. Local lore bestows that honor on John Emerald. While working at a gardening job, the story goes, Emerald saw some strawberry runners sprouting from a trash heap. He then took them home and planted them in the sandy soil of East Falmouth.

Whatever the case, the two men’s lives followed the trajectory of most of the Portuguese islanders who settled in East Falmouth. They came from the Azores, where poverty and oppression made for harsh living conditions. Later they came from Cape Verde.

St. Michael’s, one of the Azorean islands From which Falmouth strawberry farmers came. They also came from Pico and Faial

Most settled first in the cities of Southeastern New England – New Bedford, Fall River, Taunton and Providence. To this day the region has the densest concentration of people with Portuguese ancestry in the United States.

After settling in the cities the Portuguese islanders came to Falmouth, returning to their farming roots. They found work on cranberry bogs, farms and as day laborers. Then they bought land. Falmouth had plenty, and it was cheap – a dollar or two an acre. Cape Codders viewed it as worthless, but the Azoreans saw something else.

Immigration

Tio Calhau, born on Pico in the Azores in 1855, shipped out on a New Bedford whaler, the Kathleen, as a young man. He landed in New Bedford after four years at sea and collected his 1/140th share of the voyage’s profit. Then he signed up for another voyage on the Kathleen in 1875, and when it anchored in the Azores he jumped ship and went home.

Tio Calhau then married Maria Josefa Rodrigues, and in 1883 they immigrated to New Bedford. Tio Calhau took another whaling voyage, but when he came home Maria put his foot down: No more whaling.

In 1914, immigrants from Brava, Cape Verde, looking ashore from the Savoia as the await the disembarkation process to be finished. Photo courtesy New Bedford Standard-Times.

Whaling had brought many Portuguese immigrants to the United States. When whaling died out, the textile mills that replaced it drew more. Many took the packet service between New Bedford and the Azores, eventually a nine-day steamship ride.

By 1900, 142 people of Portuguese descent lived in Falmouth, then a town of 3,000. Of the 55 who had immigrated, 54 came from the Azores; the rest were born in the United States.

That was when the strawberry farms began to take off. By 1922, Falmouth had 300 acres of strawberry fields, many along the Davisville road. Most farmers had only 10 or 20 acres, but a few had 60 or 70. Altogether they extended over six to seven square miles. “One million quarts of them left her fields the past season!” gushed Cape Cod Magazine that year. And new land was being cleared every year.

Strawberries

Frank A. Waugh came to Cape Cod in 1920 to write about the Falmouth strawberries for The Country Gentleman. The Portuguese farmers had identified an agricultural opportunity overlooked by many, he wrote.

“Up until quite recent times agriculture had been considered a negligible institution on Cape Cod,” wrote Waugh. “Some persons, not excluding the natives, have indeed considered it a joke.”

Alice Valerio in 1930

(Waugh did note one exception: the cranberry.)

“These Portuguese farmers are honest, thrifty, hard workers and remarkably intelligent in their management of this somewhat complicated industry,” wrote Waugh.

He asked Manuel Garden, one of the leading Portuguese strawberry growers, how he cleared his strawberry land. “With my own hands and an axe,” Garden said.

The Emeralds

John Emerald (Americanized from Amaral) had two brothers, Frank and Manuel, who arrived from the Azores in 1898 and 1900, respectively. They married, had families, and grew strawberries, along with turnips, corn, potatoes, carrots and raspberries.

Early in the morning, Manuel would work on his farm on the Davisville Road, then bike to Penzance Point in Woods Hole to work as a landscaper on one of the estates. Then he rode home and worked his strawberry field until it got dark. Bit by bit he acquired more land. At first he’d buy an acre or two for $1 “and other considerations.” Eventually he could afford an acre of cleared land for $100.

Emily Emerald and her father Manuel

Manuel married Estrella Farias in 1903, and they had eight children. The Emerald clan reigned over Falmouth strawberries. Manuel’s brother John started shipping his strawberries in refrigerated railroad cars to Boston. When others followed, a local side hustle grew into a regional industry. Boston buyers knew the Falmouth strawberries as fern berries because the pickers packed them in layers of ferns.

The growers formed two cooperatives to market the berries, which sold in New York, Maine, New Hampshire,  Montreal and Quebec. At peak season, the railroad ran a special Berry Train.

Eventually, trucks replaced trains. They left after sundown to make the then-seven-hour round trip to Boston. At the industry’s height in 1947, Falmouth sent 32 trucks to market each night, carrying a total of 13 million quarts of strawberries. That amounted to half the commonwealth’s strawberry crop.

Child’s Work

Children worked in the strawberry fields along with their parents.  They fed and watered livestock, chopped kindling and filled the woodbox. As an adult, Joe Medeiros recalled school children walking the family cow to a pasture across the road from the school. “Come three o’clock, when they let us out of school, I’d call my cow,” he said. “The other guy would get his cow and we would walk home down Davisville Road.”

Because strawberries ripened over just a few weeks, children were allowed to leave school to pick them. Whole families picked strawberries. Bea Emerald, Manuel’s daughter, remembered picking 275 boxes of strawberries in one day when she was seven years old.

The Falmouth strawberry farms kept expanding, and they ran out of pickers. Most farmers hired about 10 pickers; the Emeralds had 25.

Bea Emerald would take the train to the Portuguese neighborhoods in Wareham, to knock on doors looking for pickers. If she didn’t find enough there, she’d go to New Bedford and Providence.

Strawberry pickers

By the Great Depression, when so many looked for work, 3,000 strawberry pickers came to Falmouth during the harvest when the town’s population was only 5,000.

Farmers built sheds on the property to house them. Picker sheds on the Davisville Road survived well past the zenith of the Falmouth strawberry industry.

Many pickers were Cape Verdeans, who had emigrated because of a severe drought in 1904. They earned two cents a quart.

The Church Built by Falmouth Strawberries

Devout Roman Catholics, the Portuguese farmers got permission from the diocese in 1911 to build their own church. They would call it St. Anthony’s, after the patron saint of the Azores. Farmers gave all the money from the berries picked on the peak Sunday of the harvest to the church. St. Anthony’s became “the church that strawberries built.” All the labor for the church was donated, and St. Anthony’s celebrated its first Mass — in Portuguese — in January 1924.

St. Anthony’s merged with St. Joseph Guardian of the Holy Family Parish in 2021.

Walking to church

Falmouth’s Portuguese communities also formed fraternal societies, such as The Fresh Pond Holy Ghost Society and the East Falmouth Holy Ghost Association. The Fresh Pond Society still puts on a festa in June. The celebration starts with a procession that takes a crown and a scepter to an altar, music, an auction and lots of Portuguese food — sopas, jag, cacoila and bacalhau, along with hot dogs and chips.

A third wave of immigration has contributed to the vibrancy of Portuguese culture in southeastern New England. It began in 1957, when a year of volcanic eruption devastated the Azorean island of Faial. Sen. John F. Kennedy then sponsored the Azorean Refugee Acts, which led to 100,000 Azorean refugees coming to the United States over 10 years. Today more Azoreans live in the United States than in the Azores.

Demise of Falmouth Strawberries

World War II brought the beginning of the end to the Falmouth strawberry boom. The war itself created a labor shortage, as people could get jobs with defense manufacturers or on the military installations on Cape Cod.

Soldiers from Camp Edwards would march up the Davisville Road to train for amphibious landings. The children who lived on the Davisville farms stood on the roadside and poured fresh strawberries into their helmets.

Strawberry growers tried to adapt to the wartime conditions. They held a picking competition between the sailors at Woods Hole and the soldiers at Camp Edwards. In 1944, German POWs at Camp Edwards went to work picking strawberries.

Tony Andrews

Antonio de Andrade, born in 1905 on Cape Verde, arrived in Providence as a 21-year-old sailor. He changed his name to Tony Andrews, and with his uncle bought 17 acres of land in East Falmouth in 1927. They cleared it and farmed it and expanded it to 50 acres. Nearly half had strawberries growing on them.

Tony Andrews bragged he could plant 5,000 strawberry plants in one day without machinery. But as pickers got hard to find, Andrews turned his farm into a successful pick your own operation during the mid 1950s.

Postwar development gobbled up the Falmouth strawberry farms, which dwindled to 150 acres in 1955, then to 12 in 1984. Of those, eight belonged to Tony Andrews. He died in 2006, and his seven children put the farm on the market. In 2018, the Town of Falmouth bought the farm for $2 million.  People can still pick strawberries on it in June.

With thanks to Sopas, by Lewis A. White, Strawberry Farming by Jennifer Stone Gaines and The Emerald Family of East Falmouth by Richard Kendall. 

Images: Strawberries By Marcus Vegas from Tallinn, Estonia – Delicacies, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4208712  St. Michael’s By Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=92988433. Vintage images of Falmouth via youtube, St. Anthony’s, Falmouth, MA, Living History.

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