One thing Wisconsinites can count on is that life is going to look a little brighter in the fall. The colorful foliage that dresses up the landscape at this time of year just has a way of lifting the spirit. If you’re in need of such a lift, we suggest you head to cranberry country where it’s not just the leaves that will be in full color. Even better, it won’t be just your spirit that gets a boost—you’ll also learn about one of the state’s key agriculture industries.
The Warrens Cranberry Trail, a 22.5-mile loop of rural roadway that passes two dozen cranberry marshes, is covered in crimson during the peak of harvest time, typically the first three weeks of October. The vibrant scenery, plus the chance to watch the harvest in progress, makes this the best time of year to take a cranberry tour.
“That’s when it’s most enjoyable,” said Nodji Van Wychen, a third-generation cranberry producer who owns and operates Wetherby Cranberry Company with her husband, Oakdale Electric Cooperative Director James Van Wychen; their son, Henry; and son-in-law, Michael Gnewikow.
Like many of the other cranberry marshes along the Warrens trail, most of which are served by Oakdale Electric Cooperative, Wetherby’s has been a family-owned business for many years—in Wetherby’s case, more than 100. Another common characteristic among these cranberry operations is that they’re prolific producers.
To fully appreciate the significance of this bit of roadway, consider this: Wisconsin leads the nation in cranberry production, harvesting an average of 5.5 million barrels a year, according to the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association. In fact, more than half the world’s supply of cranberries is grown on Wisconsin family farms, generating $1 billion in state economic impact and providing thousands of local jobs.
The largest concentration of the state’s cranberry growers is in the Tomah/Warrens/Wisconsin Rapids area, and this self-guided auto tour winds through the very heart of it. It’s entirely possible that the cranberry juice you might enjoy with breakfast, and the cranberry treats and dishes that will soon grace holiday tables everywhere, originated right here in a marsh in Warrens, the Cranberry Capital of Wisconsin.
That said, October is a busy time of year for cranberry producers. As you drive along the Warrens Cranberry Trail, keep in mind that all the marshes along the route are operational. Please enjoy watching the procedure from your vehicle and take care to not block the road.
Rest assured though, keeping to your vehicle won’t deprive you of the view. With the sea of bright red berries and the fall colors of the surrounding forested uplands, a cranberry bog is a visual feast in October. This is when you’ll see the bogs as most people might expect them to appear—a stretch of clear blue water with clusters of cranberries floating on the top.
However, cranberries do not grow in water, despite what many people think. They grow on low-lying vines in soft, sandy soil, often near wetlands. When harvest season comes round, the bogs are flooded in order to yield the berries.
“The fruit immediately floats to the surface because each berry has four little air pockets inside,” Van Wychen explained. Berries are loosened from the vines and corralled to a corner of the bed where they’re loaded onto a waiting truck.
The harvest scene can easily be taken in from the roadside. However, the Wetherby Cranberry Company offers a closer look, as well as a chance to take some fresh cranberries home, right from the marsh. This is the only operation along the route to offer on-site cranberry sales during the harvest season. Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 and weekends from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (weekend on-site sales are only available during October), visitors can stop at Wetherby’s as they travel the trail to shop for fresh cranberries, dried cranberries, Wetherby’s signature cranberry wines that are produced on-site, and cranberry blossom honey.
While there, visitors will get a closer look at cranberry production, as the store is located right outside the warehouse.
Wetherby Cranberry Company also hosts a couple of public events, including Harvest Day on the first weekend of October, where guests can don a pair of waders to step into the bog for a colorful photo opportunity. This year’s Harvest Day weekend is October 2 and 3. Also, Wetherby’s offers personalized group tours, available by reservation (see below).
Educational Opportunities at Wetherby Cranberry Company
Do you want to learn a little more about how cranberries are produced? Who better to learn from than a third-generation cranberry grower, right on site of an operation that’s been producing cranberries for more than 100 years? Wetherby Cranberry Company offers personalized cranberry tours for individuals or groups of up to five people. Owner Nodji Van Wychen takes tour guests out to the bogs by vehicle for an up-close look at how cranberries grow. Tour guests also get to see the sorting and packing operations.
Tours last an hour to an hour and a half, for a flat fee of $100. Reservations are required; call 608-378-4813 Monday through Friday. Tours are limited, so make your reservations soon.
In addition to offering personalized tours, Wetherby’s hosts a couple of public events each year. Reservations are not needed for either of these events:
• Cranberry Blossom Day – Last Saturday in June
• Harvest Day – First weekend in October
Wetherby Cranberry Company is located at 3365 Auger Road, Warrens, WI 54666. To learn more visit freshcranberries.com.
You can hop on the Warrens Cranberry Trail at any point, but the Cranberry Discovery Center, located at 204 Main St., Warrens, is a great place to start. Housed in an historic cranberry warehouse building, the discovery center features an interactive exhibit hall where you can learn all about the cranberry industry and its impact in Wisconsin.
From there, cross the train tracks on Main Street and turn right onto County Hwy. EW to begin your marsh tour. The following marshes—all located on Oakdale Electric Cooperative lines—are among the cranberry operations you’ll drive past.
The first is the Gebhardt Cranberry Marsh/Whiskey Creek Cranberry. This operation is distinctive for being one of the newer marshes in the area, having begun in 1968.
A couple miles down the road is Russell Rezin and Son Cranberry Marsh, started in 1918 and now operated by the fifth generation of Rezin’s descendants.
Farther along on County Hwy. EW is the James Potter Cranberry Marsh, with the Potter Cranberry Company just ahead. This is one of the oldest marshes in the Warrens area, established in 1871 and owned by the Potter family since 1912.
From there you’ll come to a sign for Wetherby Cranberry Company. Continue on Augusta Road until it intersects with Crampton Road, where you’ll see a sign for Beltz Cranberry Company. Fun fact: Some of the Ocean Spray commercials featuring the two comical cranberry growers were filmed here.
Turn left on County Hwy. HH and you’ll see a sign for Premier Partners. Russel Case bought this land in 1876, and his grandson Bob built one of the first mechanized cranberry pickers; one of his early raking machines is on display in the Cranberry Discovery Center.
Also on this road is Scott Cranberry’s East Marsh, started in 1870, purchased in 1918 by Judge John Stevens, and settled by his daughter and son-in-law Genevieve and Archibald Scott in 1921. It’s currently operated by the fifth generation of the Stevens/Scott family.
Farther down the road is the JR Nemitz Cranberry Company, and past that is Walworth Cranberry LLC.
Turn left on O and you’ll pass Sand Creek Cranberry Marsh before coming full circle to the Cranberry Discovery Center. This is a great opportunity to replenish yourself with some cranberry-flavored ice cream in the center’s old-fashioned ice cream parlor before heading home, bringing your cranberry cruise to a sweet end. —Mary Erickson
Learn more about Warrens cranberry marshes, including the self-guided auto tour, by visiting visitwarrens.net. Learn more about the Cranberry Discovery Center at discovercranberries.com or by calling 608-378-4878.