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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Viola Pepper and the Unforgettable Chigger Attack

It's well into July and the blueberries are plentiful here in southern Jersey. Jackie and I stopped by a blueberry farm outside of Nesco the other day and brought home two flats of the delicious purple fruit. They rank high on my list of favorite fruits, as they are so versatile. They're great by the handful, on cereal, in pancakes, in pies and, my favorite, in blueberry buckle.

Blueberry Buckle

Jackie has a delicious blueberry buckle recipe that she got over 30 years ago from Minnie Shropshire who was our neighbor when we first moved to New Gretna. We first tasted Minnie's buckle when she had us over for cake and coffee, shortly after we moved in. What a delightful way to meet a new neighbor!

Minnie Mathis Shropshire
Photo courtesy of Murray & Jean Shropshire Harris

The other evening Jackie served up ample portions of Minnie's blueberry buckle recipe. I couldn't help thinking of Minnie as I attacked the large piece of buckle on my plate. Unfortunately, it also brought back a memory that is better forgotten - the episode of Viola Pepper's blueberry patch and the attack of the invisible chiggers.

You have to know what a chigger is and the torment they can cause to the unwary blueberry picker to understand my reluctance to recall Jackie and my unforgettable run-in with the invisible skin burrowing insect.

Chiggers are tiny insects that live in grassy environments such as an overgrown blueberry field. They jump on one's ankles and work their way up the legs, burrowing into the skin to feast and lay their eggs. The results are often welts and the worst itch that you can imagine. Their mayhem can last up to a few very uncomfortable weeks. There are many over the counter and home remedies to relieve the terrible itching but none that I have tried seem to work as well as I would like.

I found the following regarding chiggers on an internet site. It seems to pretty well sum up a chigger attack.

Chiggers first show up as annoying red bumps. An itch begins. It grows. More hard red welts surface. From your feet and ankles upward, and especially at those tender locations your mother told not to scratch in public, a maddening itch takes hold.

Savage scratching begins. Every welt becomes a persistent, exquisitely itching preoccupation that continues to irritate for days and even weeks. You probably recognize these symptoms of chigger bites. Yet we never see the culprits responsible for this summertime agony.

A chigger

Chigger bites around the ankle

Shortly after we moved into our North Maple Avenue home in New Gretna, Jackie and I met Minnie's daughter, Jean, and her husband, Murray Harris who visited with Minnie for the summers. Jean and Murray were the adventurous type who took us on excursions in New Gretna and throughout the Pine Barrens. One of these first adventures was a visit to Viola Pepper's blueberry patch behind the present day New Gretna Post Office.

Jean and Murray Harris in their younger days.

The blueberry patch was originally owned by Caleb Earle Cramer, known locally by his middle name, Earle, and his wife Viola whom he married in 1912. Earle died in 1948 and Viola remarried Harry Pepper, from Tabernacle, in 1956. By the time Jean and Murray had taken us to pick blueberries, Harry had passed on and the blueberry field was known simply as Viola Pepper's blueberry patch.

Viola's field was no longer a working field and had largely grown over with weeds and grass. Local people would enjoy a morning or afternoon of picking berries. We were happy to join in the local practice. The berries were delicious and the price was right. Little did we know the consequences of our blueberry picking adventure.

After an enjoyable afternoon of picking, we returned home and cleaned and sorted the berries. Some were placed in a bowl for fresh eating and some were packed in smaller containers and frozen for eating over the winter months. That evening Jackie made her first blueberry buckle and we went to bed content with our day's efforts, unaware that we would have a night that would be long remembered each time we ate blueberry buckle.

Jackie and I spent that night with little sleep as we both rubbed and scratched our ankles and legs until they were red. We couldn't seem to get any relief from the unstopable itching which we found puzzling. The next day we mentioned our uncomfortable night to Jean and Murray who told us about the dreaded chiggers and the precautions of getting out of your picking clothes as soon as you got home from the blueberry field and taking an immediate shower. I remember replying, "Now you tell us!"

We suffered through a week or so of "the chiggers" until we finally got some relief as they ran out their course. Needless to say, we learned our lesson regarding blueberry picking.

Unfortunately, I don't have any photos of our memorable blueberry picking adventure with the Harrises; however, I do have some old photos of other New Gretna-ites and Tuckertonians picking in Viola's field in the 1940's and 1950's that I am happy to share with you.

Pete S

PS- Anyone else out in the Blog-O-Sphere have any chigger stories or stories about picking at Viola's blueberry? If so, I'd like to hear from you.

Note the South Maple Ave. houses in the background

1 comment:

  1. Ah, yes, chiggers and blueberries. Somewhere around 1950 or so, we spent some time in NG visiting my grandparents. It was decided I was bored-no other kids my age around-so I was sent to pick blueberries. And, I assume, this was at the field noted in today's article. Yup, you guessed it, a day or so into my employment, the chiggers showed up. My grandparent's remedy was to bathe my bites in kerosene each night before going to bed. Then, in order to avoid further contagion, I was ordered to wear heavy socks and to tuck the hems of my pants into them. Of course, the itching went away in due time but the memory lingers on. BTW, I have memories of picking huckleberries in the area, too. And, stories of ticks associated with that activity. My Aunt Jeannie Magee got Lyme's disease that way, I think. Unfortunately, her doctor poo-pooed that and by the time it WAS diagnosed to be Lyme's it was too late for the treatment. So she suffered the effects for the rest of her life.
    Beverly Mathis Robinson