Plucky little cranberries have grown for millennia amid sandy soils and short summers of southeastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod.

The Pilgrims explored and then settled this same area in 1620 — and celebrated the first Thanksgiving the following year. 

"When the Pilgrims first set foot on Cape Cod, even before they saw Plymouth Rock, they may have well stepped on the American cranberry," Richard S. Cox and Jacob Walker write in their book, "Massachusetts Cranberry Culture: A History from Bog to Table." 

Their 2012 book is a romantic ode to the quirks of New England history, geography and culture — and of its low-growing fruit.


It "seems doubtful," however, that the Pilgrims even noticed the cranberries.

"For all its tasty charms, the cranberry is hardly the sort to attract attention," Cox and Walker say in their book.

Marcus Urann

Marcus Urann was born in Maine in 1873 and became a Massachusetts cranberry farmer. He invented a way to can cranberries as sauce in 1912 and helped found Ocean Spray in 1930.  (Photo courtesy University of Maine/Raymond H. Fogler Library Special Collections)

The tart, colorful cranberry's native habitat around the Pilgrim settlement in Plymouth, and its ascension to a uniquely vibrant place on America’s Thanksgiving dinner table, are something of a coincidence — and a 20th-century phenomenon. 

Credit cranberry king Marcus Urann, a true innovator of American agriculture. 

"When the Pilgrims first set foot on Cape Cod … they may have well stepped on the American cranberry."

Urann, most notably, invented cranberry sauce — at least the commercial canned cranberry jelly central to Thanksgiving celebrations nationwide today. 

The bookish boy from Maine became an influential college scholar and then a Boston attorney before giving up the bar for the bogs.

Urann purchased cranberry farms in Massachusetts early in the 20th century. He introduced a way to put cranberries in a can in 1912. 

Cranberry farmers

Workers from Harju Brothers Cranberries wet-harvest one of their cranberry bogs on Main Street in Plympton, Massachusetts, on Oct. 4, 2019.  (John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Cranberries are one of the few fruits native to the northern United States. But they have only a brief autumn harvest from late September to early November and a short shelf life.

Fresh cranberries were known only in a few areas of the nation that possess the right combination of sandy soil, long summers days and long winter dormancy.


Urann turned this hyper-local fruit into an international industry — and changed the flavor of gratitude in the United States.

"Marcus Urann was very influential in expanding the cranberry market," Brian Wick, executive director of Massachusetts Cranberries, told Fox News Digital.

Portrayal of first Thanksgiving

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth in 1621, painting from 1914. Private Collection. Artist Brownscombe, Jennie Augusta (1850-1936).  (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

"And that influence is still felt today."

His influence is also felt today far from the soil and of the cranberry bog — in the halls of American academia.  

‘Let the love of learning rule humanity’

Marcus Libby Urann was born on Oct. 3, 1873, to Marcus M. and Chestina Urann in Sullivan, Maine, a tiny Downeast town on Bar Harbor. 


He described himself as a "bookworm" in one letter. He attended the University of Maine, where he became an undergraduate scholar of great renown and great vision.

He was apparently aware of the gift of his intellect at a young age. He was also raised to believe, or grew to believe by college, that those born with great gifts were also born with great responsibility to the nation.

Phi Kappa Phi

Later known as one of the founders of Ocean Spray, Marcus Urann established the prestigious national Phi Kappa Phi scholarship society as a student at the University of Maine in 1897. (Photo courtesy University of Maine/Raymond H. Fogler Library Special Collections)

He founded a society of elite students at the University of Maine to charge the school's best and brightest with using their intellect for the wider good. 

It's known today as Phi Kappa Phi, a nationwide honor society of the nation's best students.

"An analysis of the men in my class convinced me that some of our brightest men were in danger of contributing less to society … than their ability justified." — Marcus Urann

"Under the leadership of student Marcus L. Urann, who created the bylaws and constitution for the organization, the group formed the Lambda Sigma Eta Society," Phi Kappa Phi states today — recognizing Urann, more than 125 years later, as the father of the program while a student.

cranberry sauce

Cuban-style cranberry sauce photographed in Washington, D.C.  (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

"Upon Urann's graduation, the school's president Abram Harris led the way for promoting the Society." 

His society was renamed Phi Kappa Phi in 1900, from the letters of the Greek words forming its motto, Philosophía Krateítõ Phõtôn – "Let the love of learning rule humanity." 


The group soon found advocates at Pennsylvania State College (now University) and the University of Tennessee, before spreading nationally and internationally.

Phi Kappa Phi chapters are found at more than 325 campuses in the U.S. and at schools as far away as the Philippines.

It remains true to Urann's mission to "engage the community of scholars in service to others."

cranberry bush

Cranberrybush (Viburnum pauciflorum), 1923. Artist Mary Vaux Walcott.  (Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

"An analysis … of the men in my class convinced me that some of our brightest men were in danger of contributing less to society, to the university and to the state, than their ability justified us in expecting," Urann wrote of his endeavor in 1924.

"I wanted the ability of the high-rank man to be made most useful to society; also, I was looking for something which would be an inspiration to all students to work for high rank and I believed that uniting those men who were interested would be helpful."

Urann himself became an attorney in Boston after graduation. But in 1906, he decided to give it up to buy cranberry bogs in and around Cape Cod and Plymouth. 

'Simple, insignificant-looking plant’

Pilgrim Edward Winslow provided our only contemporary account of the first Thanksgiving. He mentions only fowl and deer, and "our harvest being gotten in."

The harvest certainly included corn, scholars believe. 

The rest of the "harvest" upon which they feasted is unknown.

Cranberries growing on a vine.

Cranberry plants growing in the Johnston's Cranberry Marsh (before the marsh is flooded) during the cranberry harvest in Bala, Ontario, Canada, on Sept. 29, 2023. The farm has 27 acres and produces around 300,000-400,000 lbs. of cranberries per year.  (Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images)

"But there is no evidence the Pilgrims had cranberries at the first Thanksgiving," said Wick of Massachusetts Cranberries, despite the fact they are one of the few fruits native to North America that grow in the northern United States.

It might have just been overlooked — as authors Cox and Walker suspect. 

"There is no evidence the Pilgrims had cranberries at the first Thanksgiving." — Brian Wick

They cite colonial settler John Josselyn, who wrote in 1672 that the cranberry is nothing but "a small trailing plant" and a humble vine "that grows over Salt Marshes that are overgrown with moss."

Benjamin Eastwood, touted by Cox and Walker as one of the cranberry’s "greatest promoters," spoke only in humble terms of his beloved fruit. 

He called the cranberry a "simple, insignificant-looking plant" and a "stunted barren thing."

cranberries in Foxbor, Mass.

Spectators watch as Liam Grosschedl, left, and Rob Rubini, right, both of Beaton's Cranberry Growers Service in Wareham, gather floating cranberries with rakes as they corral about 10,000 pounds of them during Ocean Spray's Fall Harvest Celebration Oct. 19, 2019, in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Paul Connors/Media News Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images)

Urann saw the cranberry differently. He saw a global industry crawling along the bogs of Massachusetts. 

"After he set up cooking facilities at a packinghouse in Hanson, Massachusetts, he began to consider ways to extend the short selling season of the berries," Smithsonian Magazine reported in a 2013 history of cranberries.


"Canning them, in particular, he knew would make the berry a year-round product."

In 1912, Urann began processing gelled cranberries in cans — cranberry sauce.

"As modest as this seems, Urann's maneuver was revolutionary," write Cox and Walker. "For a fruit that had been marketed almost exclusively as a fresh product, it was a radical proposal to cook and to can."

Cranberry sauce

Large stack of Ocean Spray Jellied Cranberry Sauce cans, typically eaten around the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S., Danville, California, Nov. 22, 2021. Photo courtesy Sftm.  (Gado/Getty Images)

Most importantly, cranberries could now be sold to consumers far from where they were grown. 

Urann pioneered other innovations in cranberry farming, too, including the process of wet-harvesting cranberries. 

"For a fruit that had been marketed almost exclusively as a fresh product, it was a radical proposal to cook and to can."

The tiny berries were usually plucked from dried vines by migrant workers. But cranberries, each filled with four chambers of air, float easily. 

Urann realized the bog could be floated, the berries agitated from their vines, and easily rounded up while floating in the water. 

Urann teamed up with fellow leaders of cranberry farming John Makepeace and Elizabeth Lee to create Ocean Spray, still headquartered in Massachusetts to this day.

The name is synonymous with cranberry juice and cranberry sauce. 

Ocean Spray is one of the world's most successful farming cooperatives. It's helped spread cranberry farming around the country and around the world — and put cranberry juices and sauces in international markets. 

Cranberry harvest

Workers harvest cranberries at a cranberry farm on Sept. 28, 2006 in Carver, Massachusetts. Every autumn cranberries ripen, coloring the landscape crimson. There are over 14,000 harvested acres of cranberry bogs in Massachusetts.   (Matt Moyer/Getty Images)

Ocean Spray cranberry sauce remains its signature product. The company first sold its cranberry sauce nationally in 1941 — its ridged cranberry gel a familiar site on Thanksgiving tables around the United States.

‘Everything in life is what you do for others'

Marcus L. Libby died on April 1, 1963 in Hanson, Massachusetts, where he rests in a family plot in Fernhill Cemetery. 

"I do believe that anyone can do anything that he really desires to accomplish," Urann wrote as a young man 1924, explaining the history of Phi Kappa Phi. 

Cranberry farmer Marcus Urann

Marcus Urann was a Massachusetts farmer who revolutionized the cranberry industry — and American Thanksgiving dinner — by canning cranberry sauce in 1912. He helped found Ocean Spray in 1930.  (Photo courtesy University of Maine/Raymond H. Fogler Library Special Collections)

He lived by that example throughout his life.

"A recognized giant of the cranberry industry," The Boston Globe wrote in his April 4 obituary, dubbing Urann the "Cranberry King."

"He bought his first cranberry bog on [Cape Cod] in 1906. During the next 30 years, he built his bog holding into a complex throughout southeastern Massachusetts."


The report of his death added, "He formed a cooperative which eventually dominated the industry, and organized a canning operation which grew into the industry’s single biggest buyer and distributor."

Cranberries were available only in the autumn and only fresh when Urann bought his first cranberry bog in 1906.

Cranberry sauce

Table with elegant place settings and turkey motif during an American Thanksgiving meal, with cranberry sauce visible, Lafayette, California, Nov. 26, 2020.  (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

Ocean Spray reports today that fresh cranberries account for only 5% of the fruit's production — a testament to the exponential explosion of the industry inspired by Urann.

They are sold internationally as sauce in juice, much as Urann first conceived in 1912.

The United States is easily the world’s largest grower of a fruit essential to the flavor of its national holiday dinner table. 


American farmers grow twice as many cranberries as No. 2 Canada and about 20 times the production of third-place Chile, according to data from the Cranberry Institute in Carver, Massachusetts, next to Plymouth. 

The state of Wisconsin, meanwhile, surpassed Massachusetts decades ago as the nation’s top cranberry grower. 

Cranberry harvest and Marcus Urann

Workers wet-harvesting cranberries from a bog in Massachusetts, on the left; on the right, cranberry king Marcus L. Urann.  (John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images’ and photo courtesy University of Maine/Raymond H. Fogler Library Special Collections)

Six out of 10 Americans say that cranberry sauce has and always will be on their Thanksgiving table, while more than one third say they "can’t live without" cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving, according to Ocean Spray. 

Cranberry bogs remain a signature of the landscape in the land of the Pilgrims.

"I felt I could do something for New England. You know, everything in life is what you do for others." — Marcus Urann

"For Massachusetts and for this region, they’re so much a part of our history and our culture," said Wick. "They’ve been part of a fabric of our region from Indigenous people until today."

Urann saw what cranberries could be far beyond the land of the Pilgrims.

"I felt I could do something for New England," Urann told the Associated Press in a story that ran around the nation on Thanksgiving in 1959. 


"You know, everything in life is what you do for others."

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