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A Forgotten Vashon Berry

David Church’s Mother heard crying coming from across the road.  It was 1940, and Mrs. Church was cleaning up after breakfast, having seen her five boys off to school.  They lived at Center, so the boys went to Burton.  She wiped her hands and walked outside where she saw Peter Erickson lying face down in his gravel driveway.  Peter was a Vashon berry farmer, older than dirt and had cut his hand badly.  He   was crying from the pain and the frustration that he couldn’t get up.  Mrs. Church helped Peter up and took him home to bandage him.  Only then did Peter stop crying.

Peter was small in stature and extremely polite in the manner of the Swedish people.  In 1909, he had taken his berries to the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition where he won a blue ribbon and met the famous horticulturist, Luther Burbank.  They became friends and Burbank gave Peter permission to cross his famous loganberry called Phenomenal with the wild-black cap of Vashon, creating the famous and succulent Olympic berry.  Peter patented and raised the Olympic berry which became so popular that Frederick and Nelson bought out his whole crop to provide their bakery which then made them into what was called a “queen’s tart.”

The amazing size and sweetness of the Olympic Berry spread far and wide.  John Sweetman’s parents and grandparents raised these berries on Bainbridge Island where the old barn and house still stand.  Maybe we could find Olympic berries among the brambles of the abandoned farm.  Or, if you are looking for Olympic berries on Vashon, you might check with old Lee Smith.  Lee can be found at the Burton store most mornings, when he comes down off the hill to drink coffee with his friends.      

We were in the kitchen at Cove, and Mom was cooking up a storm.    It was canning season and the berries were ripe and fat on the vines. Steam from the boiling berries was fogging the windows as Mom got the jam ready to put into the small jars that she sealed with boiling hot paraffin, to keep the air away from the jam, thus preserving it. Our Olympic berries were stickery to pick, sweet on the tongue and made jam or jelly that lasted all winter.  Mom’s berry pies had perfect flaky crusts, as she was a third-generation expert pie maker. The cuts in the crust let some of the juice out, painting  the top of the pie red.  We had four one-hundred foot rows that produced enough berries to sell some to Mukai’s packing plant.
I remember the three-pound empty coffee cans we had to pick in.  They hung around our necks on hay string, and when they were heavy with berries, the cord would cut into the back of our necks.      Brother Mike was always whimpering about one thing or the other.  He was Mom’s pet and got out of picking whenever he could.  

When Mom made jam, she always saved some out to squeeze to jelly because Dad couldn’t take the seeds.  They got stuck in between his false teeth and under his plate, so Mom made jelly for Dad that us kids weren’t supposed to touch, not because it tasted better than jam, but because it was “off limits.”  

“Give me the bag, it’s my turn,” Mike yelled at his sister.  When Mom made jelly, she boiled the berries up and then filled a cloth bag which is then tied to a cupboard door and swung out over a large bowl to be left there to drip until it had cooled enough for us kids to squeeze.  Mike turned from his squeezing and held up his purple hands for us to see.
Our house and five acres at Cove were sold long ago and the carefully trimmed rows of Olympic berries are gone.  Nobody knows why the Olympic berry disappeared, but somewhere on Vashon these vines exist.