Screening houses part of local history

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This article appeared in the May 2 edition of the Old Colony Memorial.

Amidst the ruddy bogs that blanket Southeastern Massachusetts, a few old screening houses lay in repose. The building sags inward, gently leaning to one side as if it were weary from the ravages of time. The tight rows of windows that once made indoor screening possible, are cracked or boarded up. After decades of neglect, the former mainstays of the cranberry industry gently decay.

Screening houses were once ubiquitous around cranberry country, but changes in the industry – new technology, new methodology and the rise and fall of prices – lead to the destruction of many of these buildings and their history.

Perhaps because of how common these buildings were, people did not think to ask from where those buildings came. So as one by one the buildings fall, so too has their history.

For Mack Phinney, a Wareham resident and preservationist, the story of the screen house is one that needs to be rediscovered and recently he started researching and lecturing to get others interested.

“It’s an effort to rediscover and preserve something that’s culturally important to this area,” Phinney said.

Phinney thinks that there is a certain symmetry to the history of the screening house. He believes that they began as bog-side barns, primarily for storing equipment and boxes rather like any farmer would use a barn. In the early days of the cranberry harvest, friends and family outside on great tables would sort the good berries out from the trash picked up by the scoops.

Being outdoors had the natural advantage of sunlight, which made separating out the little bits and pieces relatively easy. The primary disadvantage was one of weather. Since cranberries are harvested in the fall, the tedious work of sorting was done in the cold. At some point, cranberry growers decided that things would go a lot faster if the screeners weren’t freezing. So was born the modern screening house.

“They weren’t junky shacks, they were well made,” Phinney said.

Much of the same sturdy construction that went into barns went into screening houses, after all until the advent of water picking in the 1960s they were the backbone of a cranberry operation. The craftsmanship was equaled by the thought that went into the design of the buildings. Walking around a screening house will reveal some of the tricks that their builders used to maximize the cranberry harvest.

First is the light.

“You need plenty of sunlight to be able to screen,” Phinney said.

Bringing that light in starts not with the building itself, but where it lay. Most screening houses were built on the north or northwestern edges of bogs so that there would be flat, empty plain in front of the windows. Inside of the screening room, where the work gets done, the walls were generally whitewashed. The white walls reflected light and made the rooms brighter, which was helpful before the spread of electric lighting. T

he windows, while they were not particularly special, were also telling.

“You could count the number of screeners by the number of windows,” Phinney noted.

While there were windows all around screening houses, on the screening room there is typically a tightly packed row of windows to give each worker as much light as possible. Naturally, when light bulbs came along, cranberry growers were quick to include those in the design of these buildings.

Cranberries also last longer in a cool, dry place and the buildings were designed to foster that environment. Moisture was kept away thanks to open foundations and wooden construction that let air in and kept the wet away from the berries. Attics and storage areas attached to the screening rooms further allowed for environmental control, letting the screeners work in warmth and the berries to chill.

The bog-side screening house started to fall into disuse for many reasons, two in particular. First was the growing commercialization of the cranberry industry. While cranberries began as a communal affair – villagers picking berries by hand from town-owned bogs – cranberries, like other agriculture, became an industry. Distributors and collectives centralized their sorting operations along the rails to reduce costs and take advantage of newer sorting techniques and machinery.

The second reason was a change in harvesting technique. Cranberries were first picked by hand, which required very little sorting after the fact because it was already being done in the field. When the scoop was introduced to speed up the harvest, it brought along rotten berries, stones and sticks and the later introduction of mechanical harvest brought in still more trash.

Water harvesting, which rapidly became the standard, got rid of the need for a lot of screening. Refinements in the mechanical technology, including someone finding out that ripe berries bounced, got rid of the rest.

“After they stopped screening, screening houses just became storage sheds,” Phinney said.

For many growers, the buildings also became a liability and as they burned or collapsed they began to disappear.