Life and Times
Elizabeth Coleman White was the first person to grow cultivated blueberries for commercial production. She teamed up with Dr Frederick V. Coville, who became a well-known plant breeder, to do this.
She was born 5 October 1871 in New Lisbon, New Jersey. Her parents were Mary Fenwick and Joseph J. White, both Quakers, who ran a business called “J.J. White” on a 3,000 acre cranberry farm they called Whitesbog. She was the first of four children to be born to them, all daughters.
In 1887, Elizabeth graduated from Friends Central School in Philadelphia and went to work on the farm. Over the next few years, she also did courses at Drexel University in topics such as first aid, dressmaking, etc., but decided she was actually really was interested in the farm business.
In 1910, she went up against the National Child Labor Committee who said that children helping harvest cranberries were poorly treated industry-wide; in 1914, she got them to print a retraction.
In 1911, Elizabeth read a report by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) on the work of Dr Frederick V. Coville, put out the previous year in 1910, on raising blueberries domestically. She invited Colville to do some of his research at her farm; he accepted.
She hired some wild blueberry pickers to locate for her and Colville blueberry bushes which had relatively large fruit that tasted good. Elizabeth and Coville took cuttings of these bushes back to the farm and started growing them and crossing them. In 1916, she and Colville got some cultivated blueberry bushes to produce a crop of 600 quarts. (A by-product of the time of the year, July / August, when she got pickers to first look for her meant that all the plants they bred at first ended up being late season plants.) One of the most famous varieties they developed they named the “Rubel.”
Elizabeth at first had been shipping blueberries to market covered with brown paper to stop them from spilling out of their baskets. But after seeing cellophane on candy, she realized cellophane would do the same job, and allow consumers to see the fruit. She was the first one to ship blueberries in this way. She also ran a blueberry bush nursery and sold the bushes.
She was also interested in holly plants and sold them through a separate business, Holly Haven, Inc.
Even though she was the business person in the family and clearly astute, her father didn’t leave the business to her when he died, because she was a woman. Instead, he left it to one of the men one of her sisters had married.
In 1923, she built her own house on the farm, and called it “Suningive.”
In 1927, she organized the New Jersey Blueberry Cooperative Association.
Elizabeth died of cancer 11 November 1954, aged 83. Her ashes were spread on the farm. She never married.