By K.S. Bartlett, Boston Globe, July 23, 1937
In a clearing beside a winding, tree-bordered dirt road is something interesting to all New England agriculturalists. Here, in orderly rows, are planted scores of blueberry bushes, their low branches laden with big berries in all stages from new green ones to the deep azure globes of ripened fruit, a demonstration that blueberries can be successfully cultivated for the market in this part of the country. He doesn’t make the claim himself, but Ernst Makechnie was probably the first to cultivate blueberries commercially hereabouts, and his is the largest, if not the only, blueberry farm near Boston.
Among the bushes are some grown from parts of plants brought from New Hampshire by Makechnie nearly 25 years ago. Today a dozen youngsters were picking the ripe berries, sifting and grading them before they were put in boxes sealed with transparent paper. With them worked Mr. Makechnie’s son John, on vacation from the trade school where he is learning to be a printer.
An epiphany in New Hampshire 30 years ago
Mr. Makechnie, a slight, bespectacled man, well past middle age, walked across Locust Street from the combined cottage and garage he built himself years ago and talked of blueberry culture in general, but specifically how some 30 years ago, vacationing in New Hampshire, his favorite amusement was going blueberrying. That’s where the idea of cultivating the berries came to him.
One day when he was in Stoddard, NH on a blueberry hunting trip, he found a single bush covered with truly enormous berries. He pulled up parts of it; blueberry bushes have a sprawling type of root which makes it possible to divide the bush. These parts he took home and planted in a peach basket he had filled with the peaty, acid soil which blueberries need.
The plants thrived. Later, he sent samples to Dr. Frederick V. Colville of the Bureau of Plant Industry of the US Dept. of Agriculture, who was conducting experiments in New Jersey in blueberry culture and in the hybridation of blueberries. Dr. Colville said the berries were the largest he’d ever seen. Incidentally, Mr. Makechnie credited Dr. Colville with having done more than anyone else to make possible the cultivation of blueberries.
This is when Mr. Makechnie began the cultivation of blueberries in earnest. His first and greatest difficulty was to find the right kind of soil in the right town. Two years passed before he found the right place and he declared yesterday that it was a Boston Globe ad that finally brought him what he wanted. The ad was seen by a broker and as a result Mr. Makechnie purchased what had been part of the Loami Baldwin estate in Burlington and Woburn. He cleared some land and planted his first bushes. Three or four were parts of the big-berried bushes he had found in Stoddard. The others were grown from seed he had brought down from New Hampshire.
A hobby turned serious
Although he still considers his cultivation of blueberries more a hobby than a business, it had developed greatly with the years. Usually each March he has taken cuttings — three or four-inch twigs, each with several leaf buds and no fruit buds. He described in detail, producing government publications with sketches by way of illustration, how these cuttings are cared for until they can be finally planted. Later he showed some of the young bushes.
“Blueberry plants are not touched by any insect to my knowledge,” he said while standing over a saucerful of big, deliciously-flavored berries. “I’ve heard a small red spider is sometimes found on the bushes, but they apparently do no harm. Why no insect touches them I don’t know.
“The greatest difficulty is suitable soil. It must be acid. In fact blueberries may be said to be at one end of the soil scale and rose bushes at another. Rose bushes like an alkaline soil. Blueberries like peaty soil.”
Still teaches violin
He is a musician of note and has a school in Somerville, the Makechnie Violin School, where he employs a number of assistants and had many pupils. Besides his work with the blueberries and other activities about his Burlington farm, Mr. Mackechnie still gives some lessons on the violin. He was a pupil of Julian Eichberg in Boston as a young man and later studied in Paris. He developed, he said, an original method of teaching music. His three children, John, Elizabeth and Lois, each play an instrument. And Lois, who is 12 and a student at the Union School in Burlington, is already a violinist of much promise. Elizabeth is much more interested in dancing.
The two girls, as well as John, sometimes help in the blueberry picking, but most of this work is done by boys and girls from the neighborhood. Those picking yesterday seemed to be having a good time, and before they left early in the afternoon, most of them took their turns at the see-saw set up in the little grove beside the house, known as the “front parlor.” It wasn’t close enough to determine whether the suspicion of blue about their lips was berry stain.
Ernst Makechnie also was a political activist. He was president of the Massachusetts Teachers’ Federation, an early effort to combine the clout of local teacher groups. He also spoke before the state legislature and pushed for a “social sciences” curriculum that would utilize a crew of traveling lecturers. They would steer children away from “vices” and toward more virtuous behavior, and help them unlock their creative potential. “To stimulate the power of pupils to think — to think originally, to think constructively.”