Life on Long Island in the 1960s – Memories of Strawberry Picking in June
By Ed Dempsey
Just like the song from the show, Carousel, where the lyrics go, “June is busting out all over!”, memories from the early 1960s of picnics and strawberry picking with my family here on Long Island burst out of my mind at this time of year. June is a month of celebrations for many reasons; the school year is winding down with graduations and proms, flowers and plants are blooming, and of course, we celebrate Father’s Day.
Dad and Mom always made sure that their children saw more of life and the world than the little town of Centereach, Long Island, where we grew up. In November, they always took us to New York City for the Thanksgiving Day Parade. Other times, they took us up to the Bronx Zoo, or to see the Empire State building.
But June was different! At this time of year, the first or second week of June, instead of going into the City, we headed further east on Long Island, all the way out to Wading River. Why Wading River? Two reasons; the first was Wildwood State Park, where we would have a picnic, and the second was the opportunity to pick strawberries for our picnic on the way to the park. The strawberries were ripe for picking in the first two weeks of June.
Wildwood State Park is a beautiful place. It’s located on Long Island’s North Shore, about 70 miles east of NYC and 30 miles east of Centereach. You can camp, picnic, go swimming in Long Island Sound, or explore the high cliffs overlooking the beach.
We usually went on a Saturday morning. Dad and Mom would pack up the car with the towels, blankets, chairs, hamburgers, hot dogs, buns and drinks needed for our excursion, and then load the four of us kids, my sister, two brothers and myself, in the car, and away we would go. The drive took about forty minutes. First we went east along Route 25, and then made a left turn at a light just before the old Grumman Plant in Calverton. There was a mobile home park on one corner of the intersection, and a big farm on the other. There was also small sign pointing north which said “Wildwood State Park,” and we would go in the direction it pointed. Once we turned onto that road there were very few houses, but a lot of farms.
The farms along the way grew a variety of crops. The corn stalks could already be seen growing out in the fields, but the sweet corn wouldn’t be ready to eat until August. There were fields with rows of lettuce and cabbage as well. But most important for us on these Saturday morning trips were the rows upon rows of strawberry bushes full of ripe berries, ready for the Dempsey clan and other families to pick.
Dad would stop at one of these farms before we got to Wildwood, and we would get out of the car and go strawberry picking. The strawberries were our picnic dessert, and we also picked enough to take home to eat later. We had to get there early to make sure there were still strawberries to pick. Other families had the same idea as us, and if we came too late, the ripe berries would all be gone.
You walked up to the farm stand and got a wooden quart basket or two. The baskets were made of thin pieces of wood which were woven together, then stapled at the top to a band that formed the rim. The basket had a thin metal handle across the top so you could carry it. After you filled your basket or baskets, you went up to the stand to pay for however many you had filled.
Strawberry picking wasn’t and isn’t easy. The plants are very low to the ground, and the berries are usually found underneath the leaves, often at the bottom of the plant. You had to bend down or get on your knees and gently move the leaves around looking for the berries. Of course, if you were hungry or found a really good looking berry you might eat it right there instead of putting it in your basket. Sometimes you would get to a plant and find that it was already picked clean by someone else.
It could be very hot in those fields, with the sun beating down. It was usually a beautiful clear day, otherwise we wouldn’t have been going for a picnic. We were dressed in our bathing suits, tee shirts and sneakers, anxious to get to the beach. Standing in the hot sun, we couldn’t wait to get into the cool water. The six of us picked about 6-8 quarts of strawberries at a time. Once we finished, we paid for them and drove to on Wildwood.
We tried to get to Wildwood as early as possible because we wanted to be able to get one of the picnic tables which had a barbeque grill next to it. The barbeques were about four feet high, built out of stone on three sides, with a metal grill for cooking embedded in them. Dad would put the charcoal in the grill, spray on some lighter fluid, and start the fire. It would take some time for the coals to be hot enough to cook the hamburgers and hot dogs. Once we set up everything for our picnic, we took the strawberries we were going to eat, washed them, and took off the green leaves on top.
Then we were allowed to the beach for awhile, so we would grab our towels and begin the walk down to the water. The park was on a high cliff overlooking Long Island Sound. To get to the beach we followed a paved road cut down through the cliffs. As we walked downhill, the cliffs on both sides of the road got higher and higher the closer we got to the water. After swimming and walking along the beach, we headed back up the road to the picnic area to eat. The picnic area was shaded by trees all around, and was pleasant and cool after the hot sun. After we ate, we went back down to the beach for more sun and fun in the water.
It was a long but fun day. We left our house around eight in the morning, and didn’t get home until seven in the evening. We were in and out of the sun and water all day. It was a wonderful family experience and a time of innocence.
The strawberries that we brought home with us lasted about two weeks. We had them for dessert almost every night, or for snacks. By the time they were gone, we had had enough of strawberries. Later in the summer if we wanted more, we bought them from the supermarket.
The irony of our strawberry picking excursions was that my Dad didn’t like strawberries. Dad is a WWII Army Veteran. When the soldiers were on the troop ships, one of the ways that the Army tried to make them feel less homesick was by providing them with as many of the comforts of home as possible under the circumstances, particularly familiar foods. One of the foods the Army supplied the soldiers like my Dad was strawberries. Lots of strawberries. Dad ate so many strawberries during the War that he didn’t care to eat them when he got back. But he thought that the idea of picking the strawberries and going on a family picnic during the first two weeks of June was a very worthwhile experience for his children.
As time passed, my family’s circumstances changed. We were all were getting older and had other interests. Dad had to work two jobs after our younger brother was born. Grandma moved in with us. It became difficult to get everyone together to make that trip out to the strawberry fields and Wildwood, but I will have those Strawberry Fields forever in my heart.
Every June, Newsday, the Long Island newspaper, has articles about all the places you can still go out East on the Island to pick your own berries, and they write about the strawberry festivals that take place at this time of year. The articles always remind me of a wonderful time we were able to share together as a family, when we were growing up.
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