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Jestine Thomas
Thomas Blueberry Farm – Hartford MI

Herald Palladium Correspondent
August 7, 2013

Bringing home the berries
Jestine Thomas, 77, still farming 18 acres of blueberries
It’s a hot summer day and Jestine Thomas of Hartford has just returned from her blueberry farm – make that two blueberry farms – where she she’s starting to harvest Jerseys, a late crop berry.

It’s been a busy week for Thomas. She just put 200 pounds of blueberries in the freezer for four area restaurants – Coloma Café, Mill Creek Charlie, the Panel Room and Copper Grill, which are all owned by her relatives – to use in the winter for pies and cobblers.

The weeks before weren’t any easier. Thomas also grows Berkeleys, a type of blueberry she says needs to be picked by hand (the Jerseys luckily can be harvested by machine). Between the Berkeleys and Jerseys, Thomas farms 18 acres and last year harvested 105,000 pounds.

When thinking of all this hard work, consider this: Jestine Thomas is 77 years old.

“I had one buyer who said, ‘Jestine, why are you still doing this at your age?’” Thomas says. “But it gives me something to get out of bed for and it keeps me busy.”

Thomas learned to farm at an early age.

“I was a migrant,” she says. “We lived in Missouri and came to Michigan every summer to pick fruit and when the season was over here, we’d go to Indiana to pick tomatoes and then go back home. But then my dad got a job at New Products and we stayed here.”

She was 17 when she met 18-year-old Dan, her future husband whose family had moved from Alabama and had a farm in Watervliet.

Thomas says he would hunt with trained coonhounds.

“He came over to hunt with my dad,” she says of their first meeting.

The two were married for 57 years and had three children, all of whom now live within 3 miles of her and raise blueberries as well.

Though both Dan and Jestine had farming backgrounds, they didn’t start farming at first. Dan Thomas worked as a master mechanic for a company in Benton Harbor, but when they closed their doors, the couple moved to Hartford. Though Thomas had always been a stay-at-home mom, she started working a couple of hours at the Tastee Freeze in Hartford, a job that morphed into full time. The couple also bought 10 acres for growing blueberries, eventually buying more farmland until they were farming 50 acres. But as Dan became ill, they sold off or rented much of their acreage. Now Thomas has two farms where she raises blueberries and other crops, and she rents.

“When Dan died in 2010 and I thought I’d keep the farm for two years and then sell it,” Thomas says. “Now it’s been three years and I still have it, so I guess I’ll keep it until I die.”

During the years since the Thomases began growing blueberries, the fruit, considered a superfood, has skyrocketed in popularity, with consumption going from 15.5 ounces per capita in 1995 to 39.5 ounces per capita in 2011. And Michigan is the No. 1 state in highbush blueberry production, with growers producing more than 100 million pounds of blueberries every year, according the Michigan Blueberry Growers Association.

“My mom still farms, puts out a garden and she drives a Harvester,” says her daughter, Teresa Babb of Hartford. Babb farms 15 acres of blueberries and works as a school secretary at Red Arrow Elementary in Hartford. “She’ll stand at the rows, picking blueberries that the machine didn’t get. Her blueberries end up at Mc-Donald’s in the blueberry parfaits.”

Despite her hard work, Thomas also takes time to have fun. She recently took some of her blueberries to the Lawrence Farmers Market to sell.

“I had a good time, seeing some people, listening to the music,” she says. “I even did some singing.”

The following recipes are courtesy of Jestine Thomas.
Blueberry Delight

Don Campbell – HP
For Filling:

2 cups blueberries 1/4 cup sugar 2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 cup water 16-ounce can crushed pineapple, drained


8 ounces cream cheese 1 cup powdered sugar 16 ounce container Cool Whip 1/2 cup chopped nuts

For the crust:

1 cup self-rising four 2 tablespoons sugar 3/4 cup margarine 1/2 cup chopped nuts
Press filling into bottom of a 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes in a preheated 350-degree oven.
Let cool.

Place blueberries, sugar, cornstarch and water into a heavy saucepan and cook until mixture thickens. Remove from heat and cool. Add drained pineapple. Mix. Add to cooled pie crust.

Mix cream cheese and powdered sugar together. Then fold in container of Cool Whip. Spread on top of blueberry mixture. Sprinkle chopped nuts.
Blueberry Pizza
 1 pie crust, uncooked
 1 cup sugar
1 cup flour
1/2 cup margarine
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups blueberries
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Place pie crust on the bottom of a pizza pan. Crimp the edges as you would a pie. Mix sugar, flour, margarine and cinnamon together. Place blueberries on the pie crust. Sprinkle topping on top.

Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes. Then reduce heat to 350 degrees and cook for 15 to 20 minutes.

Serve as you would pizza.
Glazed Blueberry Pineapple Pie
Grand Prize winner of the 2009 Berrien County Youth Fair Baked Fruit Pie Contest
1 crust pie pastry, your favorite recipe, baked
Pineapple Filling:
1/2 cup sugar 3 tablespoons cornstarch 1 20-ounce can pineapple tidbits, liquid reserved 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice 1/2 teaspoon coconut extract, optional 1/2 cup pineapple juice Blueberry Filling:

3 cups blueberries 3/4 cup sugar 2-3 tablespoons cornstarch 3 tablespoons butter, sliced Topping:

1 cup flour 1/3 cup brown sugar 1/3 cup white sugar 1/2 cup butter, sliced 1/2 cup chopped nuts 1/4 cup flaked coconut, optional 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon Glaze:

1 tablespoon melted butter 1 cup confectioners’ sugar Dash of lemon or pineapple juice
Pineapple Filling: In large saucepan on medium heat, combine sugar and cornstarch. Add pineapple and lemon juices and coconut extract. Stir constantly, bringing mixture to a boil and cook for 1 more minute. Cool. Then add pineapple. Pour into cooled pie shell. Refrigerate 1 hour or overnight, then continue to make blueberry filling when pineapple is cooled and set.

Blueberry filling:
Combine blueberries, sugar and cornstarch in large bowl. Let set for 10 minutes to dissolve sugars. Pour berry mixture into large saucepan on medium heat. Cook until slightly thickened and take off heat and let cool 10 minutes while you mix up topping.
Topping: Mix sugars and flour. Cut in butter to make small crumbs. Add nuts, coconut and cinnamon and mix.

Glaze: Mix ingredients until glaze is at desired drizzling consistency.

To assemble: Pour blueberry filling over pineapple filling, to make second layer. Dot with butter and sprinkle topping over top of filling. Bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes or until filling bubbles and topping is golden. Let pie cool drizzle with glaze.
Jestine Thomas of Hartford has been making Blueberry Delight, popular with her church fellowship, for the past eight years. At 77, Thomas still farms 18 acres. Last year, she harvested 105,000 pounds of the berries.

Click here to read more about Justine’s Teresa Babb, another incredible cook!

Information for this web site was gathered from personal interviews, newspaper articles, scrapbooks, personal photo albums, and other documented materials - many available to the public at the Hartford Public Library or Van Buren County Historical Museum.  Please report any typographical errors, updated information, or incorrectly stated information to the webmaster for correction.  Reprinting for personal and instructional purposes is permitted, however, unauthorized commercial reprinting of this information or unauthorized linking to photos-pictures on this site is strictly prohibited without written permission from the webmaster. 

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Pearls In Our Past - Hartford Michigan
A Pictorial History of Hartford Michigan
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Revised: March 23, 2009