Plymouth, Mass. — Legend has it they were on the first Thanksgiving table in 1621. At that time the Indians used the word ''Sassamanesh'' to describe the tart, red berries that grew wild on vines in the sandy soil near here.
Later, the Pilgrims - intrigued by the resemblance between the berry's pink blossom and the head of a crane - gave their own name to the fruit: ''crane berries.''
Since then, they've come to be called cranberries.
This year Massachusetts farmers - some working in bogs not far from Plymouth Rock - have just completed a record cranberry harvest, thus ensuring the Bay State's traditional position as the nation's largest producer of cranberries. (Wisconsin is ranked second, followed by New Jersey).
Estimates place the harvest - which ended in the last weeks of October - at more than 1.4 million barrels (one barrel equals 100 pounds). Total cranberry production in North America this year is estimated at more than 2.9 million barrels - also a record crop.
Less than a decade ago such a demonstration of productivity and efficiency in the bogs would have almost certainly rewarded cranberry growers with a cranberry-glutted market and the threat of depressed prices. Americans could down only so much cranberry sauce during the holidays.
Despite a distinguished track record spanning more than 350 years in sauces, jellies, and breads on Thanksgiving and holiday tables across the United States, the bright red berry still hadn't managed to break out from under the shadow of a turkey to become a full-fledged, year-round fruit.
Then came juice.
Cranberry juice, in and of itself, was nothing new. One recipe dates back to 1683. But what was new in the late 1960s and early 1970s was the creation of a cranberry drink that tasted good to people other than those New Englanders who had a stake in liking cranberry juice. Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc. set out to develop a drink that an entire nation could grow to love.
And if some folks just didn't like plain cranberry juice, then Ocean Spray had an answer for that, too. The Plymouth-based company - a cooperative of 750 farmers nationwide who grow 85 percent of North America's cranberries - diversified into a number of cranberry-based concoctions. These came to be called Cranapple, Crangrape, and Cranicot.
And that's not all. On the drawing board at Ocean Spray are Cranraspberry and , for youngsters, Crantastic, a blend of five fruit juices.
Though cranberry juice had been developed at Ocean Spray in the 1960s and was selling fairly well, the company had not made a large-scale investment in it. What followed in the 1970s was a pooling of growers' resources and a subsequent push to make cranberry a household word.
While cranberry juice isn't exactly threatening to bump soda pop as the national drink (though it is the official state drink in Massachusetts), it has helped build a significant and loyal following of thirsty Americans who would rather drink a beverage that is natural and healthful.
What this means for cranberry farmers is that in one way or another more Americans than ever before are consuming cranberries - particularly in months other than the November and December holidays. And that's good for the cranberry business.
''We do believe the North American cranberry is a truly unique fruit,'' says Ocean Spray president Harold Thorkilsen. He adds, ''We do everything we can to optimize the value of the raw product.''
Ocean Spray sales in 1983 are estimated at $417 million, up by more than 15 percent over last year. Of that, more than 60 percent of sales revenue comes from cranberry-based drink sales, 15 percent from cranberry sauce sales, and 10 percent from fresh fruit cranberry sales. The remaining revenue comes from citrus and apple juice sales.
But Ocean Spray and its member farmers aren't the only ones benefiting. The gains realized by the members of the Ocean Spray cooperative have also helped boost sales for independent growers by helping create a nationwide taste for cranberries.
''In the 1960s and early 1970s we found ourselves year in and year out in a surplus situation which would depress the value of the cranberry,'' says John Decas, manager of Decas Cranberry Company, Wareham, Mass., the largest independent (non-Ocean Spray) cranberry grower in the US. ''In the last five years the industry has not been able to grow enough cranberries. It isn't a matter of how much we can sell, it's a question of how much we can put out.''
Mr. Decas, whose family-based business grew 7 million pounds of cranberries this year, admits that Ocean Spray has done much to make cranberry-growing a more lucrative business. But he adds, ''If it weren't for a few small independents like ourselves there wouldn't be any competition in this industry.''
The competition - as it exists - is primarily in the sale of cranberries as fresh fruit. That is the seasonal market extending from October to January when the fresh cranberries are bagged and sold fresh in grocery stores. The Decas Company brand, Paradise Meadow, is one of only two brands of fresh cranberries distributed nationwide. The other?
Modern marketing isn't the only force bringing change to the cranberry business. The business has developed through a steady series of innovations ever since 1816, when Henry Hall of Dennis, Mass., noticed that cranberries in his Cape Cod bog seemed to grow larger and juicier where a layer of sand had blown over the vines. Now sand is regularly spread over the bogs.
A more recent example of Yankee ingenuity has been the installation of sprinkler systems in bogs that are automatically triggered if the berries are threatened by a fall frost. The spinklers create a thin coating of ice over the berries and keep them from being destroyed by frost.
Some sprinklers are controlled by sensitive monitoring equipment that can be programmed to telephone a cranberry farmer at home and diligently notify him in a robot-like voice of the current status of his bog.
The annual search for the ''best and the brightest'' cranberries - as one Ocean Spray promotional film puts it - begins shortly after harvest when the berries are put through a battery of tests to separate the hard, ripe berries from the rotten berries.
The cranberries are required to bounce over four-inch-high wooden barriers. Each berry is given seven opportunities to prove it has the right stuff. The berries are also subsequently sorted by hand before being routed either to a freezer, a juice press, a sauce kettle, or into plastic bags headed for grocery shelves.