The long standing tradition of picking Maine potatoes, when harvest hand crews reined supreme, kids were king.
My Dad a farmer claimed that potato pickers, the rag tag motley crew of mostly kids did the best job. Leaving less behind in the field. Picking them clean as the field boss walking by would remind.
Hand crews dressed in layers of clothing for frosty mornings. But stripped down to just a t-shirt by noon time as barrel production was in full swing. Hit the top efficiency stride with only a short break when the tractor digger broke down. And you darted to the woods for a nature call. Or pulled up a seat with your back to a full pair of potato barrels. To tap into the food supply stash. That tasted oh so much sweeter, more delicious because of working hard out in the Maine fall fresh air and sunshine.
Both cedar stave or taller, narrower more expensive plywood potato barrels used, bought new in Bridgewater Maine from Wheeler’s Mill.
Wearing your number on the ticket flapping in the breeze. Slid into the top barrel groove wherever you could find a space to securely wedge it. To tell the world you get credit at the end of the day. When the one by one hoisted full, 165 pound barrels of golden Maine potatoes rolled to the back of a field truck got counted. Tallied up. The ticket can and all that fine Maine potato dust filtered down on to the yesterday’s newspaper. Laid out over the farmer’s kitchen table to reflect, record each pickers production efforts that day.
The Maine farm trucks cruising up and down, plying every other picked row in the potato field. Vehicles used pretty much just for a three week stint each year. Whipped into action. Thirty years old but only showing less than 7,0000 miles on the cab dashboard odometer. The triangle over and over mission from the field of the day, to the potato house bin, back to the farm headquarters was a small one.
Greater yield, avoiding the bruising and skinning of the famous Maine potato is why Dad and Mom kept very large picking crews of kids.
Harvesting, picking potato acreages that were usually table stock varieties. Burbank Russets, Katahdins, Green Mountains, Superiors, Ontarios, Shepodies, Atlantics to name a few. But all destined for a housewife’s supper table in states to the south. If they stayed good, held up in storage. If pockets of rot, or over production in other areas, too low market prices did not mess up the plan before the trip to ship to market.
Talked to Joe Fitz, a local business man from a large family who at this week’s Rotary Club meeting Monday remembered the ritual. Work hard, hand the picking check over to your mother gladly. To buy your own winter coat was part of where the earnings got ear marked. New clothes, shoes for church and school replacement wear was each child’s job, obligation. And the individual kids in the family felt more responsible for their welfare. Gave them a sense of pitching in, to help carry the load of the family household where each held down a special spot. The Maine farm potato picking job and entry level employment that sets the stage, becomes the rock solid foundation for your approach to every other work assignment.
A few dollars trickled back from your mother was part of the plan each fall harvest too.
To spend wisely. On something not so practical but that fueled, provided the steam to get up in the dark, very early each morning. To drive the process of motivation to head to the potato field. Where the local farmer needed you to show up, counted on your presence. In the field for another long day where it might rain.
Once in a while snow flurries happened, spitted, appeared on the scene. If it became too late in the game for harvesting the rows and rows that never ended. Where the section you marked out represented just long enough a stretch so you were picked up completely just as the squeak squeak squeak of the digger bed and old familiar drone of the tractor engine approached. Pasted your section providing another row of uncovered spuds to remove the tops. Shake them free and fill one of four weaved baskets of brown ash to make another barrel for the cause.
Kids did not feel picked on, taken advantage of or abused.
And all your friends were in the potato field. The norm not the exception. Trucked in riding with filed to the brim metal dinner buckets of loving prepared sandwiches, snacks. Carrying precious water jugs. As you climbed up and into the back of a canopied pick up truck. On the chain gang. The same vehicle that delivered you back to your house at the end of the long day in the farm field. To hop out, head to the bath tub, clean up for a hot meal waiting back at home.
While you thumbed through the just arrived Sears or Penney’s Christmas catalog. And between mouthfuls of supper thought about what to spend that few hard earned bucks on. That were all yours to enjoy. To make the executive decision solely by your lonesome. On where to spend those dollars. And whatever it was you bought, what you did Saturday night down town in a small Northern Maine community, you took very good care of the wise made purchase. Respected it more because of the patient selection process, study. All due to the effort it took to raise the funds, on your own wallet horsepower, to actually be able to buy the item.
Sometimes you walked away.
And left the pondered item parked back on the shelf if that was just too many barrels of potatoes in your opinion. The final conclusion to not let go of the hard earned money that easily if the value was missing. If things just did not add up in your young mind to represent a fair exchange, trade. I am so glad like my three older brothers, all my friends growing up that we all had the family farm picking potato experience. All of my kids did too. None are the worse for wear because of the valuable work ethic lesson. All think proudly of the contribution each had, the role they played each fall in Aroostook County spent out in the fields.