Potato Recess
(and good home cookin')

Dateline: 20 September 2014

(photo link)

In Wood Prairie Farm's current newsletter, Jim Gerritsen writes that "Northern Maine is one of the last areas in the United States where schools are closed so students can help with the potato harvest." In Bridgewater, where the Gerritsen farm is, the schools are currently on a three week potato harvest break, also known as "potato recess."

I've mentioned this agrarian tradition here in the past and, should I continue to write blog posts in the years ahead, I'll likely mention it again, and again. 

My family roots are in Northern Maine. My mother's father (the man on the cover of This Book) was a potato farmer in Fort Fairfield. My mother picked potatoes every autumn for all her growing-up years, starting at a young age. She would recollect about how hard the work was, but how good it was. Most people who grew up in Aroostook county have a lot of potato-picking memories.

A few years ago, Yankee magazine published an article about Potato Recess in Northern Maine. It's a good little article. And this Facebook page... Have You Ever Heard of Potato Recess?… has the recollections of people who do.

I grew up in the suburbs of Syracuse, New York. It was a long way from Fort Fairfield. But I always knew what was going on up there because my Grandmother Kimball subscribed us to the weekly Fort Fairfield Review newspaper. The Review was an old and venerable publication that I grew up reading and admiring. 

In fact, in the Walter-Mitty-like imaginings of my youth, I dreamed of one day publishing a small-town newspaper just like the Fort Fairfield Review. I even saved copies for awhile, thinking that I would need them someday as a guide and example when I finally did get around to publishing my own Review newspaper. But I digress.

When potato harvest was big news in The Review, my mother would say that she wished I could go up to Maine and pick potatoes. The problem was, of course, getting there and back, not to mention being absent from school in New York for a couple weeks. So it never happened.

But my mother did find me a job picking potatoes in New York. It so happened that Les Ready, and older man in our rural community, grew a couple acres of potatoes every year. My mother heard that he needed help with picking and let me know about it. 

I was probably 18 or 19 years old at the time and picking potatoes sounded real good to me, especially since there was a chance to earn some money. Me and an older woman who lived up the road, along with Mr. Ready, picked potatoes all day.

We didn't pick them into handled baskets, then put them into barrels, like they do in Aroostook county. Instead, we picked them into wooden crates that Mr. Ready had made. 

It only took one long day to get Mr. Ready's potatoes picked. I remember it being cool and sunny, which is good working weather. I picked as fast as I could and Mr. Ready seemed pleased. The older woman was a steady picker and good help too.

What I remember most was lunch time. Mr. Ready's wife and daughter made lunch and it was a big deal. We all sat down to lunch at their dining room table. I was amazed at all the effort that had been put into the meal, and it sure tasted good. 

Many years later, my business partner and I were doing some remodeling work for Carlton and Esther Badman, an old farm couple in our area. Carlton told us not to bring any lunch. "Esther'll make dinner for us."

Well, I guess so! I think we worked there three days, and every day at noon we all sat down to a big home-cooked meal at the kitchen table. 

Carlton and Esther, and Les Ready, and his wife have all passed on. And with them has gone an old tradition of feeding the help a good noontime meal. 

Okay, so I've covered Potato Recess in Aroostook County, my onetime dream of being a small-town newspaper publisher, and old-time rural hospitality. I reckon that's enough ruminating for now.

P.S. After writing this, I am thinking that I've written it all before, in a past blog post. After nine years, it is inevitable that I will start repeating myself. It's what old-timers do. I may be "only" 56 years old, but that's close enough.


SharonR said...

Even if you've posted this before, I've never read anything about it, so repeating can be a good thing. :-) I do remember in the diary of your great-grandmother (?) reading about potato harvesting and selling and you talking about Arastook (sp?), but that only made this blog sweeter.

Belinda said...

It doesn't matter to me if you've written about it before, this is the first time I've read it and I loved it. Brought a tear to my eye. Those times are long gone it seems like these days. The families of today don't know what they are missing out on. I know in my own family we are spread out too far to have get togethers like we used to, and a noon day meal reminds me of that.

Anonymous said...

Crazy simularities to my life.
I helped "dig" potatoes on my grandfathers farm here in Maryland when I was younger. Only an acre or so but enough for the farm for a year. I enjoyed it very much. So much so that now I help my good friend "porkchop" grow and dig potatoes to sell. Dug 400 bushels this season and hope he doubles that next season.
Good stuff!

Cyndi Lewis said...

Well I feel much better about not doing official "school" this week with the kids. We were out harvesting our potato crop!

Anonymous said...

Same thing with doing hay. It required a lot of help and was a very festive occasion with a lot of fun and food. Now it's round bales that doesn't require the help, just a bunch of equipment to cut, bale, load, and move. Sad! There's also a lot of waste with the rounds but it suits the people that work away from the farm. They can put it out in the pasture and the animals can feed themselves.

Julie said...

I wish there were more of this. I was actually surprised this still happens within a public school system, what with child labor laws.

Mike R. said...

I was born and raised and live in southern Maine. So yes we know all about the Aroostook County Potato recess. Lots of my friends are from northern Maine. Maine in general has a long storied agricultural history and tradition. Even to this day people are very big on co-ops and local farm stands. Except for a chunk of southern Maine and Bangor most of Maine is pure raw countryside. I love it here. But unfortunately, as our society moves to inner cities and focuses the economy on megalopolis centers, family farming in northern Maine has waned tremendously. But, WE STILL HAVE THE BEST STATE IN THE NATION! 2nd amendment lovers and libertarians, hippies and homesteaders, we all get along the Maine way! This is what Maine is all about.

Mike R. said...

I forgot to mention the Common grounds county fair is this weekend. For those of you who don't know, it's a celebration of Maine agricultural traditions, and it is an educational forum for those who want to learn more about organic living, co-ops, homesteading, and many many other classic practices.


Chris said...

In Scotland UK the children still have a 2 week tatty holiday in early October,but I am not sure how many children pick potatoes, not many.

Anonymous said...

When I was in high school I bailed hay for a local farmer. 1.00 an hour. (Gas was .22 a gallon.) The thing I remember best were the dinners that Mrs. Sager would bring to the fields. Incredible!!! Every meal was like a Sunday Supper.

I had to go to Colorado last week to help move my old ma to a home. My siblings and I spent countless hours packing box after box. I was able to bring home the collection of Eric Sloane books my father had. I thought of you when I found them :-)

Herrick Kimball said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. I really enjoy reading the different opinions and experiences.

Mike R.—
Maine is truly a great state. As for the Common Ground Fair, my family went there several years ago and had a wonderful time. Every year we think we should go back, but it doesn't work out. Maybe next year….

Unknown said...

As a teen, I helped plant and dig potatoes for my grandfather and then my Dad. I even traveled home to help after I got married, even though he had only an acre or less of potatoes to dig. My Mom made us eat all the little potatoes first while they were still solid and easy to peel. The older the potatoes were, the tougher the skin was to peel. Memories.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Aroostook County, and certainly picked my share of potatoes until I was 19. It's really hard work and much has change now with harvesters rather than hand picking. I remember being paid 10 cents per barrel, with a 5 cent bonus if the picker stayed the whole harvest time. I can honestly say I did not like picking potatoes, it was just what you did, although my sister loved it, and even after we'd all moved away, she still took her vacation time to spend a couple of weeks in the fields.

ELittle said...

Hi Herrick, Just made me so nostalgic and homesick(?)watching that! I was born in 1938 so got to do a lot of that farm work. But the scooper we had was pulled by a horse till the 50's when a small tractor was used. No where near the scale and scope like in the movie though. One question, what was the Motive power used to haul the full barrels up on to the truck? A winch with a hub that spun continuously and using a slip robe to haul them up? We used something similar on the fishing boats to pull lobster pots etc. It was called a nigger head, and you just laid on a couple turns of rope and pulled on it and up they came. Slack the rope and it would stop pulling and you set the barrel/pot on the deck. I did 7, 50' rows this year all hand dug by me! Three Kennebecs, two Yukon gold and two Norland Reds for the early eating. I just loves me some "Ba-day-das" as my old Irish kinfolk called them.
As a New way to save some of them, we shredded a bunch in a cuisnart, packed them into English muffin rings and partially cooked them on both sides, on a cast iron grill pan that fit over two burners. We could do 8 at a time,nice and brown, cooled 'em and packed them four to a bag and throw them in the freezer! Instant hash browns on demand. Finish them off in the nuker or in a pan with coconut oil. Got about 120 in the freezers!