Tales. Days in Paradise.
The first thing I thought when I recently came
upon the old Bangor
Daily News photo of the Canadian Potato Blockade was that
decades of low farm gate prices have taken a heavy toll on the Maine
Potato Farmer. As recounted by old-timers and direct observation alike,
for decades prices Aroostook farmers receive for their potatoes have
been distressed and regularly depressed by the import of Canadian
In 1980, motivated by sheer frustration, March
brought about coordinated efforts by Aroostook County potato farmers to
physically close the U.S. - Canadian border to subsidized Canadian
farmers dumped their low-priced potatoes into the roadway
at nine different Aroostook County Ports of Entry. Authorities did not
take kindly to the farmers' plight. The protesting farmers were met
with swiftness and billy clubs by humorless Maine State Troopers.
Sad numbers tell the rest of the tale. In the
mid-1970s we had 1200-1500 Maine potato farmers who grew 147,000 acres
of potatoes, 70% for fresh 'tablestock.' Today we're down to one
hundred Maine potato farms which grow around 52,000 acres of potatoes,
most of them destined for processing into McCain's French fries or
Potato Barrel Era.
The second thought generated by the Blockade photo
was closer to home, "They're Bridgewater Barrel barrels." Bridgewater Barrel Company was
the last-mill-standing of the former dozens of County
barrel operations which had annually built many tens of thousands of
12-peck cedar Potato Barrels found universally - and used iconically at
Harvest - on every
Aroostook potato farm. Thrifty Maine farmers invented the world's most
efficient barrel-centric potato harvest system inspired by an idea
gleaned from the import of wooden barrels of fertilizer brought in to
boost yields. In Aroostook, barrels reigned supreme from the 1890s
until the 1960s and 1970s which then saw the wholesale switchover from
hand harvest crews and potato barrels to mechanized potato harvesters
and bulk body trucks.
The brightness of the barrels' cedar staves in
that photo - the freedom from weathered bleaching - showed they were
new. The barrels' proportions and taper were distinct and familiar. Those were definitely Bridgewater
Barrels. I know because I was a cooper at Bridgewater
Barrel. And while it wasn't appreciated at the time, those 1970s
winters when we were making barrels were to become the last waning days
of the Potato Barrel era.
Barrel Business Cycle.
Like any business there was a cycle to the potato
barrel business. Winters were spent making barrels ahead for Spring
demand. We'd "make" until planting time when, with farmers all out in
the field, barrel demand would dry up. The last job of the Spring -
before we were let go until the next Winter - switched over from making
to sawing out the tongue-and-grooved staves. For weeks we'd breathe in cedar
sawdust - tasting it in every sandwich - and saw out 5,000 staves a day
- sixteen went into every barrel. Over the Summer and Fall
the staves would dry out and become seasoned.
Back in my bachelor days, during the Winters I
worked at Bridgewater Barrel. At peak, we'd have four coopers "making."
We each made fifty barrels a day and we got paid $0.80 piece rate per
barrel. Forty dollars a day was big money in Maine back then.
Most of the crew would come in to work around 6:30
AM. Glen Lunn - one of the "nailers" who would pound and clinch a
single nail through every hoop on every stave - would arrive at 4:30
AM. I would get up at 3:30 AM to first milk the cow. If everything went
right, I'd have my fifty barrels done by 2:00 P.M. coffee break and
have the afternoons to tend to the farm and do chores in the daylight.
It was cold those Winter mornings. Glen had dual
citizenship and lived on the Canadian side, right beside the Prestile
Stream. Our ritual was to first compare notes on the morning's cold. When I'd report -25ºF on our
upland farm, Glen would typically come in with an honest -40ºF
- everyone knows that cold settles in the valleys.
Inside, the uninsulated wood "cooper house" would
be frigid as well. The side room which housed the two large
water-filled concrete vats called "hoop tanks" - where the Micmac's
hand-shaved brown ash hoops were soaked to soften up before use - would
usually have a skim of ice on top of it. We'd start a fire up in the
ancient large pot-belied wood stove using cedar waste wood.
The dry cedar burned hot and fast. You could hear the cedar crackle
from across the room.
One needed this morning warmth just to get fingers
to work. Gloves were never used. A nailer's business - of course - was
nailing and that demanded bare-finger dexterity. But even coopers
pounded sixteen five-penny nails through sixteen staves into "heads"
(bottoms) and a single nail to temporarily position and secure each of
the six ash hoops (pronounced 'hups') which had been "lock" notched at
the precisely fitted correcet point.
Fire and Snow.
By the time the rest of the crew arrived two hours
later, the cooper house was warm and comfortable. By 9:30 A.M., with
four wood-fired down-draft barrel stoves cranking out serious
sauna-like heat, the coopers would have shed their shirts and were
working bare skin, sweating
like it was a hot hay day in July. Not a bad experience to
have in bone chilling January.
barrel stoves would "cook" the partially assembled staves and dry "set"
the bend in the stave permanently, thereby taking pressure off of the
hoops. With repetitive efficiency, one set-up barrel would be cooking
while the predecessor-cooked-barrel was being made. Every once in a
while a barrel would cook for too long and catch on fire. When that
happened someone would matter-of-factly open front door to the cooper
house, and the cooper would unceremoniously fling the burning barrel outside
into the snow. After the requisite (and deserved) cat
calls and howls subsided, it was back to work for everyone. Piece rate
has the uncanny ability to generate discipline even to those whom it
goes against their native natures.
At Bridgewater Barrel, we would make two hundred
barrels a day; in the course of a week, one thousand. To this day, the deafening din of
adzes and hammers pounding, the daily thermal progression from icebox
to sauna, and the deep, rich
smell of roasting cedar wood barrels remain a vivid and
So are the stories - like the day Bing Crosby
stopped in town on his way through for a fishing trip; or the time when
the 1930s gangster bank robber sped through town with careening Bangor
police cars hot on his tail and bullets flying in both directions -
told as noontime dinner drew to a close and before the pounding would
start in again. But those are tales for yet another day.
Here for Our Wood Prairie Farm Organic Maine Certified Seed Potatoes.