MAINE TALES. “Journeys and Destinations.” Bridgewater, Maine. Circa 1990. When it comes to construction, the fact is we’re farmers and not too likely to win a prize anytime soon as outstanding rural planners.
When we landed on this farm almost 50 years ago, no buildings of any sort were left standing. The last upright structure was a barn that had been hit by lightning and burned to the ground in 1962. Nearby where the barn had stood, there remained the remnants of a hastily-built horse hovel constructed back in the 1950s. The crude hovel had provided shelter for seven teams of draft horses used by loggers cutting pulpwood in nearby forestland owned by the titan Great Northern Paper Company.
So in the mid-1970s, possessing youth, ambition and very limited funds, the first build was a simple twelve-foot by twenty-foot camp for living in (outside of Maine, a ‘camp’ is called a ‘cabin’). The pragmatic camp was built over an underground four-foot concrete cellar. Then quickly following in rapid succession were built: a woodshed, barn, hay shed and icehouse. It would be two more decades before electric grid power lines were extended to our Unorganized Township on the edge of the North Maine Woods. Kerosene lamps were the order of the day, superseded by a modest solar panel array and battery bank which could power some lights and a weather radio.
In Aroostook County, Maine, potatoes have been grown for two hundred years and over time developed the habit of calling the shots. Early success in growing potatoes meant we needed more space to store our crop and a four foot cellar clearly offering several limitations. The logical next step then was to chainsaw out the old floor and raise the camp floor heavenward by a couple of feet. That alteration correspondingly reduced our living-head-space from eight to six feet. A fair trade. So, at that point potatoes rose in standing to reach full-vertical-parity with humans. The modification would offer more capacity for spuds and provided the added luxury that we wouldn’t have to be constantly stooped over when we worked down cellar.
Along came the 1980s and another building – this one made of rock and concrete – which cropped up just a stone’s throw away from the first camp. It made sense to live in new digs with a full eight-foot-tall ceiling above the solid concrete bunker destined for potatoes. The compromise would be that trapdoors would be strategically placed in the dwelling’s wooden floor. Those trapdoor-holes via the the magic of gravity allowed barrels of potatoes to be dumped through canvas potato chutes to the awaiting bins below.
The years passed and we grew. In 1990, the need for more underground became apparent. The plan was to pour an underground 20’ x 66’ concrete rectangle which would connect together our two existing but disparate potato storages. The new north-south unification would allow us to assemble and run the beginnings of an efficient potato cleaning and grading line. Our ragtag collection of potato equipment was powered by a worn-out second-hand Homelite gasoline generator which we would heft into the house every night in order to keep warm. Prayer and house warmth increased the odds of the Homelite starting up the next morning when it would be hovering around thirty-below-zero outside.
In time, atop this new long potato storage we built a second-floor packing shed. And then eventually a firewood-heated office. And then more add-on-connected insulated-sheds for carrots and root crops which needing colder storage temps – around 32oF – did not get along with prima donna potatoes.
With the new long, skinny potato storage, a predictable problem immediately presented itself. That was the need to cut through a rugged, fourteen-inch-thick concrete wall in order to gain access our new potato storage and grading area. We secured a utilitarian solution by creating a three-foot by three-foot-crawl-through entry. We carved the bear-cave-sized entry hole by first hammer-drilling into the concrete a close-pitch-series of 1 1/4” holes in a perforated-square picture frame pattern. Then we jack-hammered to smithereens the remaining isthmuses between each hole and removed the riddled concrete block.
New babies arriving in the 1990s competed for attention with potatoes as the years ticked by. We could never find the time to expand that access hole. At some point, our smarten-up pills kicked in and we figured out the best way to go big was to jettison the hammer-drill-technique. We discovered expanding the hole in the thick concrete wall was best achieved by renting a chain-saw-look-alike gas-powered concrete saw brandishing a pricy diamond-tooth cutting blade. Cutting through such hefty, solid concrete is hard work any way you go. But diamonds are a carver’s best friend and the grief was kept to a minimum. The resulting finished product was a stoop-free five-foot-wide by six-foot-high entry hole, big enough that even our battery-powered cellar forklift could drive through it.
But potatoes weren’t done with us yet. In 1999, crystal-balling the shrinking farmhand labor supply ahead, we decided to switch our potato-handling process from the age-old Aroostook system of barrels-into-bins over to four-foot-cube one-ton hardwood pallet boxes for both harvest and storage. The price you pay for getting by with less labor is that you need more room to work. This reality distilled down to needed concrete expansion into a different direction – westward – with a new 35’ x 50’ underground storage.
The fourteen-foot high ceiling would allow us to triple-stack pallet boxes, allowing six-thousand pounds of potatoes to sit in a single footprint four-feet-square. A mechanical pallet-box-dumper could then feed the mechanized potato-grading-line. That rendered obsolete the back-breaking job for a worker to shovel up with a potato fork into a hopper the potatoes which had illogically been dumped out of barrels down into bins the previous Fall.
The years went by and our Wood Prairie Organic Seed mail order business grew. As we entered the business’ fourth decade, we found ourselves bagging less-and-less potatoes into fifty-pound-cartons going out on full pallets. More-and-more we were funneling potatoes into more personal one-pound, two-and-a-half-pound and five-pound sacks dreamed of by home gardeners. It soon became apparent that to keep the potatoes from growing restless we needed to give them more elbow room.
So this time around, our expansion reversed direction and headed eastward. During the Fall of 2021 we completed the shell portion of a new 72’ x 72’ x 16’ high enlarged ICF (Insulated Concrete Forms) Packing Shed and warehouse. After recovering from that first phase of the build, this Fall we decided to take the plunge and finish up the building’s inside. Since potato harvest, we have been busy with demolition and construction work including finishing ceiling, walls, wiring, insulation, a concrete floor with radiant-heating, and new inside access to the adjacent underground potato storage complex.
It’s taken us almost fifty years and potatoes have delivered us to where we’re at today. Yes, we may be slow, and in more than ways than one, but in our own roundabout way we’ve figured out that planning ahead must be a pretty good idea. And that’s good theoretical advice, most especially when you’re wedded to potatoes and you’re driven by a hankering to build with permanency-predisposed concrete.