Business and Labor

Flashback Photos: The 1940 Maine Potato Harvest

Trucks waiting outside starch factory in Caribou, Maine.

Trucks waiting outside starch factory in Caribou, Maine.

During the 1940 Maine potato harvest, the Town of Caribou bustled with commercial activity. It was an agricultural boomtown, the largest potato shipping hub in the world during the first half of the 10th century.

Caribou had been a sleepy backwater until the arrival of the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad in the 1890s. Potato farming took off in the surrounding Aroostook County, and other industries  sprang up around it — like the starch factory pictured above. U.S. Farm Security Administration photographer Jack Delano noted there were almost 50 trucks in the line. Some waited 24 hours for the potatoes to be graded and weighed.

Potato fields in the vicinity of Caribou.

Potato fields in the vicinity of Caribou.

During the 1940s, Maine produced more potatoes than any other state. Today Maine ranks eighth.

Children gathering potatoes on a large farm near Caribou.

Children gathering potatoes on a large farm near Caribou.

Andrew Mooers grew up on a Maine potato farm. He remembers what it was like to pick potatoes. He writes in his MeInMaine blog:

Picking potatoes was every kid’s entry level job. The one where the kid buys his own winter jacket. Takes better care of it because he does.

Maine potato harvest means getting up in the dark. Listening to the local radio station to see if Farmer Bass, Smith, Fitzpatrick, Winship is picking today. When the harvester crew is suppose to show up ar Corey Farms. Studying the weather forecast. Putting on long underwear because you can see your breath as the sun rises. But by early afternoon, you’ll be peeled down to a t-shirt.

Schools in the area didn’t open until the potatoes were harvested.

Field hands on the Woodman farm.

Field hands on the Woodman farm.

During the harvest season the field hands worked from sunrise to sunset. Delano’s caption for this photo reads, “Digging potatoes on the Woodman Potato Company farm eleven miles north of Caribou, Maine.”

Harvesting potatoes.

Harvesting potatoes.

Not all the potato farms were large. Above, a family harvests potatoes on a small farm six miles north of Caribou.

Horse-drawn potato

Horse-drawn potato digger.

Some farmers still used horse-drawn potato diggers in 1940, though many used tractors.

Loading barrels of potatoes onto a truck.

Loading barrels of potatoes onto a truck.

In Aroostock County, noted Delano, the farmer speaks of his potatoes in terms of barrels rather than bushels or sacks. Above, barrels of potatoes are loaded onto a truck to be taken to a storehouse.

Farmer with potatoes.

Farmer with potatoes.

Above, a French-Canadian potato farmer waits with a truckload of potatoes at a starch factory in Caribou for his potatoes to be graded and weighed.

hoisting potatoes

Hoisting potatoes.

Here a worker hoists and dumps potatoes in a storage barn on one of the farms of the Woodman Potato Company.

Starch factory along the Aroostook River.

Starch factory along the Aroostook River.

Inferior graded potatoes ended up at starch factories like the one pictured above.

Products exhibition in Washington, D.C.

Products exhibition in Washington, D.C.

The better ones may have ended up here!

Photos courtesy Library of Congress. 







  1. Daniel C. Purdy

    November 8, 2014 at 6:41 pm

    Many of the schools still shut down for a couple of weeks for the harvest.

  2. Pat Brown

    November 8, 2014 at 7:57 pm

    Hard workers.

  3. Jonathan McCredy

    November 8, 2014 at 10:54 pm


  4. Claire Duncan

    November 9, 2014 at 3:40 am

    I remember picking potatoes. I was very little. My great grandfather was one of the Columbia Jacksons. He became very well known in the industry for creating 11 new hybrids. There’s a book in the Colebrook Library about him. He gave a lot away to those in need. No surprise he also became a statesman in New Hampshire.

  5. Beth Rand

    November 9, 2014 at 8:40 am

    My family life growing up on Randmere Farms in Sherman , Me

  6. Angie Rossignol Hoffman

    November 9, 2014 at 9:48 am

    I lived in Van Buren not far from Caribou and I picked those potatoes from six years old til 17 yrs old. I miss a lot of those yrs but not potatoe harvest.I do love this picture.

  7. Patty Jackson

    November 9, 2014 at 10:32 am

    I too am from Van Buren and I too remember picking potatoes. It was quite a learning adventure and taught a lot skills. You had to be up before the sun and got home well after dark. All you had time for was breakfast, work, washing up, dinner and bed. Not many had their new school clothes until after harvest.

  8. Kevin Nichols

    November 9, 2014 at 11:40 am

    My hometown! We moved b4 I was old enough to be out of school for harvest.

  9. Gil McLaughlin

    November 9, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    Certainly brings back memories!!

  10. Linda Streeter

    November 9, 2014 at 2:55 pm

    Oh those cold mornings in the potatoes field….you left your jammies on under your pants and 3-4 pairs of socks. But at the end we could buy our own school clothes and if you worked hard enough you had a little to put away for movies and Christmas presents.

  11. Connie Kittle Aldrich

    November 9, 2014 at 3:17 pm

    Beautiful photo-

  12. Jan Colyear

    November 9, 2014 at 3:49 pm

    This is very true Ray !!

  13. Carole Schryver

    November 9, 2014 at 5:04 pm

    On our way home from Caribou we stopped at a roadside stand for potatoes. The lady was very friendly, but she did let us know”you’ve got to be tough to live up here”.

  14. Marie Mitchell

    November 9, 2014 at 7:23 pm

    Pretty neat!!

  15. Gregory Harding

    November 9, 2014 at 9:09 pm

    That was before we showed them how to grow them in Idaho

  16. Linda Lowery

    November 10, 2014 at 4:09 am

    I love hearing about US History! Thanks

  17. Pingback: Needhams, The Potato Candy Sacred and Peculiar to Maine - New England Historical Society

  18. Pingback: The Great Maine Potato War: The Year the Spuds Didn’t Show Up - New England Historical Society

  19. Pingback: Cracking the History of the Uncommon Common Cracker - New England Historical Society

You must be logged in to post a comment Login

Leave a Reply

To Top