Penobscot County farmers ‘woke up’ to potato market as rail transport grew

Posted Feb. 14, 2010, at 5:18 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

Ah, for those good old days when you could buy a freshly slaughtered rabbit for supper at the open-air farmers market in downtown Bangor in the depths of winter. “The fine weather of Tuesday morning brought a large number of farmers to Pickering Square with a corresponding number of purchasers,” the Bangor Daily Com-mercial reported on Feb. 5, 1910. “One thing noticeable was the profuse number of apples for sale. Green Mountain, Northern Spies, Baldwins and Russets of fancy quality were on sale at from $1.25 to $1.50 per bushel … .” Also for sale were butter, chickens, rabbits, fowls, celery, lettuce, potatoes, turnips, onions, squash, beets and cranberries.

Locally produced potatoes were getting most of the publicity back then. The family farm was in decline, and the “abandoned farm problem” was discussed in the newspapers. Mainers were still moving out West — or sometimes to Aroostook County, “the Garden of Maine” — in search of better opportunities. Could the lowly potato help save farming in Penobscot County, and, by the way, help bring back those good old days when Bangor was a shipping center for agricultural products as well as lumber?

There had been an “ENORMOUS INCREASE” in potato production, trumpeted a Commercial headline on Jan. 15. “Kenduskeag Valley Climbs Ladder of Potato Fame,” the headline continued. New investments in storage houses and trolley cars were fueling the boom.

“This year’s shipment of potatoes from East Corinth, Kenduskeag and Charleston is indicative of a great growth in the potato-growing business in Penobscot County, especially along the line of the Bangor and Northern branch of the B.R.& E. Co. [Bangor Railroad & Electric Co. — the trolley company and the forerunner of Bangor Hydro Electric Co.],” said the story. “Not only have natives of this section shown enterprise in increasing their acreage greatly, but men from Aroostook County, recognizing the possibilities of the soil here, have come into this part of the state and begun operation on a large scale.”

The previous fall two potato storage houses had been built in East Corinth by H.E. Ross & Co. and by A.E. Patterson. The trolley company had laid a side track to the Ross house to pick up potatoes brought there by farmers such as George Elliott, who had recently delivered a two-horse load of 150 bushels. Charleston had no potato house as yet, but one had been built at Kenduskeag by N.M. Foss of Fort Fairfield.

It was estimated that 80 percent of the crop along the Kenduskeag was being hauled to Bangor on the trolley line, while the rest arrived in wagons. The trolley company had hauled 161 carloads of potatoes for the 1908 crop. The 1909 crop had required 202 cars so far with an estimated 500 more still to come.

Of course, some of this increase in activity had to do with efforts by the trolley company to attract farmers’ business with attractive rates and services. The great gain had come in spite of the fact that potato prices were better last year than this year, said the Commercial, a clear indication of the “remarkable advance in potato growing.”

This remarkable advance was only one sign that Penobscot County farmers were “waking up to the possibilities of the present,” a Commercial story had said the month before, on Dec. 10. The upswing in farm products passing through the Queen City reminded the writer of the old days when “load after load of country produce was wont to come to Bangor to be distributed by water to the markets of the cities, for Bangor, as a port, was the great distributing center of eastern Maine. And later, when the railroad was built through from Waterville [completed in 1855], there were storehouses by the tracks, and part of the produce brought in from the farms was carried off by rail.” Once again farm products in great quantity were being moved through Bangor’s streets to the Maine Central sheds where potato buyers were on duty.

Waxing nostalgic, the writer continued, “Many in the city today remember the time before the railroad came through to Bangor, when the city was entered day after day by loads upon loads of country produce. These loads of farm stuff did not come in only from the nearby places but from a long distance. From Skowhegan they came and from other places as far away as that.

“Bangor was the great shipping point and the vessels took on more than their millions of feet of lumber and timber and thousands of bundles of shingles and laths, — they took on also all sorts of produce and sailed away with it to the cities. There will never be an absolute return to those days for there is much opportunity for rail shipments from many points now; but there surely is a gratifying gain in the quantity of farm produce raised near Bangor, as is shown by the arrival of more and more teams with such produce for delivery to the railroad.”

Alas, the increase in potato production in southern Maine was only temporary. “The mild boom did not last,” wrote Clarence Day in his book “Farming in Maine, 1860-1940.” “The acreage devoted to potatoes dropped drastically between 1909 and 1919 and then more slowly for the next twenty years. In 1939, the crop ‘down state’ was 3.8 million bushels, or only half of the crop in 1859, eighty years earlier. Potatoes were no longer an important crop in central, western and southern Maine, except in a few small isolated areas.” Aroostook would remain the potato empire for a while to come.

An illustrated collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns titled “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” is available at bookstores. Comments about this column can be sent to him at wer@bangordailynews.net.

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