Caribou celebrates homegrown inventor of frozen french fries

Posted Oct. 24, 2013, at 10:52 a.m.
Bidding is open until Nov. 22 on 10 potato barrels designed and painted by local artists for O.P. Pierson Days last month. On display at the Caribou Wellness Center, the barrels will be sold through a silent auction via the City of Caribou website (www.cariboumaine.org) and the Caribou Parks and Recreation Department (kathy@caribourec.org) 207-493-4224.
Courtesy Caribou Parks and Recreation
Bidding is open until Nov. 22 on 10 potato barrels designed and painted by local artists for O.P. Pierson Days last month. On display at the Caribou Wellness Center, the barrels will be sold through a silent auction via the City of Caribou website (www.cariboumaine.org) and the Caribou Parks and Recreation Department (kathy@caribourec.org) 207-493-4224.
Olof Powers Pierson
Photo courtesy City of Caribou
Olof Powers Pierson

Caribou native Olof Powers Pierson is credited for many inventions during his engineering career, but the one mentioned in newspapers from Boston to British Columbia when he died in 1993 was the mechanism for producing frozen french fried potatoes.

On the day Pierson would have turned 107, his hometown launched an annual celebration in his honor. O.P. Pierson Days drew residents and visitors to downtown Caribou Sept. 26-28 for a variety of activities recognizing the city’s inventive native son.

Organized by Kathy Mazzuchelli, director of Caribou Parks and Recreation, the weekend celebrated local culture and creativity with live music, athletic events and games for kids. Ten local artists were invited to depict Caribou’s agrarian heritage in paintings on potato barrels, which will be sold through a silent auction with bidding open until Nov. 22. Antique cars, tractors and pickups rolled into town and displays at the local library and historical museum highlighted Pierson’s accomplishments.

“He had a brilliant mind,” Mazzuchelli said of Pierson. “People can relate to the frozen french fry, but our goal is to focus on his ingenuity and creativity. He had an insatiable desire to learn and create. We wanted to reintroduce the community to O.P. in the best way.”

Predicting that future celebrations might include “invention conventions” for kids, she added: “It’s more to teach kids to aspire, to reach higher goals. I believe there are other inventive minds out there.”

Pierson was employed by H. C. Baxter and Bros., a canning and food processing company in Hartland, Maine, in the 1940s when he reported that it would be possible to freeze french fried potatoes. At the time he was the plant engineer in charge of quality control and new product development, including dehydrated potatoes for the U.S. Army.

“He had a very inventive mind,” recalled Harrison McCain, chairman of McCain Foods, at a memorial service for Pierson in Caribou in November 1993. “The frozen french fry was O.P. Pierson’s idea. Much of the equipment to make them couldn’t be bought commercially, so he built the individual machines to get the work done.”

The first frozen pack of french fried potatoes was developed under his direction at H.C. Baxter Co. and was marketed by Birds Eye Co. in Caribou in 1947.

As a potato consultant, Pierson set up the original McCain’s french fry plant in Florenceville, N.B., and in later years served as a consultant on food processing and potato storage for the United Nations Food Organization, traveling to Brazil, Greece and Poland.

Pierson’s other inventions included a steam peeling system, used in processing potatoes and other root vegetables, and a continuous shallow fat fryer to cook french fries. He invented a vine puller to remove tops of potatoes before harvest, believing chemicals (such as top-kill) would one day be banned from food products. He also developed the first portable potato washer, pallet boxes for potato storage, an early mechanical potato harvester, and a clean-burning oil space heater for storage facilities called the Silent-Glow.

“He got more excited about making things work than making money,” his son the late Hugh Pierson said at the time of his father’s death.

Mazzuchelli agreed. “He would have been wealthy if he’d had a marketing mind,” she said, describing the fascinating contents of his journals, now at the Caribou Public Library. “And the nice thing is he brought [his talents] back to Caribou. He was interested in helping our farmers. He brought Birdseye to Caribou. He kept it local.”

A 1923 graduate of Caribou High School, Pierson earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and a master’s in aeronautical engineering, both from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was a test pilot for MIT, a lieutenant pilot in the Army Air Corps and the first president of the Portland Jetport.

Ninety years after his high school graduation and almost 20 years after his death, Pierson’s children and grandchildren gathered in Caribou to help the community remember him, enriching a celebration the city intends to repeat in years to come.

“To me, he was just Grandpa. I had no idea he did all these things,” Pierson’s granddaughter Karin Pierson Mullins of Cordova, Alaska, told the local newspaper during O.P. Pierson Days.

His daughter Kristi Perrow of Millinocket and Naples, Fla., remembered her father as “soft spoken, a total gentleman and humble,” a man who did not talk about himself. “Just a guy from Caribou.”

A former economic development director for Caribou, Perrow said she appreciated the amount of work represented in the successful three-day celebration. “What an honor for our family,” she told the local weekly. “I hope my father’s story can be an inspiration for kids growing up in Caribou.”

Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at kathryn.olmstead@umit.maine.edu or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.

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