Rooftop Publications has recently released a book on northern Maine, entitled Embedded Memories: the Story of Aroostook Potato Houses. “Embedded” is a play on words since, like icebergs, most of the farm potato houses were under the surface. But according to its author, Roger Akeley, formerly of Presque Isle, “embedded” also refers its position in the unique northern Maine culture and to the notion that the image of potato houses has remained embedded in our memories.
According to Akeley, potato houses are a “visual metaphor” of a 75-year way of life, roughly from 1900 to 1975. In a recent article in Echoes, he explains this time-period as an era of the barrel, when potato production, harvest and transport were at a “human scale,” handling potatoes close up with the use of barrels for storage and transport. Fields and potato houses were full of people from time to time in order to get the crop to the market. Much of the human element has been replaced by the efficiency of large planters, cultivators, sprayers, irrigation equipment, harvesters, use of hoppers in transport, newly designed loading equipment and door-to-door truck delivery.
“The plain, everyday architecture of potato houses stayed below the radar;” according to Akeley, “the word architecture and potato houses wouldn’t even appear in the same sentence. But because they are humble, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be classified and noticed. They are the perfect expression of form follows function. The gambrel roofs, often with a ‘sprocket,” or flair at the bottom, the ventilators, the overhangs, the trim finishes, window placements, and other details all contributed to a consistently varied, but attractive farm building type. Walter Gropius, the famed Modernist architect, called for ‘anonymity in architecture.’ He would have appreciated Aroostook’s potato houses.”
They also can be a poster child for environmental responsibility since they used the earth to maintain a small energy footprint. Some worked so well that even a small woodstove was needed only on the coldest nights. And they would keep potatoes cool until the warmth of the following May or June.
“I like to think that their adornment was their setting,” says Akeley. “It was the stupendous Aroostook sky, a constantly shifting art-form. Or it was their perch, often on a height on land and surrounded by local vegetation. Their isolation would give them a sense of importance, one that they deserved since they were protecting the county’s riches each year.”