In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Presque Isle: The Star City

Harvesting Potatoes

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Text by Richard E. Rand

Images from Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum, Presque Isle Historical Society and Southern Aroostook Agricultural Museum

Harvesting Potatoes by hand, Aroostook County, ca. 1900
Harvesting Potatoes by hand, Aroostook County, ca. 1900Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum (Houlton Museum)


Hand Digger
Hand DiggerDennis Harris, Treasurer of the Caribou Historical Society, demonstrates the hand digger.

Until the early 1870’s potatoes were harvested by the farmer to provide for his family and the local lumbermen. Farmers and lumbermen not only used potatoes for food, they learned how to extracted starch from them for their own use to stiffen cloth for fancy shirts or dresses.

By the 1890’s large crews were needed to harvest potatoes. Pictured on the left are several men using a hand digger to dig potatoes from the rows. Others picked the potatoes from the ground and put them in barrels.

The hand digger on the right, demonstrated by Mr. Harris, is 42 inches (107 cm) long. The five tines are 7 1/2 inches (19 cm) long.


Marketing potatoes at starch factories, Houlton, 1895
Marketing potatoes at starch factories, Houlton, 1895Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum (Houlton Museum)

A tradition unique to many Aroostook County residents has been the participation in the potato harvest. During the latter part of the 19th century and well into the 20th century the damand for potatoes and potato products created a need for labor to harvest them. This exhibit will concentrate on the harvesting aspect of the potato industry.

With the arrival of railroads, new markets were opened for Aroostook potatoes and starch. Railroading began in Aroostook with a short line from Woodstock to Houlton in 1870. The arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railroad to Caribou and then Presque Isle later in the 1881 opened more markets for the Aroostook potato.

It was not until the arrival of the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad in the 1890s that Aroostook farmers had a more direct route to markets in Boston and New York. The demand for Maine potatoes and starch changed the economy from the pioneering days when farmers sold locally to lumbermen to a supplier of starch and potato stock to the eastern part of the United States. Acreage increased and more labor was needed to plant, cultivate, harvest, and ship potato products.

During the late 1800s and the early 1900s Presque Isle and many Aroostook County communities had potato starch factories to fill the demand for starch

At the turn of the 20th Century, Aroostook County was a major supplier of starch for the United States. Many shirt collars all across the country were stiffened by Aroostook starch.

Even as late as the 1950s farmers hauled potatoes to starch factories.