In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Presque Isle: The Star City

Harvesting Potatoes

Text by Richard E. Rand

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


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.


Mechanical diggers were needed to provide a more efficient way of removing potatoes from the ground. These diggers eliminated the need to remove potatoes from the rows by hand, although there were some workers with hand diggers who could keep up with the early mechanical diggers.

Two horses were necessary to pull these early potato diggers. The mechanical parts of the digger were powered by the wheels, hence the wheel cleats that can be seen in the photo on the left.

The rotating arms on the digger on the right were also powered by the wheels. The arms would dig into the row and throw the potatoes and rocks off to the side. A person would not want to be in the way. It's likely that this type of digger bruised potatoes. Needless to say, this rotating arms design did not catch on.

Since horses both pulled the digger and powered the digger mechanism, the horses tired easily. They had to rest frequently or were replaced by another team of horses.


Lags on a Digger
Lags on a Digger

The bed of each digger consisted of lags which were steel rods 7/16 inches in diameter. They had a hook on each end so that they could be tied together in sequence, making a complete circular bed. The top of the bed would move toward the back, allowed the bed of the digger to sift the dirt from the row, leaving the potatoes (and rocks) to fall off the end.

Occasionally, a rock would embed between the lags while the digger is working, causing the lags to come apart. Usually the teamster would have to hook the lags back together. This slowed things down, but gave a break to the potato pickers and other field workers.

Worn lags would have to be replaced with new ones. The worn lags were not discarded, though. Pulp hooks, barrel hoists, and even knives could be made from worn digger lags.


Digger with Motor
Digger with MotorThis one-row digger was entered in the Mapleton Days parade in June, 2009

In the 1930s some diggers had a gasoline engine mounted on it to power the mechanical parts. This made the digger easier for the horses to pull.

The photograph on the left was taken near where Presque Isle Middle School is now. A gasoline engine powers the mechanical parts of this digger.

The man to the right of the digger has a basket full of potatoes. He is ready to dump them into a nearby barrel.

The motorized digger on the right was entered in the June, 2007 Mapleton Days Parade. This parade entry illustrates the interest by many in the area in old potato harvesting machinery. Notice that there are no cleats on the wheels of this digger.


One-row diggers were still used even after tractors were introduced. The tractor powers the mechanical parts of this digger through a drive on the back of the tractor that is connected to the digger. The photograph on the left provides a good view of the lags on the digger bed.

Tractors were soon pulling two-row diggers so that by the late 1940s there were few one-row diggers in use. The digger shown here required a person to ride on the digger to adjust the front of the digger so that it will cut into the row at the right height.

Later tractors had levers powered by a hydraulic pump that would allow the tractor driver to control the digger. eliminating the need for a rider to operate the controls.


After the potatoes are laid onto the row by the digger, the potato picker would first fill a basket such as the one pictured here. The potatoes would be picked from a section of the field allotted to the picker.

If the section is too long, the picker would get behind and probably would get discouraged. The unpicked potatoes would be in the way of the truck passing through to unload empty barrels or to pick up full ones. If the section is too short, the potato picker would not have the number of full barrels wanted by the end of the day. It is important that the section is not too long or too short.

Once the basket is full, it is dumped into a nearby barrel. It takes about four baskets of potatoes to fill a barrel. A full basket will weigh about 30 pounds. The basket pictured here is 16 inches (40 cm) in diameter and 8 inches (20 cm) deep. Baskets were made locally, usually by Native Americans. The strips of wood used to make these baskets came from ash trees.


Up until the 1970s when farms became more automated, farmers in Aroostook County used barrels to move potatoes from the field to storage. Other areas of the country used bags or baskets to do this. A barrel is about 19 inches (48 cm) in diameter across the top and about 30 inches (76 cm) high. The staves are made of cedar. Around 1960, a farmer could purchase a barrel locally for $4.

After the barrel is full, the picker would put a ticket in the barrel rim. The barrel loaders would collect the tickets so that the farmer could keep track of the number of barrels picked by each picker.

In the horse-drawn digger days of the early 1900s a potato picker could earn 2 or 3 cents for each full barrel. Around 1940 the picker would earn 12 cents per barrel and in 1950 the picker earned 20 cents per barrel. In 1960 a picker was paid around 25 cents per full barrel. It wasn't until around 1980 that potato pickers could earn a dollar per barrel.

Most pickers could fill 20 to 40 barrels per day. Conditions such as a rocky or weedy field or digger break downs could hinder the amount of barrels filled. If conditions are good, though, some potato pickers could fill 100 or more barrels per day


Around 1900, barrels were transported to and from the field with wagons that were built with a low platform, allowing the barrels to be more easily loaded and unloaded. This photograph of the Elwood Sweetser farm was taken around 1900. This photograph of a drop-axle wagon clearly demonstrates how the axles are over the body, allowing the body to be close to the ground. This type of wagon was called the drop-axle wagon, the jigger wagon, or the Tabor wagon. Tabor was named after John Tabor of Houlton who built the wagon in the late 1800s

This low body profile carried over to the introduction of trucks. Early potato-barrel truck bodies had a unique style with a box over the wheels to give clearance and with stakes around the outside that allowed a rope or a chain to hold the barrels.

Even as late as 1950 some farmers loaded barrels by hand. This picture on the right was taken on the Laurence Park farm in 1950. It shows two men loading barrels and one man setting the barrels in place on the truck body


During the 1940s, battery powered or hydraulic hoists were used to load barrels onto the truck body. This picture shows how two persons can load barrels with a battery powered hoist, one man to operate the hoist and another to place the barrels. The man operating the hoist would toss grapples onto a barrel on the ground. He would push a button on the loader grip to run an electric motor that will hoist the barrel onto the truck body. On the newly loaded barrel is a ticket that will be deposited in the box on the headboard. This ticket will help the farmer keep track of the number of barrels the potato picker filled. Most potato barrel trucks had a ticket box like this on the back.

With a power hoist, a box over the wheels for wheel clearance is no longer necessary. This truck has a flat body that can carry 40 barrels.

After this truck was loaded with 40 barrels, it was driven to the potato storage building. Workers there would unload the full barrels and put the empty barrels (empties) back onto the truck. The truck was driven back to the potato field so that the empties could be dropped onto the picker's sections.

The hoist operator must make sure the power button is released in time so that the barrel will drop onto the truck body. If released too soon, the barrel will drop back onto the ground and potatoes would spill. If released too late, the barrel would go up too far and loader operator thumb will jamb between barrel and hoist. Many thumbs have been jammed by these hoists.

The gentlemen on the back of this truck get a chance to ride through the field and talk to the pickers. The digger tractor driver and the truck drivers also get a chance to talk to the pickers. These gentlemen had to unload empty barrels and then load full ones. They were good at good - natured bantering with the pickers Typical suggestions, criticisms, and encouragements that are given to potato pickers are:

1. You're too far behind. Pick faster or I will shorten your section.
2. Your barrels are not full enough. Fill them level to the top.
3. Your barrels are too full. Potatoes will spill when loading.
4. Don't forget to put a ticket on the barrel when you fill it.
5. You put two tickets on this barrel. You're only allowed one.
6. Your barrels are too close. Leave a space between them so the grapples will fit over.
7. You are missing too many potatoes. Go back and pick the ones you missed.
8. Don't pick any rotten potatoes.
9. Don't throw potatoes.
10, You're setting your barrels in the wrong row, I can't get the truck through.


This painting by Richard Ellery is well known to Presque Isle residents. It was first put in the lobby of the new Northern National Bank building in 1946. It remained in the bank until it was acquired by the City of Presque Isle. It can be seen on the third floor of City Hall on Second Street. The painting shows 1940's potato harvesting stages, including digging, picking, and loading onto a truck.

On the left is a two-row digger operated by two men. A man is behind the digger picking potatoes. A full basket of potatoes is being emptied into a barrel. The farm owner, Mr. Conant is walking across the field by two potato pickers.

On the right, two men are loading a barrel by hand. The man is on the truck is placing the barrels.

Other trucks had a hydraulic hoist. These were operated by the truck driver.

Families from the northern part of Aroostook from the Fort Kent, Madawaska, and Van Buren areas would come to Presque Isle to work in various harvesting jobs. Usually the farmer would provide housing for these families. This house for picker’s families was usually not as fancy as the farmer’s house. It became know in local parlance as a “picker’s shack”. This painting, done in 1945 shows the Collins and the Albert families from St, Agatha working various aspects of the harvest.


Break Time
Break TimeImage is from USDA 1976 Yearbook of Agroculture THE FACE OF RURAL AMERICA

Frequently, the digger lags would come apart and the digger driver had to shut the digger down to fix it. "The digger broke down" meant that there will be a chance to catch up on picking potatoes or to rest or play. This picture shows the Myron Gartley farm in 1976. <kids rolling on the barrels> As you can see, the younger pickers did not seem to mind a break. Students such as these would pick 15 to 40 barrels of potatoes per day.


The two trucks pictured here are restorations of 1940s potato barrel trucks.

The truck on the right has a flat body. This truck has a hydraulic hoist. It is located behind the backboard at the center of the body.

The truck on the left has an electric hoist. When this truck was new, truck bodies were still in the transition stage from box over the rear wheels to a flat body.


An early labor saving device was a hand grapple. The man on the back of the truck would clamp onto a barrel with this tool and pull the barrel onto the body of the truck. He was assisted by a man walking beside the truck. With this device, two men could load the truck. Like a lot of tools at the time, this hand grapple was made locally, probably from a digger lag.

Although it took two person to load a 160 pound (81 kg) barrel with the hand grapple, some strong-armed barrel loaders could do this alone. This was rare, but it was a feat of strength that gained an individual a reputation.

Because the hoist can swivel on a post, the operator must keep a firm grip on it. Many heads have been bumped by a swiveling hoist.

Usually the truck is moving while the barrels are loading and placed.

The grapples in the photograph on the right are the very same grapples in the Loading Potato Barrels photograph on page 12. Barrel grapples come in different styles. The grapples on the right will hold onto the barrel better than the grapple on the left. This type of grapple is more often used in potato storage houses. The grapple on the right, though, can be more easily tossed onto the barrel from the truck body, allowing for faster loading of the truck.

Like most tools on smaller family farms, barrel grapples were made locally, sometimes by the farmer himself.

Two persons could load the truck in 15 minutes if conditions are right. Rolling a barrel on a moving truck body is tricky.

The truck driver has to drive the truck very smoothly, no quick starts or stops. A quick start could cause man and barrel to fall off the back of the truck. A quick stop could result in a spilled barrel towards the front of the truck body.


The photograph on page 10 that shows two young men loading a potato truck was taken on the Myron Gartley Farm in Presque Isle in 1976, about the time Mr Gartley stopped growing potatoes. He grew about 40 acres in potatoes on a small family farm. Like most small farmers in the area at that time, he did not stay in the potato business.

Things were changing. Farms were becoming larger and more business-like. Harvesting was becoming more automated, using more expensive equipment. About this time there were a lot of auctions in the area, selling off farm equipment no longer used.

The potato harvester in the above photograph removes potatoes from the ground through a digger lag and conveyor system. Workers make sure the potatoes and rocks are separated. A conveyors dumps the potatoes directly into a bulk body truck

No more barrels, no more baskets, no more tickets and no more picking potatoes.


Richard W. Judd” AROOSTOOK A Century of Logging in Northen Maine” UNIVERSIY OF MAINE PRESS, 1989

Charles Morrow Wilson “Aroostook: Our Last Frontier” Stephen Daye Press, 1937