1950s GROWING POTATOES
Prepared in 2000 by John
Dyer Crosby grew-up on his parents’ farm on the North Union Road, just south of the Alexander/Cooper town line. He married Hilda Gillespie on September 2, 1944 and then went off to war. He shipped out of San Francisco, California on August 15, 1945, the day the Japanese surrendered. After spending time in Korea, he returned to Hilda, to Cooper, and to the farm on which he had grown-up.
Dyer’s parents, Coburn and Yola (Lane) Crosby had run a general farm here since their marriage in 1915. (The farm had been created by Yola’s father, Civil War veteran Francis Lane and his wife Eliza Jane Strout). For several years, Dyer continued in general farming. While Coburn had taken farm products to Milltown and Calais, Dyer hauled his products to Machias. Dyer sold chickens and eggs. He sold eggs to Helen and Larry Mugni when they first opened Helen’s Restaurant in Machias. He sold potatoes, blueberries, and peas. He decided potatoes would be a good crop because at that time there was a price support program for their production.
In 1947, Dyer used the horse and
horse-drawn equipment to plant potatoes on his parents’ farm
and on nine acres he rented from Ralph Sadler on Middle or Grove
Ridge in Cooper. He then purchased a tractor to haul the potato
digger, which was designed to be pulled by horses. For the next few
years Dyer grew potatoes and other crops only on the home place.
In 1953, Dyer started growing potatoes in Alexander. Over a period of years he acquired over 60 acres of cropland, some on the Flat Road and some of the Spearin Road. Not all the cropland was planted to potatoes each year. For crop rotation, Dyer would plant winter rye on a potato piece either just before or just after the spuds were picked. Late the following spring, the rye would be plowed under and the same fields would be planted to Japanese millet.
In 1958 he had a potato cellar or potato house built for storing potatoes until the market was good. This building was a University of Maine design and was built by Ken Sawyer of Charlotte. It has the capacity of 5500 barrels. This building still stands near the Custer Dow house-site at the intersection of the Flat and Nellie Berry Roads.
Dyer realized that water was needed for a good crop of potatoes, so he dug three irrigation ponds at the Flat Road site. He found that he could grow more potatoes on 35 acres of irrigated land than he could on 50 acres without irrigation. He used two Chrysler gasoline engines to power his irrigation pumps. These would pump 400 to 500 gallons per minute. He would place the 6-inch and/or 4-inch aluminum irrigation pipe between certain rows during the day, and then run the pumps from 6 until about 11 each night. Actually, he would fill each pump with 30 gallons of gas, and let them run till out of fuel, about 41/2 hours. The next day, he’d move the pipe to the next area to be irrigated, then apply needed sprays to the area watered the night before. These sprays were to control the Colorado potato beetle, flea beetles, and early and late blight. Some of the spray cost $50.00 a gallon!
Dyer had lots of help raising potatoes. Some of the women who planted and/or picked potatoes were Ethel (Knowles) Hunnewell, Thelma Hunnewell, Connie McArthur, Alberta (McArthur) Berry, Eunice Carlow, Althea (Davis) Lord, Velma (Davis) Johnston, Ina Leighton, and Bertha Hatt. Aldena Moriasey of Crawford would pick 100 barrels of potatoes in a day and want Dyer to dig more! Ulric Magoon and his family also helped in picking. Ned Hatt was an unusual picker. He had but one leg, so would pick up sitting down. He’d drag himself along, and pick quite a few barrels in a day. His brother Carl would haul the full baskets to the barrels for him.
Charlie Moholland helped Dyer in planting season. Dyer hired “day men” to help during the harvest. These men worked on the truck. They included Clarence Leighton, his son Kenny, Shirley Hunnewell, Wayne Dwelley, and Roland Perkins. Morey Hunnewell worked in the bin, inside the potato house. Gerald Cooper and Leslie Knowles were two of the high school students who helped move the long sections of irrigation pipe.
During these years Hilda had the contract to transport school children, first to the East Ridge School in Cooper, then to the new (1956) school in Alexander, and finally to Woodland. This involved at least two trips a day and three when there were kindergarten children to bus at noon. Even with this schedule, Hilda helped Dyer with many of the chores such as planting (cutting seed and dropping seed), moving irrigation pipe, and grading in the potato house. Grading meant picking out the bad potatoes, sunburned, bruised, cut, or crooked ones. Hilda would even drive a tractor when called upon!
Dyer had a machine that sorted the potatoes by size, 1 ½” to 2 ¼” for seed, 2 ¼” to 3” for table stock, and 3” to 4” for chefs. Chefs were for making French fries and many were sold to St. Croix Valley Drive-in Theater in Baring.
Dyer raised his own seed potatoes, under control of the tuber unit of the state seed farm. He had help from local women planting seed (which for those who never have grown potatoes are pieces of potato with at least one eye in each). The seed was cut and planted at the same time, by hand. This way, all the pieces of seed from one potato was planted next to one another. If the seed was diseased, then it was easy to pull the plants, which were growing next to each other.
At a time when the plants from these seed were partially grown, Lowell Webster of Springfield and a team of inspectors would come to rogue the crop or carefully check each plant. This process was repeated about once a week until the potatoes were in blossom. Any diseased plant was removed, and the rest allowed to grow and produce potatoes. These seed potatoes were harvested. A sample was shipped to Florida, planted, grown, and again inspected for disease. The seed from these twice grown and twice inspected potatoes were labeled “foundation seed” if they had less than 1% disease or “certified seed” if the disease rate was between 1% and 2%. This was what Dyer planted the following spring.
These were also the potatoes that Dyer sold. Since they were inspected seed, they could be sold for a good price, if other potato growers had lots of money. Dyer sold seed to farmers in the Newport – Exeter area. When these farmers had a financially successful year, they would buy Dyer’s seed. When the potato price was down, they usually would cut corners and plant their own seed. Dyer’s best year selling potatoes was 1965. That year he profited about $45,000. One year was so bad he sold his certified seed as table stock on the Boston market for $1.00 a hundred weight. That was the delivered price and Dyer had to pay 25 cents for the bag plus a cent for the tag! Some potatoes were shipped to market by truck and others were loaded on rail cars at Woodland.
Dyer could grow a good crop of potatoes each year. But the market was not good most years so that by 1969 Dyer was $7000 in debt. He sold off some equipment to balance the books and went into the construction business.
From 1947 until the present year Dyer and Hilda have harvested blueberries from their farm in Cooper. For a few years they grew an acre of strawberries in Alexander, and they kept a small herd of Hereford cattle.
Scenes on Dyer and Hilda Crosby’s Alexander potato fields.