Potato Fields and Deep Woods
In a state with a reputation for rugged shoresand impenetrable forests, the Aroostook County landscape distinguishes itself with its gentleness and tractability. This is Maine’s big sky country, a patchwork of potato fields and small villages, with pastoral views that stretch for miles. Presque Isle, the County’s largest city (population 9,692), interrupts the rural idyll with its sprawling strip malls and busy downtown, but the urban flirtation is brief as development quickly drops away and farms once again rule the countryside for the next forty miles. Houlton, where Route 1 intersects with Interstate 95 for the first time, is a jarring milestone, marked by truck stops, motels, and fast-food restaurants, and then a dramatic shift in the landscape. Fir trees close in, creating a dense green corridor, broken by the occasional house and abandoned gas station whose grounds are littered with old farm tools, and, in one case, a fifties-vintage Chevy waiting at the pump for an attendant who never comes. Eight miles before it crosses into Washington County and the town of Danforth, Route 1 rises to offer a panoramic vista of Grand Lake and the mountains of New Brunswick. This is the Million Dollar View Scenic Byway overlooking some of eastern Maine’s most stunning scenery.
The city of Caribou owes its name to a single reindeer that was hunted by a settler named Alexander Cochran sometime in the 1850s, according to Dennis Harris of the Caribou Historical Society. Cochran shot and wounded the animal, and his dogs then tracked and killed it by a stream that feeds the Aroostook River. The stream became known as Caribou Stream, and it in turn gave its name to the town that grew up around it.
Maine’s Top Five Potato Varieties
Russet Burbank 38%
*No, Frito-Lay is not the name of a potato. Frito-Lay has its own breeding program encompassing several varieties identified only by number.
By the Numbers: Aroostook County Potatoes
1.4 billion: pounds of potatoes harvested in 2011, which ranks Maine twentieth in potato production in the United States (Idaho is first with 12.7 billion pounds)
$540 million: estimated economic impact of the potato industry in Maine
6,150: number of jobs created by Maine’s potato industry
54,000: acres of harvested potato fields in 2011, which ranks Maine fifth in number of acres devoted to potato production in the United States
220,000: acres of harvested potato fields in 1946
66: percentage of Maine potatoes used for processing (french fries and chips)
20: percentage of Maine potatoes used to seed new crops
14: percentage of Maine potatoes sold fresh for home and restaurant use
Brian Brissette owner with wife Jane Caulfield of Morning Star Art and Framing, 431 Main Street, Presque Isle
“Jane and I have had this business for seven years. It was her idea. She is the former economic development director for the Northern Maine Development Commission and now the economic development director for the Aroostook Band of Micmacs. We knew we couldn’t make it on framing alone, so we added art supplies and Maine-made crafts.
“I thought we were just going to cater to the students from the university, which has a very large art department, but I was amazed at the number of artists working in northern Maine. We feature work from eighty-five local artists — Native American baskets, candles, soaps, photographs, and woodcarvings. Right now I’m framing a caricature of Senator Susan Collins for the Maine Potato Board. It shows the senator as a knight riding a horse, with a lance in one hand and a flag with a big potato on it in the other. It is for her efforts this past fall to allow schools to keep serving potatoes.”
For nearly fifteen miles south of Presque Isle, Mars Hill dominates the eastern landscape. The rugged little mountain holds the distinction of being the first place in the United States to be illuminated by the rising sun for half the year (March 25 to September 6). Carved into its slopes are Bigrock Ski Resort’s twenty-six trails, some of which do double-duty as the International Appalachian Trail, which extends from Baxter State Park through New Brunswick and Quebec to Newfoundland’s Belle Isle.
By the Numbers: Mars Hill
1,748: height in feet of the ridgeline
4: length in miles of the ridgeline
26: trails at Bigrock Ski Resort
2: ski trails that are part of the International Appalachian Trail
28: wind turbines that compose Mars Hill Wind
20,000: weight in pounds of single turbine
262: height in feet of a single turbine
115: diameter in feet of a spinning turbine
130 million: kilowatt hours of electricity generated by Mars Hill Wind
Passamaquoddy basket maker, Basket Tree Gallery, 195 U.S. Route 1, Indian Township
“My family has made baskets for generations. My grandfather just stopped because he has emphysema and he can’t breathe in the dust anymore. He wove utility baskets, big work baskets, whereas I make fancy baskets. My mother taught me when I was twenty-two, so I’ve been doing it for ten years full time and every year has gotten a little bit better as far as making a living at it goes. I’m more well known now. People seek me out. I’ve had one person come to this shop from Manhattan.
“I harvest my own brown ash. First, you have to find the right tree. It has to be a certain thickness, it can’t have knots, it can’t have any diseases, and it can’t have any spiraling of the grain. In other words, you need a perfect tree, and brown ash rarely grows perfectly. I’d say I cut only one in one hundred of the trees. Next, I pound the trunk from one end to the other, then I turn it a little and pound it again, and so on. I pound every square inch of tree so the fibers break and I can pull the growth rings off one at a time. I soak them and hand-split them so the pieces are like ribbons that I cut to the width I need.
“I price my baskets very high. If I didn’t, I’d be backordered. This gallery will open by Memorial Day and will be the most high-end business this reservation has ever seen. I hope it will inspire people here as much as it will help us.”