Midcentury civic festivals in Aroostook County were (ahem) no small potatoes.
In Presque Isle, 1940 was an even bigger year than usual for all things potatoes. In July, the Lewiston Daily Sun billed the city’s slate of activities as the “crowning feature” of Aroostook County’s annual Potato Blossom Festival. Madawaska, Fort Fairfield, New Sweden, Washburn, and Island Falls all took turns hosting celebrations earlier in the week, but only in Presque Isle would judges pick a Potato Blossom Queen from among seven young ladies representing towns throughout The County.
The “lucky girl,” the Daily Sun wrote, would enjoy some “material rewards in addition to her natural pleasure in being selected as queen,” including a $50 credit toward any Aroostook County store (an antecedent, of sorts, to the Visa gift card), an engraved cup, and a glamorous junket “to some of the large Eastern cities, where she will meet state governors and . . . representatives of the large buyers of Maine potatoes.”
But perhaps no event proved as popular as the Potato Blossom Festival’s barrel-rolling championship — so popular that, a few months later, on October 3, Presque Isle doubled down with another race: the First International Potato Barrel Rolling Contest.
A parade kicked off the competition. One potato-shaped float suffered a mechanical error — a hinged opening failed, trapping inside a troupe of baton-wielding majorettes who were waiting to perform — but the rest of the affair seems to have gone smoothly. The marching band played, local schoolgirls processed down Main Street carrying potatoes skewered on sticks, and an enormous “pototem pole” of stacked barrels towered above the Presque Isle storefronts.
Jack Delano, a photographer for the U.S. Farm Security Administration, caught the whole affair on film. His images show Main Street partitioned with two-by-fours into several racing lanes. He captioned another shot, of a racer named James Day: “Ace barrel roller and idol of Aroostook boys.”
Each competitor received a potato-filled barrel weighing 200 pounds. At the finish line, Boy Scouts held a string for the winner to break through. Several heats were run, but it seems no record survives of the eventual victor (although Delano noted that the idolized James Day faltered). As evening fell, the competition quickly faded to memory. Racers and spectators wrapped up the festivities with a raucous street dance, reveling in their shared adulation of spuds. — Will Grunewald