Putting potatoes to good use

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Milford and Nellie Wellford lived on the Wellford family potato farm in Fort Fairfield, Aroostook County, Maine, the biggest potato- growing town in the world, and as the saying goes, they were just gittin' by. They had one child, Chelmsford, a boy in whom they were well pleased, and they despaired of finding the funds to send him to the university down in Orono.

Scrape, scour, save, and do without; it was not easy. As a final hope, Milford cleared the last 40 acres on the north end of the farm and put them into potatoes. It was extra work and more than old Milford should have attempted at his age, but all went well. In September, Chelmsford went off to college at Orono.

They didn't see him again until Christmas break, when he arrived home just before supper. What a happy reunion! Nellie had all the good things her boy liked to eat, and used the pretty family dishes. Their boy was home from college, and how proud they were!

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They asked Chelmsford all about it. But when he began to reply - my goodness, was this their boy? He spoke not in the Aroostook tongue, but in the words of the college classrooms, in the professorial esoterics found otherwise only in extension bulletins from the United States Department of Agriculture. Milford and Nellie sat with forks poised halfway and listened in rapt disbelief.

Then Milford laid his fork down on his plate and said, "Nellie, we just blowed 40 acres o' pertetters!"

Arthur and Ruth Mraz, longtime friends in Fort Fairfield, were down from Aroostook just now and brought us a bag of Green Mountain pertetters grown at "The Fort." They were "outside" on a visit to New Hampshire. In Aroostook County there are only four places to go. You can go "up" to the valley, which is the verdant course of the St. John River between Maine and Canada for 70 miles. You can go "over east," which is to New Brunswick. You can go "down county," which is toward Houlton. And you can go "outside." So Art and Ruth came outside and brought us the welcome gift of Green Mountain potatoes, the finest eating variety. They're hard to find.

The Green Mountain is a "dry" potato, preferred in the East, but is not a heavy producer. It grows a medium-large tuber, but few to a hill. Since the American shopper has long since stopped buying any vegetables or fruits by name, the growers went for tonnage instead of quality. Green Mountains languished - except that a farmer planted other varieties by the acre to sell and then a row of Green Mountains for family use and favored friends. You need to know somebody.

Now, Arthur tells me, the old-time family potato farm has been phased out. Not too many are left. The land has been bought up by nonresident owners. It is still growing potatoes, but families don't live on farms the way they once did. The family rows of Green Mountains are harder and harder to find. The day approaches, Arthur sadly predicts, when seed stock will be lost and Green Mountains will be extinct.

I said Fort Fairfield is the biggest potato town, and before we break ranks let me add a few words about that. The "fort" part of the name is valid. Fort Kent and Fort Fairfield, named for Maine governors, were defenses garrisoned in the "bloodless" Aroostook War of 1839, in the British-American dispute over the Madawaska wilderness and the Maine boundary. Lord Ashburton and Daniel Webster arbitrated, and his lordship bested us by far - no matter what they say in New Hampshire about how smart Dan was.

Fort Fairfield, the town, is next to Perth-Andover in New Brunswick and is biggest because it is a double township. In Maine, any civil division is called a township, whether it's organized or not. The City of Portland is first a township. Monhegan Island is also a township, but its status is "plantation." Most townships were surveyed at six miles square, but Fort Fairfield is twice that size. Isn't that a good thing to know?

Fort Kent, on the other hand, is the northern end of Highway 1, which goes to Key West, Fla. The best restaurant in Fort Kent is across the St. John River in Clair, New Brunswick. The only casualty in that Aroostook War was Hiram Smith, who fell to exposure to cold weather on the march, but there was a gunfire accident at Fort Fairfield right after the war. The commanding officer at Fort Fairfield ordered a volley from the ramparts to celebrate peace, and one of the soldiers winged an innocent villager who was tedding hay in his meadow. This was widely regretted by all. The victim's resting place, I'm told, is decorated annually just as it would be were he a soldier.

I have no further details at the moment.

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