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Stacked potato barrels creating a totem pole in the main street.
The "Pototem pole" standing in the main street of Presque Isle as an advertising stunt for the barrel rolling contest in Presque Isle, Maine. Photo by Jack Delano, 1940 Oct.

You Say Potato…I Say Pototem!

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While searching our collections for a photo, I came across the following image and my natural curiosity required me to zoom in and read the text:

Poster distributed throughout Aroostook County, Maine by the potato growers association advertising the barrel rolling contest in Presque Isle. Photo by Jack Delano, 1940 Oct.

Because I didn’t grow up in a region known for potato farming, it was surprising to learn of potato barrel rolling as an event! I absolutely had to find out more. Farm Security Administration photographer Jack Delano spent some time in Presque Isle, Maine, in October 1940 and answered many of my questions about this event through the photos he took. Join me as I show you what I learned.

At the very top of this post, you’ll see a photo of the “Pototem Pole” constructed in the main street of Presque Isle out of potato barrels. It towers above the town, quite a (temporary) monument!

The main street was lined with townspeople to watch a parade, which included this large potato float.

Oversize potato-shaped float pulled by a tractor.
This giant “potato” was supposed to open and reveal an elaborate girls band. The mechanism kept getting stuck. Presque Isle, Maine. Photo by Jack Delano, 1940 Oct.

The potato was meant to open and reveal these young drum majorettes, though it malfunctioned and got stuck repeatedly!

These drum majorettes were revealed when the giant wood and paper potato was open on the day of the barrel rolling contest in Presque Isle, Maine. Photo by Jack Delano, 1940 Oct.

In addition to the more expected school band, the parade included schoolgirls marching in formation, carrying sticks with local Aroostook potatoes stuck to the top.

Schoolgirls carrying Aroostook potatoes on sticks a part of the parade on the day of the barrel rolling contest in Presque Isle, Maine. Photo by Jack Delano, 1940 Oct.

And then, of course, we had the main event – the potato barrel rolling contest. Each barrel contained 200 lbs of potatoes, and lanes were set up on the main street of town for the competition, as seen below. The barrels were open at the top, so it took quite a bit of control to maneuver them down the street, it seems. No mention of the winner, but it looks hotly contested!

Main event of the potato barrel rolling contest in Presque Isle, Maine. Photo by Jack Delano, 1940 Oct.

The poster that first caught my attention mentioned that a potato barrel rolling champion named Day would be there, and so he was, with this wonderful custom jacket:

Man with custom jacket, sitting on barrel.
James Day, ace barrel roller and idol of Aroostook boys. He lost in the contest. Presque Isle, Maine. Photo by Jack Delano, 1940 Oct.

The fun-filled day ended with an evening dance right on the main street:

The evening program after the barrel rolling contest consisted of dancing in the street (plenty of jitterbugging). Presque Isle, Maine. Photo by Jack Delano, 1940 Oct.

Photos like these are unmatched in their ability to share local town events and customs, bringing them to life more than text alone ever could. I feel like I’ve stepped back in time and lived through my first potato barrel-rolling event, and maybe you do too!

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Comments (2)

  1. Finding great fun and history info in the diversity of your website.Thanks!

  2. When I was a kid, the trash was put on the curb in metal trashcans. The sanitation workers walked down the street hoisting each one up and emptying it in the back of the truck they followed. To get them to the best position behind the ever-moving truck, they’d roll them just as the potato barrels are being rolled here. As a child I was captivated by their skill at balancing the trashcans on their rim. I know I would have loved the potato barrel race. Two hundred pounds is quite a load to maneuver. I hope there were loads of potato based foods to eat that day. Fun story to read about. I had no idea such an event existed.

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