When I married into my husband’s family, I quickly learned that they weren’t all Italian, I had an ally in Uncle Jimmy (Donahue)… his last name clearly told me that he was very Irish! And like all Irish, they can tell a story… with him being no exception. Besides being a storyteller, Uncle Jimmy was a man who enjoyed life, loved to laugh, tell a joke, and always had something in his pockets to entertain any young child in the room… and adults! He was never without a piece of rope in his pocket, which always had a trick attached!
Uncle Jimmy was a master craftsman, turning wood into objects of amazement. Just ask anyone in the family, and they’ll begin pulling out all the many pieces they’ve acquired through the years. I remember the small sleighs he first made, and like a “gremlin“… they grew… almost every family had one! From the small sleigh, grew a work wagon, and later a covered wagon with carved horses and even leather bridles and harnesses that he himself cut from leather.
While Uncle Jimmy handled the wood part, he wasn’t a man who knew his way around a sewing machine… so I received a phone call one night asking for my help in designing the cloth covering for the covered wagons… which I gladly obliged to help with.
Many of Jimmy’s creations were fashioned after pieces he remembered… the long wooden wagon on sled-runners he built from memory of wagons they used on the farm. I can only assume these wagons were used during the long winter snowy months when needed to haul timber back to the farm.
The sled was built from memory of the work sleds on the family farm in Maine. He cut and painted the horses, as well as designing and cutting all the leather harness gear.
Uncle Jimmy touched everyone with his creations… both family and friends. If he was a patron in your restaurant… he often brought gifts to his favorite waitresses. I still have a few of the wooden boomerangs he made for the girls at Outback Restaurant. He enjoyed making wooden puzzles of sorts, and always had a new one in his pocket to entertain and amaze you.
Uncle Jimmy’s famous puzzles and boomerang pins
One of Jimmy’s favorite foods was “potatoes“… and probably so because he was born in the potatoe county of Aroostook, Maine. He was born on Oct 21, 1924 in New Limerick, to parents Edward Robert (1896-1958) and Mary (Gover 1896-1962) Donahue. If you’ve ever been to the county of Aroostook, you have reached the tip of Maine… potato country… and almost in Canada. We recently took a trip up to Caribou to visit the area where my husband was once stationed, at Loring AFB… which officially closed in 1994.
Uncle Jimmy with father, Edward R. Donahue
Uncle Jimmy’s family moved a few times through the county of Aroostook, from Westfield to New Limerick, before settling in Houlton… as noted in the census. As a young boy, one of ten children, Jimmy spent much of his youth, along with his siblings working on the family farm. Besides the daily milking, the father farmed, and everyone grew potatoes, which seemed to be the mainstay of the area in which they lived.
Uncle Jimmy’s sister, Lenorma… I bet potatoes were in that barn!
When talking about working on the farm, he often told his daughter, Diane, that it was back-breaking work and very dirty. Before automation came into play, it was most definitely back-breaking in the field… as they dug the potatoes out by hand and filled barrel after barrel. I can’t even imagine how many pounds those barrels weighed!
Potatoes grow best in a cool environment and Maine supplied all the necessary ingredients for the tubor! Uncle Jimmy told his daughter how he and his siblings were given 3-week vacations in late September into October just for that reason… to help bring in the potato crops before frost/frozen grounds occurred and the snow began. Once snow arrived, all farming ceased until the spring thaw. Even if you didn’t grow potatoes, you helped your neighbors and all the kids worked on the farms.
My husband was only stationed at Loring, AFB for three months… the three coldest months… January thru March. When he arrived, snow was everywhere… all he saw on the sides of the road was SNOW…. fields and fields of snow! He was told that under all that snow was acres and acres of potato fields, but he saw no evidence of that until late March as he was leaving… he finally began seeing a few fence posts to signify where the fields began and ended, but still no fields!
Jimmy often talked about the snow, mentioning how high the snow was piled, even reaching the second story windows. But the snow never kept him and his siblings from school… they made snowshoes and climbed out those second-story windows to walk to school. My husband grew up with snow in CT., but never saw snow piles like in Maine. All the time he was stationed there, he never knew he was actually in the same area as where his uncle had grown up. Maine was the coldest place he’d ever experienced, especially after just coming from a warm base in Georgia. Maine was so extremely cold that the base had underground tunnels, making it easier to for the men to get around. It didn’t take him long to figure out that you never went anywhere without the fur parka issued to you, always take two cars when going out, and bring your car battery in every night. He and his friends quickly learned on the cold snowy night when they didn’t wear their parkas and only took one car… if a farmer hadn’t let them in after banging on his door in the middle of the night, they would have frozen to death. They learned quickly!
On our trip to Maine, we saw those fields and fields of potatoes as we drove from Houlton to Caribou. Trucks and tractors were busy working in the fields and all we saw was the constant cloud of dust as truck after truck rolled off those fields… full of potatoes… headed back to the barns… only to return again for another fill. I was amazed to see the vast fields and when we stopped at one of the barns, the smell of “russetts” greeted me in the air before I even looked in… piled high inside just waiting to be bagged.
I’ve never seen so many potatoes in one place! The barrels are what they used years ago… so much easier today with machinery!
Separating the potatoes from rocks and debris from the fields
We spent the night in Caribou at a B&B (which I’ll write about later) and I asked many questions about the potato industry; when I inquired if I could buy local potatoes I was told to stop at one of the many wooden sheds along Route 1, where bags of potatoes would be, with a can to leave my money in… all sold on the honor system! I had seen those houses and noticed that there was no one there… thinking they weren’t open.
All the potato stands are run on the “honor” system… prices are posted and you leave money! I left my 14.00 in the money slot!
On our return home, we stopped at a farm with a bigger stand, but still no one to take my money; prices were posted and there was a slot for the money. I shoved my $14.00 dollars in for a 50 pound bag while hubby mumbled… as he made room in our already “overcrowded” car. Isn’t there always room for just one more thing… even if it does weigh fifty pounds? I wasn’t leaving Maine without my potatoes!
Hubby found room for my 50 pound bag of potatoes!!!
When I first came to Connecticut in 1971 as a new bride, I quickly learned that Uncle Jimmy went to Maine every year and brought everyone back potatoes. I thought that odd at first… well, until I tasted those potatoes. There is nothing better than fresh potatoes, freshly dug from the earth! That was Uncle Jimmy’s favorite thing to do… make his annual trip to visit family, help on his brother’s farm and bring potatoes back to the family in Connecticut. So every October, like clockwork, Jimmy packed up his van for that yearly trip to Maine… taking no one with him… he liked to travel alone! Once in awhile, he relented, taking his daughter when she was older, but he usually made the trip alone!
Potato fields of Uncle Jimmy’s brother in Blaine, Maine
Uncle Jimmy gave me these photos in 1991… telling me how he bagged the potatoes in the photograph and loaded them in his van… and that van was always packed full! The potatoes were from his brother farm in Blaine, Maine… and they were the best baked potatoes I’ve ever eaten! Uncle Jimmy hand-picked every potato that went in the bags he bagged… ensuring we all had the biggest potatoes!
This year I played “Uncle Jimmy”… bringing Maine potatoes home and sharing with everyone.
…And in the back of my mind… I saw that smile of his!
Memories from Uncle Jimmy’s daughter, Diane Donahue Taylor
“My father used to bring 1000 lbs. of potatoes home with him. I remember when he’d get home after the 9 or 10 hour drive, the van was so damp from all the freshly dug potatoes that the windows would be dripping inside.”
“Yes, he’d load 50 twenty-pound sacks into the van and tons of empty 5 and 10 lb bags to fill when he got home. My mother always hated it, because she’d have to clean all the dirt and wipe down the windows, and air out the van to get rid of the excess humidity from the fresh potatoes. Then he’d spend the next couple of weeks visiting everyone, telling stories, and delivering potatoes.”
“In addition to friends and family, he also brought potatoes to Taylor Business Systems and let my husband’s coworkers fill up 5 or 10 lb bags.”
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© 2018, copyright Jeanne Bryan Insalaco; all rights reserved
what a beautiful memory and testimony.
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