If I could turn my clock back to high school age, today I would probably be in some quiet woodland filled with tall pines, or … just as possible … some mosquito-filled marshland.

I had a summer job that involved protecting Maine’s white pines from a disease known as blister rust. Small crews of young people took to the woods in an important Maine Forest Service conservation effort that few people seem to recall. Like most summer vacation jobs, it had its good memories and more than a few negative points, like wet feet and poison ivy.

This past Sunday, I shared some stories of those blister-rust-control days with a friend who remembered them, too. For both me and Dick Barry of Poland, known then and now as “Red” Barry, these were good memories of two or three summers. We recalled names of some of our co-workers and wondered what had become of them, but mostly we talked about walking the woods with coded aerial maps in search of an elusive plant carrying a disease that threatened to wipe out white pines.

Blister rust control was truly hand-to-hand combat with wild current and gooseberry bushes that thrived along miles of stone wall running through valuable stands of pine, and in nearby fields and swamps. Those plants, which were scientifically classified as “ribes,” were a host to the fungus that caused branch cankers on white pine trees, eventually killing them.

Eradication of that alternate host plant within several hundred feet of white pines was the accepted solution. In a slow, watchful march through the woods and fields, we sprayed every offending plant we found with a mixture of powerful herbicides and kerosene, in addition to pulling up individual plants.

Red’s brother, Roy, also worked as a crew leader and a scout. He put in about six years with the blister-rust-control program, starting out as a worker and advancing to crew leader and then scout. The scout’s job included field identification of target sites on aerial maps. He would mark tree types, roads, stone walls and other information that was later used by the young crews with their heavy spray tanks.

About half a dozen crews comprising four or five young men of at least 16 years of age gathered in front of the Elm Hotel on Court Street, Auburn, each morning. Martin G. Calderara was the program’s superintendent in this part of the state, and his map-filled office was on an upper floor.

The crews piled into panel trucks or sometimes a scout’s pickup truck for the ride to the day’s selected sites in nearby towns. I remember working in Sabattus, Livermore, Turner, Mechanic Falls and other towns. The towns paid us, so our checks were varied and sporadic. It was barely minimum wage, and Red recalled it was probably 40 or 50 cents an hour.

We struck up good friendships, and we had a healthy respect for the slightly older crew chiefs who guided us through the day.

Rainy weather meant an occasional day or two off. The oily chemical wouldn’t stay on rain-washed leaves. We got soaked in plenty of sudden thundershowers, and we began nearly every morning in wet boots because dew had usually not dried when we arrived.

Roy Barry told me his six-or-so years with the program during college years and after were surely an influence on his career path in Maine’s pulp and paper industry. He started out at Westbrook’s S.D. Warren mill and eventually became president and CEO of Madison Paper Industries. Red Barry followed a career that involved more of the financial side of the paper industry.

Both Roy and Red fondly remembered Pete Carsley, who assisted Calderara in those days. Carsley was a World War II veteran who returned to go to Bates College and became a respected educator in the area.

The blister-rust-control program was national in scope, and Roy Barry said it was extremely important to forest health. He also believes the work we did in the Pine Tree State during the late 1950s was highly effective.

“It seems to have stopped white pine blister rust,” he said. “I’m not aware that the disease exists to any extent now.”

To a few young men, those days ranged from drudgery in sweltering heat to pleasant days of outdoor work. We didn’t appreciate the significance of our work at the time, but it is very satisfying to look back on the role we played in preserving a vital part of Maine’s forest heritage.


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