Summers are short in Maine. That’s a perception that has taken hold over many generations, despite the fact that we enjoy many fine days right through October.

Of course, the typically pessimistic attitude of Mainers has something to do with it, but there’s a direct connection with country life and the hectic pace of the harvest season.

Our Echo Farm in Auburn had a small but successful market garden operation while I was growing up. My grandfather’s gardening skills, coupled with the rich soil next to the Androscoggin River, brought some blue ribbons at each year’s Maine State Fair.

I remember watching Grampa select the most promising garden specimens early in the growing season. He gave special care to the squash and pumpkin plants that had prize-winning potential, and he helped them along through the summer months. One of his most effective methods for raising mammoth pumpkins and squash was to regularly provide them with generous drinks of milk.

Government regulation of milk pricing called for dairy farmers to limit production, but you can’t stop a cow from producing milk every day. Therefore, “surplus” milk had to be dumped, and for a small dairy operation like ours in the 1940s and ’50s, the garden reaped the benefit.

For our farm, those days of maintaining considerable acreage in garden crops are past. However, our fields are leased to a neighbor who harvests the hay for his sizable dairy farm. This year, he has planted silage corn for cattle feed, and those long green rows of cornstalks look the same as I recall from five and six decades ago.

For young boys, a cornfield was as good as a tropical jungle for summer games. Dashing through the dense growth was thrilling, but sharp-edged leaves could inflict some minor cuts on the arm.

These days, multi-acreage corn farmers have found that people will pay for that same kind of cornfield exploration. “Agri-tainment” has become a part of the business and paths are carved out to create a labyrinth.

Curiosity was one of my father’s principal qualities. There’s a family story about one of his experiments with corn. It was said that Native Americans planted their corn in hills with four seed kernels in each, and no kernel should touch another. Finally, a fish was added as fertilizer, and the seed was covered with dirt.

To my father, it was an irresistible challenge to find out if such a practice would yield a superior crop. Almost as soon as his small experimental plot had been planted, raccoons arrived to dig up the tasty gift of fish. He concluded that the Indians had not passed on another important step in the process.

I have written before about corn and the local canning industry. Our crop was taken to the “corn shop,” which was where the Towne House residential building stands on Lake Auburn Avenue. In 1896, the Burnham and Morrill Company bought the large stable of the Lewiston-Auburn Horse Railroad Co. at that place. Lightning struck the canning factory 10 years later, but it was rebuilt and operated for half a century.

One of the Lewiston Journal Magazine Section feature stories by my aunt, Edith Labbie, gave me some new details about canning in the Twin Cities.

In the early years, the Auburn factory processed corn from about 3,000 acres in the area. Growers were paid $1.50 per hundred cans. Two of the largest growers were B.F. Briggs and my great-grandfather, David Pettingill Field, who farmed the land that would become Echo Farm.

My aunt’s research also recalled the years of World War II, when the Lewiston Memorial Armory became a sort of canning factory where residents worked to can the harvests from victory gardens and small farms. The wages of the workers were paid in canned goods.

Through the first half of the 1900s, many canning factories operated in this area, and there were hundreds more around the state that processed beans, squash and other crops, as well as seafood at factories on the coast.

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He may be reached by sending email to [email protected]


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