Selling pumpkins for Halloween is more than a business for those who grow them in Aroostook County.
Daniel Stewart has watched generations of children pick out pumpkins and pose for pictures at his farm stand on Houlton Road in Presque Isle.
“It’s my time of year,” he said this week. “I really enjoy Halloween.”
He is especially pleased to see traditions that evolved over the years continue in the past year since he turned the business over to Craig and Betsy Allen of Crabtree Farms in Blaine.
“I’d feel bad if I looked out there and didn’t see all that,” he said, gesturing toward the hill lined with pumpkins that has become a fall landmark for travelers on Route 1 between Presque Isle and Houlton.
We were chatting in the farmhouse where he grew up and looking at an album full of letters and photos of the farm clipped and received from friends and visitors since he took over the farm stand business from his father, Kenneth, in 1968.
“I’d like a dime for every photo taken [of that scene] over the years,” he said. Images of hundreds of pumpkins arranged in neat rows leading up to the Stewarts’ white barn have appeared in magazines and newspapers throughout the country, and even on the British Airways dinner menu for international passengers. A friend who spent time in Germany told the Stewarts the scene was also pictured in a book to teach German children about the United States.
Primarily a potato farmer, Stewart said he began adding vegetables a few at a time, “string beans, squash, corn,” after he acquired the farm stand 46 years ago. “One year I put in three ounces of pumpkin seeds.” That was the start.
“It mushroomed,” he said. Today they plant 20 pounds of seed and harvest 1,000 to 1,500 pumpkins from 10 to 12 acres. The new owners have added hydroponically grown strawberries and Christmas trees to the product offerings, extending the season for the store into December.
Over the years, the Stewarts added a variety of harvest and Halloween decorations, making the farm an attraction for families. This year tombstones among the pumpkins mark the “graves” of “Frank N. Stein” and “I.M. Dead,” “Izzy Gone” and “Barry M. Good.”
Brooms rest on racks labeled “Broom Parking,” a giant witch hovers over a caldron and a cutout in a huge jack-o’-lantern awaits a visitor’s face to be photographed.
Children can play safely in a fenced area with toys and decorations called “the playpen,” and creatures connected to motion sensors have been known to move and speak to visitors.
A trip to the farm is an annual event for many families. Parents bring their children to pick out their own pumpkins and have their pictures taken. However, once they reach their teens, “when kids rule against their parents,” the ritual is too childish, Stewart observes. But they come back with renewed interest when they get older, and eventually bring their own children for the experience they remember.
Lisa Bloom, who now manages the farm stand for the Allens, is one of those parents.
“People like me brought their children, and now they’re coming with their children,” she said.
Bloom started as an apprentice to Stewart in the early 2000s and gradually acquired a variety of valued skills, from driving tractors and making barrels to painting pumpkins and managing the store. When he turned the farm stand over to the new owners, Stewart said Bloom came with the building. In fact, she spends enough time at the farm stand to call it home.
“A part of me will forever be here. It’s in my blood,” she said. She is a link between the past and the future of Stewart’s farm stand. As she passes the skills she learned on to others, she says, “Now I know how Danny felt working with me. He will forever be a part of it.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.