In this 2014 file photo, Matt Kelley of Fort Kent picks potatoes while Jason Martin (background) loads barrels on the truck during harvest at the Martin Farm in St. Francis. Though once commonplace in Aroostook County, scenes like this are rare now, since only a handful of farmers employ hand pickers. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

It wasn’t all about the drudgery of hitting the fields at an ungodly early hour on a frosty fall morning.

In fact, picking potatoes — as many who have grown up in Aroostook County remember — was a chance to shine, and not only earn money but strive to be the best at the job.

And 45 years later, the memories of chilly mornings, pulling Aroostook County spuds out of the ground and competing over who could fill barrels faster make Presque Isle resident Gloria Flannery and Lauren Blackwell of Texas smile.

“I loved it. It was hard work, but I loved it,” Blackwell said as she, her husband Paul and her mother Nancy visited Flannery at her home.

Flannery, who was a Bangor Daily News Presque Isle bureau reporter for more than 30 years, and her late husband, Ruel, operated a potato farm in Fort Fairfield. Labor was plentiful when schools let out for harvest. Most young people either picked potatoes by hand or boarded harvesters or trucks for the long days’ work.

Flannery managed the pickers, and found willing young workers at nearby Loring Air Force Base. And in 1974, when she was 14, Blackwell boarded the truck for the Flannery farm.  

“It was the first real job I had. It was so different than anything else I’d seen or done,” she said.

Blackwell’s father was an Air Force judge advocate general, and the family moved to Aroostook from Nebraska when he was transferred to Loring Air Force Base. Young Lauren learned that most kids picked potatoes and wanted in.

That was, of course, in the days before mechanical harvesting sped up the work and eventually eliminated the need for hand pickers.

“The only thing that was automated was those arms,” Flannery said with a smile.

For her, it was all about the kids. She said she loved listening to all the young people and their expressions, because most of them came from other parts of the country.

“It was interesting to be able to teach a lot of those kids how to work. It was fun to watch them having fights over the possession of a barrel. The trucks would carry barrels and the kids would run to claim a barrel and work hard to fill it,” Flannery said.

Blackwell still has one of her 1975 picker’s tickets as a souvenir, and remembers her most successful day: she picked 40 barrels full, at 40 cents per barrel — for a grand total of $16.

Blackwell, Flannery and Flannery’s daughter Heidi Haldeman recalled when Lauren’s grandmother came out to visit the fields.

“She was dressed right up — I mean really dressed up,” Haldeman said.  

“My grandmother came out two different days in a dress and high heels,” Blackwell said, chuckling.

The field, on occasion, even turned into a 30-yard line.

“When we were waiting for more potatoes to be unearthed, we needed something to do. And so we would find the biggest potato on the ground and play football with it.”

Haldeman still marvels at the work her mother did.

“Not only was she the field boss, but she had supper ready, counted tickets, washed clothes and packed lunches. It was not an easy task. She worked hard,” Haldeman said. “That’s where we get our drive to work hard — from her and Dad both.”

Flannery waved away the praise.

“I didn’t do all this alone. It took families to dig the potatoes,” she said, noting the pickers’ mothers brought lunches, water and raincoats — anything needed to get the workers through the day.

Besides daughter Heidi, who lives in North Carolina, Flannery’s family includes daughter Jill Flannery Boyd of Presque Isle and son William of Hopkinton, Massachusetts.

Blackwell’s family moved to Alabama in 1976 — just before Paul Blackwell arrived for his assignment at Loring. The two met in the service and discovered they’d both been at the Limestone base. Like her father, Lauren Blackwell became a JAG, and her husband is also a retired JAG.

Though the women had seen each other’s Facebook pages, they hadn’t connected. Debra Walsh, another former BDN reporter, had chatted with Flannery, then reached out to Blackwell.

“She said, ‘Gloria wants you to call her,’” Blackwell said. “I talked to her for about 30 minutes while I was in the grocery store.”

She first visited in July and then again in October.

“It’s wonderful to catch up,” Flannery said. “You remember all of them — but I remember Lauren because she sent me an Alabama cotton ball. She wanted me to have an ‘Alabama potato.’”