Joan and Frank McElwain pose with "sweet sixteen" apples picked from their orchard. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

CARIBOU, Maine — Although Frank McElwain is the last generation to own and operate his family’s farm, he and wife, Joan, are determined to continue telling the McElwain family story and giving the community a taste of local farm life.

The popular McElwain’s Strawberry Farm, located at the start of Route 161 in Caribou, has been a local staple for three generations, beginning with Frank’s grandfather, David McElwain, in 1910.

In this undated photo, David McElwain, the original farmer at McElwain’s Strawberry Farm, poses with his horse-drawn wagon team in front of his Caribou barn. Credit: Courtesy of Frank McElwain

Like many families in The County, Frank and Joan McElwain have watched their children leave the region without any interest in taking over their parents’ business. But while the future of their farm remains uncertain, the McElwains have gained inspiration from past generations to continue carving out their own place in Caribou history.

“I can’t tell you how many people we’ve met at the farm store who have said, ‘I farmed with your father or grandfather,'” said Frank McElwain, who is the namesake of his great-uncle. “People knew them, and they valued that connection to the community.”

The McElwain farming tradition began in 1910 after David and his two brothers, John and Frank, emigrated to Aroostook County from Canada to “make their fortune.” While Frank became a blacksmith in Presque Isle, David and John settled in Caribou and established themselves as two of the region’s best known potato farmers.

Joan and Frank McElwain pick “sweet sixteen” apples from one of the 250 trees in their family-run apple orchard. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

At the time, potatoes were Aroostook’s cash crop and the emergence of a railroad system to Boston helped the industry boom well into the late 1960s. The crop was in such a demand that John McElwain spearheaded the creation of South Main Street, a region of Main Street that still exists, extending from John’s historic two-and-a-half-story colonial home to the Caribou Inn & Convention Center.

“Farmers needed a way to cross the stream and get into Presque Isle,” Frank said. “In those days, going around the other way with horse and wagon was too long.”

David and his wife, Edith, raised two daughters and one son, Frank’s father, Ralph, who began farming alongside his father.

Joan and Frank McElwain’s home and barn on Route 161 in Caribou date back to the early 1900s, when Frank’s grandfather David McElwain started farming potatoes. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

David McElwain died in 1968 at a time when Aroostook’s potato industry began shrinking and farmers who wished to continue with the crop needed larger acreage and more mechanized equipment.

Ralph McElwain continued to plant some potatoes but gradually shifted to selling a variety of crops, including pumpkins, vegetables and flower seedlings.

In 1985, a 30-year-old Frank joined his father in the McElwain family’s first foray into strawberry production.

In this undated photo, John McElwain (back, far left) poses with field workers on his Caribou farm. Credit: Courtesy of Frank McElwain

“We started with one acre, and it grew from there,” Frank said. “My father started selling strawberries at the roadside.”

That roadside stand eventually morphed into the farm store that the McElwains still run with the help of local teens and adults. The farm store building was originally The Doe School, a one-room schoolhouse that taught area children until the late 1920s.

Frank and Ralph McElwain continued farming together until Ralph’s death in 1999. Today, the farm includes 150 acres, 80 of which the McElwains rent to area farmers and 15 acres that the family uses to plant strawberries, vegetables and apple trees.

Besides growing fresh food, Frank and Joan McElwains’ land also contains memories from the years they raised their three children — Diana, Lauren and Spencer — who live with their own families in central and southern Maine.

The original McElwain barn, built in 1922, is still part of Joan and Frank McElwain’s 150-acre property. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

Though all three children pursued careers unrelated to agriculture, farm life taught them how to work hard and earn their own money.

“Diana had her own pumpkin business and used it to pay for her horse and supplies for five years,” Joan McElwain said. “Then Lauren took over and shared it with Spencer. He bought his first car [with money he earned from the farm].”

After their children grew up and moved away from the farm, Frank and Joan McElwain were determined to keep their farm in the family.

In this 1994 photo, Joan and Frank McElwain pose with their children Lauren (left), Spencer and Diana, who were 8, 5 and 11 years old, respectively. Credit: Courtesy of Joan McElwain

Despite balancing full-time careers — Frank as the school district’s superintendent and Joan as a hospital lab manager — the couple rose early in the morning and stayed up late in the evening to tend the apple orchards, strawberry fields and walking paths and manage the always busy farm store.

With Frank retired as of 2014 and Joan in 2020, the couple has had more time to devote to the farm while they contemplate its future. They are hoping to find a person or family willing to keep the farmland and store going in similar fashion.

In the meantime, they will continue to welcome a steady stream of people who have been more hungry for fresh farmland and family-oriented experiences since the start of the pandemic.

Previously a one-room schoolhouse, the store at McElwain’s Strawberry Farm sells strawberries, apples, pumpkins and other vegetables. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

“When we had a Maine Apple Sunday event last weekend, and we had well over 1,000 people,” Joan said. “People were parked up to the golf course [next door] and waited in line all day for wagon rides.”

With no other family members in Caribou, maintaining those farm experiences for the community has become more important than ever for the McElwains.

“I was never one who planned to retire and move to Florida,” Frank said. “It was important for me to keep this [farm] in the family because it’s more than just buildings. I grew up here. We raised our children here. It’s where people come to have these experiences [with their families].”