Ben Albert and Potato Farming in Worthington

In 2016, the WHS Annual Meeting focused on the town’s farming history. Diane Brenner mounted an exhibit on Worthington farms. Once the business agenda was complete, we recorded a group discussion about Worthington’s potato farming heyday, and a transcription of this discussion is below. The key player in potatoes was Joseph Bernard Maurice Albert (1922-2011), better known as Ben Albert. The Albert family originally came from New Brunswick, Canada. The following transcript has been lightly edited for readability, with some context added in brackets.

Pat Nugent: I can tell you the memories I have of Ben Albert, of Albert Farms. When I moved to town, Ben Albert was the –

Bert Nugent: He was the king.

Springfield Sunday Republican, October 21, 1962.

Pat Nugent: He was the king of the town. And I have to say for Ben Albert there was never once, in my fifty-some-odd years knowing that man, that I ever went into his office, met him on the road, met him anywhere, where if I needed something – PTA, church, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts – and asked him, he was the most generous man alive. He would get potatoes for the schools, the church, potato chips. Anybody that was getting married, he’d bring up some potato chips. I have a lot of good memories of Ben Albert. He got a lot of people in trouble, because he had an MU-2 airplane, and he would start it up at the runway in the morning, anywhere from 7 to 9 –

Julia Sharron: Earlier sometimes. [laughter]

Pat Nugent: Earlier sometimes. And if there was any kid on that runway, they’d get in the plane and they’d go. [laughter] To Rhode Island, Maine, wherever he was going. Ben never called their parents. They’d get home and their mother wanted to know where they were. “Oh, I went to Maine with Ben.” [laughter] Kevin Porter, who’s lived in town his whole life, he did that quite often. You’d think your kid is in school and he’s off in Maine with Ben Albert. [laughter] Ben Albert employed a lot of people in this town. A lot of women got to pick potatoes. It was a dirty job, but it was a fun job. He always made sure everybody had something to drink, eat, whatever. If he didn’t, the guys running the harvester did. I can’t really say anything bad about Ben, other than some of the jokes he pulled on people that I won’t repeat. But he was a good man, his family were a good family, and they brought a lot to the town of Worthington. I had a close connection with him. I never had to go buy the potatoes. The only one person in this town that ever had to buy potatoes was Mrs. Frances Albert. [laughter] She bought her potatoes at Corners Grocery ’cause I worked there. [laughter] The rest of us, if you wanted potatoes, you went to the warehouse and you got potatoes. If you wanted potatoes and they weren’t quite ready, you could go to the fields and dig them up, way on the edge, where he would see it the next morning ’cause he followed all of his fields. He cleared a lot of fields in this town, and I think that appeals to a lot of people who move into town, or drive into town. You see a lot of open fields – not so many as you used to, but you see a lot of them.

?: The Jones lot, he made that whole field.

Pat Nugent: Right. He made the whole field in the Jones lot. Picked the rocks. There were a lot of rocks. Even picking potatoes there were a lot of rocks. It’s amazing, I think they grew as fast as the potatoes did. [laughter] But he did employ a lot of people, lot of good people and –

Bert Nugent: And a lot of bad people, he hired me. [laughter]

Pat Nugent: That’s right, he hired you. I do believe that Ben Albert’s grandson, Peter, is here. I know Peter worked in the potatoes, didn’t you, Peter?

Peter Kievett: A few years. [laughter]

Norm Stafford: I heard a story once about some non-Worthington harvesters that came up from the city on buses.

Pat Nugent: We called them migrant workers.

Norm Stafford: Yeah, and they were good workers and housed fairly. Other farmers in the area did the same thing, but Ben was known to treat them better than most everybody else.

Pat Nugent: Yes, he did. They would come up by buses and live in the Quonset huts. I worked at Corners Grocery, and Ben Albert had an open account for any of his migrant workers. When they were in the fields, they could come to the store and get whatever they wanted for lunch and Ben paid the bill. The only [migrant workers] that came [to Worthington], to my knowledge, [were with] a man whose name was John Durn. He was from Florida. He was the –

Bert Nugent: He was the head man of the migrant workers.

Pat Nugent: He gathered them up and brought them up here. He was good to his workers – very, very good. They always came back every year. And then when they had the big fire at the Quonset huts, the church and everybody in this town provided clothing and food for those migrant workers. They almost had to take a second bus back to take all the stuff back with them. The town of Worthington has been, and always probably will be, very generous when something like that happens.

Helen Sharron Pollard: I remember that. I remember kids in school collecting things, clothes and shoes and coats.

Norm Stafford: Those kids of the migrant workers would go to your school?

Helen Sharron Pollard: They went to school with us for a couple of weeks in September, October. And these kids, they were lucky to get into school. They went with their families from place to place, so they didn’t get much of an education. But Mrs. Porter, Ted Porter’s mom, was the third grade teacher and fifth grade teacher at the time. She told us to be kind to these kids because of the kind of life that they had. Peter, you may remember this – you were a little younger. But we did a count on the swing sets at recess – you get a 30-count, and then another kid could get your swing. But we always let the migrant worker kids swing as much as they wanted to, because we knew being in Worthington was a treat for them. People would bake cookies and do all kinds of things like that, because – what a life. You saw those people worked hard. And for the couple of weeks that we worked and made our 35 cents for a barrel this high – that was their life. For us, those couple of weeks were horrible and dirty and smelly and there were rats and rotten potato smells, and boys would pelt you with potatoes when the bosses were off the fields. We suffered through it for a couple weeks, but those people, that was their life.

Pat Nugent: And they usually started at Florida – Ben Albert had a lot of farms in Florida. They would go from Plant City [Florida] up to Morehead, get in the Carolinas, then come up into New Jersey. From New Jersey they usually came over to Mass[achusetts]. And they were pretty much the same crew. They probably gained some and lost some. They didn’t come with pedigree papers, but they were good. I never heard of one incident where they ever bothered anybody in the town of Worthington. Ben wouldn’t have stood for it for one thing.

Evan Johnson: Where did they live when the Quonset huts burned?

Julia Sharron: I think that’s when they lived at Lyceum Hall.

Pat Nugent: But they didn’t come up after that, right?

Julia Sharron: No, they only stayed for one year [at Lyceum Hall], I believe. It was that time, on weekends – I don’t know what happened, but they would come to my house, ’cause I lived near Lyceum Hall, in the morning for something to eat. And so a few came and it was fine, but then more came and I sort of ran out of food. And they were so, so polite. They were wonderful people.

Pat Nugent: They were very, very polite.

Sheila Kinney: How long was the season?

Pat Nugent: First frost to –

Bert Nugent: Ice.

Pat Nugent. Yes. Usually the first frost they would peel the potatoes off. When we’d get a first frost they’d burn the vines.

Sheila Kinney: So three to four weeks?

Bert Nugent: Four to five weeks.

Pat Nugent: He also had farms, not just in Worthington but –

Bert Nugent: Plainfield.

Pat Nugent: Cummington, Plainfield, Savoy. He harvested a lot of potatoes. Maine, Rhode Island, Long Island. We were in Maine once with Mr. Albert – we flew up there, heaven help us, and he took us around. He took us to the Catholic orphanage where he had lived, because his mother and father were busy doing potatoes, they would work the whole coastline. And he and his brother, Jerry, would stay in these orphanages, I don’t know for how many years. This [orphanage] was an old abandoned building, but probably one time it was nice. There was a tree where he used to go hide, he hated it so much. But there was much more to him than you saw. He could be a prankster. We were flying home – I don’t like to fly, but I had no choice. It was either walk or fly, and I figured I’d get home quicker if I flew. And I was sitting there looking around and I heard somebody say “MU-2 go to 11,000 feet” or something. Nothing. I said, “Well it can’t be us, right?” And I heard it a second time. Then I heard, “MU-2, I told you –” and that plane went like this, and my stomach stayed right down to the floor. I was so scared. [laughter] After that he paid more attention. Bert and all them guys thought it was a big joke, but I didn’t think it was very funny.

Norm Stafford: Clarence Witter has some great flying stories about the airplanes and Ben. He told me they didn’t have enough gas to fire the plane up, but they had gas over in the tractor. “Well, it’ll be alright, we’ll use that tractor gas.” So he put that tractor gas in the airplane and it goes “Boom-bang-boom,” backfiring and sputtering, but Ben took off anyway. It just barely cleared the trees. [laughter] They just needed enough to get down to Northampton.

Pat Nugent: Most people here remember the planes spraying the fields. For probably ten years or more it was okay, but then all of the sudden it wasn’t alright, because people realized what was going on. The people that lived in the house across from Lynn Newell called Bruce Homestead – he used to hang his sheets while his wife went to work, and the spray was yellow. And at most once, twice a week maybe, Bruce would be hanging his sheets, and down they’d go. This one day Bruce had had it, and he took his sheets down to Albert Farms and went in, and the first words out of Ben’s mouth were, “Boy, what pretty sheets you got!” [laughter] He knew it was air spray. So then they finally said, “You can’t go near Bruce’s house.” Then of course they stopped the spraying.

?: How about the time the plane took the canoe off a guy’s car at the end [of the runway]?

Pat Nugent: I think Ben told him [the owner of the car] that he shouldn’t have [the canoe] so high on his Jeep. [laughter] And Ben replaced them I’m sure – whatever happened he paid the freight for whatever. But he could find humor in things a lot of people didn’t.

Norm Stafford: I guess it was 1971 – and of course I wasn’t around there then – but George Humphrey had died and Ben was going to do the flyover with the ashes and dump the ashes. That’s a true story?

Peter Kievett: George Humphrey and my grandfather were very good friends, and George before passing away, he had requested, “Ben, there’s one thing I want you to do. I want you to scatter my ashes” – in what would be his backyard, down on Old Post Road in the Jones lot. So of course Ben says, “Not a problem, we can do that.” So they arranged it where the service was at the Congregational Church. Everybody went outside, and at the same time he flew over with Gale Donovan. Somebody that was standing outside said, “Well, okay, this is what they’re gonna do – they’ll make a turn, fly over and scatter the ashes.” So Ben slows down the plane, Gale opens the little window on the side of the plane. And he’s got the baggie of ashes in his hand. So then he goes up to the window and he’s gonna just – [tossing gesture] out the window. Simple, easy. Well, as he’s doing so, the pressure from the outside was a little different than the pressure on the inside, so the ashes are coming back, filling the cockpit. And as my grandfather was flying, Gale looks over and says, “George won’t jump! He won’t jump!” [laughter] So he ended up just completely throwing the bag out the window – forget about spreading ashes. But when they came back and they landed, the whole side of the plane – right from the little window down the whole side of the plane, was just wood ash, inside and out.

?: That is a true story.

Peter Kievett: Yeah, it’s true because I got volunteered to clean that. We got a free ride out of it, and as a kid, I would do anything for a ride in the plane.

Sheila Kinney: I always had the idea that he shipped the potatoes out by plane, but obviously – was it just to do business deals or marketing?

Peter Kievett: Well, he loved to combine hobbies with a career, and obviously farming was his career, but he loved to fly. He learned to fly, him and his brother, at a young age, when they lived in Rhode Island – that’s where they were from. It started with a little plane and evolved to a bigger plane, so as his business was growing his planes were growing also. Obviously it’s an expensive hobby, but there was also the work side of it. Yeah, he grew potatoes and everybody thought that was it. No, there’s more to it than that. He was a potato broker, so he bought and sold potatoes. Obviously he started out selling potatoes to markets for table stock. And in the early ’60s, this new fad was coming out called “potato chips.” Companies like Frito Lay came to him, because already he was a well-established potato grower here on the East Coast, and this is where the market is, where most people are anyways. So they came to him and said, “Can you grow these potatoes? We’ll give you the seed and everything, and then you give us back X tonnage of potatoes, you get to keep the rest.” So that’s basically how it all started. A potato chip potato is different than a potato you would normally eat, and Frito Lay was developing their own specific variety of potato exclusively for potato chips. So he changed his whole farming operation to grow potato chip stock potatoes. Of course here in Worthington, where harvests only last for so long, you can only put so much into storage. So what he ended up doing was, “Well, I know these guys up in Maine, I can buy potatoes,” and they were already doing this potato chip brand, and then eventually he’s like, “Well, I’ll buy and sell.” That’s how he became a broker. Then as his business was growing, he said, “Well, I need a fleet of trucks ’cause there’s a lot of potatoes to haul here.” And so eventually he had his own truck brokerage too.

Evan Spring: What was your role in this as it developed?

Peter Kievett: My role was grandson role. [laughter] My mother, Bonnie, was his eldest daughter. I was born and raised here in Worthington. And then as I got older I really became his chauffeur. The day I got my license, he said, “Get in the car, we’re going,” and we ended up in Florida. He just couldn’t wait. [laughter] Unofficially, I already was driving – you can get away with a lot up here in Worthington.

Darryl Smith: You go back to your trucks, they said Ben was up in Dexter, Maine, one time, and it was snowing pretty heavy. He happened to pull into a place and there’s two trucks out of Hatfield, Deerfield, trailer truck owner-operators. And he told them, “Who are you hauling for? Well, why don’t you work for me, sell some of my potatoes?” So Johnny Benoit said, “Well, I went to work for him.” He said, “Boy, he’s good to work for. Got your loads done, you went up and saw him, you got paid. We haul a lot of potatoes for him.”

Evan Spring: How current was the equipment and the method of farming? Bert, you would probably know? Was he using the latest stuff, or did Worthington’s environment require a special way of doing it?

Bert Nugent: No, it was the most modern equipment there was, Dahlman harvesters. You had to mount them on your own tractor, but he had quite a few of ’em over a time.

From Worthington’s Bicentennial Program, June 1968.

Peter Kievett: Ben could see how the market or even the actual industry was heading, and he always wanted to be ahead of the curve, so he actually had a dealership for this modern-day harvesting equipment. Prior to the Dahlman digger, which looks like a dinosaur on four wheels, if you all remember, it was nothing but digging potatoes by hand. It’s kind of funny, my grandfather was putting them in bags, but Joe Sena was putting them in barrels. Barrels is the most common thing, but bags – I don’t know why he did it. But he actually started this Dahlman harvester business up here. You’d see big farms down in the [Connecticut River] Valley – Hadley, Deerfield, all those areas – and they were still digging potatoes and picking them by hand. And back in the early ’60s, Ben Albert’s farm in Worthington was the show farm of New England. If anybody wanted to see a modern-day farming facility back then, it was, “Well, let’s go to Worthington.” I’ve met a lot of the old-time farmers in the Valley later on, and they can remember Albert Farms, Worthington, was the spot to bring and showpiece modern-day farming equipment. It would go back to my great-grandfather actually, he had employees that were with him for 40, 50 years driving trucks. He did business from Canada all the way to Homestead, Florida. And it always amazed me that we could be traveling down the highway – of course [Interstate] 95 was a new road, even when I was a kid – and we would get off the highway and there would be an old diner in some place in Georgia, way down there, and you’d go in and everybody knew Ben Albert’s trucks. Everybody knew who Ben Albert was, even that far away. He represented New England, and in a sense, Worthington, ’cause literally it said “Worthington, Mass” right on the [truck] door.

Pat Nugent: He was proud of Worthington, he loved Worthington.

Peter Kievett: Oh, yeah.

Pat Nugent: He loved the town, and if he’d see somebody having a hard time he found a way to help. Send somebody down with a tractor to help or something, he would do it.

Peter Kievett: How many times would somebody working for Ben go in and ask for an advance, and he would happily do it. And of course there was times where somebody just didn’t have money to buy gas. And I can remember as a kid my grandfather saying – ’cause we had the gas pumps right out front of the office – “Why don’t you go fill up his tank for him?” He was a giving person.

Pat Nugent: A very generous person, yeah.

George Coling: I’m new to Worthington. Can you tell us where the fields were? And the airport I think is down there on 112, right?

Peter Kievett: Well, through the years there was land that was bought and sold, but for the most part, up here in town, there was several pieces of land up off of Old North Road. You have the field that’s right next to the medical center, across the street, and down to what would be the cornfield, Joyner’s cornfield. And of course what Bert called the Jones lot – it was a big parcel of land.

Norm Stafford: Where all of them hay bales are right now.

Peter Kievett: Yeah, it’s all hay field. And then down Old Post Road, there’s two fields right there. And then if you go down by the airstrip, there’s another piece of land that’s off to the east side. You can’t see it, but it’s behind Mike Caputo’s house. Kinne Brook Road, there was several pieces of land down there – it’s called the White Rock Farm right now. I don’t know if you’ve been down on Prentice Road. And then if you go down Kinne Brook further, there’s Fisk Road, and if you go up Fisk Road, the first house on the left, you drive up through their dooryard and there was another farm down there. We called that the White Rock at the time.

Helen Sharron Pollard: And then the Senas had farms up at the top of Buffington Hill Road, and they also had farms on Starkweather Road, which is the road that goes by the school.

Darryl Smith: Well they had the Parson’s lot, out in the middle. Then I think Sena did Burr’s Field at one time, and then up on old Post Road up the Drascals. Joe Sena had that for a while.

George Coling: When did the business cease?

Sheila Kinney: What was the peak? When was peak potato?

Peter Kievett: Well, I think probably the early ’90s was the peak, and then after that the market really was terrible.

Norm Stafford: State Line Potato Chips reneged on a deal or something?

Peter Kievett: State Line was definitely a big player in the demise of my grandfather, because we were a broker also. We were shipping in three, four trailer loads a day to State Line, and the money was starting to add up. You wouldn’t get paid ’til 90 days for that particular load, and then 90 days turned about 120 days. And then everything was starting to compound, and they just never were paying. Eventually it got to the point where he was just supporting State Line Potato Chips with his own money, and then that didn’t work out right.

Pat Kennedy: Why did they come to Worthington to begin with?

Peter Kievett: This is unofficial, but Alberie Albert [1892-1959], my great-grandfather, is originally from Canada, and during the Prohibition he was bootlegging liquor down in New York City, Boston. And on his return trip they were catching onto him, and he had gotten picked up a few times, and of course he had a lot of cash because he had just gotten rid of the loot. So he figured out that land was dirt cheap at that time – we’re talking the ‘30s. So what happened was, he’d go down and get rid of all the alcohol, and then on his return trip he was buying land, paying out money. So then when he comes to the border, and they searched him, he had no cash.

?: Money laundering. [laughter]

Peter Kievett: I found a lot of his deeds in my house, in the attic, and I just couldn’t believe how many, all up and down the East Coast. Deeds to beachfront, like 3,000 feet of beach front at Bar Harbor. So now he had all this land. Well, he settled and wanted to raise his kids here in the States. They had purchased a big farm in Slocum, Rhode Island, and he had two boys, two girls. So meanwhile he went out here in Western Mass, where he found a lot of farms that were abandoned, and he got for a penny-a-dollar value. So he had purchased all this property here in this area, and he was growing potatoes also, ’cause World War II was ramping up, and he had government contracts. So his two sons were 16, 17-years-old, they needed to do something. And my grandfather’s brother, Jerry Albert, he was the first one that came to Worthington. He moved up here and was farming, but his girlfriend was back there [in Rhode Island], okay? You’ve gotta remember we’re talking teenagers, and he couldn’t take it. So the second year my grandfather came up here and just started working where Jerry left off. It wasn’t just fields, he was clearing land – like Bert said, he built the whole Jones lot. That Jones lot started out as like 15 acres [of field], but behind that was all blueberry fields.

?: Commercial?

Peter Kievett: No, they were wild blueberries, stretching from back of Elderberry Lane all the way up to Fort Champion.

Norm Stafford: How many acres is the Jones lot?

Peter Kievett: Cleared, it’s 176.

?: So he had thousands of acres in potatoes.

Peter Kievett: Yes.

Ben Brown: Almost every big field in town at one time was potatoes.

Evan Spring: So besides Ben Albert, Joe Sena, was that pretty much it for potato farms?

Helen Sharron Pollard: I think so.

Norm Stafford: I wanted to know more about the proposal to have a fly-in resort here, and have lots sold or condos or something like that, and people with airplanes would buy them and land at the airport. I don’t know what happened to that proposal – did it get nixed by the selectboard, or did it just not fly economically, or what?

Gloria Conwell: I thought it passed.

Helen Sharron Pollard: My mom was a selectman.

Julia Sharron: We went to town meeting, and the people thought the whole idea was preposterous and they would not vote for it at all. Even when Mr. Humphrey wanted to grow corn in the potato fields to make gas, nobody trusted Mr. Humphrey. Remember, Bert? And so nobody wanted to do this, and so it was voted down at Town Meeting.

Norm Stafford: Why was the town meeting involved I wonder?

Julia Sharron: Well, because it was going to be a different use of property for the town and people just didn’t want it, period.

Gloria Conwell: There was a fund drive to get enough money, and I forget exactly how it worked. Back in ’93, ’94, and people contributed money to donate the land to the Nature Conservancy, with an agricultural –

Evan Johnson: We did get the APR [Agricultural Preservation Restriction program] on that.

Gloria Conwell: That’s what I meant when I said I thought it passed, that it was protected by the town from becoming a condominium community.

Julia Sharron: Yeah, two different things, right. Chapter 61 is farm land, and they wanted to propose different use, like having an airstrip that planes could come and land on – and have all these condos so the air pilots could have a place, and it was really very big.

Evan Johnson: 120 units.

Ben Brown: They were talking about it as an “air park.”

Evan Johnson: You would land, and then taxi your plane to your house, and each house had its own individual plane.

Ben Brown: But subdivision laws come into it and so forth. You can’t grow private residences without roads, so then you have to bring roads up to standards. Subdivision laws really got in the way, and I think that was the biggest snag, if I understand it correctly.

Pat Nugent: From what I understand about the quote-unquote “airport,” if the town would have passed that, Mr. Albert would have gotten money from the government to continue his business. I think a lot of it started with Uncle Sam – it was one loan, after another loan, after another loan. I don’t believe you’d have found many people buying houses on the airstrip with airplanes and heliports, not in Worthington.

Evan Johnson: Maybe not in Worthington, but Ben’s plan was based on a place in Maine that is very much like what he proposed.

Darryl Smith: I was gonna say, how many potato farms – didn’t Sam Davis have one over there in Chesterfield?

?: A lot of those people sold their potatoes through Ben. And over in Savoy was an area.

?: Well, Ben brokered potatoes for a lot of farmers.

Ben Brown: Steve Sena had some in Granville – that was Joe Sena’s brother.

Helen Sharron Pollard: So who had the potato farm first, the Senas or the Alberts?

?: I’d say the Alberts.

Peter Kievett: I’d say the Alberts, yeah.

Norm Stafford: Was it still all that same seed stock that came from Frito Lay?

Peter Kievett: No, Joe [Sena] wasn’t growing potatoes for potato chips, it was table stock. You throw it in a bag and sell it in a market.

Darryl Smith: You go down in Easthampton, they had Sena’s apple orchards down there. They had the apple orchard over in Granville. They were a big family that stayed in farming. I think it was Larry Sena, he always sold all his apples down in Brooklyn, down to the projects down there. One year he didn’t get paid, and he said, “That’s the end of my business.” The broker never paid him for his apples. Wouldn’t take much to go under.

Ben Brown: All the other potato farmers, they were very small in comparison to Albert’s. There was no one at all to compare with Albert in size. Sena’s was basically a family business and so were all these other ones.

Sheila Kinney: So nobody tried to compete –

Peter Kievett: There was no competition, but yet, nobody had the opportunity that the Alberts had, especially where Albert came in and purchased all this land. Nobody had access to that kind of land. Again, Ben was in the right time, at the right place, at the right era. And of course he had the right personality. He was able to build a business and help out these other farmers, and it carried them along. I’ve heard so many stories that Ben would help local businesses. I’m not saying he was financially rich by any means, yet he loved to see anybody who’s attempting to make a go at it, and he would help ’em, anybody. Now if you’re gonna stand there with your hands in your pocket, he probably wouldn’t even talk to you. But he would just love people that were driven to move forward and succeed. For instance, the family that operated [Berkshire] Snow Basin [INSERT LINK] back in the day, over in Cummington – a ski area, family-operated business. They were very good friends. And there was years where we didn’t have much snow, and small family businesses like that, they felt the pinch. He would give them money just to keep open. That’s the way he was, he would would help out anybody that was in need.

Pat Kennedy: Can I ask a question about the workers? Did the same workers come every year? Did people get to know them?

Peter Kievett: Yeah, there was always the generations that progressed into it. I was farming right up to the end – it was 30-something years – so I heard all the stories of the older ones saying, “Well, my dad used to work here,” or “My grandparents used to work here.”

Ben Brown: Was John Durn there that whole time, the boss that brought them all up? Always the same guy?

Peter Kievett: Well, in my generation no, there was no boss. It was just people who maybe had worked last year or the year before, and they would come and apply. You’re talking about the time before me, where it was picking by hand, and the migrants. Even in the ’70s and ’80s, we didn’t have migrants at that point. It was a large group of local people who came, and they kind of liked being outside. They liked to have a little bit of income when everybody’s thinking “We need to get fuel for the house ’cause winter’s coming.”

Springfield Sunday Republican, October 21, 1962.

Julia Sharron: Peter, maybe you can expand on this. During the migrant season, many of the local women worked behind the tractor, and they did that for five or so many weeks. Can you explain a little bit what their job was? You’d have maybe six women behind a tractor doing picking or whatever.

Peter Kievett: Basically, in Worthington obviously we have rocks. We have a lot of rocks, and rocks of various sizes. But harvesting, it sifts the dirt out, and it also lifts up the rocks with the potatoes. So as it’s loading through the machine into the truck, the rocks need to get sorted out of the potatoes. So that’s what most of the employment would be on the harvesting equipment – trying to get the rocks out of the potatoes. There could be three, four maybe five people at a time per machine, and we ran two to three machines during the season.

Springfield Sunday Republican, October 21, 1962.

Helen Sharron Pollard: I never picked for the Alberts, but I did pick for the Senas and my sister Ramona did as well. And I just have to tell this story, because Tim Sena had come home from the service. I don’t know what he was in…

Ben Brown: National Guard.

Helen Sharron Pollard: And before he married Catherine Rude Sena, he was up at the field. It was the first time I ever saw him, and I was probably somewhere between 12 and 14 years old. And you can imagine a young Tim Sena – Pat, you’ll remember. He was a handsome man.

?: He certainly was.

Helen Sharron Pollard: All muscles, and he’s shirtless on the back of his truck. [laughter] And all of us girls were like, “Who is that?” But Cathy was there too, with her beautiful long hair, queening over all of us – dirty, bedraggled, dead potatoes dripping off us from the boys throwing them at us – so he didn’t give us a second look. [laughter]

?: Did you tell him that story?

Helen Sharron Pollard: Tim? Well I don’t know, I guess I just did. [laughter]

Darryl Smith: I remember my mother, when I was a kid, she used to go up and pick for Joe Sena – yellow baskets and the barrels. And that was back in ’55.

Helen Sharron Pollard: Yep, those yellow wire baskets.

?: Literally by hand.

Helen Sharron Pollard: By hand. A machine would have come by to lift the potatoes up.

Ben Brown: A tractor would drag this digging machine. This is much more primitive than the Dahlman diggers Peter was talking about. The tractor would drag it, and it would basically just bring the potatoes up on a conveyor belt and then just leave them on the surface as well as everything else. But the potatoes kind of float up and the dirt would sink down.

Helen Sharron Pollard: So you’d be looking for the biggest potatoes you could get, ’cause you want to fill it up as fast as you can.

Ben Brown: You’d fill the basket and then you’d put the basket into a barrel. Then once the barrel was full, you put your number on it, and the field boss signs the numbers in the morning. So, in the time a kid like myself would pick a barrel, these migrant workers would pick six barrels. [laughter]

Helen Sharron Pollard: Oh, ten. Professionals.

Ben Brown: Absolutely, no comparison.

Peter Kievett: The digging equipment that Helen’s describing, it would come through and dig up potatoes, but it would put the potatoes right back on the ground.

Sheila Kinney: You must’ve worn gloves.

Helen Sharron Pollard: No, no.

Ramona Sharron: My fingernails still to this day – it’s like I don’t have nice nails because of picking potatoes. My sister said how dirty it was. My mother would give us some cotton diapers so that we could wrap them around our face –

Helen Sharron Pollard: Clean ones.

Ramona Sharron: – so that we didn’t get the dirt into our noses and teeth. I still to this day hate getting dirt on my teeth. We’d have to clean out our ears, and it was really quite a disgusting job. I think I did it in second grade, and every once in a while I would pick a potato that was about the size of a basketball. Mr. Sena would let me bring it home, because I think I was the littlest at that time. I would give it to my mother and she would be so excited, because that one potato would feed us all that night. I think I only did it for a year – did we do it more?

Helen Sharron Pollard: I did it more, but I was older and my friends were friends of the Sena boys, so we had a in. I had an in to go and get really dirty. And then you’d find mice, families of mice, in the fields.

Darryl Smith: You get back to how many people you had to have on your harvester. I was in the service and I had a job in Rhode Island, so every other day I’d go over to Slocum, Rhode Island, over to Jerry Albert’s place. And they said, “Well, we’re going out to harvest.” I didn’t know what I was gonna do. Well, two guys left in the truck, and I’m looking around – there’s no rocks. One drives a truck and one drives a harvester, and basically they’re throwing out weeds. You only had two guys on there. And the same thing down in the Valley, they only send out a truck and a driver, there’s no rocks. And then Benny [Albert Jr.] and I went up to Washburn, Maine, one time – we had to bring a camper trailer back. And I’m looking at the farm, and he’s got three flatbeds up there with his barrel hoops on ’em. And I said, “What do you need this for?” And he said, “Well, the kids all pick up here – they go to school in August, then they get out when the harvest comes in, and they pick for three or four weeks by hand. Up here they pick by hand a lot still, and that’s part of their economy.” This was back around the ’80s. I don’t know if he had the big [harvesters] up there or not, but I ain’t seen a barrel truck since Joe Sena’s. I didn’t think they existed anymore.

Ben Brown: A little barrel hoist behind the cab and an arm that swings out, and then picks up the barrel.

Darryl Smith: Yep. Had an extra transmission in there, so they go real slow. And probably one guy – you got your driver who’s doing the hoisting on the truck.

Ben Brown: And one guy on the back putting the barrels in order, towards the cab. Hard work.

Evan Spring: There were some environmental problems with well water – is any part of that story unique to Worthington, or to Ben Albert in particular?

Peter Kievett: It was definitely isolated to this particular farm, to the Alberts. But even down in Northampton, Hadley, it’s a common issue, because more people are aware of the runoff of pesticides that are applied to the farms down there. Here in Worthington, I’m sure Joe Sena probably had some issues with pesticides, yet Ben would take care of that for him, he probably went up and sprayed for him.

Evan Spring: Did it have to do with it being applied by planes, or did all potato farms do that?

Peter Kievett: No, just in general. There were multiple applications done. You had to apply it in the planter, and then it was applied aerially, and then of course applied with a piece of ground equipment.

Evan Johnson: But the problem with the water supply at Radiker Road was the result of the fire up at the farms [on March 28, 1983]. The whole barn was filled with Temik that had burned, and it flushed down into the soil right there. Within just a matter of years they started picking up odd tastes down in the houses on Radiker Road, and that’s when they extended the water line down to pick up those houses.

The 1983 fire, reflected in the windows of the Masons’ house. Photo by Althea Mason.

Julia Sharron: Yeah, it started with Mrs. Joslyn’s daughter one time. There was a puddle of water, and evidently her dog drinks from that puddle and died. So then the people on Radiker Road started to say their wells were contaminated and they couldn’t use the water. So the Board of Selectmen went to the State and wrote up a grant so that we could have town water go down to Radiker Road. So that’s how they got the town water down there. Every well was contaminated, and it was from that fire, but it was also runoff from the fields, and everything else as well.

Evan Spring: I know my neighbor Richard [Mansfield] was personally sprayed by a plane one time.

Richard Mansfield: I moved here in 1972 – we bought some land, a little pork-chop lot, and it abutted the Alexander lot, which is on Scott Road. We cut a nice driveway back to be near to the land. And for a couple of years I admired the potatoes growing there, and they looked beautiful – I thought, “Boy, this is where I wanna be.” And then one day – we were hippies, sitting around a campfire – and that orange airplane came over and it just sprayed us big time. And boy, I was hopping mad, I was really pissed off. So that began kind of a feud that a lot of people in town joined in, ’cause it was getting on peoples’ nerves. And I could hear the talk in the back room [at the Corners Grocery], like, “Look what’s happening to our farming life now that the hippies are coming to town.” [laughter] But really I think it was a legitimate complaint – that plane should not be spraying us. And on top of that, I’m pretty sure – one time at least – it did a defoliant from the air. Because I looked over from [Route] 112 I could see this yellow ring on my land, where all the leaves were falling off – in August, probably it was. Well, I went to the Pesticide Control Board, which is extremely naive, because they didn’t like hippies and they were run by the Agriculture Department. Anyway, to make a long story short, it’s a lot more peaceful without that airplane. [laughter] I’m really glad that airplane’s gone.

Springfield Union, January 9, 1984.

Pat Kennedy: Ted Porter told me a story about fishing in the stream behind the barns, I think. And he said, “I used to fish there and one day I went out and all of the fish were floating on top of the stream.” It turned out there was a storage tank for the pesticides out there and it would leak a little, or there would be a little run-off.

Darryl Smith: I’ll tell you what’s out back there. If you see the picture [on display] of the Hemlock tree [at Albert’s Pond], somebody went up and pegged two platforms and a rope. I think Danny Donovan did it. It was all mowed, ’cause that was a home-made pond. He made that pond for irrigation. You’d go down there and it was all mowed, and kids would be down there swimming. It was a 30-foot stepladder that somebody had down there, so you could really get out over the water, and you’d be almost 30 feet in the air. Lover’s Leap was 50 feet. The pond was 15 feet deep and you wouldn’t hit the bottom.

Ben Brown: It was that giant hemlock tree – this was a real hotspot for kids.

?: Everybody, the whole town.

Ben Brown: As a little kid, it was especially for the bigger kids – the scary place that you were absolutely not supposed to go, ’cause it was too fun and it was dangerous. [laughter] So this Hemlock tree had a giant Tarzan swing, and you would climb up this ladder, and then all the way up into the Hemlock tree if you really wanted the extra oomph. And it would bring you out so far above the pond, you would end up out towards the middle of the pond and you could release [the rope] at least 20 feet up, maybe more than that. For a little kid, it was a pretty good ride.

Peter Kievett: You had the diving board there.

Ben Brown: There was a little diving board towards the end a little bit.

Peter Kievett: And a floating dock.

Ben Brown: And there was a Lover’s Leap. A little sign at the 50-foot platform – just a board basically – that said “Lover’s Leap.” And at 35 feet there was a little platform, like a treehouse kind of thing, small. There were not too many male children that didn’t at least go off the platform once or twice.

Darryl Smith: I went up Lover’s Leap and I wasn’t gonna jump off that, either. Up come Peggy Shea, God bless her, and she said, “Are you gonna jump?” And I said, “Girls first!” She jumps. [laughter]

Evan Spring: And it had an inflow then, right? Now it’s kind of stagnant.

Ben Brown: That was kind of a ritual every spring. Mainly Benny [Albert Jr.] would go down there, and he’d open up the inlet and the outlet, ’cause they would always end up plugged by the time the whole season was done. As long as you kept both inlet and outlet free, it had some amount of circulation until late in the summer, and then it was swim at your own risk at that point.

Springfield Sunday Republican, December 1, 1985.

Darryl Smith: He built the pond down behind the fire house. That was a big one. He did get a lot of irrigation.

Peter Kievett: The thing about the irrigation is, in the ‘50s, the State was thinking about conservation at the time. On the Jones lot, Gale Donovan came up with the big bulldozers, and they actully contoured the land so you could control the runoff. Because obviously when you open up a section of land, you gotta have ways to retain the topsoil. So the State had come up and surveyed all the lands, and they terraced areas of the land, and of course irrigation was a big thing too. So that’s where all these ponds started popping up, because the State actually subsidized a lot of these ponds themselves. The Jones Lot, it’s got the one way in the back.

Darryl Smith: The one up on Scott Road was a big one.

?: Prentice Road, a big one there.

?: That’s where we got the fire hydrant, that’s a big pond.

Peter Kievett: Oh yeah, these were all state-funded projects.

Ben Brown: In the late ’50s, early ’60s, there were some really serious droughts, and farmers – especially Ben – were digging a whole bunch of ponds right around then. And I think they added wells at the town water supply, and they started digging experimental ponds on that part of town, thinking about trying to expand their water supply. Like behind Pete Packard’s there was one that they didn’t develop later on. But it was seriously dry, even drier than what we’ve had lately.

Sheila Kinney: Did you ever lose a crop to drought or bugs?

Peter Kievett: Reduced yields, that’s about it. No, there was never a devastation. Starting in the late ’80s, we were actually farming and renting land down in East Longmeadow; Bloomfield, Connecticut; Granby, Connecticut. These were farms that were old tobacco land, and virtually they came to us and said, “We have land that is really going fallow.” The tobacco industry in the ’80s was just declined. So they had land they wanted to keep open, they didn’t want it to grow to brush. So they came to us, and we rented land for like a dollar an acre. But we actually lost some crops in those areas because of Colorado potato beetles – completely chewed the plants to nothing. Overnight, we had like a hundred-plus acres just chewed up, gone. Nothing left of it – little stubs, and that was it. But up here, Worthington, was very unique. The quality of the potato – everybody said there’s no comparison to what you could buy in Hadley or anywhere else. The Worthington-Plainfield potatoes, by far, you just can’t beat the flavor.

Evan Spring: So even if they’re made for potato chips, everyone locally liked to eat them?

Peter Kievett: Well, here’s the thing. Even though these potatoes were genetically designed to fry for a potato chip, there was certain varieties that were the best baking potatoes ever – size-wise and just flavor. They were just wonderful.

Jim Dodge: Ben told me once that potatoes from the Hilltowns could be sliced thinner, and there was more iron in the soil. When they were processed and bagged, there was less breakage, and State Line just liked the performance of the potatoes out of here than from Maine or elsewhere.

Peter Kievett: When you get into the science of a potato, especially big markets like Frito Lay, they’re looking for quality, but they’re looking for the quantity too, ’cause they just want a lot of these potatoes. And because we bought and sold potatoes, there was times where – let’s say in April, it was kind of a weird market in April. Florida really hasn’t started a harvest yet, but we still have potatoes in storage. So we’ll ship in a load of potatoes from Florida, and then maybe a couple of loads from Worthington-Plainfield. And they would call us up and say, “Hey, what are you guys doing to us? You had two different potatoes.” You think a potato is a potato, but a potato from Florida ended up being totally different than a potato from Worthington, in the way it would slice and the way it would fry, and the quality of chip.

?: And a big corporation needs it uniform.

Peter Kievett: Yeah, and they could see it. They have people, that’s all they do is just fry potato chips, and they would see the difference. They could adjust their fryers, and adjust the speeds and all that. And they were saying, “Look if you’re gonna ship, ship from one place,” because we were messing them up.

Darryl Smith: So how long did the potatoes stay good in the warehouse down here?

Peter Kievett: We would pretty well be done by April.

Darryl Smith: But the quality would stay the same pretty much?

Peter Kievett: Well, a potato that’s been stored for six months is not gonna be the same as a potato that was dug yesterday, but as far as the chip plants went, there was no difference, ’cause you’re frying it. You’re not worried about flavor, or texture for that matter. You don’t like to peel a soft potato.

Darryl Smith: I remember when the town shed needed something, they’d go down to Ben’s. They needed a part for a truck or something like that, it was just kind of a given, you go down to Ben’s and they’ll have something.

Peter Kievett: And harvest time was really a happening time for Worthington, with trucks up and down the roads, harvesting equipment up and down the road, the amount of people they employed. The store alone – I don’t know how many cups of coffee and donuts would come out of that place for break time.

Ben Brown: Before we wrap up I’d like to throw in a little anecdote that I remember from being a kid during the potato farming years. Like Peter was saying, kids back then could get away with a lot up here in the hills, and I grew up amongst the Albert siblings: Ben Albert’s children, Peter’s aunts and uncles. And Linda was the youngest daughter, the third youngest in the whole hierarchy. Linda was pretty spunky. They were all pretty spunky, but Linda was especially spunky, and –

Peter Kievett: Still is. [laughter]

Ben Brown: So she was a little kid – way below learner’s permit age, and nobody would give her a ride to Cummington Fair. She was not gonna be stopped that easily, so she went down to the farm and got in a five-ton flatbed and drove herself over to Cummington Fair. She had a good ‘ole time and was there for quite a while before anyone discovered she was there and how she got there. That was kind of typical of how the Albert children took matters into their own hands. I would guess she was maybe 13.

?: She’d been driving that potato truck in the field.

Ben Brown: Those are big trucks. If she could see over that steering wheel, I’d be very surprised. She was probably sitting on a half a dozen phone books, too. Those trucks, they weren’t easy to drive – no power steering, and manual shift, a split axle. They were not easy to drive, but I have a feeling Linda had a lot of practice.

Peter Kievett: We all did, at a young age.

Helen Sharron Pollard: Well, thank you all so much. [applause] It makes me feel good that we captured this. Thank you Peter so much.

Posted February 17, 2019.

3 thoughts on “Ben Albert and Potato Farming in Worthington

  1. Norm Stafford

    What a wonderful recap of the Ben Albert era. I was surprised to see myself quoted so often but now that I think about it, those are the Ben stories I think about the most.

    Reply
  2. Pingback: Postcards from Worthington Center | Worthington Historical Society

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