A lot of Irish potatoes were harvested in Atmore

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Those of you who were not born in the late 1940s or early 1950s may not know of our heritage of Irish potato growing and processing.

Small farms ranging all the way up to very large farms rendered thousands and thousands of pounds of Irish potatoes. The harvesting season lasted for several weeks and many found gainful employment in this industry.

The bulk of the employment came at the grading sheds. You see there were at least a dozen sheds engaged in the grading operation. The sheds were located primarily along the Frisco Railroad near the Jack Springs crossing. There were also a couple of shed along the L&N Railroad near West Highway 31 and along East 3l going into Canoe.

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During this entire grading season, the buzz of the graders in motion could be heard practically all over town. The rumblings of railroad ice cooled boxcars seemed to blend right in with the grading operation.

A variety of jobs were available at the sheds. The actual grading of the potatoes were the most popular jobs. Men and women stationed themselves along the grading trays and troughs. As the potatoes moved down the grading line water was sprayed for cleaning and workers cast out the undesirable spuds. Usually the younger boys got the job as “spud handlers.” That was my job when I first went to work on the sheds.

At the end of the grading trays were bag handlers. These men and women fixed the bags onto the end of the trays so that the potatoes quickly fell into the bags and were set aside for the bag sewers to take over. The sewers were usually women who would sew up the top of the bags in a jiffy.

This normally ended the grading process, but before the bagged potatoes were moved out inspectors quickly walked along the bags in a row making sure they were ready to be moved out.

Following the inspection, men rolled the bags into ice filled railroad boxcars stationed along the grading sheds. The bags were carefully stacked inside the cars and when they were filled the train engine pulled the boxcar away and rolled another car in to be filled.

I failed to mention those workers, mostly men, who unloaded the bags from the farmer’s trucks into a big chute at the front of the grading trays. These trucks would sometimes be lined up as far as two-to-three blocks away. And the trucks pulled in all day long and into the night. This was probably the most tiring work of all as the men were constantly lifting the bags from the trucks.

Younger men and women, teens and grownups too found this work very rewarding in this stage of their lives. Yet, there were some who would come down, mostly wearing nicely ironed shirts with ivy league button down collars, in a sense saying “this work is below me.” Perhaps I should not say this but that is an impression I got from those far-gone days.

Those of us who worked there whether part time or full time always cherished our lunch breaks. I remember my parents bringing my lunch to me. My mom always brought me two sandwiches. And both had wieners in them. On one sandwich she used mustard as a condiment and on the other sandwich she used ketchup. She always included a jar of refreshing ice tea. This was some of the best meals I ever had.

But those days are gone now. We only have our memories of them. Occasionally I run into friends who worked at the sheds. We talk of how proud we were that the sheds provided us the opportunity to learn how to work.

I had written about the potato sheds in an earlier column and just the other day I received an email from a lady who lived here for two years with her parents but moved to Louisiana. She told me her father worked for the L&N Railroad and met her mother here. In fact she was born in Atmore. She told me her father was the train engineer who moved those box cars around the sheds. She told me of an instance when two robbers jumped into the cooled cars trying to make away with two sacks of potatoes. Her father somehow learned of what was taking place and he slammed on the breaks of the moving cars causing some of the bags to tumble down on the yeggs and causing them to be apprehended.

Another email came to me from Jerry Flannigan, a former Century resident. He related that he worked at the shed operated by Mr. and Mrs. Erickson who were from Minnesota. He said he started out sewing bags and loading them in boxcars. He told of the day He and Mrs. Erickson were sent to pick up a bale of burlap bags at O’Farrell’s Supply. The bags fell out of the trunk of the Oldsmobile she was driving as they crossed the Main Street railroad crossing. He said the two of them struggled to get the stacks of bags back into the trunk of the car just before a freight train from Canoe came down the tracks. Luckily, they made it just in time.

This is just another fond recollection from the “potato grading days in Atmore.”

Next week, we will have more interesting and memorable accounts from days in Atmore gone by.

Contact Lowell by email at exam@frontiernet.net.