In the "old days" (circa 1940) a small army of women and girls hit the potato fields in the predawn light, each geared to another day of hard labor. The potato harvest lasted about two weeks. During this span of time, the community schools let out for potato diggin’, as the local vernacular spoke it.
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Source: Image courtesy Michigan History Magazine

The people who grew and dug potatoes in Michigan were for the most part descendants of the timber workers of the late 1890s or of central European immigrants who came to farm during the early 20th century.

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Source: Image courtesy Michigan History Magazine

In the early days of potato production, they were dug by hand, with a fork. On a good day, one person could dig about 1/2 acre of potatoes.

Source: Image courtesy Michigan History Magazine

The people who participated in the potato harvest were mainly women, many having no other source of extra income. The day began at 7:00 a.m. sharp. The cold, damp atmosphere was matched only by the clammy brown earth out of which we picked the potatoes. Work continued until darkness at 5:00 p.m.
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Source: Images courtesy Michigan History Magazine

    Arriving at the field you were issued a supply of numbered tickets by the field boss. Grabbing a pail or small basket you selected your row and started filling the container, and then emptying it into crates or bags placed strategically along the rows. The loaders came along when a row was picked, collected tickets and placed filled bags or crates on the truck for the trip to the warehouse. At the end of the day the numbered tickets were tallied up and recorded in the field boss’s account book; from this record you were paid. You repeated the process, over and over, crawling along on your knees, then standing, stooping and lifting.

A hard worker could average 40 to 60 bushels of potatoes a day. An exceptional picker could go as high as 90 bushels. The children working alongside their mothers totaled from 10 to 30 bushels depending on age and physical stamina.

Source: Image courtesy Michigan History Magazine

Potato production was labor-intensive, from hand-digging to storage and transportation - it was all done by hand.

Source: Image courtesy Michigan History Magazine

Click here to go to the page on Potato Harvesting NOW.

This material has been compiled for educational use only, and may not be reproduced without permission.  One copy may be printed for personal use.  Please contact Randall Schaetzl (soils@msu.edu) for more information or permissions.