The Rise and Fall Of the Potato King

The Etscov­itzes Left Rus­sia for the Wilds of Maine To Seek Their For­tune. It Didn’t Turn Out the Way They Planned.

Forward Magazine - - Front Page - By Josh Nathan-Kazis

My grand­mother grew up in a big house on a hill in Fort Kent, Maine, a few hun­dred yards from the Cana­dian bor­der. The house had a porch and a tur­ret and, in the bath­room, a Jewish rit­ual bath. My grand­mother’s mother was a re­li­gious fa­natic. Her fa­ther, Jake Etscovitz, was the Potato King.

Though he lived all his life at the edge of the wilder­ness, the Potato King dressed for Fifth Av­enue. He wore a suit in his potato fields, to his car deal­er­ship, to his mu­sic store, to his gas sta­tion and to the tiny syn­a­gogue down the street from his house. To­day, on a wall at the car deal­er­ship he once owned in town, there’s a pic­ture of him look­ing like Bugsy Siegel in three­piece pin­stripes and a tall fe­dora. It’s 1928, and he’s stand­ing in an open garage door with eight men, most in me­chanic’s cover­alls. His hands are in his pock­ets, his hips pushed out, a lit­tle grin on his face. He looks ready to eat the world. He didn’t. Fort Kent is five hours north of the Maine you’re think­ing of. There are no lob­sters up there, or sum­mer camps, or L.L. Bean flag­ship stores. The Bushes va­ca­tion 360 miles south. The high­way ends in Fort Kent, a state road goes on an­other two dozen miles, and then it’s just log­gers and moose and black flies.

When the Potato King died in 1946, he was still just a lord of the sticks. His son Harry, whom he had sent to Har­vard, was called back to Maine to take over the back­woods em­pire. By the time I was born in 1985, Harry and his wife were alone in Fort Kent. The fam­ily had left, the businesses were gone, and Fort Kent seemed at once a fairy tale and a tragedy: We were kings, but it didn’t work out.

Harry died in 2000. Last year, when Harry’s brother died, I started hear­ing the Fort Kent sto­ries again. This time, they didn’t make sense. Why would a Yid­dish-speak­ing Jewish im­mi­grant set­tle in the most re­mote town in New Eng­land? How did he get rich there? And why did Harry get left be­hind?

In May, I drove to Fort Kent to dig for fam­ily se­crets in the ru­ins of the Potato King’s em­pire.

Ihad a the­ory that the Potato King was a boot­leg­ger.

I didn’t have much to work with. My grand­mother Rose Leah left Fort Kent when she was 16 and never moved back. My dad vis­ited as a kid, but hasn’t been there since he was in his early 20s. The sto­ries I heard gave a child’s im­pres­sion of the place: the lakes, the mas­sive win­ter snow­fall, the horses, the garage, the long roads through the woods.

The Potato King’s house had some­thing like a dozen bed­rooms, and there were al­ways 10 or 15 people liv­ing there, be­tween the fam­ily and the ser­vants and the board­ers and the rabbi the Potato King would keep around to kasher the meat. My grand­mother had a pony that pulled her around in a sleigh. She re­mem­bers her un­cle El­lis sneak­ing past her room at 6:30 in the morn­ing, brib­ing her with a dol­lar so she wouldn’t tell her mother that he had been out all night gam­bling at the Ar­ca­dia Ho­tel.

The only adult ac­count­ing of Fort Kent in its prime was on a tape that my dad recorded with his grandma Bessie, the Potato King’s widow, in 1970, on an early cas­sette recorder. Bessie had be­gun to lose it by then, and she was re­duced to three con­cerns: mu­sic, the im­mutabil­ity of Jewish­ness and the in­evitabil­ity of per­se­cu­tion. She sings in Yid­dish and in Rus­sian, tunes that sound like they should play un­der a slideshow of Ro­man Vish­niac pho­tos. Then she trans­lates a song for my dad: “It’s no mat­ter what you are/ But a Jew you al­ways are/ It’s no mat­ter what you do/ To the law you’ll all be true.”

When my fa­ther asks Bessie on the tape why she be­came re­li­gious, she doesn’t un­der­stand the ques­tion. “I am re­li­gious!” she tells him. “I like to be, it’s good. God helps ev­ery­thing.”

Bessie’s Or­tho­doxy was ex­treme and su­per­sti­tious. She burned her toe­nail clip­pings in the oven to pro­tect her­self from curses. Her mother once broke an arm fall­ing down the stairs at the house in Fort Kent on a Fri­day and re­fused to go to the hospi­tal un­til af­ter Shabbat. Her fa­ther was a Lubav­itch rabbi with a Rasputin beard and a tall black yarmulke. Bessie in­sisted he was the chief rabbi of Brook­lyn.

She tells con­fused, frag­men­tary sto­ries on the tape: There was a pogrom in Rus­sia. The Rus­sians came for her grand­fa­ther’s money. An un­cle sent them to Brook­lyn. She went to Fort Kent with her brother, a trav­el­ing pho­tog­ra­pher who had mar­ried one of Jake’s sis­ters. A judge called her on the phone one day. “I was so scared I was shak­ing,” she says. It turned out that he just wanted her to trans­late for some Rus­sians who had been found work­ing in the woods.

Lis­ten­ing to her voice, it sounds like Bessie had never stopped run­ning. She sings about Czar Ni­cholas, who had been shot 52 years be­fore in a base­ment in the Urals. Fort Kent, for Bessie, was a pretty good place to hide. The Cos­sacks or the Rus­sians, or whomever she thought she was hid­ing from, wouldn’t find her there. And if things got bad in the United States, if the pogroms came to Brook­lyn, she could cross the river to Canada and be safe.

That wouldn’t have been enough for Jake. Jake wasn’t afraid. His old pho­tos reek of am­bi­tion. He’s over­dressed in ev­ery one, ready to ne­go­ti­ate you down and buy you out. He was hun­gry. So why did he set­tle for Fort Kent?

I’ll ad­mit that the liquor smug­gling

the­ory was a stretch. I had just started watch­ing “Board­walk Em­pire,” the HBO show about rum­run­ners and mob­sters in At­lantic City in the 1920s, and it may have primed my imag­i­na­tion. Still, a few facts seemed to line up: Dur­ing the Pro­hi­bi­tion, you could cross the United States bor­der where it bi­sected the St. John River by hop­ping from boot­leg­gers’ boat to boot­leg­gers’ boat. Big Fred Levesque and Maxime Al­bert ran huge net­works of smug­glers and big fleets of cars that shipped liquor into Fort Kent from Canada and down the East Coast. The Potato King lived in the midst of all that, with plenty of cars of his own. Why wouldn’t he have been smug­gling liquor? Be­tween the Bronf­mans and Arnold Roth­stein, boot­leg­ging was as Jewish a busi­ness as bagel­mak­ing. Plus, he dressed like a gang­ster. And who’s ever heard of a Jewish Potato King? I imag­ined my­self as ar­riv­ing in Fort Kent the prodi­gal prince of thieves, meet­ing old bor­der jumpers in dark tap­rooms un­der green lamp­shades. It sounded way cooler than find­ing out I was the great-grand­son of a cou­ple of ter­ri­fied refugees hid­ing in the woods. I headed north.

Hit­ting a Moose

Fort Kent is a town of 4,000 people on the north­ern tip of Maine’s tremen­dous Aroos­t­ook County. Up there they just call Aroos­t­ook “the County.” It looks de­cep­tively small on the map, but the County is big­ger than Con­necti­cut, with fewer res­i­dents than Paw­tucket, Rhode Is­land. Its towns and high­ways hug the New Brunswick bor­der to the east; ev­ery­thing else is for­est, mostly pri­vately-owned log­ging land. U.S. 1, which starts in Key West, Florida, runs up through the County and ends in Fort Kent.

I was wor­ried about the drive up. It had started with my cousins back in New York, who spent time in North­ern Maine as camp coun­selors. They told me that the dif­fer­ence be­tween hit­ting a deer and hit­ting a moose was that if you hit a deer, the deer died; if you hit a moose, you died. That sounded like a camp­fire hor­ror story, and I ig­nored it un­til the people at the car rental counter at the Ban­gor air­port said pretty much the same thing.

In the spring, the moose come out from the woods to lick salt off the as­phalt, trail­ing a uni­verse of fleas and ticks. Adult moose have no nat­u­ral preda­tors in Maine. They fear noth­ing, and are about as skit­tish as a fully loaded log­ging truck. Their eyes are 7 feet off the ground, too high to re­flect a car’s head­lights. Their black coats make them in­vis­i­ble at night. If a bull moose is stand­ing on the shoul­der of the road, you could drive right by him with­out know­ing it. Or, if he de­cides to step onto the pave­ment, you could run into him, knock­ing out his legs and send­ing his half-ton body arc­ing through the wind­shield and onto your lap.

Harry hit a moose once. It to­taled his car, though he walked away. I re­mem­ber hear­ing about it when it hap­pened and won­der­ing how a rel­a­tive of mine could live in dan­ger of moose. Squir­rels, sure. Deer, maybe. But we were city people. It was as if he had been bit­ten by a koala.

Googling anx­iously in my Ban­gor ho­tel room, I found news­pa­per ar­ti­cles about a sum­mer night in 2013 when state po­lice re­sponded to seven sep­a­rate moose and deer strikes around Fort Kent. I won­dered if the For­ward would have sprung for a Humvee. (Ed.: No.)

The Potato King’s fa­ther, Louis Etscovitz, came to Aroos­t­ook County in 1903 from some for­got­ten vil­lage in the Rus­sian em­pire. He traded cat­tle, slaugh­tered them in Fort Kent, and then sold them to the lum­ber camps in the forests out­side of town. He was gored by a bull, but died of pneu­mo­nia. Etscovitz was an as­sumed name, prob­a­bly bought to ease his exit from Rus­sia.

His sib­lings came later un­der their given name, Ra­pa­port. I have an un­dated photo of them, five old im­mi­grants in black. They look dressed for a fu­neral, though their faint smiles sug­gest a wed­ding. Most of them set­tled in less re­mote parts of Maine. One of Louis’s broth­ers opened a fur­ni­ture store in Ban­gor; they called him Pappy Rappy.

Louis, mean­while, stayed on the edge of the woods, keep­ing his fake name. His sons kept the fake name and stayed north, too. When my grand­mother was a girl, she had cousins up and down U.S. 1. The Potato King’s broth­ers and sis­ters spread from Fort Kent and filled Aroos­t­ook with Jews. Ev­ery city in the County had a Chevy deal­er­ship owned by an Etscovitz brother: Jake had his in Fort Kent and in Madawaska, Sam in Presque Isle, Max in Houl­ton, Abe in Cari­bou. There were cousins in Is­land Falls and Mars Hill, and dis­tant con­nec­tions in Fort Fair­field and Van Buren. They would come to­gether a few times a year for a B’nai B’rith din­ner in Presque Isle, where the women wore hats and the men wore suits and ev­ery­one packed into a few short ta­bles un­der a ban­ner with the num­ber of their B’nai B’rith lodge.

The Jews de­cided to form the lodge at Mil­ton Adel­man’s bar mitz­vah in Mars Hill in 1937. I heard about him from a dis­tant rel­a­tive in Ban­gor. Maybe he could ex­plain why Louis and his sons pre­ferred to hide in the back­coun­try. I tried call­ing him the night be­fore I started driv­ing north. The line was dis­con­nected. I put his name into a Nexis data­base. Same num­ber. I won­dered if he was dead.

The Last Jew

He wasn’t. A se­ries of chance phone calls led me to a busy diner in Mars Hill called Al’s, where Mil­ton Adel­man and I shared a booth. I asked him if he was the last Jew in the County. “I hope not,” Mil­ton said. He told me about a rabbi he had met, and an old friend in Presque Isle. Still, there aren’t many. And Adel­man is cer­tainly the only Jewish potato farmer left there. If I was set­ting out to un­der­stand the Potato King, lunch with Adel­man would be a good place to start.

Restaurants in Aroos­t­ook County are noth­ing spe­cial, but the din­ers are bril­liant. Al’s has a sim­ple break­fast menu and a cute coun­try wait­ress. I or­dered eggs. Mil­ton told me that, when he was young, his par­ents men­tioned my grand­mother as some­one he might date.

Mars Hill is about 195 miles north of Ban­gor and 70 miles south of Fort Kent — which is to say, in the ge­o­graph­i­cal cen­ter of nowhere. It’s a bed­room com­mu­nity for Presque Isle, which is a sad joke, be­cause Presque Isle is asleep. Presque Isle Air Force Base closed in 1961, and then Lor­ing Air Force Base near Cari­bou closed in 1992; any need these small ru­ral cities had for sub­urbs is long gone.

Al’s is in the mid­dle of Mars Hill’s funky main street. Down the block, there’s a lit­tle mo­tel and a pizza place with a gar­ish checked sign that’s ei­ther retro or obliv­i­ous. Mil­ton, a re­tired potato farmer, seemed to be a reg­u­lar at the diner. More Mainer than ghetto Jew, he’s 89, has an iPhone, and car­ries a wooden cane that looks heavy enough to knock you out.

Mil­ton never dated my grand­mother, but his brother Yale mar­ried one of her cousins. Yale and Mil­ton’s fa­ther came up from New York to work as a ped­dler, and then opened a depart­ment store be­fore he started farm­ing dur­ing World War I. They kept kosher un­til Yale came home from the Univer­sity of Alabama and told them it was silly.

Still, they were Jewish. Mil­ton re­mem­bers play­ing poker in the base­ment of the Presque Isle syn­a­gogue. That long white build­ing is still there, but it’s empty and boarded up, the stained glass gone. Most of the Jewish fam­i­lies in Presque Isle owned stores on Main Street: The Shapiros sold clothes, the Wein­bergs sold clothes, the Gold­smiths sold sport­ing goods. Af­ter the bases closed, the Wal­mart killed what­ever was left of Main Street when it opened in 1993. All of the Jewish stores are gone now; nearly all of those fam­i­lies have moved away.

In Mars Hill, mean­while, Mil­ton and Yale were potato men, some of the big­gest around. They had potato farms, a potato ship­ping oper­a­tion, and, later, seats on the New York Mer­can­tile Ex­change to trade potato fu­tures. To­day Mil­ton has a house on the cor­ner of one of his old potato fields. His kids didn’t stick around. “I gave them too much ed­u­ca­tion,” he said. “Couldn’t keep them on the farm.”

Farm life was hard, and potato har­vest­ing was mis­er­able. Be­fore me­chan­i­cal har­vesters, a trac­tor would pull a dig­ging ma­chine down the potato rows, turn­ing the soil. Then a team of la­bor­ers — men, women and chil­dren — would pluck the pota­toes from the dirt, drop­ping them in bas­kets, which they trans­ferred to 180-pound bar­rels that they would hoist onto a flatbed truck. That stopped on Mil­ton and Yale’s farms in the mid-1950s. French Cana­dian work­ers who the broth­ers had hired for har­vest sea­son went on strike in 1954,

‘They brought to this re­gion of North­ern Maine their cher­ished spir­i­tual her­itage.’

so in 1955 the broth­ers bought their first me­chan­i­cal har­vester. In 1956 they did away with hand­pick­ing al­to­gether. When Mil­ton’s kids were lit­tle, he had them walk be­hind the har­vesters and pick up pota­toes that the ma­chines had missed.

In Mars Hill to­day, the schools still close for a few weeks in the fall for the potato har­vest. As re­cently at 2002, Aroos­t­ook County school districts re­ported that over 1,300 stu­dents did potato-re­lated work dur­ing that break, ac­cord­ing to a Univer­sity of Maine paper.

Mil­ton’s chil­dren own the potato fields now. They lease them to the McCrum fam­ily, whose sprawl­ing potato oper­a­tion is one of the last big ones in north­ern Maine. You can still see a few potato farms and potato bro­ker­ages on ei­ther side of U.S. 1, but the in­dus­try here is a small frac­tion of what it was when the Adel­mans started farm­ing. Maine was the top potato pro­duc­ing state in the coun­try in the 1940s, re­spon­si­ble for 12% of na­tional potato pro­duc­tion in 1941, ac­cord­ing to the USDA. By 1979, plenty of other states had ramped up their pro­duc­tion, but Maine was still grow­ing about 8% of U.S. pota­toes. That all fell apart in the 1980s, thanks to Idaho’s ut­ter dom­i­na­tion of the potato in­dus­try, bol­stered by fed­er­ally-funded ir­ri­ga­tion projects, bet­ter mar­ket­ing, and Amer­i­can’s love for French fries.

Maine farm­ers planted mostly round whites, smaller spuds than Idaho’s big rus­sets. Rus­sets are more-or-less uni­form in size, easy to ap­por­tion in a recipe, easy to cook as a baked potato, and per­fect for man­u­fac­tur­ers to slice for French fries. The Idaho farm­ers mar­keted them well, us­ing just a hand­ful of brand names, while Maine pota­toes were pack­aged by count­less small farms with un­even qual­ity stan­dards. Ham­pered, too, by the shorter grow­ing sea­son, the state’s potato farms started to close. In 2012, Maine pro­duced just un­der 4% of the U.S. to­tal potato yield.

Up in Fort Kent, my great-grand­fa­ther Jake was long dead by the time potato pro­duc­tion in Idaho be­came a prob­lem for the Maine farm­ers. But the gen­eral hard­ships for the Potato King would have been the same as those the Adel­man broth­ers faced in Mars Hill: tough con­di­tions, dif­fi­cult work, and farm trou­bles that seep into ev­ery cor­ner of your life. The potato busi­ness is decades be­hind Mil­ton. Still, he continues to think in terms of the potato. As we walked to our cars af­ter lunch, I asked if the pota­toes had been planted yet this year. He ges­tured up at the town’s hum­ble ski hill, still patched with muddy white spots, and said no. “My the­ory has al­ways been, you can’t plant pota­toes un­til there isn’t any snow on the moun­tain,” he said.

I left Adel­man, promis­ing to say hello to my grand­mother for him. It rained the rest of the way to Fort Kent.

Trapped in the Wilder­ness

Acere­bral hem­or­rhage foiled the Potato King’s es­cape from Fort Kent.

When he died in 1946, just shy of 50, Jake Etscovitz had been mak­ing plans to leave Maine. He was al­ready a big wheel in town: He had the garage and the car deal­er­ships and the potato bro­ker­age and the fields. He was a Ma­son, and wore a Ma­sonic ring of black onyx. He owned a share of the Savoy, a small lo­cal the­ater that opened in 1917 with a show­ing of “The Birth of a Na­tion.” He was vice pres­i­dent of the lo­cal tele­phone com­pany. And he had a lit­tle store next to his car deal­er­ships where he sold records.

His next move, ac­cord­ing to my grand­mother, was to get out of town.

My grand­mother’s sto­ries make Fort Kent sound like a blast, but it’s clear that the Etscov­itzes had frus­tra­tions. Pre­serv­ing Bessie’s Or­tho­doxy was hard, but ful­fill­ing Jake’s huge am­bi­tions was harder.

In 1919, Jake’s fa­ther Louis helped found a syn­a­gogue in Fort Kent called Beth Is­rael. The orig­i­nal by­laws, hand­writ­ten on a yel­low ledger, are at the Aca­dian Ar­chives at the Univer­sity of Maine in Fort Kent. It cost $10 to join the con­gre­ga­tion, plus an an­nual fee of $6. They built a syn­a­gogue at the foot of Klein Hill.

The con­gre­ga­tion didn’t last. They dis­banded in the 1930s. The few Jewish fam­i­lies in town were leav­ing, and there weren’t enough Jews for a minyan. They left the build­ing stand­ing, un­used, un­til Harry tore it down in the 1970s. Jake and Bessie were mar­ried in 1920; by the time their kids were young, there were few other Jews left in Fort Kent.

“They re­ally es­tab­lished a Jewish ci­tadel in the wilder­ness,” my grand­mother told me over the phone from Brook­line, Mas­sachusetts in early May, a few days be­fore my trip. “I mean, to main­tain an Ortho­dox home is quite the thing in a place like Fort Kent.”

They in­stalled a mikveh, a Jewish rit­ual bath, in a large bath­room in the Elm Street house. They brought up rab­bis to board in their house and slaugh­ter meat for them. They ob­served the hol­i­days as best they could, but even their rel­a­tives seem to have found their re­li­gios­ity out of place. Lena Shur Den­nis, the Ban­gor cousin, de­scribed them al­most as rad­i­cals. “They would bentsch, my God,” she said, re­fer­ring to the recita­tion of grace af­ter meals.

Jake’s am­bi­tions, mean­while, were big­ger than Fort Kent. He sent both of my grand­mother’s broth­ers to Har­vard, a ges­ture of im­mense will that served, in part, to show Jake and Harry how mar­ginal Fort Kent was.

The schools in Fort Kent were bad. When Harry was a sopho­more, De­pres­sion-era short­falls forced the high school to pay its five teach­ers in town scrip, a makeshift cur­rency that even the lo­cal stores re­fused to redeem for face value. When Harry got to Har­vard, he re­al­ized fast that he was in trou­ble. In a 1982 in­ter­view I re­trieved from the Aca­dian Ar­chives, Harry said that he spoke such ter­ri­ble English when he ar­rived that he was placed in a class for for­eign stu­dents. His man­gled ar­got, learned from Yid­dish-speak­ing par­ents and fil­tered through French-speak­ing class­mates, must have sounded ab­surd to the tweedy Har­vard men. “I was mocked,” Harry said.

In­stead of trust­ing my grand­mother to the lo­cal schools, Jake sent her to Brook­line, a Jewish neigh­bor­hood in the Bos­ton area, to at­tend the pub­lic high school start­ing in ninth grade. She lived in an apart­ment, ac­com­pa­nied by a Fort Kent girl sent with her as a maid. Jake, mean­while, was work­ing on a big in­vest­ment. The de­tails are vague, but my grand­mother says he was look­ing to dis­trib­ute gas for the Gulf Oil Com­pany in the County. How that would have got­ten him out of Maine is un­clear, but, ac­cord­ing to my grand­mother, he had al­ready in­vested money in the plan and rented a house for the fam­ily in Brook­line. Then he died. My grand­mother told me this last bit just days be­fore my trip. That Jake had just missed get­ting away changed the tenor of the tragedy. Now those decades that Harry spent in Fort Kent started to sound like an ac­ci­dent that was al­most avoided. As I drove the last leg of the jour­ney, through the rainy pinewoods on the stretch of Route 161 be­tween Cari­bou and Fort Kent, I won­dered if the trip was an ar­ro­gant mis­take. What was I go­ing to say to the people I met there? Hey, I’m your boss’s great-grand­son; he died try­ing to leave this hope­less back­wa­ter?

Road signs kept an­nounc­ing tiny French towns that failed to ma­te­ri­al­ize. Fi­nally, late in the af­ter­noon, I rolled into Fort Kent.

Auto Parts and Cof­fee

Lew Morneault sells worms out of an old fridge out­side of his house on Fort Kent’s main drag. The worms come from earth-filled crates he keeps in his garage. Also in his garage, pegged high up on the wall next to a plas­tic sprin­kler and an old ten­nis racket, are the mud flaps off an old G.M.C. truck. The rub­ber is cor­roded and the cor­ner is dark, but the first few letters are enough: “Etscovitz Chevro­let. Fort Kent Maine.”

Lew worked at Harry’s deal­er­ship for 17 years be­fore open­ing his own small used car busi­ness. He’s re­tired now. Lew and his wife Ber­nadette fed me hot tea and home­made whoopie pies at the small ta­ble in their kitchen.

I had ar­rived in town the night be­fore and checked into the North­ern Door Inn, the only mo­tel in town. My room smelled like some­one had spilled a bucket of Ben­gay in the shower. From the front door of the ho­tel I could see the check­point on the U.S.


No Small Pota­toes: Jake Etscovitz, far right, dressed in a suit, stands in front of his auto deal­er­ship in 1928.

With this is­sue, the For­ward em­barks on a jour­ney to re­port and re­flect on all 50 states in our union. The se­ries will com­prise es­says, ar­ti­cles, facts and more than a few sur­prises. We be­gin in Fort Kent, Maine, where Josh Nathan-Kazis un­cov­ers some in­trigu­ing fam­ily his­tory.




A tremen­dous moose head at Two Rivers Lunch in Al­la­gash, Maine.


Fish­er­men: Josh’s grand­fa­ther holds a fish with Harry Etscovitz at the cabin in Ea­gle Lake, Maine, in the late 1960s.

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