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.
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.