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72nd Maine Potato Queen to Be Crowned in Fort Fairfield
07/19/2013   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell
Carmen Towle Crowned Miss Potato Queen 1963

This weekend, one young woman from Aroostook County will become the 72nd Maine Potato Queen at the Fort Fairfield Potato Blossom Festival. The pageant has been held almost every year in the Northern Maine town since 1935. Hopeful contestants have been rehearsing their talent routines and practicing their interview skills in the run up to Saturday night's big event.

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Miss Potato Blossom Pageant Rehearsal-2The music is country. The costumes are red white and blue. And the contestants for Maine Potato Queen 2013 are rehearsing their opening number, and parading in shorts, tanks tops, and sneakers down a plywood runway.

[Rehearsal Emcee] "Contestant number seven, Abigail Leanne Stewart, Miss Easton..."

One of these young women will spend the next year traveling to agricultural conferences throughout New England and helping to market the Maine potato to the rest of the world. It's a time-honored tradition that is still taken seriously.

Fifty years ago this weekend, 1963, Carmen Towle was crowned in her hometown of Fort Fairfield at the Potato Blossom Festival. She's kept a scrapbook of photos and mementos from her year, including the rules that all Queens were to follow.

Carmen Towle-1In her day, Fort Fairfield was the top potato producing town in the entire country.

Things have changed a lot since then," Towle said. "We had a lot of small farmers- family farms where kids grew up on farms. Everybody pitched in. They took three weeks off from the school in the fall so kids could harvest potatoes.

Today, she said much of the industry she once represented is made up of large-scale corporate operations, as many of the families she knew have gotten out of the business.

And the pageant has changed right along with the industry. In Towle's pre-feminist era, there was a bathing suit contest. Women were expected to wear hats and gloves, and conduct themselves in a distinctly "lady-like" manner. Fifty years later, the girls don't have to wear swim suits, and a strong emphasis on traditional beauty has been jettisoned in favor of something the industry considers more important, said pageant director Kathy Maynard.

"First and foremost, they have to be a spokesperson," said Maynard. "They're going to be put in those kinds of sittuations where they're actually going to have to carry on conversations with people who may agree or disagree that they like Maine potatoes."

But, such pageants have also come under fire from critics who draw unflattering comparisons with stock shows and worry that competing for such titles objectifies women and enforces rigid stereotypes of the "ideal" American female.

Kirsten Bell Albair, Maine Potato Queen 1968"I think that crops have kind of always been associated with the female," said Kirsten Bell Albair, Maine Potato Queen 1968. "it has to do with fertility. I think if you look at mythology etc, Demeter was the goddess of the harvest."

And for every harvest in the country, there's a queen, from Rockland's Sea Goddess to Hawaii's Miss Pineapple. As an 18 year old Maine Potato Queen, Albair said she didn't think much about deeper messages then; She entered the pageant to have fun, help out the local industry, and earn enough scholarship money to pay for a semester at the University of Maine. It wasn't until she surprised herself by going all the way to the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, a year marked by bra burnings and protests outside the venue, that she realized that pageants could have a darker side, especially for contestants in the Deep South, where pageant culture is far more competitive.

"The devastation that girls felt and showed when they didn't make the top ten or whatever. I mean really," Albair said. "Girls would (say) 'I can never go back to my state' and I went, really?"

While other contestants had thousands of dollars worth of support from their state governments, Albair's gown was donated to her by a department store in Portland; her mother made the rest of her wardrobe. That cheerful do the best-you-can-attitude, she said, is what makes an agriculture pageant different. And Miss Potato 1963, Carmen Towle, agrees. As the newest crop of hopefuls prepare to take the stage this weekend to vie for the crown, Towle is back now fifty years after her win, to judge the finalists.

Jennifer Mitchell: "When you look at this photo here and all this, what do you think? What do you feel when you look at this a think back on that night?"
Carmen Towle: "Smile lines have appeared on my face that weren't there then. But it's a typical 18 year old girl that is heading into the world. I see these young ladies as basically the same people that we were at that time, thinking the sky's the limit."

Photos by Nick Woodward.

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