One of Caribou’s oldest farming families wants someone to carry on their legacy

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CARIBOU, Maine — Although Frank McElwain is the last generation to own and operate the family farm, he and his wife, Joan, are determined to continue to tell the McElwain family story and give the community a head start. taste of local agricultural life.

The popular McElwain Strawberry Farm, located at the start of Highway 161 in Caribou, has been a local staple for three generations, starting with Frank’s grandfather, David McElwain, in 1910.

In this undated photo, David McElwain, the first farmer of McElwain’s Strawberry Farm, poses with his team of horse-drawn wagons in front of his caribou barn. Credit: Courtesy of Frank McElwain

Like many county families, Frank and Joan McElwain watched their children leave the area with no interest in taking over their parents’ business. But while the future of their farm remains uncertain, the McElwains have drawn inspiration from past generations to continue to carve out a place for themselves in caribou history.

“I can’t tell you how many people we met at the farm store who said, ‘I farmed with your dad or your grandfather,'” said Frank McElwain, who is named after his great-uncle. “People knew them and they appreciated that connection to the community.”

The McElwain farming tradition began in 1910 after David and his two brothers, John and Frank, emigrated from Canada to Aroostook County to “make a fortune”. While Frank became a blacksmith in Almost Isle, David and John moved to Caribou and established themselves as two of the region’s best-known potato growers.

Joan and Frank McElwain pick ‘Sweet Sixteen’ apples from one of the 250 trees in their family orchard. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

Potatoes were Aroostook’s cash crop at the time, and the emergence of a railroad system to Boston helped the industry thrive until the late 1960s. The crop was in such demand that John McElwain spearheaded the creation of South Main Street, an area of ​​Main Street that still exists, stretching from John’s historic two-and-a-half-story colonial home to the Caribou Inn & Convention Center.

“Farmers needed a way to cross the creek and into Almost Isle,” Frank said. “At that time, going around in reverse with a horse and cart was too long.”

David and his wife, Edith, raised two daughters and a son, Frank’s father, Ralph, who began farming alongside his father.

Joan and Frank McElwain’s house and barn on Route 161 in Caribou dates back to the early 1900s when Frank’s grandfather, David McElwain, started growing potatoes. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

David McElwain died in 1968 at a time when Aroostook’s potato industry was beginning to contract and farmers who wanted to continue farming needed larger acres and more mechanized equipment.

Ralph McElwain continued to plant potatoes, but gradually shifted to selling a variety of crops including pumpkins, vegetables and flower seedlings.

In 1985, 30-year-old Frank joined his father in the McElwain family’s first foray into strawberry production.

In this undated photo, John McElwain (rear, far left) poses with field workers at his Caribou farm. Credit: Courtesy of Frank McElwain

“We started with an acre, and it grew from there,” Frank said. “My father started selling strawberries by the roadside.”

This roadside stand eventually turned into a farm shop that the McElwains still run with the help of local teenagers and adults. The farm store building was originally The Doe School, a one-room schoolhouse that taught local children until the late 1920s.

Frank and Ralph McElwain continued to farm together until Ralph’s death in 1999. Today the farm comprises 150 acres, 80 of which are leased by the McElwains from local farmers and 15 acres which the family uses for plant strawberries, vegetables and apple trees.

Besides growing fresh food, Frank and Joan McElwains’ land also holds memories of the years they raised their three children – Diana, Lauren and Spencer – who live with their own families in central and southern Maine.

The original McElwain barn, built in 1922, is still part of Joan and Frank McElwain’s 150-acre property. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

Although all three children pursued careers unrelated to farming, life on the farm taught them to work hard and earn their own money.

“Diana had her own pumpkin business and used it to pay for her horse and supplies for five years,” Joan McElwain said. “Then Lauren took over and shared it with Spencer. He bought his first car [with money he earned from the farm].”

After their children grew up and moved away from the farm, Frank and Joan McElwain were determined to keep their farm in the family.

In this photo from 1994, Joan and Frank McElwain pose with their children Lauren (left), Spencer and Diana, who were 8, 5 and 11 respectively. Credit: Courtesy of Joan McElwain

Despite balancing full-time careers — Frank as school district superintendent and Joan as hospital lab manager — the couple rose early in the morning and stayed up late at night tending to the orchards of apple trees, strawberry fields and walking trails and run the always busy farm shop.

With Frank retiring in 2014 and Joan in 2020, the couple had more time to spend on the farm while considering their future. They hope to find a person or a family willing to maintain the farmland and the store in the same way.

In the meantime, they will continue to welcome a steady stream of people who have been more thirsty for new farmland and family experiences since the start of the pandemic.

Previously a one-room schoolhouse, McElwain’s Strawberry Farm store sells strawberries, apples, pumpkins and other vegetables. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

“When we had a Maine Apple Sunday event last weekend, and we had well over 1,000 people,” Joan said. “People were parked up to the golf course [next door] and queues all day for wagon rides.

With no other family members in Caribou, maintaining these farming experiences for the community has become more important than ever to the McElwains.

“I never planned to retire and move to Florida,” Frank said. “It was important for me to keep this [farm] in the family because it’s more than buildings. I grew up here. We raised our children here. This is where people come to have these experiences [with their families].”

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