Dedicated to the History of Maine and the People and Places That Preserve It

Pierson the Potato Prince

by Aimée N. Lanteigne
Most of us under the age of sixty cannot imagine a summer fair without a big basket of French fries with ketchup, a Friday night high school football game without homemade fries doused in vinegar, or a McDonald’s super value meal without their signature salty spuds. French fries seem so much a part of our culture that it hardly seems possible there was a time when Americans didn’t enjoy this quintessential comfort food. We owe the invention of French fries to none other than the gentle genius, Olof Pierson, native of Caribou who developed the first pack of frozen French fries while employed at H.C. Baxter Co. in Hartland.

Olof Powers Pierson was born in Caribou on September 26, 1906, son of Olof Theodore and Berdina Powers Pierson. He graduated from Caribou High School in 1923 and went on to earn his Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering in 1929 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps during the Great Depression and served at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas. He rose to the rank of lieutenant pilot.

Pierson married Frances Hewitt in 1931. After his stint in the Army Air Corps, he returned to MIT to pursue a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering. While there, he and another gentleman volunteered to take a test flight in an experimental monoplane. Pierson was cruising at 125 mph nearly a mile in the sky when his seat belt broke. The man in the plane with him heard him exclaim, "Goodbye, Fred!" as he jumped head first out of the aircraft. Pierson’s companion was not far behind him. The plane careened out of control in wild loops, eventually plummeting into Boston Harbor as its fuel tanks burst into flames.

Pierson and his mate parachuted to safety, one on land, one in the water. The man to whom we owe the phrase, "Would you like fries with that?" very narrowly escaped obscurity.

Ironically, Pierson would go on to be the first president of the Portland Airport.

Fate called during World War II when the U.S. Army contacted him about dehydrating potatoes to feed the millions of troops in the armed services. While working for H.C. Baxter Co. in Hartland as the plant engineer in charge of quality control and new product development, the first package of frozen French fried potatoes was born. It was then developed at the Snowflake plant in Corinna and then marketed by Bird’s Eye in 1947. The rest, as they say, is history.

One year later, Pierson left H.C. Baxter and went into business for himself with the goal of assisting Caribou potato farmers with harvesting, processing, and storing their spuds.

He went on to design the first French fry plant for McCain Foods in Florenceville, New Brunswick. McCain Foods is now synonymous with "French fries" and is a multi-billion dollar international cooperation.

Harrison McCain,chairman of McCain Foods, in 1993 said of Pierson, "I remember him as a very kindly, very bright man who was not quick to decide things. He went slower." Harrison and his brother, Wallace, were in a hurry to get things done, but Pierson didn’t want to rush a good thing. "…he had the right answers in the end. He had a very inventive mind," said McCain.

Olof Pierson successfully encouraged Bird’s Eye to build a French fry plant in Caribou instead of Presque Isle, thus bringing muchneeded jobs to the area, as well as a ready market for the local potato farmers. In the 1950’s, he continued to stretch his inventive genius. Pierson’s inventions, which were designed to aid in the harvest and storage of The County’s trademark tuber, included the first portable oil space heater coined the "Silent Glow" to assist farmers in heating their potato houses. He built a prototype to redefine used crankcase oil, invented the steam peeler, a potato washer, a butane bottle labeler, a potato vine puller, the pallet box, and a simple mechanized potato harvester.

As a result of his expertise in the potato flake and granule business, Pierson became a consultant with the United Nations Food Organization. He and his wife traveled around the world to places like Greece, Poland, Sweden, Canada, and Brazil to help teach foreign companies about potato processing and storage, machinery selection, and site and plant design. Olof Pierson died in Caribou, Maine, on November 3, 1993, at the ripe old age of 87. The November 10, 1993, edition of the Aroostook Republican quoted his children. His oldest son, Hugh, recalled his father as a man of "ultimate patience". His second eldest, Peter, said of his dad, "We have lost a remarkably creative man whose motivation was never financial, and although he made fortunes for many firms, he made little for himself."

Cannery workers sorting potatoes, Hartland, ca. 1940. Courtesy Hartland Historical Society.
His third son, Justice Paul "Ted" Pierson, appreciated his father’s sense of humor and "was struck by his father’s insistence that the world was in much too big a hurry, and people didn’t take time to enjoy the simple things."

His only daughter, and youngest child, Kristi, told the Aroostook Republican shortly after her father’s death, "We had a really great relationship." She admired his poetry and his kindness towards others.

The world owes its French fry fetish to the quiet, yet brilliant, inventor from Caribou, a true gentleman in every sense of the word. His discovery of how to dehydrate and freeze potatoes, as well as his inventions, have made life easier for countless generations of potato farmers, both on their backs and on their wallets. The next time you’re at the fair enjoying a basket of crispy hot fries lathered in your favorite condiment, pause a moment and thank the man who put that delicious morsel in your hand...Olof P. Pierson, the Potato Prince!