Henry Sampson

Henry Sampson was interviewed by Mary Giles on January 24, 1976. He spoke at length about his potato farm.

(The following interview is with Henry Sampson, potato farmer, 222 Old Bedford Road, North Westport)


Today, (January 24, 1976), we’ve been starting to grade our potatoes. After we finished digging, we took a few days off and went down through the Connecticut Valley looking at other farms and machinery. The Connecticut River, we crossed it, I think Jerome counted, six or eight times. We saw some much larger farms than ours; they are getting into much larger machinery. We saw two four-row harvesters. We dig two rows at a time, but we winrow, which means pass down two rows with a small digger and pass the two rows over into two that aren’t dug. You can go back on the other side if you want to and move over two more so that then you pass down with the larger digger you’re picking up six rows, four rows that are dug and two rows that aren’t dug, and it almost seemed that this was a better operation than trying to dig four rows at a time. I really like it the way I do it better than what I saw in the newer methods as far as harvesting operation goes. We didn’t see too much that was different from our methods. The modern baggers are coming in the automatic baggers are coming in and we only bag semi-automatically. We’re a smaller operation, and for efficiently, I think we’re as well off as they are, and in the production of the potato crop, we do as well as they do.


Our workers right now are only myself and my brother, and my wife helps out an awful lot. Now the only others we employ are the school children after school. We have about a hundred acres in potatoes.


You ask how we measure our success. Well, it’s hard to tell. Some years we get real good, and some years not so good, but Maine is averaging around 400 bushels to an acre right now, and we like to do about that. This year, we grew all Katahdins. We have had half Chippewahs and half Green Mountains, but then we go away from the Green Mountains and grow all ‘Chips’ for quite a while, and then we’ve gone from all ‘Chips’ to all Katahdins. The Katahdins are more reisitant to scab. We did run into a little scabbing with the Chippawahs. We did try some Abnakes, but the large ones tend to grow hollow. The Green Mountains have a thicker skin and deeper eyes, and the housewife doesn’t like them quite as well as the smooth skins.


This is my brother (introducing brother who has come in).


On the trip (to Connecticut), we picked up some little things that others do differently, and we’ll put a few little things into our operation.


Since the early forties, we’ve been farming potatoes. Before that, it was one-half d0airy and one-half potatoes. Then, in the early forties, we went into all potatoes. A couple who were working for us, wanted to go into the service, and when they left, it left us with too large an operation for two, so we had to decide between the cows and potatoes, and cows tie you down seven days a week. With potatoes, at least you think you have more freedom.


Mrs. Sampson – If you’re a dairy farmer, I think you have to like it. A fellow up the road here has cows, and his children take care of them. Of course, they don’t milk them, but they have to feed them. They have to buy all their feed. They aren’t milk cattle, they are beef cattle, and he has to buy the hay and food, and water them every day, but he likes to have them, for they are attractive. When I look out my window and see them grazing, they are attractive.


Henry Sampson – All our lives, my brother and I have been on the farm. As children growing up on the farm, we had chores. We used to milk the cows and then there was haying and cutting corn, before and after school. We had a lot more ambition than we do now.


Mrs. Sampson – One of the things about a farmer’s child is that they always feels needed. Since they’ve grown up, our two oldest are not farming. We have one in Florida and one in the Virgin Islands, not farming.


Henry – We raise our own vegetable garden, even peanuts and melons, every kind of vegetable. It’s just for us and our friends.


Mrs. Sampson – I don’t can and freeze. In the winter, we have carrots and squash and turnips, but I don’t bother canning tomatoes.


Henry – We had corn almost as early as anyone and we picked some in November. I tried freezing some, but I didn’t like it.


I don’t know how long this farm has been in our family. My grandfather had it way back in the 1800’s. They built the barn in 1896 and they moved that barn to where this one is now, so that barn must have been here quite a number of years before, mid 1800’s or earlier. We never heard of anyone speak of anyone earlier than our grandfather.


This farm was the Wordells’ – my mother’s father. Grandfather Wordell (Rufus) had the two barns for horses that they used as teams to pull when they were building the mills (of granite) in Fall River. He ran a sand and gravel business; the farm was a sideline with him. This was a small farm here, and then we acquired other small farms, and, of course, the farm is a little larger now. It’s not a tremendous farm by any means, the way they are in the country today. Though our farm isn’t big like Texas, and some Main farms, with what we produce, we get in the top ten percent, so we’re not the smallest in the world. If you’re a big farm in the bottom ten percent, you get into a lot of trouble.


Because of the trip we took, we’re going to buy a little sewing machine to sew bags. That we saw (in Connecticut). We sell our potatoes in bags – 10 pounds, 5 pounds, 20 pounds. Most of them go to the chain stores. They go to Hartford, Connecticut. That’s where the warehouse is that we do business with. We used to haul them around to the stores at one time, but it was a little too much of a project for us. We thought we were going backwards, but now we’re going forward. We used to have our own truck, but now we have a trailer truck come and pick them up.


My grandfather Wordell had two daughters, and my mother (Alice) bought Edith out. And she married a Sampson. My grandfather didn’t have any sons, just the two girls.


We have four or five tractors. We need that many because when we do what we call ‘telephone,’ which is the same thing as discing and chopping, so we use one tractor for that. Then it takes one tractor to pull the little digger when we winrow; it takes one to pull the harvester, that’s three, and two more to haul the tractors back and forth.


I can remember horses before we had tractors, back when I was about seven or eight years old, and a plow. I’ve had the rains around my belly and driven horses. I was just about big enough for it at the time, and we used to dig by hand and only get a few bushels a day. And now you can go out with a harvester and dig a thousand bushels a day.


We tell the boys that worked here, that ever since the world was really made, they took potatoes off the ground by hand, and since we were little kids like they are, it’s come to all this modern machinery. When I was a child, potatoes would be maybe 40, 50 or 60 cents a bushel. Today they are about four cents a pound or $2.40 a bushel, and that’s not much of an increase.


Even though the price hasn’t gone up so much, the farm is larger, and you can do in much less time what you could do before.


Our operation has become much more efficient. Take a packing for the pump, they used to sell for 50, 60 or 70 cents. Today, if you want to buy a packing, they charge you $7.00. That’s ten times as much. The operating for that packing should be more efficient with their modern machinery and things, they should learn to be more efficient, but all things have kind of gone like that packing has gone, everything.


The farmer has become so efficient, that it’s good for the customer, but it’s not good for the farmer. Price supports have sort of gone by the way, and farm products put out on the open market, and that’s when we started selling grain to Russia. The grain we sell to Russia is a relatively small amount.


I was going to say, before when we were talking, about efficiency, it used to take one farmer to feed four or five people. Now one farmer is feeing over 50, and it keeps getting more and more all the time. There’s the possibility that one farmer can feed 100 people.


Yes, the American farm has become very efficient. We irrigate so the drought this year hasn’t bothered us, except that we pay the going rate for electricity like anyone else, and it’s expensive. It does save the crop. We’re set up for irrigating, and it might be raining today, but we have to go out and set up our pipes because you can’t prepare for irrigating overnight. Then, if it rains, well and good, we won’t turn it on.


Here come the kids from school, they will go to work grading.


Jeff, one of the children – It isn’t fun, but it’s interesting.


Steve Sampson– I go to the Westport Middle School.


And in response to his father, he says he’s the best tractor driver in the world.


Henry Sampson – I went to Westport High and the University of Massachusetts. I went right through the grade schools in Westport, North Westport, Greenwood Park, Factory and the Earle School, which was the high school. The Factory School was not the present one, and they had the Junior High in a little building as you went up the road toward the larger school. At the University of Massachusetts, I learned some of the techniques of farming. My brother didn’t go to the University, but he’s very sharp at farming.


My mother went to the Fall River Schools, never missed a day, including high school. She walked from here.


About the winters being more severe then, well, maybe yes and maybe no, but I remember when we were kids, we thought the drifts were very high, because we were so low. For fun, we used to go ice skating and sliding on a hill we called ‘Barge’s.’ It was kind of an estate off Adirondack Lane. They had this long cement walk, and it twisted down this long land, and you’d go down that. I never bobsledded, but Gel (brother) went on one of those long sleds for 20 or 30 people, and it went so fast and was so dangerous, he could see why people didn’t want to go.


Mrs. Sampson – I can remember when they used to block off roads just for sliding, like Highland Avenue. They’d put sawhorses across so the cars couldn’t go by.


Henry – When I was a child, we had a horse and carriage, and when I went to school in Central Village, they had a school bus. It was a little old Chevy truck with canvas sides. But when we went to North Westport, we walked, and our mother wanted us to come home for a hot lunch at noontime, so we’d run fast home and back. It was about two-thirds to three-quarters of a mile.


Mrs. Sampson – And, our two oldest daughters attended that two-room school too. This was in the late 50’s.


Henry – Talk about these two-room schools. They got the best education, first and second grades, and I’ve noticed the difference with my other three. Two rooms, two teachers, Mrs. Norton. I requested that my daughters attend this school. I had to transport them or they had to walk. I’m very glad I did, because they really got a good foundation.


They want to close the Head School. They (daughters) attended there too and when they took these examinations for St. Mary’s High School in Fall River, two girls from this little four-room school (Head of Westport) were tops. The Nun was amazed. There was not much difference, you know, it was fractional, but she said she was amazed, from this little school in Westport. But, it isn’t the school, it’s the teachers. They had Mrs. Kelley, and when she found out that Laurie was going to take this exam, she really threw the math at them, and that helped them. It’s the teachers that make the difference. And, I’ve had five children. Of course, times have changed since then, I suppose.


Mrs. Sampson – I know Ethel Leibman (guidance counselor) started Laurie off on the cello in first grade. They didn’t have a piano and so they couldn’t take piano lessons, but my daughter today, has a Master’s degree in music, and she’s still playing the cello. She’s the only cellist on St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. She’s very busy playing. This is what I remember, it was a small school and they were given more attention, where now, you just go through, and if you do your work, it’s ‘alright,’ and if you don’t, ‘too bad.’


Henry – I think my father lived up in Copicut in North Dartmouth where the new reservoir is not, before he came here and married my mother. Now their old homestead is covered with water. In the old maps of that area, way back in the 1700’s, there is the name Sampson. I think there was a Henry Sampson on the Mayflower. I think I’m a Mayflower descendent, but I have not traced it back.


I like this north end of Westport. I like seeing the sun come up in the morning.


Mrs. Sampson – I like the South end of Westport. I like the water. We go to Baker’s Beach in the summer. I like it down there. We used to belong to the Yacht Club for years and used to go down there, but now since we don’t have a boat, it would be just a social thing, so we go to Baker’s and the children like to go surfing. So we gave up the Yacht Club two years ago.


Henry – For a hobby, she’s a great cook.


Mrs. Sampson – I used to belong to a homemaker group from the Agricultural School, and we learned to cane chairs, make lampshades and things like that, but I’ve been so busy lately that I really haven’t had a chance to pursue it. If I have a spare minute, then something else happens. Now I have a granddaughter, and her mother is back in school, so for about four weeks, I’ve had her to tend.


What would I change about Westport? Well, I don’t know. That’s something that would require a lot of thought.