Many people drive by the residence every day but they don’t know the history. Many people indulge in America’s most popular fast food….the French fry….but they don’t think of Caribou, Maine. Well, Caribou is going to change that by celebrating Olof Powers Pierson, Caribou native and inventor of the frozen French fry, during OP Pierson Days, September 26-28th.
Pierson was born September 26, 1906 in Caribou. The son of Olof and Berdina Pierson, he graduated from Caribou High School in 1923 and attended MIT, graduating with a degree in Electrical Engineering in 1929. Following his tenure at MIT, Pierson enlisted in the Army Air Corps where he earned the rank of lieutenant pilot. His aeronautical fettish evolved into him becoming the first president of the Portland Airport (Jetport now) and test piloting experimental craft. His passion for math, science and life in general brought him back to MIT where he earned his master’s degree in aeronautical engineering following his stint in the Army Air Corps.
Pierson had a brilliant mind and was always the inventor. One of his first projects was developing a prototype plant to reuse crankcase oil; a process that is still widely used today. But his international legacy came from his agrarian roots in The County. During World War II he was commissioned by the US Army to come up with a process to dehydrate potatoes for the armed services. Pierson was employed by the H.C. Baxter Company of Hartland, Maine where he worked as plant engineer in charge of new product development. While working on this project he eventually became tagged as “the father of the frozen French fry potato”. In 1947, Pierson and the H.C. Baxter Company, and the Snowflake plant in Corinna joined forces with Birdseye Co. of Caribou to produce and market the first package of frozen French fries.
Remembering his roots, Pierson left the H.C. Baxter company and returned to Caribou where he set his sights on aiding The County’s potato farmers with harvesting, storing and processing their crops. His impact on the industry was remarkable as he invented the steam peeler which is widely used by commercial food processors to peel root vegetables. He also created the shallow fat fryer which is used to produce America’s number one fast food…..the French fry. By the 1950’s Pierson was busy developing a workable potato washer, a potato top puller and an early version of the potato harvester.
Eventually, Pierson moved on to design the first French fry plant for McCain Foods in Florenceville, New Brunswick. Most of the folks in The County know McCain Frozen Foods as a multi-billion dollar international food processor and distributor. In an article in Memories of Maine magazine, Harrison McCain, then chairman of the McCain Foods in 1993 was quoted as saying: “I remember him (Pierson) as a very kindly, very bright man who was not quick to decide things. He went slower.” McCain noted that himself and his brother Wallace were always in a hurry to get things done, but said Pierson didn’t want to rush a good thing, “he had the right answers in the end. He had a very inventive mind, “ McCain said. OP Pierson was also responsible for Birdseye building their French fly plant in Caribou, bringing much needed jobs to the region along with a perfect market for local farmers.
But his inventiveness didn’t stop there. He also invented a little heating unit to aid farmers with potato storage. Most of us know that unit at the Silent Glow as it was produced by the Silent Glow Oil Burner Company. He also designed the pallet box, a common item used in farming today.
With his vast knowledge in dehydration, Pierson became a consultant with the United Nations Food Organization where he and his wife Frances and their family traveled internationally to work with foreign companies regarding plant design, storage, potato processing and equipment and machinery.
OP Pierson’s inventive mind and passion to help out local farmers transcends Caribou and has provided food to populations around the globe……so when you go to a restaurant and they ask…”do you want fries with that” you can thank Caribou native and inventor, Olaf Powers Pierson.
So, now that you know the rest of the story, we hope you jump on the band wagon and help celebrate our community heritage during OP Pierson Days, Sept 26-28th. Have an idea for an event….give us a call. Want to paint a potato barrel to commemorate our agrarian heritage….call the Caribou Parks & Recreation Department and reserve one of only 10 barrels from the Bradbury Barrel Company. Barrels will be available for $25 on a first come, first serve basis and once completed will be displayed at the Caribou Wellness Center.
Caribou is on the move……let’s celebrate one of Caribou’s greatest movers !!!