BELFAST — Life for a Maine farm boy was a lot of work growing up in the 1950s and 1960s—but it wasn’t something you complained about. “Those were hard days,” said Belfast native Mitch Littlefield. “It was very physical work, hard on their bodies, but it was also a very strong close knit society.” Littlefield, whose family owned and operated three working farms during his childhood, raised chickens growing up. Feeling as though the stories he grew up with may be lost, he wrote a series of short stories of life in Belfast in his book, Memories of Shucking Peas.
Just last week, he and his friend, another Belfast native, Frank Coombs, did a presentation sponsored by the Belfast Historical Society to a packed room of more than 120 people at the Belfast Free Library titled Growing Up in Belfast During the 1950s and '60s: Chickens, Sardines, Drive-In Movies and Bowling.
“I think people love to hear those stories; it reminds them of their own pleasant memories of those days for those who grew up in the Belfast area,” said Littlefield. “But, also there was a big cross section of people [who came for the presentation] who moved to Belfast in the last 25-30 years and I think they wanted to feel that connection and understand what life was like in the town they live in and now call home.”
In one of Littlefield’s short stories titled The Chicken Capital of The World he paints a picture of a working class town that may not have been pretty, but it was self-sufficient.
While Belfast itself had a blue collar populace; the town boasted several factories—shoe, pants, sash and blind, and a sardine processing plant, the chicken industry offered employment for not only the factory workers, but the entire county and beyond. . . Most every farmer within 50 miles of the Belfast processing plants got in on the action. Raising chickens for the poultry plants offered the farmer an additional income stream which quickly became a main component of farming in Maine during the 20th century. So, during those (chicken) salad days, Belfast became the chicken capital of the world and processed, on average, 250,000 chickens a day.
“When I left high school, I wanted to get off the farm, so I went to work in the factories, actually both of them. But I worked in Penobscot Poultry the longest,” he said.
Littlefield’s father, who also worked for another division of Penobscot Frozen Foods, inadvertently pioneered the practice of “pre-packaged” chickens at a time when grocery stores were coming to the realization that consumers would buy more if they could serve themselves.
My dad worked for Ted Starrett at Penobscott Frozen Foods for some time, and in fact, helped develop what we now know as packaged pre-cut chicken. By identifying the precise places to cut the chicken's legs and wings in the joints that make the legs and wings on a chicken work, they discovered the chickens could be packaged as a whole cut up chicken, yet be uniform and presentable to the buying public.
In those days people would just buy the whole bird and cut it up themselves or ask the butcher to,” he explained. “It was quite a change at the time.”
Another highlight of being in the Chicken Capital of the world for Littlefield as a kid was the annual Broiler Festival.
The festival itself was held at the Belfast City Park....There were tents set up to host speakers who addressed political and social concerns, and these tents also offered local musical artists a chance to perform. There were boxing matches, and arm wrestling, and hot-rod shows. The smell of hot dogs, pizza, sausage and onions, dough boys, cotton candy, and greasy French fries wafted through the warm July nights, while our eyes were gleefully assaulted by the flashing neon lights and our eardrums joyfully brutalized by the blaring music of the seemingly hundreds of over-sized speakers scattered throughout the midway. This carnival would start on Monday, and run through Saturday when the festival ended with the BBQ.
“It was the biggest event of the summer. Just a typical country fair with pie-eating contests and your typical 4-H exhibits, but as a farm boy, all those bright lights, the neon and the barkers, the crowd, the great food and the music blaring—these were just things you didn’t see every day on the farm,” he said.
Littlefield recounts more stories of Belfast in his book, including having 200 hundred acres to access in playing childhood games, being a wet nurse for a sheep, working for a sardine processing plant and raking blueberries on summer vacation. You can find his book on Amazon.
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org