SKOWHEGAN — It was around noontime Tuesday under sunny skies at the Skowhegan State Fair midway as crowds started to line up outside Stan’s French Fries. That’s when Stanley McGray’s cellphone rang.

It was Virginia Tozier, of Cornville, the 88-year-old mother of the fair’s vice president, Melvin Blaisdell. Tozier had called to thank McGray for making the best french fries around — so good, in fact, that McGray said she could order them by phone if she couldn’t make it to the fairgrounds as often as she would like.

“If you can’t make it, you call me and I’ll get you an order and run them right up to you,” McGray told Tozier.

That’s right: he even offered to deliver.

“She likes Stan’s fries; she comes down every year and gets some,” Blaisdell said of his mother, Tozier. “It’s the official fry of the Skowhegan State Fair. They’re fresh. He uses good potatoes.”

McGray, 72, this year is celebrating his 30th consecutive year on the state fair midway.

He said the secret to making the best fries is buying fresh potatoes from Maine farms, including Bell Farms in Auburn and the Dunlap Farm in North Anson.

“I don’t buy potatoes just off the warehouse truck,” he said. “I go to the farm and get one bag of potatoes and come back and we cook ’em and if they’re good, I call him right back on the phone and say ‘Save ’em, I coming back down.’

“We try them before we sell them to the customer. If they’ve been in cold storage, they turn greasy and it brings the starch out. These are fresh out of the ground. The potatoes they eat here Monday, were in the ground on Sunday.”

McGray said he and his helpers hand cut and cook 25, 50-pound bags of potatoes a day and probably 175 bags over the course of the 10-day Skowhegan State Fair.

Juliette Speed, of Bradford, said she saw a TV commercial saying that Stan’s were the best french fries at the Skowhegan fair, so she and her husband, Fred, and three grandchildren drove to Skowhegan for the first time Tuesday to check them out.

“They’re very good — very tasty,” Juliette Speed said. “I think the potato that they use is different; it’s probably a better potato for fries, that’s what makes them so good. They’re fresher, they’re so much better — they’re so good.”

The grandchildren, Benjamin Speed, 12; sister Natalie, 9; and cousin Simon Allen, 13, all agreed.

“They’re so good,” Benjamin said of his order with cheese on the top. The others? “Good” and “Good.”

McGray’s fry enterprise hasn’t been without setbacks. He has survived through a changing economy with the closure of local shoe shops and an arson fire at the fairgrounds in March 1999 that destroyed all of his equipment.

“It was a disaster,” McGray said of the arson fire that destroyed his two french fry trailers, his three house trailers, a dual-axle truck and all the cooking and preparation equipment that had been stored for the winter under the grandstand. “I was in bed when they called me and said the fair’s on fire. If it had been now, I’d probably have a heart attack.”

The fire, reported at about 2:30 a.m. March 30, started in a storage area under the grandstand, where Charles D. Miles, now 37, set fire to curtains in a mobile home. It spread to seven buildings, destroying three, including the grandstand and exhibition hall. The historic, wooden grandstand dated back to the late 1800s and had survived a 1934 fire and 1960 tornado.

McGray, a Skowhegan native who is single with no children, was not insured for the 1999 fire. He took out a couple of big loans from the bank and started all over again that next summer and he’s been going strong every since.

“The 30 years have been great — I love it — the Skowhegan fair has been good to me, but I wouldn’t want to start it now and think I’m going to go 30 years,” he said Tuesday from one of two french fry trailers he runs at the fair. “The business is not there. Everything’s changed with the economy; people who are working don’t have the money to spend like we did 30 years ago. Prices are going up and employment is going down.”

McGray said he grew up in Skowhegan, dropped out of school in the eighth grade and went to work in a gas station. He later leased the gas station on North Avenue for 10 years, all the while dreaming of life on the fair circuit.

“I wanted to get out of the gas business — I loved the fair life — I used to travel around and work for people part time to see what it was like,” he said. “I invested in one french fry trailer first in ’88. About six months later I grabbed another new trailer and just kept going. It was rough to get going, but now every fair I play at I have the same clientele that follows me from fair to fair.”

McGray travels the summer fair and outdoor event circuit, starting with the Cornville 10-Mile Yard Sale on Memorial Day weekend and finishing off at the Fryeburg Fair in October.

Mike McCourt, of Jay, who was at the fair Tuesday for the horse-pulling competitions, said he always goes to Stan’s for his fries.

“I like the way they cook them and they’re fast,” McCourt said. “They’re just good — I like them — salt, vinegar, that’s what I put on them. We always come to Stan’s.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow

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