FORT KENT – The view from the dike along the St. John River in Fort Kent is not much different from those along riverside earthen walls or towpaths in other states. Even when the snow piles 7 feet high along the river or giant ice blocks jam it up in spring, this town at the top of Maine resembles many places with long winters.
It’s not the severe northern Maine weather, the wild outdoor landscape or even the Canadian border crossing downtown that distinguishes Fort Kent. The French Acadians who live here say it’s the people.
And while that is a charm found in many American towns, the warmth and generosity in Fort Kent is unusual in its ever-present quality.
“I was in the Air Force and lived in a lot of places — Ohio, Texas, Illinois. In other parts of the country if you go to a city and smile at someone, they look at you odd. Here, if you look at someone on the street and say hi, they say hello back. Try it sometime,” says native Melanie Gendreau as she pauses outside the town’s namesake 1839 fortress. “It’s a unique area because of the people. They’re big-hearted.”
Indeed, in how many towns will you find five different people giving the same answer to the question, “What makes you special?”
A Fort Kent native, Gendreau recalls how people across town cooked for her family when her father had a heart attack, and how the same reception greeted international athletes when the new World Cup biathlon center staged its first big competition.
An hour later, as the Ploye Festival (celebrating the buckwheat pancakes popular in the region) shifts into gear across town, Gilman Babin, 68, stands in the pouring rain answering the same question with the same answer.
He stands, drenched but unaffected, and explains the Acadian culture that binds his friends and neighbors. Fort Kent, he says, is a town with a shared heritage, a unique language, and a love of the outdoor environment, however harsh and fickle.
“The culture is different. Our ancestors are French Acadians and our French is English and French — it’s a slang. In France, you can understand them, but they can’t understand you,” Babin says in the singsong lilt of the St. John Valley.
Less than half of the people gathered at the ploye festivities have umbrellas, yet many like Babin linger in the rain. Word spreads of a giant rainbow over town and as the rain subsides, residents look up and smile.
Happiness is not a cliche here. The attention the people of Fort Kent extend to one another and to visitors is a story line that plays out constantly across the forested hillside here.
In Rock’s Diner the next morning, Jim Duprey explains the shared love of winter that exists even in subzero temperatures.
“When I get up and it’s 30 below and I step outside, there is no better sound than the squeaky sound of frozen snow. If you don’t get pleasure from that, something’s wrong. It’s life,” Duprey says simply.
Many don’t want to leave this hard climate, he says. However, the modernization of farming and logging in the past 20 years has meant a loss of jobs, and it’s gotten harder to stay. Duprey is proud his children found jobs here, one as a logger, another as a physical therapist.
“With the university, there are people here who can go to primary school, high school and college without ever leaving town,” says Duprey, an insurance salesman. “But I used to insure farmers in my office. It went from about 20 to five (in 10 years). And it’s not because they left to go to someplace else.”
Duprey then segues into tales of the new electric chicken plucking barrel he built with his son. Life here is remote, but people make it fun.
“He’s a gentleman farmer,” Duprey says proudly.
And with that, an invitation is extended to see the plucking barrel. He arranges to meet his new friends back at the diner later, and keeps his promise. Then he drives them up through the surrounding hills to his son’s home, where a tour of the chicken coop with the electric plucker ensues.
This is the way this town rolls. High jinks are merely around the next bend in the road.
Back downtown at the eighth annual Fort Kent International Muskie Derby, locals stroll by the weigh station where a bell is rung each time a muskellunge, or muskie, is registered. A glass display case full of ice contains muskies that are larger than a toddler.
Paula Charette stops with her husband, Roland, to look at this year’s potential winners. Her son, Carson, took the youth division last year so she snaps a photo to send him. Then she is asked the same question as Duprey, Babin and Gendreau, and she offers the same answer.
Within minutes of meeting a pair of strangers, she has invited them to see the panoramic view of town from her home. And by the time Roland and Paula Charette step onto their deck to welcome the strangers, they consider them friends.
They give a tour that includes their mounted deer head collection, Roland’s prized bass, and photos of their children and grandchildren. Paula Charette shares the story of her children’s sports careers, how they went to school on Pleasant Street in Fort Kent from primary school to high school and on to the University of Maine at Fort Kent, just as Duprey described.
And then out on the deck, looking down on Main Street, Charette tells the story of her children’s adoption, of the moment she first held her 2-week-old son in a Miami hospital, of how she and Roland were married on this very hill, a horse-drawn carriage carrying them up to be wed. And she shares the next dream.
Later this year, Charette will help a private health care provider in Presque Isle establish Allagash’s first health care facility in an old schoolhouse. A registered nurse, Charette will exchange an hour commute south for an hour drive into a more remote area. And another story of Fort Kent kindness will play out.
“It’s up along the river, down that road, all the way to the end. Half the people there are older than 75. I know those people, many are my friends,” Charette says. “We’re trying to make life simpler and travel less stressful for them. The roads are bad, gas is high. This will help them. I’m really excited about it.”
Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at: