September 18, 2011

Maine Streets: Fort Kent

Bound by a shared heritage and love for the outdoors, 'big-hearted' residents keep this northern border town warm and welcoming year-round.

By Deirdre Fleming dfleming@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

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Main Street intersects with Market Street in picturesque Fort Kent near the Canadian border.

Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

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ALL ABOUT TOWN

FOUNDED: 1839

SIZE: 55.7 square miles

POPULATION: 4,091 in 2010; 4,268 in 1990; 4,575 in 1970

RACIAL MAKEUP: 95 percent white; 5 percent minorities

MEDIAN HOME VALUE: $66,000

MEDIAN HOUSEHOLD INCOME: $29,547

MAJOR EMPLOYERS: Northern Maine Medical Center, University of Maine at Fort Kent, the local school district, the timber industry

FAMOUS RESIDENTS: Edward Kent, for whom the wooden fort in town is named. He was the 12th and 15th governor of Maine.

ANNUAL EVENTS: Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Race (March), the Ploye Festival and International Muskie Derby (August)

WHERE LOCALS GO: Bee-Jay’s Tavern, which has a limited menu; Swamp Buck Restaurant and Lounge; Rock’s Diner; Lonesome Pine Trails in the winter and the 10th Mountain Division Ski Club lodge year-round.

WHAT VISITORS SHOULD SEE: Fort Kent, the 1839 fortress; the 10th Mountain Division Ski Club lodge any time of year; the St. John River during canoeing season; the path that runs along the river.

FAMOUS LANDMARKS: St. Louis Catholic Church, which has a lace iron steeple and is nearly 120 years old; the wooden fortress, Fort Kent, which is on the National Register of Historic Places; the 82-year-old iron bridge spanning the St. John River to Canada; the start of U.S. Route 1, which ends in Key West, Fla.

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."

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