Urban refugees seek County traditions

Posted March 19, 2009, at 4:53 p.m.

When I first moved to northern Maine in 1974, I was intrigued by the number of people who had returned after living elsewhere — men and women who had retired here, taken mid-career pay cuts to work here, and people who came because their ancestors settled here a generation or two back. And I met young people who re-turned after graduating from college.

My curiosity inspired a column of profiles for Caribou’s weekly newspaper titled “They Came Back.” Each story was different, but common themes emerged. People returned to Aroostook County for the pace of life, closeness to nature and, most frequently, the genuineness of the people. Many returnees felt close to their roots. Young people knew the stories of how and why their ancestors had come from Sweden, Scotland, Ireland, Lebanon and France to make new homes in Maine.

I found in northern Maine a culture similar to that which built this country. Aroostook County had retained qualities that once characterized the entire nation when agriculture drove its economy and people were inherently self reliant. My neighbors remembered days when families provided for most of their needs and bartered homemade goods for things they could not produce themselves. Acquiring money was not as important as being productive, and many families had been relatively unaffected by the Great Depression of the 1930s. “Waste not, want not” was a way of life.

Later they would be told they were “poor” by those who measured wealth in dollars and acquisitions. They would learn to look outside themselves and their communities for prosperity instead of drawing on their own personal and natural resources. Agriculture began to decline and independence was eroded. A new Air Force base in Limestone drew people away from the hard work and risk of farming to better paying jobs with pensions. The purpose of farming changed from sustaining families and communities to providing cash income.

Potato farmers were encouraged to increase production for expanded markets. Demands for high yields required loans for new and expensive equipment. The need to stay ahead of debts and meet market demands superseded the need to take care of the land for future generations. Soil eroded and organic matter disappeared under layers of expensive fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. When overproduction pushed the price of potatoes below the cost of producing them, the farmer learned to look to the federal government for assistance. Family farms that could not keep up were bought by large corporations for whom future generations were nonexistent. Farmers even began to call themselves “producers” and “growers” instead of “farmers.”

People in rural communities came to believe that ideas from outside were better than their own. Architects from someplace else advocated schools with flat roofs that leaked and collapsed under winter’s heavy snows. Urban renewal experts from someplace else convinced towns they could get big federal grants if they would just level those old buildings on Main Street and build modern malls (with flat roofs, of course).

Businesses owned by local people were replaced by franchises owned by national and multinational corporations. A sense of pride and belonging characterized the ribbon-cuttings of the McDonald’s, Pizza Huts and Kentucky Fried Chickens that came to line the highways. Now northern Maine could identify with urban areas, forgetting that while franchises provided jobs, profits would leave the community. The Main Street that had been a cultural, social and commercial center gave way to malls dedicated only to commercial values.

Yet despite losses in town and country, the qualities of life that drew people north in the 1970s remain. Northern Maine is still a place where people know you by name and care about your wellbeing. More than once I have been flagged down at high speeds on I-95 by Aroostook friends who wanted to catch up in a roadside chat. Aroostook County is still a place where you can leave your keys in the car when you run into the post office, and you don’t have to lock your house for every trip to the supermarket. (You should, however, allow an extra half hour to talk to the friends you will meet.)

And Aroostook is attracting a new generation of urban refugees seeking a safe, rural environment to raise their families. These parents in their 30s and 40s inspired a series of columns titled “Déjà vu” in Caribou-based Echoes magazine describing their decisions to move north to reclaim traditions of sustainability and independ-ence. They are listening to those who remember when work was life and families depended on themselves and their neighbors for their futures.

If today’s children are to be the first generation in American history with a standard of living lower than that of their parents, it won’t hurt them to know how to grow and preserve their own food and live without waste. It might help them survive.

Kathryn Olmstead is associate professor of journalism and associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Maine. She also is editor and publisher of Echoes Magazine from which this essay is adapted.

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