PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — They’re getting ready to party like it’s 1859 in central Aroostook County.
This weekend Presque Isle and Caribou held back-to-back celebrations marking the dates 150 years ago they each became incorporated — 24 hours apart.
On Saturday Northern Maine Community College held a giant birthday party for the Star City complete with a 10-tiered cake compliments of the culinary arts students at Colby College in Waterville.
“Today is the official kickoff of a yearlong celebration,” said Kim Smith, chairwoman of the Presque Isle Sesquicentennial Committee. “This is a huge part of our history, [and] people don’t tend to live to 150, so it’s nice to celebrate the city’s birthday.”
The city started out on April 4, 1859, as Fairbanks in honor of founder Dennis Fairbanks. The name later changed to Presque Isle in recognition of its geographic location between the Aroostook River and Presque Isle Stream.
In French, Presque Isle means “almost an Island.”
“Can you imagine what it looked like back then?” asked Carol Bell, president of the Presque Isle Historical Society. “We actually had a covered bridge across the Aroostook River and a good high school, which we still do.”
In 1859 mail was delivered by horseback, and Dennis Fairbanks operated his saw and gristmills.
“There were a lot of ups and downs over the last 150 years,” Bell said. “We have to think about the people who came before us because it’s thanks to them we have the good city we do.”
Rep. Patricia Sutherland said she recalled the city’s centennial celebrations.
“Fifty years seems like a long time when you’re a little kid,” Sutherland said. “But I don’t know where the years have gone.”
Throughout the day hundreds of visitors took part in activities related to the sesquicentennial celebrations on the NMCC campus including children’s activity area, musical performances, a food court featuring traditional Aroostook County products and historical and cultural demonstrations.
On Sunday it was Caribou’s turn as more than 200 people gathered at the Unitarian Universalist Church to commemorate the day 150 years ago it became a town.
Like its neighbor to the south, Caribou started off under a different name, Lyndon.
In 1870 the name was changed to Caribou, though the reason remains a mystery.
“Caribou was a popular name for towns back then,” said Jim Cyr, chairman of Caribou’s Sesquicentennial Committee.
Cyr said the 150th anniversary is a good time for any city or town to take a look at its history and ponder the future.
“It’s a chance for people to take a minute to appreciate how we came about as a town,” Cyr said. “It’s also a chance to recognize the fact we have faced many challenges in the past and made it through and continue to thrive.”
Cyr said Caribou is the true melting pot in Aroostook County with its residents’ ancestors coming from France, Sweden, Ireland and England to join the Native Americans already living here.
“It’s a fascinating culture of people coming together,” Cyr said. “Today people all over the world are trying to figure out how to live together, and Caribou’s been doing it for almost 200 years.”
To mark the occasion on Sunday, members of the City Council, dressed in period costumes, signed the official document recognizing the 150th anniversary and accepted a commemorative handmade quilt from the Crown of Maine Quilters.
The quilt depicted and was dedicated to women from Caribou who were the first to serve in their fields.
The significance was not lost on the two female members of the City Council, who would not have been allowed to vote 150 years ago.
“We are certainly not the first women on the [Caribou] City Council,” Karla Bell said. “But we have to thank all those women who worked so hard and fought for our rights to vote and be elected.”
The quilters presented a special quilt to Presque Isle the day before.
Both cities have events planned throughout the year with the bulk of activities slated for late August and early September including parades, fireworks, an air show, athletic competitions, historical displays, musical performances, lectures and fairs.