ST. JOHN VALLEY — During a recent car ride along Route 1 south from the Allagash area, the close curtains of trees eventually gave way to small towns such as St. Francis and St. John.
Looking south through the car’s windows, the driver saw wide fields and small, neat houses. Looking north, the St. John River flowed around the tiny islands in its stream. On the other side of the river was the Canadian province of New Brunswick, with its equally open fields and small towns of Connors and Saint-Francois-de-Madawaska a little farther along the road.
The driver hit play on the vehicle’s CD player, prompting the voice of Sheila Jans to come out of the speakers. A few notes of fiddle music played while Jans spoke.
“Tied closely to traditional singing in the Valley is instrumental music,” she said. “In the early 1900s the Valley’s musical heritage shared a lot with French traditional rural society throughout eastern Canada and New England.”
Jans’ voice continued on, as did the drive. Jans ticked off musical instruments such as the fiddle, jews harp, accordion, and harmonica frequently used in traditional music of the St. John Valley. The scenery whizzed by and soon enough, the driver approached the town of Fort Kent.
There was a decision to be made — cross the border into the Canadian town of Clair, or continue in the U.S. toward Madawaska?
Either way, the “Voici the Valley Cultureway” CD, narrated by Jans, that played in the vehicle wouldn’t lead the driver wrong.
The “Voici the Valley Cultureway” CD is a nearly 80-minute audio documentary meant to be played during a drive through the St. John Valley as it cuts between Aroostook County in northern Maine and the Canadian province of New Brunswick.
“Voici the Valley” is, however, more than a way to pass the time during a drive. It also is a guide to the rich history and culture of one of the most remote yet beloved areas of Maine.
Jans, a Madawaska resident who was born in Newfoundland, served not only as the primary narrator for “Voici the Valley” — Lise Pelletier narrated the French voiceovers — but also as project director and one of three writers, editors and researchers who put together the CD, an accompanying booklet, and a website.
“There’s a cultural tourism product that came out of it,” Jans said one morning over coffee at a cafe in Edmundston, New Brunswick. “But the process was really about addressing larger issues of the slow erosion of language, raising the awareness of the value of art and culture, and linking communities in ways that are very natural, through their museums, through the beautiful landscape and also the international dynamic.”
“Voici the Valley,” which was featured earlier this year in a National Endowment for the Humanities publication, was completed in 2007 at a cost of around $65,000. The project received funding from a wide variety of sources, from the tiny Valley town of Cyr Plantation to the National Endowment for the Arts.
CultureWorth, a northern Maine-based group of professionals dedicated to finding cultural opportunities in rural areas, kick-started the projects. CultureWorth members Don Cyr, the director of Musee culturel du Mont-Carmel in Lille, award-winning graphic designer Daniel Picard, and Jans, a cultural development consultant, all worked together to create “Voici the Valley.”
“One of the things I like about this is that it wasn’t a top-down initiative,” Jans said. “It came from us, here, and that’s a really good thing.”
For production of the CD, the group did go outside the Valley to Rob Rosenthal of Shunpike Audio, who is based in Portland.
“Voici the Valley” is similar to “Deep Woods and River Roads: Voices from the Kennebec-Chaudiere Heritage Corridor” which takes users on a tour of the region from Popham Beach to Jackman, following part of Route 201 and beyond (Rosenthal also worked on that project).
But “Voici the Valley” is not a guided tour of the kind with specific starting and finishing points, stopping places and timed drives. The documentary, rather, is meant to be accessible from anywhere along one of two routes, which combined to appear as a figure-eight shape through the St. John Valley.
In fact, a “Voici the Valley” listener doesn’t even have to be in Maine in order to listen.
“We want people to get a sense of the Valley,” Jans said.
Of course, being there and driving through the area help make the whole thing come alive.
The Down River route begins in the New Brunswick town of Saint-Jacques to the Canadian city Edmundston. From there, drivers have the option to either cross into the U.S. in Madawaska and then drive down U.S. Route 1 to a stretch beyond Hamlin, or continue down the St. John River on the Canadian side. Both routes end in Grand Falls, New Brunswick.
The Up River drive begins in Edmundston. Again, drivers have the option of crossing the border in Madawaska, from which point the tour heads west to Allagash, with side trips that head south to Eagle Lake or Sinclair, or stay in Canada with a drive to Connors and a side trip to Lac-Baker.
But drivers are by no means beholden to those routes. “Voici the Valley” works all over both routes, no matter whether you drive the entire thing or you’re in Saint-Francois-de-Madwaska, New Brunswick (on the Up River route) and want to head to Van Buren (on the Down River route).
The “Voici the Valley” CD is organized into seven chapters. The narration is punctuated with interviews of Valley residents, historians, folklorists and anthropologists, along with traditional music and songs in French, Wabanaki and English.
Expect to hear, for example, the tale of St. John Valley heroine Tante Blanche, the background of the area’s agriculture, and the history of the logging trade.
The stories, songs and bits of information were carefully chosen by contributors from both sides of the border in order to be as representative as possible.
“We wanted to make sure that even though this is an area of predominantly French heritage, we also wanted to make sure the story of the Scots Irish and Native American people were not treated as peripheral,” Jans said. “So we spent more time on that to focus on that.”
The project’s name was also selected with intent. The phrase “Voici the Valley,” which translates loosely as, “Here is the Valley,” was picked for its mix of French and English. The word cultureway was also intentionally chosen for the project.
“It is an actual trajectory of roads people travel on, but it’s also a virtual experience of the culture and the ways of people,” Jans said. “When I describe it, I’ll say it’s an international cultural route, but it’s more than that. It’s an experience.”
For more information or to order a copy of the “Voici the Valley Cultureway” booklet and CD set, which costs $15 plus shipping and handling, go to www.voicithevalley.org