FORT KENT, Maine — It’s shaping up to be a busy summer for the Fort Kent Historical Society.
Groundwork and site preparation have already begun in anticipation of reconstructing a one-room St. John Valley schoolhouse on the society’s Dube Street lot.
Several yards away an old barn and shed rest a foot or so off the ground on metal jack-stands waiting for a new cement sill and additional renovations.
Looking over the mounds of dirt, rocks, construction debris and equipment Saturday morning, Chad Pelletier admitted to being just a bit overwhelmed.
“It’s a lot of activity,” the president of the Fort Kent Historical Society said. “But it’s going to give us increased space to display our artifacts.”
Funded through a $2,000 grant from the town, donations and volunteerism, an exact replica of the old Washington School of New Canada will take visitors back to the days when nearly every student walked to schools which often had no electricity, no plumbing and minimal heat.
“The actual Washington School was given to the historical society in 1988,” Pelletier said. “At the time the board looked at all the options to move it to a new location but just could not make it happen.”
In the 20-plus years since, the old schoolhouse has fallen further and further into disrepair, and where once teachers taught schoolchildren, now raccoons, squirrels and swallows have taken up residence.
“Three years ago we found some old papers saying we were legally obligated to remove that old building from its [current] location,” Pelletier said. “So we again looked into it and did a bit of research and decided building a replica was a better plan.”
At the same time, he added the society is looking for the best way to take down the original schoolhouse in accordance with the original building donation.
“It was built in the 1920s and as far as we can tell, electricity, a little mud room and connected outhouses were added in the 1930s,” Pelletier said. “It was stick-built with rough lumber, hard pine boards and had a tin ceiling with windows along one wall only.”
Very little is salvageable, Pelletier said, but plans call for using as many duplicate materials as possible on the 24-foot-by-28-foot schoolhouse.
The outlying areas of the St. John Valley — or the “back settlements,” as they are called — were dotted with such school buildings, he said.
“In Fort Kent there was the St. Louis School and the Market Street School,” Pelletier said. “Outside of town there were schools every three miles, which was considered walking distance for the students.”
The society already has a healthy collection of artifacts relating to education, including items belonging to Joseph C. Morin, who graduated from the Madawaska Training School — now the University of Maine at Fort Kent — in 1896 and went on to become superintendent of schools in Puerto Rico and authored “Morin’s Phonetic Method of Teaching English as a Second Language.”
The neighboring barn, which had sunk about 36-inches into the ground over the years, is getting a complete face-lift, with planned cedar-shingle siding and a new concrete sill.
Pelletier’s father, Edmond Pelletier, a lifelong carpenter, is helping out with those renovations.
The adjacent tool shed will house displays connected to the area’s agricultural past including blacksmithing and tool fabrication.
Pelletier said the society is relying heavily on volunteers and fundraising, but hopes individuals can supplement those efforts.
“We are always ready to accept donations,” he said. “We are also open to visitors this summer as the construction goes on.”