June 20, 2018
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Defending Aroostook in midst of New York Times article

John Clarke Russ | BDN
John Clarke Russ | BDN
Kathryn Olmstead
By Kathryn Olmstead, Special to the BDN

A first visit to Aroostook County can be a myth-defying experience.

Aroostook myths germinate in a segment of the population prone to the comment: “I’ve lived in Maine all my life (or for X number of years) but have never been to Aroostook County,” spoken with a hint of pride.

Mischievous college students from The County have been known to nurture the myths held by such Mainers, affirming for their dorm mates from southern counties that Aroostook is indeed a backward place without electricity or plumbing.

The uninitiated can only imagine what it is like, and some who venture north have difficulty reconciling what they find here with the Aroostook they imagined. This might have been the case for the New York Times writer from Belgrade Lakes, who headed north this summer with an idea for her regular column: “To gauge the impact of the recession on Aroostook County, the state’s northernmost county and one of its poorest.”

Perhaps she can be forgiven for believing recessions are deeper in statistically “poor” areas, even though her host at a Caribou bed-and-breakfast explained that “this area was never rich in the first place,” making it resilient amid economic crises that are disruptive elsewhere.

“We tried to explain that this area’s culture is not based on commerce but on community. You aren’t anonymous, and that changes everything,” said Kate McCartney at the Old Iron Inn.

But the columnist was not looking for culture, and initiated readers were steaming as her article passed from person to person on the Internet until one of them was elected to contact me.

“It cries out for a response,” she said. “We think you are the one to write it.”

Well, I have a certain sympathy for columnists with deadlines to meet, but I asked her to send me the column and made no promises.

“Isn’t stereotyping Aroostook County out of vogue these days?” I asked the caller. “Haven’t people begun to discover that rural communities may hold some answers for many of today’s problems?”

The questions were rhetorical, of course, and the article was not as hard on Aroostook County as I expected. The tone was more negative than the content.

Yet images of “boarded up businesses” and “burned-out houses” stuck in the minds of concerned readers more than the “fields of yellow-white potato blossoms” and the “sails of a brand new wind farm” observed by the writer as she traveled north on Route 1 guided by the planets of the scale model solar system between Houlton and Presque Isle.

“I was troubled by the author’s lack of taking time,” said Mary Tacey Boatner of Presque Isle, suspecting the writer thought the “fields of decommissioned military vehicles” she saw at the former Loring Air Force Base had been there since it closed in 1994, unaware that vehicles damaged in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere are repaired at the Loring Commerce Centre, a name the writer “tried hard not to find ironic.”

“There seemed to be condescension there,” said Mary’s cousin Martha Barron Barrett of Milbridge, who forwarded the NYT piece north after she received it from her daughter in Exeter, N.H. Martha’s former husband had Aroostook ties and they always admired it as a beautiful place with hardworking people.

“Things that didn’t appear to be true” stirred her concern for the county’s reputation. “Mary has to see this,” she decided. “Once out there it belongs to the public. It would be good to have someone challenge this point of view.” So she forwarded the article to her cousin in Presque Isle.

Martha didn’t expect to ignite the fire of appreciation that began to consume her cousin the more she thought about the effect of the New York Times column. Mary began to jot down examples of the county’s appeal.

She thought of people who have moved from out of state to operate restaurants in Aroostook. She thought of the Can-Am sled dog races that attract people from all over the country (and beyond), the National Weather Service in Caribou, Maine’s first state park at Echo Lake, the “magnet school” (Maine School for Science and Math) in Limestone, the MSAD 1 School Farm and the Maine Winter Sports Center bringing biathletes and attention from around the world for World Cup Biathlon championships.

“I kept thinking about all the positive reactions to the county,” Mary said. The more she thought, the more she noticed. She had enjoyed visiting Amish families who have moved in since 2007. She remembered that the St. John Valley is the site for the 2014 Acadian World Congress, drawing delegates from every French-speaking country in the world, and that the University of Maine at Fort Kent recently was recognized by the Princeton Review.

The Acadian Archives in Fort Kent, Wintergreen Arts Center in Presque Isle, the Nylander museum in Caribou, the Southern Aroostook Agricultural Museum in Littleton and the Oakfield Railroad Museum all came to mind, along with restorations of the Friends Church in Fort Fairfield, the James School in Presque Isle and the stunning cathedral in Lille, now an Acadian cultural museum.

“We were so shortchanged,” said Mary, a Pennsylvania native. “The New York Times misrepresented everything. The lives of people who live and work here were so diminished.”

Each time she and Martha talked, Mary added to her list of Aroostook successes: the Acadian ploye mix marketed widely by Bouchard Family Farms in Fort Kent, Mike’s Pickles in Easton, Spudland Alpacas in Blaine, Brian’s artisan breads in Houlton, Maynards’ Organic Highland Beef in Woodland and the county’s farmers markets. And Presque Isle writer Glenna Smith had been all over the state signing her popular book, “Old Maine Woman.”

“Martha and I hadn’t expected to be so protective of the county,” Mary said. “She calls my reaction my ‘voyage of self-discovery.’”

Martha had never heard her cousin express such strong feelings for Aroostook County. “You have found out how deeply you care about that part of the country,” she told her.

And if Mary’s enthusiasm is contagious, the Times article will have done more good than harm.

Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She may be reached at kathryn.olmstead@umit.maine.edu or P.O. Box 626, Caribou 04736.

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