May 24, 2018
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‘Patenting’ a long, hallowed tradition in St. John Valley

By Julia Bayly, BDN Staff

We all know necessity is the mother of invention. Well, here in the St. John Valley it’s the mother, father, sibling and first cousin all rolled into one.

“Farmer sense” is what my late husband always called it. That ability to look at a mechanical problem and then with a minimum of fuss use whatever tools and materials are at hand to fix it.

If the job required a specialized tool, that got built, too.

That talent goes by a number of names — “Good old American know-how,” “Yankee ingenuity” or just plain “handy.”

But here at the top of Maine those talented individuals who can fabricate and fix just about anything are lumped into the general category of “patenteurs.”

A word taken straight from the local French, “patente” can be either noun or verb as in, “Did you see the ‘patente’ he made for that tractor?” or “She is going to have to ‘patente’ something for that tractor.”

Noun or verb, the word describes a skill that is wholly ingrained into St. John Valley culture.

“It’s something we lived with all our lives,” Chad Pelletier, Fort Kent historian, said. “We see examples of it everywhere.”

Looking around, there is evidence of my late husband Patrick’s patents all over the farm. From the homemade wood splitter to the fabricated stump-puller to the adjustable “third hands,” most remain eminently useful.

So ubiquitous are the products of patenting across the St. John Valley, Chad said, they often are unnoticed but always appreciated.

“It’s definitely a part of our culture,” he said. “Years ago people were poor and the area was isolated so they fixed things or improvised what they needed by using leftover parts or old pieces of scrap metal.”

Deanna Jalbert Potter grew up on a St. John Plantation Christmas tree farm and recalls her father Elmer Jalbert not waiting until something broke before taking a cutting torch or welder to it.

“Everything got modified,” Potter said. “He would buy a brand new tractor and right away would have to change something.”

Virtually every piece of machinery on the Jalbert farm had a box, a rack or hook “patented” somewhere on it, Potter recalled.

In later years, after observing his daughter and son-in-law laboring to pound metal posts into the ground for cattle fencing, Jalbert “patented” a device intended to ease the burden of hauling and pounding those metal rods.

“He decided we needed help with pounding those rods into the ground,” Potter said. “The trouble was what he built was heavier than hauling the rods ourselves and pounding them by hand.”

Patrick came from a long line of patenteurs and his brother Tom often can be found in his own shop working on one of several projects.

“I think it goes way back to when our ancestors had to make things for themselves,” Tom said. “Today people just go online and buy what they need.”

Tom remembers making their own toys growing up in Fort Kent using everything from old ropes to make a swing to old car hoods as snow sleds.

“No one really taught me how to fabricate,” Tom said. “I spent a lot of time in a lot of garages and just watched what they were doing.”

Now retired, Tom is back to “patenting” toys, though on a somewhat larger scale.

“I always wanted to make toys of some kind,” he said. “Awhile back I had two good riding mowers for sale that I could not sell and my grandson had left a [toy] train in my shop.”

From such humble beginnings came what is now a three-car motorized train with engine, flatcar and caboose.

Not content to rest upon his laurels, Tom next fabricated a scaled-down school bus.

Both projects, he said, came with unique challenges that required some creative mechanics.

“I spend a lot of time thinking, ‘How can I?’” he said. “It really is like a puzzle.”

Tom often would stop in at the local NAPA store where my husband worked and, if there were no customers, the two would retreat to a corner of the store to brainstorm or troubleshoot a particularly perplexing patente.

Oh how Patrick loved to patente.

“My father has said more than once that Patrick was the best patenteur he knew,” Chad Pelletier said. “And I believe him.”

Recently, while house-sitting for me, Chad experienced a flat tire. The simple act of changing that tire became something of a treasure hunt.

“I’m not going to say I cursed your husband,” Chad said with a laugh. “But using his tools was a challenge.”

That’s because over the years, in the tradition of all great patenteurs who can’t leave well enough alone, Patrick tweaked and modified his tools to best suit his needs and mechanical style.

Flat successfully repaired, Chad was able to take a somewhat anthropological view of things.

“Those tools become who we are because they are ours and we make them into what we need,” he said. “Each tool and patent is unique because it is our own.”

Of course even the best patenteur’s good ideas can go awry.

Patrick loved old farm machinery and saw no reason whatsoever to retire anything that cut, rolled, dug or graded.

Trouble was, many of those implements had been horse drawn, meaning the operator sat on the machine while the power source — the horse — pulled it.

Anyone who knew Patrick knew his power source of choice was a tractor on which the operator rode while pulling and operating the implement.

It was a rarity for Patrick to be stymied while patenting. But one time when he decided to modify a horse-drawn brush mower he had to call in reinforcements to lower and raise the cutting arm while he drove the tractor.

I’m not sure what either one of us was thinking, but at the time my sitting on the mower behind the tractor to raise and lower that cutting arm in response to his hand signals seemed like a good idea.

Not so much.

First of all, God love him, Patrick possessed about a hundred different hand signals, each of which meant something different at any given time.

Secondly, things live close to the ground in a northern Maine pasture. Most notably ground hornets.

After an hour of trying to decipher his flailing hand signals while dodging angry and suddenly homeless hornets, I abandoned the entire operation.

The next weekend we attended a farm auction in Presque Isle where Patrick bought a 6-foot mechanized brush hog made to run off the tractor.

But he didn’t use it until he patented a few modifications.

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