Just a year ago, the Bangor Daily News was advertising a forum at the Bangor Public Library for readers to talk with Philomena Baker, the subject of a seven-part series of articles titled Flight to Freedom that appeared in the paper between Dec. 25, 2010, and Jan. 1, 2011. People filled the hall and 250 joined online to hear Philomena describe her evacuation from Odessa, Ukraine, at the age of 9 with her mother during World War II and their subsequent journey to freedom in Germany, mostly on foot.
In the past year, Philomena and I have continued to talk and a number of people have read an expanded version of the series evaluating its potential for publication as a book. One of those readers wanted to know more about Philomena’s life in Maine, particularly her transition from post-war Germany to Fort Kent: her husband’s hometown and the place she began her 40-year career as a portrait photographer.
So last week I asked Philomena to tell me about Fort Kent. The story began in Amberg, Germany, where she managed the special services photo center on the U.S. Army base. Fort Kent native John Baker was one of the enlisted men who used the lab for processing film and printing photos. He overcame Philomena’s resistance to romance, at first with boxes of candy and later with glowing descriptions of the beauty of northern Maine — a place where she could live if only she would marry him.
A Maine Guide and avid fisherman and hunter, John praised the beauty of the lakes and trees back home and gave Philomena a painting of a woodland scene in Maine that hangs today in her home in Bangor.
“He loved the outdoors,” she recalled. “He said he would take me hunting and fishing when I came to Maine.” Even though such sports did not appeal to Philomena, she and John were married on the base in Amberg Aug. 12, 1959. Three and a half months later, she was on a plane to the United States with other military personnel and dependants of soldiers with the rank of sergeant or higher.
“My mother saw me off at the train station in Bayreuth where I took the train to Frankfurt,” she recalled. The Army transport plane flew from Frankfurt to New York where Philomena boarded a small plane bound for Frenchville, Maine. Three days before Thanksgiving, she was welcomed into John’s family: his parents Alton and Irene Baker and his siblings: Jesse, Eleanor, Hope, Don, Joyce and Jim.
“They accepted me as one of their own. I had been an only child; now I had brothers and sisters. I felt at home.”
The newlyweds lived with John’s parents at first, then moved in with his grandmother, Lily Baker until they found a house on Main Street next to the Knights of Columbus hall. John operated Camps of Acadia on Eagle Lake and guided sportsmen on fishing and hunting excursions. In the winter he and his brother cut wood.
When John was away Philomena grew close to his grandmother, Memere Baker. “I fell in love with her immediately,” she recalled, describing Lily’s “sparkling blue eyes and enchanting smile surrounded by shining silver gray hair tied loosely at the back of her head.
“It was only natural for me to sense that she liked me too when she invited John and me to live with her. She taught me how to prepare American meals, bake pies of all sorts and put the most delicious chowders and stews on the table with steaming bread and fresh butter.
Memere Baker taught me much more than to prepare American meals. She taught me how to smile during that time and how to serve meals with a happy attitude.”
Within two years, John and Philomena were the parents of two daughters.
But parenting did not prevent Philomena from envisioning a photography business built on the skills she had acquired through the U.S. Army. She took every opportunity to add to her training. She took a course in contemporary portraiture at the University of New Hampshire and received certificates of merit from the Winona School of Photography in Indiana and the University of Maine Extension Service.
She and John converted the front first-floor sections of their home at 64 Main Street into a reception area, photographic studio and darkroom. Philomena cashed in her U.S. Army retirement early in order to purchase the equipment she wanted. She took the bus to Boston to pick it up.
After two years of planning and preparation she opened Baker Studio, specializing in fine portraits. “Mrs. Baker also will be available for parties, weddings, baptisms, first communions and confirmations,” said an announcement in the local newspaper.
The studio gained such a reputation for weddings that Philomena would sometimes be asked to photograph two or three marriages on the same day. Couples would time their ceremonies so she could attend all of them.
“I would photograph the bride preparing for the wedding and family members arriving at the church. I stayed at the church until the exchange of rings. Then I took the 4-by-5 negatives to the studio to be developed so proofs would be available at the reception. Then I went back to the church to photograph the newlyweds coming out and followed them to the reception, often at the Armory or the hotel.”
When she had taken the prescribed photos at the reception, she moved on to the next wedding where the procedure was repeated. “It always worked out,” she said, admitting that Fort Kent Police Chief Doody Michaud may still remember stopping her on occasion as she raced from one place to another.
Through photography, Philomena became so well acquainted with the town that its residents seemed like family. She even got to speak the French she had learned as a student.
“Everyone was so helpful,” she said, remembering townspeople with affection. “They were naturally, beautifully friendly people — even bankers when I had to go and borrow money. How else could I feel but that I was in a family?”
Even after her marriage ended in divorce and she moved to Bangor with her daughters in 1970, Fort Kent friends and family members continued to visit her. And when the story of her year as a refugee appeared in the newspaper, Fort Kent readers sent emails, one with an attached wedding photo, remembering her days in the St. John Valley.
Like readers in the Bangor area, they knew she was a talented photographer, but were unaware of the remarkable life story she had carried within her for more than 50 years.
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 can be reached at email@example.com or P.O. Box 626, Caribou 04736.