FORT KENT, Maine — It has been just under a week since the massive fire that claimed three historic buildings along Fort Kent’s West Main Street.
Just under a week of cleaning up, taking stock, and giving thanks that the only losses — large as they may have been — were property and not lives.
Residents are pitching in to help the 11 tenants displaced when the fire destroyed seven apartments and the communitywide relief effort has reached $21,000 with more fundraisers planned in the coming weeks.
With the smoke, steam and dust settled at the scene, residents are also talking about fires and the role they have taken in shaping Fort Kent’s downtown business district.
“That section of town had never burnt,” Chad Pelletier, president of the Fort Kent Historical Society, said this week. “Those were some of the town’s original buildings from the 1880s.”
Pelletier referenced a map from an old Roe & Colby atlas showing three buildings standing where, up until last Sunday morning, stood Nadeau’s House of Furniture, Acadia Home Care and a vacant building between the two.
According to Pelletier’s research, what was the furniture store was originally owned by brothers Cleophas and Esdras Nadeau who moved to Fort Kent in 1882 to start a furniture-making business.
When Esdras Nadeau died in 1896, his brother continued to run the store alone until his nephew — Esdras’ son — Alphee Nadeau took it over in 1914.
By then the business had expanded to providing caskets and coffins in addition to what Pelletier termed “funeral services” in which the Nadeaus would clean, dress and provide the casket for a burial.
“His uncle had sent Alphee to embalming school in Boston in 1925,” Pelletier said. “So at that point they were licensed and could do the embalming, too.”
By 1928 Alphee Nadeau had taken over a business that met virtually every consumer need in town.
“I don’t know when that poor man slept,” Pelletier said. “He sold furniture, windows, doors, sporting goods, propane, baked goods, had the funeral business and even offered an ambulance service. It was a very busy place.”
Along the way the Nadeaus purchased an old neighboring blacksmith shop building which later became “The Sleep Shop” and eventually physically attached it to the furniture store.
“Abel Marquis moved to Fort Kent in the 1860s to start the blacksmith shop with a woman and their seven children,” Pelletier said. “The only problem was they never got married because the church would not let them.”
Apparently the woman had been married earlier but her husband had abandoned the family, leaving her still technically his wife.
“But she and Abel ran that shop together,” Pelletier said. “Their youngest son Arthur took it over and in 1915 sold it to the Nadeaus.”
The furniture store was sold to Ellery “Arms” Labbe in 1975 and, despite the fact his sons Pat and Phil took the business over in 1995, Ellery Labbe remained a fixture in the store which was equal parts commerce and social.
“This place was an icon,” Pat Labbe said Monday after the fire.
“People came in all the time to talk, sell tickets for fundraisers and see each other.”
Spared by the fire was a separate flooring business operated by their brother Dave Labbe and now the home of Nadeau’s House of Furniture.
“See my new office,” Pat Labbe joked, pointing to a stack of blue, plastic totes. “All the records and files we saved from the safe are in there.”
As destructive as last weekend’s fire was, it was certainly not the worst Fort Kent had seen.
For that, Pelletier said, one needs to go back to 1945 when a fire destroyed multiple buildings around and across from those burned last week.
Gil Dubois, 85, was home on leave from the United States Navy on May 11, 1945, and remembers those events quite clearly.
The fire started in a garage owned by Joe Cyr on a lot near Key Bank on West Main Street.
“My family owned a store across the street and I was in the upstairs apartment,” Dubois said. “I woke up smelling smoke in my room and hearing a lot of yelling.”
Dubois remembers looking out his window and seeing Cyr’s garage on fire.
“It was a really windy night and that fire just jumped from building to building across and down Main Street,” he said. “It went all they way down to the old Arcadia Hotel which was behind where Bee Jay’s Tavern is now.”
Numerous buildings were destroyed in that fire but, like the events of last week, there was no loss of life.
Dubois recalls his brother and one of the family’s tenants up on their building with garden hoses during the fire of 1945 keeping up a steady stream of water that ultimately saved the structure.
“People have said that fire just jumped down Main Street,” Pelletier said. “Some people said it was even following along the power lines and ‘dripping’ down to buildings.”
On Jan. 14, 1923 a fire raged through the section of West Main Street now occupied by Sears to The Family Dollar Store.
Eight years to the day later, another fire burned the opposite direction from what is now the post office to a building currently housing Shear Perfection Beauty Salon.
Many of those buildings were rebuilt into what became the current post office and dozens of other businesses up and down the street.
Owners of the three buildings destroyed in the most recent fire spent last week meeting with insurance representatives and have not indicated if they will rebuild or not.
In the meantime, attention is on those tenants who lost everything in the blaze.
Most are currently staying with family and friends and the local Knights of Columbus Hall is overflowing with donated clothing and household items.
The fire also brought a bit of unwanted attention to Pelletier who, it turned out, shares a name with one of those displaced tenants.
After a tenant identified as Chad Pelletier was quoted in one of the first media accounts of the fire, Fort Kent Historical Society President Chad Pelletier began getting phone calls and emails from friends concerned he had lost his home and possessions.
“I was in Rite Aid this week and someone I knew came up to me, said they were so sorry to hear about what happened and opened their wallet to give me money,” Pelletier said. “That’s the kind of town this is — people just want to help.”
This week Dubois was among those celebrating that everyone involved in the fire was safe, but also mourning the loss of a friends’ business.
“The Labbes are good people and always ready to help out the community all the time,” Dubois said. “There were a lot of memories in that old building.”
Correction: There was a typo in an earlier version of this story. By 1928 Alphee Nadeau had taken over a business that met virtually every consumer need in town, not by 1228.