FORT KENT, Maine — In a very real way, the roots of Fort Kent are tied to the generations of farm families who for decades tilled, planted and harvested the land of the community.
On Sunday those farmers — past and present — were honored when a new mural capturing the essence of Fort Kent’s agricultural past was unveiled.
A crowd of about 200 was on hand to watch the cover come off the side of the old A.D. Soucy Company Farm Supply building, revealing Darren Connors’ 35-foot-by-15-foot painting of potato harvest in full swing.
“It’s gorgeous,” Sandra Plourde, Fort Kent resident, said of the depiction of a crew harvesting potatoes by hand.
“I remember picking potatoes as a young girl and I really did not like it,” she said. “I like the painting of picking potatoes so much better [because] I’m not in there.”
The mural was the brainchild of retired businessman and Plourde’s brother Reno Lagasse, who began raising money and support for the project earlier this year.
By the time he was done, and thanks to sponsorship from the Fort Kent Lions club, area businesses and private donations, he raised $21,000 for the project.
Once funding was in place, Lagasse contracted with Connors, who is originally from Brunswick but now lives in St. Francis.
“My roots are all here,” Connors said Sunday afternoon.
Connors said he spent 95 hours on the actual painting in addition to 115 studio hours creating sketches and full-sized stencils.
“This was an extremely challenging project,” he said. “It was so big [and] before this one the biggest painting I had done was 6 feet.”
Connors’ mural looks down a potato field where tractors are turning the earth and workers are filling wooden barrels with potatoes.
The surrounding foliage is in full autumn color and Canada geese fly overhead.
“I wanted to put the field so it’s like you are looking all the way down to the end,” Connors said. “And then you have the rows coming at you — I really wanted it to have an impact.”
Connors fully admits he is more artist than farmer.
“I picked potatoes for a day and a half in 1980,” he said with a laugh. “An older woman was picking much faster and made me look like a fool so I left.”
He also admitted to being a great deal more nervous than he anticipated as the minutes ticked down to the unveiling.
“I’m glad a picture paints a thousand words because that helps me from having to say too much,” he said.
Connors had nothing to worry about.
“Everyone thought this [mural] was a such a great idea,” said Charlie Ouellette, president of the Fort Kent Lions Club. “We know how the blood, sweat and tears of farmers runs in our veins.”
Ouellette noted that, growing up, it seemed everyone he knew “was a farmer or the son or daughter of a farmer or the grandson or granddaughter of a farmer.”
For Fort Kent Town Manager Don Guimond, the mural touched on a personal level.
“This is of particular significance for me because I was raised on a farm, I live on a farm and I work on a farm,” he said. “This mural shows a way of life as it was in the 1960s and ’70s and shows the connection between agriculture, nature and our community.”
Among the farmers on hand were members of the Paul and Carmen Rioux family, whose grandson Cory Rioux now works the family’s land.
Pauline Rioux felt a special attachment to the mural as Connors used some of her paintings of potato harvest for inspiration.
“I remember picking potatoes,” Pauline Rioux said. “But I never was a real good picker.”
Cora Levesque used to pick for the Riouxs every fall.
“I used to bring my whole family and we’d pick and the money was for winter clothes,” she said. “I never did make it to 100 barrels in a day — but I’d get 98 or 99.”
In addition to the mural, a nearby sign pays tribute to all Fort Kent farmers and lists them by name.
“In my mind I always wanted to do something for the farmers,” he said. “This mural is dedicated to all Fort Kent farmers, past and present.”