FORT KENT, Maine — Long before digital imagery, Facebook, Instagram or Flickr accounts, there was Velma Daigle, a St. John Valley photographer who for decades captured the magnificent and the mundane of northern Maine life.
From the late 1930s up through the 1980s, births, weddings, funerals and everything in between was fair game for Daigle’s lens and practiced eye.
Ground breakings, grand openings, plantings, harvests, floods and festivals were all recorded on 35mm black-and-white film, carefully developed and processed in her own home darkroom.
But Daigle did not live in a black-and-white world, and now, 10-years after her death in 2002, a collection of her color slides has come to light and is being made available to the public for the first time thanks to the Fort Kent Historical Society.
“It really is a treasure-trove,” Chad Pelletier, society president, said. “It is just an unbelievable collection.”
It’s a collection that for years remained tucked away with Daigle’s cousin Mae Martin of Caribou, moved between basements and closets, often out of sight but never out of mind.
“I always knew what a treasure it was,” Martin said. “But I never could do anything with them, [and] it really is a wonder I never threw any of them away.”
In her heart, Martin knew someday, someone would come looking for those slides. Turned out, that someone was Pelletier, who long had his eye on them.
“About 10 or 12 years ago, I contacted May [Martin] because I had worked with Velma, and at the time [Daigle] had given me some prints and some negatives,” Pelletier said. “But I knew about those slides and was always interested in them.”
This year Pelletier got up his nerve to call Martin and ask about the slides and what her plans might be for them.
“I told her Velma was a charter member of the Fort Kent Historical Society, and she said, ‘Oh, would you guys like them?’”
Since that conversation, Pelletier has been bringing boxes of the slides — he estimates they number in the tens of thousands — back to Fort Kent where he is cataloging them, scanning them and posting them on the society’s Facebook page where they are now being viewed for the first time in decades.
“All these years I’ve been seeing these same scenes in black-and-white and now seeing them in color puts them in perspective,” Pelletier said. “Many of them were clearer in black-and-white, but in color, it adds so many new dimensions.”
There are slides of businesses and buildings no longer standing, families enjoying winter outings, water-covered roads during spring floods and day-to-day happenings that made up small-town life in the 1950s and ‘60s.
“People are really enjoying seeing these,” Pelletier said. “One of the best parts are the comments they are leaving [on Facebook] with their memories of where these slides were taken.”
Of course, time has taken its toll on the slides, many of which have faded into pink and blue hues.
“In some you have pink snow and others you have blue snow,” Pelletier joked.
A woman before her time, Daigle was born in 1920, one of two children of Fort Kent Hudson and Rambler car dealership owner Arthur Daigle.
The two sisters — Velma and Lorraine — were fixtures in Fort Kent, often seen riding their bicycles around town dressed in matching attire.
“We called them the ‘Rambler Sisters,’” Pelletier said with a laugh.
Arthur Daigle also ran a successful garage and gas station on the site of the current Key Bank in Fort Kent, and when he died in 1958, Velma Daigle stepped in and took charge.
“She was the boss, believe me,” Pelletier said. “All the people who worked for her were men and she was a very successful businesswoman.”
That success, and remaining unmarried, gave Daigle the freedom to pursue her education at the Madawaska Training School — now the University of Maine at Fort Kent — and her hobbies.
“She was the first female pilot in Fort Kent in around 1942,” Pelletier said.
Daigle loved art, calligraphy, travel, mechanics and music, but it was through photography that she found her true avocation.
“By the late 1930s, she had begun taking photos,” Pelletier said. “She always had her camera with her and attended every event in the area.”
Daigle traveled extensively — camera in hand — and managed to network with other professional photographers, leading her work being sought after by newspapers, magazines and The Associated Press over the years.
“The boxes of slides are sort of random,” Pelletier said. “But I am organizing them into themes.”
Martin said the age difference between her and her cousin did not allow for a lot of socializing over the years, but she said that Daigle served as a role model for her and women around the St. John Valley.
“I think it was just wonderful as a woman she had the chance to do as many things as she did,” Martin said. “She had the drive, she had the time and she had the brains, so she was able to explore so many different avenues, [and] photography was just one of them.”
Daigle passed away long before social networking sites like Facebook became household names, but Martin has no doubt her cousin would have made full use of the Internet connections.
“She would be eating that right up,” Martin said. “She had more electronic equipment than anyone I knew, and she probably would have been the first person in Fort Kent to get the Internet.”
It is thanks to Daigle, Pelletier said, that the area has more than 100,000 images in black-and-white and color recording the middle of the 20th century.
“She provided us with a record,” he said. “I doubt she was looking at it like that, she just enjoyed taking photographs and was good at it, but she recorded our memories.”
For her part, Martin is thrilled the slides are gaining popularity.
“I just wanted people to be able to see them,” she said. “Now they are not tucked away anymore. And thanks to the fact Chad [Pelletier] is putting them on Facebook, all of a sudden they are alive again.”
And Martin is pretty sure that somewhere, Daigle is smiling.
“She would be so happy to know her photos are being looked at again,” she said. “Whenever she took a picture of a family or a camp or an event, all she wanted to do was share them.”
The collection of Daigle’s color slides may be viewed on the Fort Kent Historical Society Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Fort-Kent-Historical-Society/116796441697164.