ALLAGASH, Maine — To look at it now, it’s hard to imagine the Allagash community building was ever neglected or in danger of abandonment.
In its heyday, what was the old school building housed close to 300 students from kindergarten to eighth grade, but today the population of the entire village hovers just over 200 residents and any students remaining have long since traveled up to 30 miles to attend classes in Fort Kent.
The last graduating class at the Allagash Consolidated School walked out the doors in 1995, and that may well have been the end of the building that, even then, was in need of repairs ranging from furnace work to a new roof.
But where others saw faded paint, damaged woodwork and cracked mortar, a few of the village’s residents saw the heart of their community, and they wanted to keep it beating.
Leading the charge was longtime Allagash resident and retired teacher Faye Hafford, who today runs the town’s public library from the old school.
“In 1995 they were selling everything out of the school at an auction,” Hafford said. “There were all the old childrens’ books and no one was touching those, so I asked if I could use them to start a small library.”
Never let it be said that when Hafford dreams, it’s not in a big way.
Her fundraising efforts caught the attention of businesses which donated some startup cash and that of Maine authors Stephen and Tabitha King, who donated $25,000 towards the purchase of a new furnace.
About the time the library was taking over several of the old classrooms, the town office was relocating to some rooms at the end of the building, where space was also made for the municipal fire truck and ambulance.
Then something really amazing began to happen. Bit by bit, room by room, the old school again became a focal point in the community, as it got a facelift from one of its former students with full backing from Town Manager Patty Pelletier.
“Patty was one of my best friends in high school,” Barbara McBreairty said. “I’m retired and a few years ago had just moved back to town and was bored so I would come over to chat with her.”
McBrierty graduated from the Allagash school in 1964 and spent the following 45 years earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education and teaching.
“One day Patty was telling me about the new health center moving in but they could not find anyone to paint the rooms,” McBreairty said. “So I said I’d do it and that was only the beginning.”
The paint was barely dry on the walls for the new Full Circle Health Clinic offices when McBreairty turned her eyes and brushes to the rest of the building.
“She hasn’t stopped yet,” joked town selectman Clayton McBreairty.
“I would tell Patty that this or the other color would look nice on the walls,” Barbara McBreairty said. “And she’d say, ‘OK’ and go buy the paint.”
By the time she got to the old gym, community members were already using it as a place to walk during inclement weather and would offer suggestions to McBreairty as she got ready to paint that room.
“Several folks said it should be in red and white, the school colors,” she said. “So that is what Patty bought for me.”
Working under the old banners awarded to past basketball teams who fought their way into state tournament play, McBreairty said there were times she could almost hear the shouts from the students and the sound of a basketball thumping on the hardwood floor.
As soon as McBreairty finished cleaning and painting an old classroom, there seemed to be a group or individual with an idea on how to use it.
Such as the longtime resident and historian who displays antiques in one room, or the women who meet twice weekly in another in an ongoing quilting bee, the florist who produces botanical arrangements, the small clubs who gather in a new conference room and the dozens who have brought action back to the old Bobcat gym with impromptu basketball games, informal exercise routines and large social gatherings.
“I don’t think you’ll hear anyone saying anything now about closing the building down,” Clayton McBreairty said. “Look outside and you see the parking lot is full of cars, it’s like that every day here now.”
The icing on the cake was a $250,000 Community Development Block Grant that allowed the town to replace the building’s old roof.
“That really made all the difference,” Clayton McBreairty said.
“One thing really did just lead to another,” Barbara McBreairty said, as she walked down the hall past decades-old school artwork and athletic memorabilia that has been left on display. “We’d finish one room and I’d just move down the hall and kept painting and painting.”
Everyone is welcome in the building, including the community’s four-footed residents.
“We are dog friendly,” Barbara McBreairty said with a laugh as her Shetland sheepdog Teke trailed along behind her. “Teke goes to visit everyone in every room she passes.”
Snoozing comfortably on a blanket in the quilting room, Abby, a black lab, is another familiar doggy face in the building.
“Abby was the center’s mascot until Teke came along,” Barbara McBreairty said.
Clara McBreairty spent 27 years teaching in the Allagash school and is thrilled with the renewed activity, especially in the old gymnasium.
“When the started a girls’ basketball team all those years ago, they had no one to coach it, so I said I’d do it,” she said. “But those high school girls were so shy they never went after the ball, so I recruited some eighth graders who would throw themselves on the ground to get the ball.”
Among those players was Pelletier, the town manager.
“Remember when we went to Limestone and those girls were 10-feet tall?” she laughed. “We would just run between their legs.”
Barbara McBreairty remembered those days, and of being a bit of a trouble maker.
“There was this trap door in the floor that went down to where all the pipes were and when I got into trouble, [friends] would hide me down there and put a desk over that door so the teacher could not find me,” she said.
“I recall you spent a lot of time down there with those pipes,” Clayton McBreairty said.
Next month the town will unveil the newest addition to its center — a wall mural depicting Allagash Falls painted by artist Darren Connors, who last year painted the farmers mural in Fort Kent.
“We had been talking about that wall in the entrance and how bare it was,” Hafford said. “So we decided to do something about it.”
Taking inspiration from the popular natural attraction made perfect sense to Connors, whose family is originally from Allagash.
“It is such a good looking attraction with all that water crashing down and the noise it makes,” Connors said. “And it’s such a popular landmark.”
Hafford believes the popularity of the Allagash Falls will trigger something special when the mural is officially unveiled in a ceremony at 1 p.m. May 4.
“A lot of visitors came around those falls,” she said. “When people see that mural, you are going to hear so many memories and stories being told.”
Hafford has her own history with the falls, having spent years with her husband, Lee Hafford, as a park ranger at Michaud Farms on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, just above the falls.
Connors estimates he spent about 32 hours completing the 9- by 12-foot mural, working from an old black-and-white photograph.
“I visited the falls once in the ’80s,” he said. “And in my mural I show the mist rising from the water and the shading on the whitewater.”
One of the very few to have seen a preview of the work, Hafford said she could not be happier.
“I almost believe if you look at it long enough, you would see the water start moving,” she said.
For now, while the voices and laughter that ring through the halls of the old school may be coming from residents well beyond school age, all that matters to them is those halls still exist.