June 02, 2020
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Isolated Vanceboro looks inward after school closing

VANCEBORO, Maine — Not much changes in this isolated, northern Washington County town of 130 residents on the border of New Brunswick, Canada. There always has been an international border post, a railroad, a river and, since 1926, a school.

But change is in the air, because the Vanceboro Elementary School closed its doors in June. Starting in September, the town’s nine youngest pupils will be driven 22 miles each way to the nearest elementary school in Topsfield.

Vanceboro hasn’t had a high school since 1967, so students leaving town for the day isn’t new. But families face adjusting to the adage often spoken in small towns across Maine: If you close the school, you lose the heart of the community.

At the eastern end of Maine’s two-lane Route 6, Vanceboro is at a turning point. The hardscrabble place with a median age of 58.5 is looking inward for the sake of its youngest residents. “The Railroaders” — nickname for the grade school pupils when there were enough for teams — are leaving town, too.

“It’s discouraging,” lifelong resident Jean Hogan said recently as the remote community contemplates its next steps.

At their annual town meeting last March, residents set aside $30,000 to recast the empty school building as a community center. But at the same time as plans are being made to cover heating and utilities costs through next March, the building is for sale.

One couple with summer ties to the area already has shown interest in the building, built in the ’70s. Locals wonder whether a few jobs will result, if buyers decide to turn the building into a business. Residents won’t accept the old school being used for medical marijuana cultivation but have suggested a hunting lodge or guide service might be appropriate.

Money is tight in the town where the mill rate is 26.4 and the median household income is $21,750, according to American Community Survey figures for 2013. The region is rich in natural beauty, with nearby Spednik Lake and the St. Croix River providing year-round recreation, but the town’s biggest draws can’t be taxed.

Some hope for local employment if the school building sells, while others hope a community center can truly take hold. Something needs to happen, because life in Vanceboro is becoming harder to hold on to, especially for the elderly.

Vanceboro’s quiet, four-season lifestyle that revolves around woods and water has been the town’s way of life for decades. Cellphone service doesn’t exist, and nobody is demanding it.

“Vanceboro people are happy to be left alone,” Harold Jordan, the town’s first selectman for the last seven years, said. “We have a way of living where you don’t disrespect your neighbor.”

Outsiders show up in summer for camps and canoeing on the St. Croix. Freight trains on the New Brunswick Southern Railway stop at the border twice a day. But that’s nothing like the years when trains seemed to chug through every hour, when the population was as high as 700 in the 1930s.

“Usually there’s not much news about Vanceboro, and we like it that way,” said Danny Beers, owner of Holly’s General Store, one of two country stores in town. He started working for his father there in 1975, the Monday after he graduated from high school.

Like it or not, Vanceboro makes the headlines now and again. In July, four young men survived a single-car, early-morning accident involving alcohol and speed on the Vanceboro Road. In June 2014, a Vanceboro couple surrendered 40 cats to the state’s animal welfare officials.

And in July 2014, Cheryl Stratton came to town.

Stratton is the pastor for the Vanceboro United Methodist Church — and for the Methodist churches in Howland, Lincoln and Danforth. She lives in Lincoln and spends 4½ hours every Sunday on the road, driving to conduct four services.

She doesn’t reach Vanceboro until late afternoon — by then, it’s time to eat. As few as six or seven church members, sometimes 10 or 12, turn out for what’s more of a supper than a full service. They sing hymns using Alan Jackson videos, share joys and concerns, then listen to Stratton lead them in worship.

Then the baked beans, casseroles, macaroni and homemade rolls come out, and the table is set next to the pews. Members can’t use the church basement for meals the way they used to, because the boiler is broken and there’s no heat or hot water. There aren’t bathrooms, either.

Stratton came to Maine 10 years ago, after working in New York’s Adirondack region, also touched by pockets of poverty along the border with Canada. She spent the last year getting to know the people of Vanceboro and the three other communities. Now, she says, it’s time to ask for action.

When the weather turns cooler, church members will move into one of the rooms of the empty school. There’s a bathroom there, so some older folks may return to the services and suppers. Two more front rooms of the school are being used by the town’s three selectmen, and the registrar of voters soon will set up inside, too. That’s as far as planning for filling an unused school building has gotten, though a recreation committee centered around the town’s kids has been revived at the same time.

Stratton, for one, sees room for much more. A food pantry is essential, she believes, because the closest one in Topsfield closed in 2014, and nothing has replaced it. There could be space for a medical team to set up once a month, maybe also a mobile dentist.

“That school building could be so much more,” Stratton said at a recent Sunday supper, when conversation turned to the school’s closing. “It could become not just a food pantry but maybe a food co-op. It could become a place for wellness checks, where nurse practitioners could write prescriptions. It also could house visiting volunteers and missions who may come through.”

The town has no grocery store with fresh produce, no library, no banking, medical or legal services, no substance abuse programs or elderly services. Law enforcement vehicles rarely are seen.

There no longer is van transportation once a week, like Washington Hancock Community Agency used to provide, for residents to go to Calais for errands or appointments. If an ambulance comes from Calais, it takes at least 45 minutes on New Brunswick roads: Vanceboro is 30 miles from Calais via the Canadian side of the St. Croix River, or 58 miles by coming up Route 1 and turning at Topsfield.

Several of Vanceboro’s working population drive to Calais each day; others work closer to home in the woods. A notice at Holly’s General Store shows a vacancy for a second van driver to take students to Topsfield, for three hours per day, $8 per hour.

It’s the rest of the residents who don’t get out much who would particularly benefit from new services and connections. Until the town decides a food pantry might be a possibility for the old school space, such a step remains simply food for thought.

“Some of us have traveled, and some of us have the confidence to try things,” Hogan said. “And others don’t.

“But they would give you the shirt off their back, for anything.”

Katherine Cassidy of Lubec is a freelance writer and former state representative.

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