EASTON, Maine — With two factories, an agrarian heritage and traditionally low taxes, Easton’s 1,200-plus residents have a lot to be proud of at the end of their sesquicentennial. But they also have challenges to reckon with in the coming years.
Easton was incorporated in February 1865, with a population of some 400 individuals in the square-shaped border town starting a “community carved from the wilderness,” as the town’s historical book puts it.
“It’s stayed relatively the same,” said James Gardner, Easton’s town manager. “The village has changed. It’s pared down from the robust days when Main Street was lively.”
Easton has been successful in many ways, notably bucking the trend of Aroostook County’s 20 percent population decline since 1970.
Easton’s population is only about 2 percent less than what it was 45 years ago, thanks to McCain Foods and Huber Engineered Wood Products plants — two major employers that also pay 80 percent of the town’s taxes — as well as commuting proximity to Presque Isle and Amish settlers, who now comprise 12 percent of the population.
Easton has always been an agricultural community, said Gardner, whose grandfather was one of the town’s original farmers. “But it’s also progressed with industry.”
After World War II, Texas industrialist Fred Vahlsing opened a potato processing plant in Easton and later a failed sugar beet plant that left taxpayers on the hook for millions in loans and cleanup costs for the Prestile Stream. By the 1970s, the potato plant became part of McCain Foods’ french fry operation, and in 1983 the site of the beet factory became Huber, making wood flooring and sheathing products.
Despite major changes in the global economy, McCain and Huber have remained as major employers for the whole county and the economic engines of the town. “They took their two manufacturers, and they’ve stayed steady with them,” Gardner said of the town’s attitude.
As residents celebrated the 150th anniversary, Easton leaders were putting together a new comprehensive plan identifying challenges and opportunities for the town.
For starters, the year did bring the first property tax revaluation in 23 years — mandated by the state government — which led to steep increases for many homeowners even as the local mill rate stayed at 17.4.
Among the many issues in the 2015 comprehensive plan was a focus on the quality of life for young families as well as seniors.
The major selling point for Easton is low taxes and small local municipal authority, Gardner said. “Government here is like six people.” Easton also has “one of the best recreation programs in The County,” serving pre-K to senior citizens with outdoor camps, theatre and trips, he added.
But, as the comprehensive plan notes, the town also would benefit from more age-friendly housing and transportation options. Officials would also like to see a bus stop in the town as part of the Cyr Bus Lines daily Caribou to Bangor route. Currently, Easton residents can take an Aroostook Regional Transportation bus out of two only on Wednesdays, with access to Presque Isle and Caribou.
Most of the town’s 50 miles of roads are in good condition — with the exception of Route 1A, which carries heavy truck traffic to and from McCain and Huber, and Amish horse-drawn buggies.
The north-south road needs to be improved with larger, paved shoulders to accommodate the Amish as well as bicyclists and walkers, while giving vehicle traffic sufficient space, Gardner said. “There is so much heavy traffic, it warrants something to be done.”