Brenda and Alan Jepson have been documenting the cultures and history of northern Maine for 33 years.
Operating as Crown of Maine Productions from their home on Madawaska Lake near Stockholm, they have interviewed hundreds of people and created videos preserving stories and language of Acadians in the St. John Valley and Swedes in Maine’s Swedish Colony, as well as a documentary on German prisoners of war who worked in the fields and forests of Aroostook during World War II.
But their latest release is a departure from the past. Self-described “polar bears” who “love the snow and the sports we can do here in winter,” the Jepsons wondered why so many of their friends and neighbors flock to Florida in winter.
“In these rural parts, your neighbors are really like family,” Brenda Jepson said in a recent phone conversation. “People who stay back miss these people in winter.”
So when a neighbor invited them to visit and discover what life is like in the Sunshine State, they cashed in some air miles and spent 10 days filming four couples from different parts of Maine to make a one-hour film called ” Snowbirds: Mainers Who Go South in Winter” that will air on Maine Public Television next month.
Dave and Genie Quist of Manchester took them on a trip up the Silver River. Dave is a Stockholm native. Bill and Jean Duncan, Madawaska Lake neighbors, invited the Jepsons on a “Paint Out” in Punta Gorda, where artist Bill Duncan is learning to paint “in plein air.”
Brenda Jepson’s Uncle Arthur Nasberg of Bangor invited them to Anna Maria Island on Florida’s west coast, and their friends Wayne and Arline Seavey from South Addison entertained them in the central Florida town of Arcadia.
“We found that Maine is really a village — even when that village is in Florida,” Brenda observed. “We went out to hear a local chorus perform and met Roy Michaud from Wallagrass — 30 miles up the road from where we live. Michaud and his wife Charlene help run a homeless shelter in downtown Arcadia.”
Even though they were impressed with the diversity of activities that engage Maine snowbirds, they are not about to follow them to Florida. “We have a saying in Maine’s Swedish Colony: ‘Borta bra men hemma bäst,’ ” Brenda Jepson said. “Away is good but home is best.”
Stockholm has not always been her home. While her husband grew up in New Sweden, Brenda is a native of Augusta, the daughter of a Swede whose ancestors settled in Monson, another Scandinavian enclave.
After earning a degree in journalism from the University of Maine in 1978, she spent 14 years in England where she edited a small newspaper until she became smitten with filmmaking.
“I took a course at Oxford and imagined doing a film for Maine Public Television about ancestors who had settled near the Arctic Circle,” she recalled. She traveled to Sweden, found her relatives, made a film about them and abandoned print journalism without looking back. She trained four years with British director Alan Scales in London, then started her own company, Storyboard Film and Television Productions, Ltd.
“It was always my ambition to make films for Maine Public Television,” she said. The film about her Swedish relatives, “The Copper Kettle,” launched that dream. Productions she has directed and produced for PBS since then include “A Maine Chance For Scotland,” “Homecoming,” “A Bowdoin Expedition,” “Stan’s — A Jewel In The Crown Of Maine,” “The Coming Of The Swedes,” “Don’t Fence Me In,” “Acadian Festival,” and “Tater Raisin’ Folk.”
Yet even the professional and cultural stimulation of life as a filmmaker in England could not quell the longing to return to Maine.
“I kept getting homesick,” she said. “I’m very rooted, with a sense of where I’m from.”
On a visit to Maine in 1986, she purchased a cottage in South Addison, home of her mother’s ancestors. In 1992, she made “the painful decision” to leave London for coastal Maine, accepting that she might also be leaving her career as a filmmaker.
Not long after she had settled in South Addison, she was invited to Maine’s Swedish Colony to speak at a smorgasbord supper about the film tracing her Swedish ancestors.
“The women were in one room, the men in another,” she recalled of the typical small town pre-program socializing. She decided to break custom and chat with the men. The decision was life-changing.
Alan Jepson recalls, “I went out for a smorgasbord and came home with a wife.”
Both UMaine alums, the two shared many other common interests, which led to their marriage. They were living in South Addison when the call went out for a television production instructor at the Caribou Technology Center. Brenda answered the call, the Jepsons moved to Aroostook County and her students became award-winning filmmakers, known as Viking Video Productions.
When the course was eliminated, Crown of Maine Productions was born and Alan Jepson learned the skills of videography.
“It’s been a challenge,” she said of working in “a filmmaking outpost.” But there is no end of material, and the couple delights in discovering “all these films that haven’t been made and we get to make them.”
Fortunately, she kept her flat in the Camden Town section of London (“the Greenwich Village of London”) and the cottage in South Addison, which provide rental income when sales of DVDs and calendars don’t quite make ends meet. They also grow much of their own food and heat with wood, saying they are preserving family traditions by using survival skills of their ancestors.
“In England, only landed people can grow their own food,” Brenda said. “We are on a very privileged road here.”
And far from surrendering a filmmaking career to come to Maine, Brenda says “This place has led to a lot of exciting films, and it continues on.”
Now they are working on a sequel to “Acadians of the St. John Valley,” exploring what Acadians are doing today and how they are keeping their language and traditions alive.
“It’s wonderful to be able to do what we do and share these stories.”
“Snowbirds” will be aired on Maine Public Television Feb. 16 and Feb. 18 and will be available online through Vimeo on Feb. 1. For more information visit crownofmaineproductions.com.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.