PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — The question for Aroostook County in the 2020 census is whether the new data will show growth in a region that has only seen its numbers decline in the past few decades.
More than 100,000 people lived in The County in 1960. But the population has decreased since then, especially after the closure of Loring Air Force Base in 1994. Today, thousands of people who previously lived in Aroostook County inhabit communities across the country.
While some are returning to Aroostook County, many others in this diaspora are living in new communities, while maintaining a connection with a region they have not lived in for decades.
A recent post in the County Facebook group My Aroostook! helped to shed light on why so many people have left.
Hundreds of commentators told their stories of wanderlust, collectively venturing to nearly every section of the United States. Yet, many who left still cling tightly to their Aroostook County upbringing — some even felt the need to come back after decades away from The County.
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Aroostook County had by far the largest population decrease of any county in Maine from 2010 to 2018, according to U.S. census data. During that period, the population decreased from about 72,000 to about 67,000. By 2018, 4,800 fewer people lived in Aroostook County than in 2010, a 6.6 percent net population decrease.
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Net migration rates are another way to examine population increase or decrease over time. The rates measure how many people are relocating to an area versus how many are moving out. Unlike population numbers, it does not consider numbers such as new births or deaths within a population.
From 2000 to 2010, Aroostook County had the second lowest net migration rate of any county in Maine, with 745 more people leaving The County than coming in (minus 1 migrant per 100 residents). Only Sagadahoc County had a lower net migration rate during that period.
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Commentators on the Facebook conversation gave numerous reasons for settling in new locations after their adolescence in Aroostook County. Many attended college elsewhere and never made their way back. Others moved to the hometowns of their spouses. Some simply came to believe that small-town, rural Aroostook County was just not for them.
But, by far, the reason most frequently provided for leaving was a lack of economic opportunities. Many had more luck finding jobs elsewhere, felt they didn’t have the connections to get ahead in The County, or didn’t like where they were in their careers.
Approximately 19 percent of people in Aroostook County are ages 20-40, according to census data from 2018. That is lower than Maine’s rate of 23 percent, and the United States’ rate of 27 percent.
Some young people grow to love The County way of life — such as 25-year-old Brittney Shields of Fort Fairfield who said she plans to stay in Aroostook County for the rest of her life.
Shields is engaged and has two children. With a love of the outdoors and a preference for the “quieter lifestyle” presented by The County, she sees no reason why she would ever need to move.
Others come to seek a different environment in adulthood. Kelsie Spooner, 23, who lives in Blaine but has spent most of her life in Presque Isle, said she plans to move out of Aroostook County in the next year or two.
Spooner, who owns Salon 207 on North Street in Presque Isle, said she wants to leave because of the economy, which she described as quickly declining. She also said she found County life uneventful.
“The weather isn’t my favorite, but if there were more things to do inside during the winter months, I could see it being more bearable,” Spooner said. “The only thing that’s kept me around this long is family and my business.”
Interestingly, while the Feb. 10 post is a showcase on the number of people who have left The County in recent years, it is also a testament to the allure that brings many there in the first place.
Several members of the group said they wanted to stay, citing its natural beauty and affable population, but felt that circumstances out of their control prevented it. Others said they planned on retiring to their original communities.
Roger Lavigne is one of a few who decided to come back to Aroostook County after several years.
Lavigne, who grew up in Madawaska, has a strong affection for The County’s culture, especially appreciating its scenic nature and geniality. Yet, as a young man, he saw few economic prospects for himself. He moved to the Phoenix area for a job when he was 19.
About two years ago, Lavigne had been out of The County for decades when someone notified him that the Madawaska homestead he had grown up in was on the market. Seeking an escape from the Arizona heat, and a way to relive old memories, he purchased the residence.
Lavigne, who retired in 2019, plans on staying in Madawaska for about six months this year. Though he plans to be absent during harsh winters, he is looking forward to venturing back to the place he still calls home.
“The city’s great for opportunity and employment,” Lavigne said. “But as far as relaxing and getting away from it all, it’s not the place to be.”
Lorraine Ferland grew up living on Summer Street in Presque Isle. Identifying as a free spirit at a young age, Ferland said she had a wonderful, tranquil childhood.
“It was a great place to grow up,” Ferland said. “You could ride a bike there to anywhere in town. We pretty much had free-rein … There was never any fear.”
While she enjoyed her upbringing, she felt from a young age that small-town living might not be for her.
Ferland left Aroostook County to attend the University of Maine at Augusta when she was 18. When she graduated from the University of Maine in Orono in the mid-1970s, she decided to take a job teaching in the West African nation of Ghana’s capital, Accra.
Returning to the United States, Ferland eventually acquired a full-time teaching job in Maryland, where her work focused on those with learning disabilities.
While she said she has not been to Aroostook County in more than 20 years, she said she enjoys keeping up with The County’s happenings on Facebook, especially pictures of nature.
Stacie Massengill was about 6 years old when her family left Caribou. It was in the early 1990s, shortly before the Loring Air Force Base closed down, taking many jobs with it.
“Jobs were kind of scarce,” Massengill said. “[Her father] didn’t want us growing up where we really didn’t have many opportunities.”
Massengill has lived in the Knoxville, Tennessee, area since 1993. She still has many family members in The County, including her grandmother, and makes sure to visit every couple of years.
Though she hasn’t lived there since a very young age, she still feels that she is connected to Aroostook County, as well as the rest of Maine.
“Even though I haven’t lived there in a lot of time, Maine was still where I was born,” Massengill said. “I still kind of feel this pull toward The County.”