CARIBOU, Maine — For Kathryn Olmstead, poring through old newspaper columns sparked poignant and humorous memories from nearly five decades spent living in Maine’s most northern county.
Olmstead is best known in Aroostook as the co-founder and editor of the former Echoes magazine, which showcased the culture, history, landscape and people of The County to hundreds of subscribers across the country. Now Olmstead, who lives in Caribou, has published a book detailing another memorable chapter in her career: being an Aroostook-based columnist for the Bangor Daily News.
In “True North: Finding the Essence of Aroostook,” Olmstead collects 32 of those columns, with another seven coming from past issues of Echoes. Throughout her time as a BDN columnist, from 2010 to 2017, Olmstead wrote about many of the same themes prevalent in Echoes and hoped to share Aroostook’s qualities with even more people “from away.”
The book, published by the Yarmouth-based Islandport Press, features five sections: “Typically Aroostook,” “Living with Wildlife,” “High on the Land,” “Deep Roots” and “County People.”
Some of Olmstead’s favorite stories tell of her encounters with Aroostook wildlife and the great outdoors. One in particular, titled “Slugs Prefer Bud,” humorously recounts Olmstead’s struggles to keep pesky slugs out of her garden.
“After I retired [in 2011] I decided I should get back to gardening,” Olmstead said. “I had trouble with slugs, but I had heard somewhere that slugs like to commit suicide in beer. So I began experimenting to see which beers they liked.”
Turns out, those particular slugs preferred Budweiser.
But the story did not end with just that column. When Olmstead returned from vacation in Nova Scotia, she found out that Peter Sagal, host of National Public Radio’s “Wait Wait. . .Don’t Tell Me!” used her column as part of the current events quiz.
Listeners heard the following limerick, minus the last word, and called in to guess whether Olmstead’s tale of serving slugs beer was true or false: “For Anheuser-Bush it’s a plug. / Shell-less mollusks consume with a glug. / They think microbrews are a bit of a snooze. / No, Bud is a beer for a slug.”
“I heard from readers all over the country after that. I even got a book from one reader called ‘50 Ways to Kill a Slug,'” Olmstead said.
Other columns in “True North” feature Olmstead’s profiles of folks famous, both locally and nationally, for being from Aroostook County. Prior to the book’s publication Olmstead revised one — “Rewards for Resilience” — to include the story of astronaut Jessica Meir alongside fellow Caribou natives James Page, former University of Maine System chancellor, and U.S. Senator Susan Collins.
All three of the column’s subjects have two things in common, Olmstead said: being from Caribou and learning from County lessons of resilience in order to advance in their careers. Page became UMaine chancellor in 2012 after losing out on the position of University of Maine president while Collins embarked on her career as a senator after losing the Maine governor’s race in 1994.
Meir became part of NASA’s 21st class of astronauts in 2013, four years after not being selected for the prior class. She later travelled to and conducted research aboard the International Space Station and became part of the first all-female spacewalk.
In her story, Olmstead emphasizes how Meir credits her Caribou roots for instilling a spirit of resiliency within her. Olmstead even found a 1980s-era Echoes photo of a young Meir sitting on her mother’s lap during New Sweden’s Midsommar festival.
“They all said that growing up in Aroostook County makes you resilient,” Olmstead said about Meir, Page and Collins.
That theme is one that six University of Maine students recognize in Olmstead’s column “Helping the Farmer.” Olmstead recalls inviting her students, all of whom were County natives, to her home for a picnic prior to their graduation in 1994. The students recalled working alongside children and adults of all economic backgrounds in the potato fields during harvest break.
“They learned that people in Aroostook County work hard not just to earn money but for the pride in doing a good job,” Olmstead said. “It makes you part of a community.”
For Olmstead, a Michigan native, writing about Aroostook first as a Presque Isle reporter for the Bangor Daily News and, later, Echoes editor and BDN columnist, has been her way of integrating into the small but close Aroostook communities.
The values of Aroostook, including conserving nature, helping one’s neighbors and preserving local heritage, are ones that Olmstead thinks readers in today’s commercialized and fast-paced world might appreciate more than ever.
“Kindness, generosity, thrift, ingenuity and self-sufficiency,” Olmstead said, describing attributes of Aroostook’s residents. “With each story I have learned something new about Aroostook. There’s a sense of community and a quality of life that values taking care of the land and each other.”