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PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — A 90-year-old hotel in Presque Isle that has harbored dignitaries, prom-goers and even a famous race horse will have a new mission: help the city revitalize its downtown.
Working with Northern Maine Development Commission, the Aroostook Partnership and Presque Isle’s economic development office, the nonprofit IgnitePI will operate the Northeastland hotel, add new dining options and open a community coworking space, along with other professional amenities, to create a business hub.
But the group also wants to maintain the iconic stature of the hotel, which has drawn thousands of visitors and generations of Aroostook County residents for meetings, social functions and dining. Its Coffee Shop, most recently known as the Sidewalk Cafe, has long been a popular gathering spot.
The project fits into the city’s most recent plan to revitalize its downtown. The city unveiled a 30-year plan in October to beef up business opportunities, expand housing and recreation, and promote cultural and historical landmarks. It then set up districts for financing different types of businesses. So when IgnitePI approached the council with its proposal to redevelop the Northeastland, the city embraced the idea.
IgnitePI acquired the hotel in May for an undisclosed price from the Hedrich family, using more than $280,000 in donations and pledges, a loan from the Northern Maine Development Commission and grant funding, some of which the city helped the nonprofit obtain.
Clint Deschene, IgnitePI’s director of community innovation, grew up in Presque Isle and knows the Northeastland well.
“This was the place for making all the memories. More than anything it was breakfast [at the Coffee Shop] with my dad and even my brother on quite a few occasions,” Deschene said.
Before the Northeastland was built in 1932, the Presque Isle House occupied the site. Most locals know that hotel’s most famous story: the night a horse came to dinner.
Purchased by the local Mooseleuk Club and driven by John Willard, John R. Braden put the city on the map in the harness racing world, setting both mile and half-mile records. The Bangor Daily News reported on a banquet, held Oct. 14, 1921, to celebrate Braden’s success, during which the horse was led indoors to the festivities. As guests enjoyed a celebratory meal, Braden was served oats in a silver bowl.
“For years people have talked about the fact that they had banquets in his honor, and they talk about bringing him into the hotel to have Champagne from his trophy cup,” Kimberly Smith, secretary/treasurer of the Presque Isle Historical Society, said.
Local optometrist, historian and author Dick Graves said the Presque Isle House was rebuilt several times following fires, including a massive blaze in 1900. The building was deemed a fire hazard and demolished in 1931.
Presque Isle contractor and sawmill owner N.W. Downing, the area’s premier builder at that time, built the new Northeastland for $200,000, the historical society’s Smith said.
On June 13, 1932, the BDN promoted the grand opening of Presque Isle Hotels Inc.’s “magnificent new Northeastland Hotel” on the following evening, June 14. The new building boasted “a restful lobby” and an electric kitchen, among other amenities.
The Northeastland’s first business rental was to Vincent Barresi, who set up his barbershop there, Graves said. Barresi purchased barber chairs, which now serve Dwight’s Barber Shop, just down Main Street.
The Northeastland became a social center in Presque Isle.
“It was the home of the Rotary Auction for years and years, and there were a lot of functions held there during World War II,” Smith said.
Military personnel from the Presque Isle Army Airfield, as it was known in the 1940s, and later the Presque Isle Air Base, were housed there.
The Northeastland added the Coffee Shop in 1950, and in 1954 opened a 30-room addition, unveiled in an open house in March 1955.
A number of local stockholders owned and operated the hotel until the 1970s, Robin Doody, hotel general manager, said. Then Frank “Skippy” Carroll, owner of Carroll’s Auto Sales, bought the majority of shares and operated it.
In 1986, Joe Hedrich Sr., owner of Hedrich Vending and other local enterprises, bought controlling interest. He and sons Joe Jr. and Greg renovated the interior and updated plumbing and wiring, Doody said.
Doody, who has worked at the hotel for 28 years, pointed out one of its most memorable features: the group of businessmen who have met at the Coffee Shop every morning since the 1950s. Many of those who remain are now in their late ‘70s to early ‘90s.
As the Northeastland’s newest phase takes shape, Deschesne said IgnitePI will run the hotel with its current staff and add new food and beverage options. Also in the works are plans to preserve artifacts and vintage images to keep the hotel’s history alive.
“It is the icon of the downtown,” he said. “That’s what IgnitePI is all about. We want to preserve our history — remembering what we were, and honoring the traditions as we move forward.”