Lack Of Snow, Ongoing Border Closure Among Aroostook County Residents' Woes
Maine is a geographically large state with a widely dispersed population. It’s a challenging place to cover comprehensively.
Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz has been reaching out to people in corners of the state for conversations about what people are doing and thinking there, and among them is Kim Smith, who works for the city of Presque Isle as a staffer.
Smith is also vice chair of Aroostook County Tourism and a board member of the Maine Historical Society, and has worked in public broadcasting in Virginia. If she sounds familiar to folks in The County, it’s probably because she has been doing weekly TV segments on the state’s bicentennial.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Gratz: What’s the reaction folks are having where you are to the storming of the Capitol in Washington? What are you hearing?
Smith: A lot of disgust. Here in The County, we’re very patriotic. The country means a lot to us. Our democracy means a lot to us. We have a lot of veterans in The County, and so we know what that freedom has cost us. There’s some concern that it’s being blamed on President Donald Trump.
You mentioned the questions about Trump. Are you finding tensions among the people that you talk to, caused by this?
We had an interesting occurrence here not too long ago. As you enter the city of Presque Isle, there is a big welcome sign that says The Hub of Aroostook County, and it is actually in a potato field. Of course, potatoes are a big crop here. But that particular welcome sign is not owned by the city. And during the election buildup, the gentleman who owns the land, who is a very strong Trump supporter, actually put Trump flags on the sign. And it was quite a brouhaha here at the city, because people were calling City Hall complaining. We were trying to explain to them that we did not own the land, and we couldn’t even determine who owned the sign.
Of course, the pandemic has taken its toll on things. The border to Canada has closed. That’s a big deal for folks up there, is it not?
It’s a very big deal. Brothers, sisters, children, parents live across the border from one another. People live in Canada, work here. My sister in law lives in Fort Fairfield, both of her children live in Canada, her grandchildren live in Canada. She hasn’t been able to see them in a year. My husband is a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Woodstock, New Brunswick. His family camp is in Kilmarnock, and he de-stresses by going to camp. And trust me when I tell you, there are times when I really want to send him to camp.
Of course, it’s also taking its toll on events. One of the big events there is the Can-Am sled dog race, which has been canceled for this year.
It has. So many events have been canceled this year. It’s had a huge impact on the economy of the area, from not being able to host large events like Can-Am. Think about the trickle down effect of that. So you have the Can-Am event, that means that people come to stay, people come to eat when they’re here. They buy things locally, gas, food. We rely on that much more because of our geographic remoteness.
Of course, there’s the weather, which hasn’t actually been conducive to dog sledding, snowmobiling or anything like that.
Up until about two weeks ago, we had green grass, in northern Maine, where we normally have 6-7 feet of snow. And people come from New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut to go snowmobiling, or to enjoy our other wonderful winter sports that we have here. It’s devastating. But at the same time, it’s really interesting what the local hotels are seeing. Some of the smaller hotels, one of my fellow colleagues on the tourism council owns two small hotels, and he’s still seeing a fairly good crowd. One of the local national chains here is still seeing a fairly good crowd. But yeah, the impact of not being able to have these big events or any events in some cases, it’s very hard.
In some places, there’s been a lot of very visible evidence of economic distress. A lot more people going to food pantries. Are you seeing that there too?
Catholic Charities has had two or three food drives this year and the lines have been unbelievable. It actually caused a major traffic jam, if you can imagine that in northern Maine, when you actually have a road pretty much closed down for more than an hour because of that. Yeah, absolutely.