“I’m the same age as Santa Claus,” Holly Beers quips, taking a seat behind the counter of Holly’s General Store, in Vanceboro, population 130. At 93, with his white hair tousled and blue eyes dancing, Beers could perhaps be Santa in the off-season, clean shaven and sporting Levi’s and a plaid shirt. Beside him is an empty chair, where his wife, Helen, used to sit before she died last year, at age 90. Her back to the wall, she liked to look out the window to her left at Route 6, winding through this northeastern corner of Washington County toward the New Brunswick border, less than a mile up the road. To her right were shelves full of canned food, snacks, and household necessities.
The store’s precursor, E.A. Holbrook’s Dry Goods and Hardware, opened in the late 19th century, sometime after President Ulysses Grant visited in 1871 to drive the ceremonial last spike in an international rail system. The town flourished off-and-on for nearly a century after, but to hear Beers tell it, “When the railroad died, it died.” These days, aside from Hardwicke’s gas station, Holly’s is the only shop in town.
The store has survived, Beers says, because he and his son, Danny, know their customers. People always need staples like bread and milk, and many customers have run a tab over the years when times were tight. Canadians use the store as a pick-up location for packages, taking advantage of cheaper, faster shipping in the U.S. Spednic Lake boaters from both sides of the border come from their camps to buy ice, fishing tackle, and propane. Paddlers grab sandwiches and chips before launching canoes on the St. Croix.
For nearly 70 years, it’s been just enough — until the pandemic. The border closing hit the store especially hard. On a visit this summer, before the border reopened, more than 200 packages sat in the back, awaiting their Canadian owners. Beers has cut the store hours and stocked fewer perishable items. He figures they’ll get through this one way or another. They always do.
Beers’ trajectory and Vanceboro’s are entwined like strands of DNA. As a boy, he went to silent movies at Armstrong’s Picture House. He began working the St. Croix log drives at age 15. He and his friends jumped slow-moving cross-border cargo trains to catch movies or hang with friends in McAdam, on the New Brunswick side. That’s where he met Helen. They married in 1949, after Beers returned from his WWII stint in the Navy. When people marveled at their long marriage, he used to say, “She’s on probation. One year at a time.” Helen rolled her eyes at that joke for 71 years.
Beers can summon a mental map of the town in its heyday: the stately Exchange Hotel, the Greek Revival–style high school, the railroad station, where a train left the yard every 25 minutes. Sit with him a while and he’ll wax about a community where “everybody looks out for everyone else.” He remembers when Warren Dudley offered him the store and an upstairs apartment for next to nothing in 1952. He remembers the aftermath of the ferocious fire in February 1985 that burned it all to the ground. And he remembers when friends and family from both sides of the border had the walls up and roof shingled again in just two days.
More recently, there was the town spaghetti dinner, raffle, and silent auction benefit that neighbors pulled together to help pay for Danny’s eye operation. And there are the countless examples of locals lending a hand to bewildered, sometimes snooty from-aways passing through this rural, remote little pocket. Beers could spend a whole afternoon just recounting exchanges with visitors.
“We had a bunch in here from Massachusetts,” he recalls. “One of the young fellers looked at me and said, ‘This must be a hell of a place to live with nothing going on.’ I said, ‘Well, what are you doing here?’ He said, ‘We’re going down the river in a canoe.’ I said, ‘It probably cost you quite a lot of money to come here and vacation and rent a canoe and buy all this. I could run that river every day of the week and it don’t cost me a cent.’”
Holly has little patience for those who underestimate life here. He looks out the window and shakes his head. “You don’t want to find fault with a little place like this.”