“There’s Just Something Here That Gives Us This Sense of Identity.”
What are Aroostook County values, and why should they matter to the rest of us? We asked Kathryn Olmstead, a founding editor of Echoes magazine, who’s spent her career chronicling what sets the County apart.
Interview by Brian Kevin Photographed by Kevin Bennett
In 2018, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Maine invited journalist, educator, and Caribou-dweller Kathryn Olmstead to deliver its annual Maine Heritage Lecture. In a speech she called “Rediscovering Community: Maine’s Rural Heritage as a Path to the Future,” Olmstead asked an audience at Orono’s Collins Center two questions: Have Americans lost their sense of community? And could the rest of the country benefit from an embrace of “rural values”?
Raised in Michigan, Olmstead came to Aroostook County in 1974 after stints teaching high-school English in greater Milwaukee and Concord, New Hampshire. She and her then-husband moved to Westmanland, population 42, to try their hands at off-the-grid homesteading. By 1977, Olmstead was editing the Aroostook Republican newspaper in Caribou, and she helped students in Westmanland and the surrounding, Swedish-settled towns start a publication called Silver Birches, documenting traditional skills and collecting oral histories from the region’s elders. She spent a few years running U.S. Senator Bill Cohen’s district office in Presque Isle before joining the UMaine communication and journalism faculty in 1984, dividing her time between the County and Orono.
But Olmstead’s true immersion in Aroostook County’s “rural heritage” came during the nearly 30 years she spent running Echoes, a quarterly publication once billed as “The Northern Maine Journal of Rural Culture” (before the mag settled on the alternate tagline “Rediscovering Community”). Olmstead has described it as “an ‘up north’ counterpart to Down East,” a magazine that celebrated Aroostook’s culture, past and present, with essays, photos, profiles, and poems. She cofounded Echoes in 1988 with New York ad agency vet Gordon Hammond, who stayed with the mag until the mid-’90s, and at its peak, it reached more than 4,000 devoted subscribers, most of them living outside the County. The magazine folded in 2017, and Olmstead is currently editing an anthology, to be published this summer by Islandport Press.
After retiring from UMaine in 2009, Olmstead wrote a bimonthly Aroostook column for the Bangor Daily News, which also lasted through 2017. We joined her for lunch at her home in Caribou, overlooking the Aroostook River, to hear about what the rest of the country might learn from the County’s rural heritage.
What was it like being young back-to-the-landers in a community of 19 families in Aroostook County in the ’70s? How did you get on with your neighbors?
Our neighbors might have chuckled behind our backs — “Imagine not knowing the dimensions of a cord of wood!” — but my recollection is they seemed tickled to educate us on things they took for granted: gardening, splitting and stacking wood, identifying trees and animal tracks, and on and on. I still remember so much of that advice, like Fritjof Jacobson down the road saying you don’t put your tomatoes out until the first full moon in June. I knew I was accepted when my neighbor, Ethel, said, “If only you could have seen your house back in the day, when it was really lived in,” and I thought it was so sweet that she wanted me to have been there, to have experienced that.
When we had the kids doing interviews for Silver Birches, that was a good way for us to get to know them and their stories, to learn what their history was like. They had all been farmers, but by the time we got there, they were mostly all retired. I think what we gave to them was a renewed sense that their community was worth living in, that their heritage was something worth learning about. They were honored that we were interested.
Did you get the sense that they doubted the worth of their community or heritage?
I think there was always that feeling that they weren’t as good as southern Maine or more urban areas, where there was so much “more” to participate in. I think rural people in general are self-conscious about the contrasts between city and rural life. And this was at a time when outmigration from the County was really starting, the same time as consolidation into corporate farms, as opposed to small farms. That’s one reason, for example, the Amish have been so welcomed here, because they brought back the small family farm, this idea that was part of the heritage of this place.
What kinds of things were the older generations of Swedish Aroostook natives teaching the students you worked with at Silver Birches?
How to smoke meat, make soap out of lye, make cheese. Some of the language. Old recipes. The community loved it. They couldn’t believe the kids were interested. It became more than just a magazine — they sponsored community gatherings where older folks would teach the younger kids their dances and bring their foods. The French kids got into it, and they wanted to explore their own culture. It was contagious. It became a social thing.
What was a classic Echoes story? What were the kinds of things you published that your readers really responded to?
A lot of the stories were based on culture — certainly the classic immigrant stories, the early stories of folks who came here. An example of a more “current” story might be about a couple who moved to Westmanland to learn traditional skills, to become part of the answer and not the problem in a society that’s become more and more materialistic.
A classic story would be personal recollections about growing up in Aroostook, about living on a farm and having to work, telling of a time when going to a movie in Presque Isle was a big deal, when you worked on the potato harvest in order to earn money for your school clothes. We tried not to idealize or be too nostalgic about the past, but I think that’s what people related to.
The Echoes mail page was full of readers who’d left the County and pined for it, along with people who hardly knew the place but somehow found the magazine and pined for it just the same. What do you attribute that to?
I think there will always be people who are thinking, “Maybe a simpler life is better,” or who feel that way after a certain amount of time in a hectic environment. And that’s a euphemism, of course, because it’s probably not as simple as they envision. It’s a new kind of complicated.
I’m encouraged these days by the number of professionals who are returning to the County, especially in the medical profession. Then there are farming people who’ve decided that this is the place to do it, despite not having a history here. I think Echoes often heard from people who felt a longing, a sense of, “Maybe I could have made it there?” or “Maybe I could return?”
And what would you tell those people?
I’d ask them a ton of questions. What do you do? What attracts you? Because it’s not for everybody.
Who is it for, then?
It’s for people who don’t feel connected to an urban environment. I know natives who say they could never live here again because they’re so used to, you know, being within walking distance of restaurants or having quick access to cultural activities or entertainment.
Apart from being away from amenities, though, what are the Aroostook values you wanted Echoes to evoke, and do you think they’re still in evidence here?
The feeling of community is the same. I still feel that sense of genuineness, authenticity, lack of pretense. Of pride in a history of hard work and agriculture. Of neighborliness, genuine friendliness. Certainly, when I go to the grocery store or the post office, I have to allow time for the people who I know I’m going to see. And maybe this is the essence: being who you are. You don’t have to worry about making an impression here — you have to survive. You learn to be resilient.
Of course, there are other, less flattering values that some people associate with rural places — clannishness, suspicion of outsiders, resistance to change.
There is a conservatism here, a reluctance to take risks that might produce positive change, but I haven’t experienced the stereotype you describe. In a small community, you can’t separate yourself from people with different views because there are so many reasons to come together — you need each other. I have experienced extreme generosity and kindness from people who might not share some of my beliefs and values.
So what is it about Aroostook’s rural heritage that you suppose the rest of the country might benefit from?
For one thing, it provides an identity — both the rural culture and the different cultures within it. This is a diverse community, which is one thing that distinguishes it. The Swedes, Lebanese, Native, and French communities have all retained aspects of their culture, which provides a sense of who you are and a comfort being able to reach out to other people. These are qualities people are searching for. At Echoes, we heard from a lot of people who seemed to be searching for a life that is not only simple but, I guess, authentic.
And partly it’s a connection to nature, living in an area that has been dependent on nature for its livelihood, whether that’s in farming or forestry or in living off the land.
You think a day is coming when those things are going to be more valuable?
I think this is the day. We’re destroying our environment, and if we don’t pay attention to what we’re doing by consuming so much, then we’re going to lose it. Harvesting the knowledge of those who have lived in rural communities can teach us how to live locally.
The tradition here was that you take good care of the land because it’s going to be the livelihood for future generations. That was the idea of the family farm. The change that came is that with consolidation and corporate farming, that tradition is lost — what incentive do you have to take care of the land if it’s not going to be yours or your family’s in the future? It’s a conundrum, and I don’t have an answer, but here, there has been that tradition, that closeness to the land and awareness of the need to take care of it.
And then this idea of taking care of each other. That small community of 19 families in Westmanland? I’m not idealizing it, but we all cared about each other. If you have a disaster and you have that foundation of community caring, that’s going to help you, as opposed to if you don’t know each other or are even suspicious of one another.
Do you worry about the homogenizing of rural America? About the County starting to look and feel more or less like rural Michigan or rural Oklahoma?
I think it’s already happening, and “homogenizing” is a word for it. There are local places that hang in there. But we just cut the ribbon on a new Dunkin’, and there are all these franchises taking the place of the local businesses. There’s been a loss of some languages too — certainly the Swedes here mourn that loss.
But then the resurgence of culture within the Acadian community in the St. John Valley is hugely positive. They still have their Acadian festival, and they’re recognized by other Acadian communities. Perhaps it’s the ethnic groups — Swedes, Lebanese, Native Americans, French — that are helping to keep that spirit. They’re certainly not insular. I love going to the St. John Valley because I feel so welcomed, even though I don’t have a bit of French in me. They love sharing their culture, and I feel that way about the Aroostook community as a whole.
Do you suppose if you’d spent 30 years running a magazine in Michigan or Oklahoma, you’d have received the same devoted response that you did?
I’ve asked myself that. We heard from groups of Aroostook County natives who get together out in California, Arizona, Florida. There’s just something here that gives us this sense of identity. I’m guessing there are other places that have that appeal. I’m just lucky to be in one where it’s intense.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.