Best Small-Town Downtowns: Houlton

Century-old architecture, snack shops, and more in Aroostook County's quiet shire town.

businesses in downtown Houlton
By Will Grunewald
Photographed by Alberto Lopez

Main Streets with moxie! In our July 2021 issue, we took a look at six of our favorite downtowns from all across the state — and the businesses, buildings, and boosters that make them great. Read up on more of Maine’s best small-town downtowns and start planning your next road trip.

A Monumental Comeback

Memorials at Monument Park.

In 1902, a fire kindled in a storage shed and proceeded to rip through downtown Houlton, destroying block after block of businesses and homes — 111 buildings gone in less than a day. But the small Aroostook County town bounced back. In the months and years that followed, much of what had burned was rebuilt, resulting in present-day Houlton’s charming brick- and stone-fronted downtown and its tranquil Monument Park.

The leafy corner park sits on a large lot that townspeople opted to leave undeveloped after the fire. Today, The Bus food truck (207-532-2844) pulls up at the curb at lunchtime, griddling burgers and sausages and deep-frying haddock and French fries, and an amphitheater hosts concerts throughout the summer — McGill’s Community Band has a standing weekly engagement, with its more than 60 members performing classical numbers, Sousa marches, and pop covers. The park’s name owes to a Civil War memorial erected there in 1909, but the grassy expanse is just as much a monument to Houlton’s resilience.

Square Deal

The Temple Cinema has anchored Houlton's Market Square for more than a century.
The Temple Cinema has anchored Houlton’s Market Square for more than a century.

At the head of Houlton’s Main Street sits Market Square, the hub of downtown and the rare Maine town center that’s built around a plaza instead of a single street. The buildings bordering the square provide a veritable who’s who of revival architectural styles that were voguish in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: colonial, neoclassical, Greek, Romanesque. And yet their stately facades merge into an attractive, cohesive whole.

The square, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, is home to shops, offices, and restaurants, and one corner is anchored by the Temple Cinema (20 Market Sq.; 207-532-7600), open since 1919 — on Wednesdays, popcorn is free if you bring your own bowl. On Saturdays, from May through October, the square lives up to its name by hosting the Houlton Community Market (207-532-4216), where vendors set up to sell farm-fresh produce and meats, baked goods, plants, and a hodgepodge of crafts

A River Runs Through It

Steps from downtown Houlton, there are spots to unwind on the Meduxnekeag River.
Steps from downtown, there are spots to unwind on the Meduxnekeag River.

The Meduxnekeag River was, for generations, Houlton’s lifeblood. The town was incorporated in 1831, and by the second half of the century, the river powered, among other things, wool, lumber, and flour mills. “Houlton is the centre of trade for the county, and is a busy and thrifty town,” an 1886 gazetteer decreed. Nowadays, though, the downtown riverbanks are clear of industry. Instead, there’s the lovely Riverfront Park, connected to Market Square by a striking 187-foot-long wood-and-steel footbridge strung with white lights for evening ambience. Every spring, when the water is swift, the 9-mile Meduxnekeag River Canoe Race finishes at the park, which also is the starting point of a 3-mile trail loop through woods and fields along the riverbank. Residents began working on and raising money for the park in the late ’90s, and their efforts have made the river vital once again to Houlton’s downtown.

Sweet Treats

Just off Market Square, Sadie’s Bakery (5 Water St.; 207-532-6650) has been making doughnuts since Harry Truman was president. The hole-in-the-wall bake shop’s selection rotates daily — plain old-fashioned, potato, pumpkin, molasses, chocolate. Nothing too fancy, just perfectly crispy on the outside, moist in the middle. Within a block or two are several other spots for sweet tooths. Brookside (7 Broadway) is a new takeout counter that serves muffins, pies, and breakfast pastries, and the County Co-op and Farm Store (53 Main St.; 207-521-5284) is a crafts shop, grocery, and café with its own lineup of baked goods. Then there’s Betty Marie’s Sweet Shop (66 Main St.; 207-521-5260), selling everything from penny candy to handmade specialties, including a beloved old family recipe for chocolate-walnut fudge. So do Houlton residents have a thing for sweets? Ask any one of them who’s bought a Sadie’s Bakery donut-scented candle for their home.

Left: Houlton Farms Dairy Bar is a Maine classic and about a mile from downtown. Right: the County Co-op and Farm Store has a little of everything.

County Chronicler

Artifacts at the Aroostook County Historical & Art Museum of Houlton.

Its name is long, and so is the story that it aims to tell: the Aroostook County Historical & Art Museum of Houlton got started in 1936 and now houses a vast collection that includes historical news clips from the still-published Pioneer Times, photo archives of the town and its people, and diverse artifacts from daily life, from bedroom furniture to cookware to children’s shoes. One room contains paraphernalia from the old Houlton Academy and the long-since-folded Ricker College. Another shows off military artifacts from various American wars, including the oft-forgotten Aroostook War, a bloodless border clash between County residents and Canadians. Another remembers Houlton’s World War II–era air base and prisoner-of-war camp, where German soldiers were kept. Even the museum itself is a notable piece of local history: A previous home on the site was among the many buildings that burned in the fire of 1902. A year later, an elegantly pillared Colonial Revival stood there instead — and still stands today. As of press time, temporarily closed due to the pandemic. 109 Main St. 207-532-6984.

Read up on more of our favorite downtowns from all across Maine.