Late winter snow (or early spring snow for that matter) will forever remind me of Presque Isle, Maine. The first day of February’s “County Carnegie Tour” ended after a long day of driving and stopping and occasional spitting snow. We reached Presque Isle at 4:00 p.m. and the forecast for the following day was…more snow.
The “city” is the largest in Aroostook County and considered to be the commercial hub. It’s sometimes called “The Star City” but the reason for this moniker eluded me in my early morning internet search. Presque Isle has a “mall” and a Hampton Inn, but I wanted to be close to the library and the downtown and The Northeastland Hotel was just the place. A display cabinet in the hotel’s lobby hinted at a busier era; despite economic changes, clean, quiet and spacious rooms were available.
The Mark and Emily Turner Memorial Library, located on 2nd Street, is directly behind the Northeastland Hotel. The original Carnegie Library was built in 1908 with a $10,000 grant from the Carnegie Foundation. Designed by Houlton architectural firm Astle and Page in the Romanesque Revival style, the building changed significantly in 1966 when an addition “engulfed” the original structure. The current building has a 1960’s college dormitory exterior “look” and “feel” to it which, unfortunately, masks it’s elegant and impressive interior. A second renovation in 2013 added a graceful arching stairway entrance which carries patrons and guests into the bright and artistic space. The library has 3 galleries within, including one which houses a permanent exhibition of Andrew Wyeth prints and another with three original oil paintings by Richard V. Ellery. These three paintings of potato farming scenes were commissioned by the Northern National Bank in 1946.
The library still has its token Andrew Carnegie print among other artifacts. These prints were not free gifts. George S. Bobinski says in his book Carnegie Libraries “very often library officials would request a picture or bust of Carnegie to display in their new buildings. These were not given freely but had to be purchased from commercial outlets…”
Although the Presque Isle’s former Carnegie Library was no longer visible in the modern renovations, just a few doors down from the Northeastland Hotel is the Maine Farmers Exchange Building, built in 1887. The Maine Farmers Exchange still has offices there and two retail businesses fill the first floor level eight steps up from the sidewalk. Morningstar Art & Framing is a wonderful store filled with art, art supplies, and a friendly beagle named Jujij. Little did I know my traveling companion, Handy, was such a beagle lover.
We had a delicious dinner at cozy Café Sorpreso. Snow was falling and across the street, right next to Morningstar Art & Framing, white Christmas lights outlined the windows of Oasis Salon. It reminded me of cold winter evenings on Boston’s Newbury Street and I made a mental note to stop in and tell the owner how lovely her business looked through the window.
The next morning, I got an early start with a brisk walk up State Street and down Academy Street to the University of Presque Isle campus. It was still snowing lightly as I turned the corner onto Main Street heading back towards the hotel, just in time to see an Amish buggy passing through the intersection.
We would spend our day on the road to Maine’s most northerly Carnegie Library and the St. John Valley; more than once I would ask myself “what is it like to live so far away?” Libraries and hair salons and beagles must be part of that authentic life patchwork required for survival when you’re 5 hours north of Portland, the only “Maine” some travelers will ever know. Since I’ve returned home to my own authentic routines, things will occasionally remind me of Presque Isle. A potato, a snowflake, or the smell of books will stir up memories of the trip. I want to go back and visit again and ask questions, but until then, these sweet winter memories, like little mental postcards, are always signed “Fondly, Presque Isle.”