Mémère and Pépère’s potato farm sits at the end of Bradbury road, three minutes outside of Fort Kent. My mother and her six siblings grew up on this farm with my grandparents, harvesting potatoes until the tips of their fingers were sore and stained with fertilizer. The farm closed several years before I was born, but my family makes the trip to Fort Kent every August in a mildewed rental car from Boston. The eight-hour drive drags us across the entire state: from Kittery’s rocky beaches, up I-95 through the center of Maine, ending with a highway flanked by barn houses and old potato fields. The grass is always cool on my feet in Maine, and the ground is soft enough in the early mornings to follow the tracks left by moose. They come up to the pond for water and then weave back into the pines until afternoon.
There is only one highway—Route 11—that leads to the small northern town. The road takes us through moose country and past Baxter State Park, a classic Maine landmark that frequents the covers of souvenir postcards and L.L. Bean catalogues. From Fort Kent, you can see the pine-flooded landscape and French-speaking Canada only a mile away.
Fort Kent was a French town centuries before my grandparents, Mémère and Pépère, were born. Under the colonial French crown, it served as a fur-trading post and source of lumber. Even a hundred years later, after it became a part of Maine, it still hadn’t let go of its French heritage. Teachers only taught French in school, everyone had French surnames, and the bland, Anglo United States felt far away. My grandparents grew up speaking French, forced by their parents to understand their neighbors across the St. John River. Today, the language still leaks across the border into Maine, sprinkling casual Fort Kenter conversations with québécois. Most of the French I know I learned around the dinner table with Mémère and Pépère.
Last summer, Pépère asked me to join him for an afternoon drive through Fort Kent. His pickup truck’s only purpose now is to take me into town. Its years of hauling potatoes to storage in the damp potato houses passed long before I could ever witness the truck in action. The old Ford engine took several tries to start, but we eventually backed out of the barn-turned-garage and started the drive into town.
Pépère maneuvered the truck easily as my glance drifted out the window and watched Fort Kent come into view. The road from the farm to Main Street is lined with alternating red brick and colonial houses, framed by iron streetlights and plastic American flags hanging on both sides of the street. We slipped past the homes, reaching the intersection with Main Street where the Fort Kent Public Library stands on the corner. We passed the old diner, Chez Doris, recently renovated to feature new menus, signs, and conversation—all in English. Doris’ House—its new name—was a gift from its new owner: the son of the old owner who had traded his French for the English of Fort Kent’s newest generation. The American flag outside no longer flaps next to its Québec counterpart as it did in years before. They stopped selling ployes—northern Maine’s crêpe equivalent—and had to start competing with the McDonald’s a few blocks away. Pépère no longer orders breakfast at Doris’. “I just don’t like waffles and bagels as much,” he told me.
After a quick stop at the post office, we rolled back across town. On the left, the town’s Subway fractures an entire block of houses, unwelcome yellow in the middle of brown. There’s a RadioShack ten doors down. At the end of the street, Route 1 stretches across the border into New Brunswick.
Before leaving town, I caught a glimpse of Fort Kent’s old movie theater. For my mother and her siblings, going to the movies was a treat even though Fort Kent’s movie offerings were slim. The building had one screen, playing one movie every night. My mother had to call the theater to hear what was playing that week. “Century Theater, Fort Kent, Maine—this is a recording,” the voice repeated in a québécois accent before it announced the show of the night. I had only been inside the theater once before it closed—Star Wars on the screen, bag of Twizzlers in hand. Now from the car, I could see the marquis’s scrambled plastic letters, and boarded-up windows, its doors replaced with trash bags and duct tape to seal the building from the outside.
“I ran into the owner of Century Theater the other day,” Pépère mentioned as he noticed me looking at the building.
“Bonhomme—Robert Dubois—good guy, but he’s moving his family south, down to Connecticut. Didn’t think there was much going for him here, but he said he’ll come visit in the summer like everyone else.”
Turning back onto Route 11, we continued our drive away from town and back past the red brick homes until potato fields appeared on either side of the road. Pépère turned the car onto an uneven dirt road that brought us up a hill overlooking his land. We could see the field stretch until it met the forest.
“Have I ever brought you here?” he asked, turning his head toward me as he spoke. I nodded. Several summers back, we walked along his old crop lines, over what used to be potato mounds.
“This all used to be part of our farm back when farming was the most important thing we had in Fort Kent. All the farmers are gone now, though—it’s a shame. People are packing their things and leaving town,” he said, putting his hands back on the steering wheel. Fort Kenters began to leave the town, rebelling against the traditions of their parents by heading south in search of warmer weather. Boston and Philadelphia drained Fort Kent of its people, its potatoes, and its French. My mother married my father, a Puerto Rican, and chose to live around the world instead of staying in a farmhouse in Aroostook County, Maine. My grandparents were among the few that stayed, tempted yet unwilling to join Fort Kent’s growing diaspora. They watch as the Fort Kent they used to know fades away with each humid summer.
Passing through town on the way home, we made one final stop. There were, as usual, very few cars on the road, and Pépère pulled into a gravel parking spot beside an old potato house. We climbed out of the car and he led me to the side of the building, which had been recently refinished as a mural. A potato field in the early evening stretched from one side of the brick canvas to the other, covering the wall. Deep oranges and soft yellows spread over a harvest field as the painted sunset sank into the background behind the farmers. Workers waddled in between the potato rows as a tractor followed their steps, picking up the potatoes that they harvested and left behind. The St. John Valley hills filled the background, with Québec in the distance as it always is. The painted sun won’t ever set on the Maine in the mural; the franglais, farming Maine that clings to the side of an old potato house.
“I hope this is what you remember of Fort Kent when you think about us,” he mentioned. “It’ll never look like this again.”
Alec Hernández is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College. He enjoys learning languages and folding laundry, and has been whipping through Greenville, SC, on a Beginner’s Permit since 2014. Send him an email at email@example.com.