One hour from Portland to Augusta, the Capitol of Maine, on I-95. Two hours to Bangor; four to Houlton, the end of the Interstate, before New Brunswick, Canada. My map stopped there. I could have continued on north to Mars Hill, Presque Isle, Caribou, Fort Kent, and canoed down to Allagash.
But I figured if I couldn’t find one town before going that far, I would stop at a gas station and conduct an entire town meeting with the attendant and a few truckers. I was getting really adept at gauging my day trips to be able to make it back to my cozy warm bed at the Bliss B & B before midnight.
Aroostook County must be one of the largest in the country, rivaling San Bernardino and those in Texas and Alaska.
Island Falls, Maine
A half-hour this side of Houlton was the little farming community of Island Falls. Fortunately, there was a Congregational Church so I could use my credentials as an ordained UCC clergyman to make a connection. Pastor Jim Johnson was a young man who had recently been called to serve the church, and since I arrived around the dinner hour (another thing I had learned early in my career), invited me to eat with his family, and even made me a comfortable bed on a couch in his office at the church. After dinner he arranged for me to meet with a couple of his elders who were also community leaders. I learned that the area around Island Falls was almost entirely comprised of family potato farms and they were in the midst of a lengthy drought and that even in good years it was hard to make a living off the land. At the same time these farmers were proud of their community and how everyone looked after one another. They were not looking for the government to step in to save them, but welcomed the chance to get together to talk with fellow citizens about making their community a better place so that their kids would not have to leave to find jobs.
Aroostook County Potato Farming
So when I left Island Falls the next day I felt I had made some new friends and also had a date set for the Island Falls Community Forum. I experienced similar welcomes in several other small towns along the I-95 corridor: Enfield, Old Town, Orono, Holden, Pittsfield, and Bradley. The specifics were different but they all expressed common longings. People wanted a place where their children could grow up and find meaningful, productive work. A place where community was experienced and families could flourish. A place where they could maintain their traditions and welcome the future without being threatened by it.
We were aiming to have as many of the Town Meeting ’76 forums as possible on the same Saturday in November, before Thanksgiving. Before the end of September I was well on the way with eight of the sixteen scheduled. At our Chicago ICA headquarters there was a room with a huge 8’ by 16’ county map of the U.S. and a team of people whose sole job was to fill in each county with a yellow marker as a town was scheduled.
Maine was now half yellow!