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The Barns of the St. John River Valley: Maine's Crowning Jewels

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Double barns, Fort Kent, ca. 2010
Double barns, Fort Kent, ca. 2010
Double (or twin) barns may be the epitome of this region's unique architecture.Acadian Archives

The barns we find in the St. John River Valley are jewels of the crown of Maine. Victor Konrad argues that “as repositories of culture, few artifacts rival barns. They are substantial structures but simple enough in form and construction to show even subtle differences in attributes . . . Faithful replication of traditional barn features by settlers often insures outlines of cultural areas” (Konrad, 1982, 22). Konrad also states that “barns are a component of an ‘artifactual language’ used by people to express values ranging from economic to cultural.” What’s more, “the Northeast border region of Canada and the United States marks the junction of Acadian, Quebecois, Loyalist, Yankee, and several more recent European immigrant cultures,” and the barn styles of the region represent this unique cultural landscape (Konrad, 1982, 23-24).

The river that is today known as the St. John and that serves as an international border between the United States and Canada, has been known for much longer as the Wolastoq—the same name given to the surrounding watershed region and the basis for the name of Maine’s Aroostook County today. This landscape has long been inhabited by the Maliseet Nation (Welastekwewiyik), today part of the Wabanaki culture. The Madawaska Maliseet First Nation’s web page explains, “the Maliseet people have been here since time immemorial. Maliseet Territory consists of the St. John River watershed, extending from the St. Lawrence River to the Bay of Fundy.” Settler colonialism has threatened Maliseet ways of life and ways of caring for the landscape and community since at least the 1700s. In 1725, the Maliseet Nation and the British Crown signed a peace treaty, which was renewed in 1749 and in 1760. None of these treaties ceded any land; they codified a peaceful relationship between two nations. In 1763, a Royal Proclamation was signed recognizing Indigenous rights to that land, which must be ceded to the Crown in order to be granted to settlers. It did not take long before the Maliseet Nation had to petition the Governor of Quebec about settlers encroaching on their land, and later the same year, 1763—the year that the Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the Great Deportation—“large grants [were] made to English settlers on the lower St. John River (Welastekw) . . . a violation of the Royal Proclamation.” The mass arrival of British Loyalists in the same region “negatively impact[ed] Maliseet rights to the land, way of life, and mobility.” A new wave of settlers began developing the upper reaches of the St. John River shortly thereafter:

In the summer of 1785, the newly-formed province of New Brunswick government grants a License of Occupation to Acadian families . . . for land near the Maliseet village at Madawaska (Matoweskok). A formal grant would not be issued until 1790. Although Acadians and Maliseets enjoyed a relatively amicable relationship, since the French Crown was more interested in trade, the establishment of permanent settlement reinforced by the British negatively impacts Maliseet rights and livelihood (Madawaska Maliseet First Nation).

A reserve was set aside for the Maliseet nation,* which continually shrank in size, and a lot of dubious practices happened in the first decades of the 1800s. One surveyor general was removed from office for insanity, leaving many documents destroyed or missing, for one thing (Madawaska Maliseet First Nation). Like in so many other places, the Maliseet Nation’s ability to exercise their sovereignty and live their lives was gradually limited by British and French, then American and Canadian settlement and governance.

Rossignol barn, Van Buren, ca. 2003
Rossignol barn, Van Buren, ca. 2003
An early example of an Acadian barn.Acadian Archives

Potato Country

The agricultural development that defines what is commonly known as the St. John Valley today “had its origins at the founding of the settlement, with the intervales along both sides of the river among the first lands taken for farming” (Dubay, 1983, 55). In the aftermath of the Grand Dérangement, many Acadian refugees attempted to return to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, but were unable to return to their homes and lands due to the British occupation. The first ancestors of today’s Maine Acadians settled in the lower St. John River valley and the Kamouraska region of the St. Lawrence River. Then,

Loyalist intrusions following the War for American Independence pushed these Acadians farther up river. By the 1780s, joined by Acadian and Quebecois families from the St. Lawrence River valley, they established permanent settlements along both sides of the St. John River where their descendants live today. With the establishment of that river as the international boundary [between canada and the united states] in 1842, the Acadians on the south shore became Americans. Those on the north became Canadians (Doty, 1991, 37).

Landry barn, Saint Francis, 1974
Landry barn, Saint Francis, 1974
The Landry barn was converted to potato storage, so does not have the hallmarks of a "true" potato barn.Acadian Archives

Today, the St. John River valley and “The County” around it are considered potato country. Irish settlers are credited with bringing potatoes to the region in the early decades of the 1800s. Potatoes did not become a cash crop for farmers or a market staple until the railroad era and the introduction of potato starch factories in the county beginning in 1871, which also coincided with the decline of the lumber industry. Around the turn of the century, rail lines extending to Van Buren and Fort Kent brought more market access and the potato industry boomed (Dubay, 1983, 60). Guy Dubay writes,

The switch from nineteenth century subsistence agriculture to potatoes as a single cash crop had an influence on virtually every sphere of St. John Valley life, from its economic foundation to its population and occupations. In order to farm successfully and efficiently, a variety of tools and buildings were also developed, providing material cultural evidence of the potato monoculture’s evolution (Dubay, 1983, 61).

One of the distinctive architectural features of the region is the potato barn. Partially underground and surrounded by earth, these barns were designed to store barrels of potatoes at a constant, cool temperature. They contain small stoves to ward off frost in the winter; the chimneys, in addition to the subterranean architecture, help identify a potato barn. It is worth noting that most barns in Maine and in Aroostook County have served a variety of purposes throughout their time, with or without modifications, as farmers attempted to adapt to changing agricultural patterns and economic demands.