In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

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

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.

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).

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.

Another feature that marks Aroostook County barns as distinct, according to Don Perkins, is the prevalence of gambrel roofs, which he credits to “a combination of ethnic influence and the region’s [comparatively] late settlement” (Perkins, 2012, 106). He adds,

Most of the gambrel-styled barns in Maine were built after 1900, generally making the feature a dead give-away to the barn’s age, especially in the southern part of the state. The design gained much popularity between the first and second world wars. It appears Aroostook County may have started using this design a little earlier than the rest of the state (Perkins, 2012, 109).

Perkins cites Dan Deveau on potential origins of gambrel roofs in the region: “Many of the Acadians who settled here were skilled shipbuilders,” and some barns in the area displayed ship’s knees. Deveau points out that many of the region’s barns resemble upturned boats, especially when examining their framing. Early on, the Acadians built gambrel-styled barns, while those from Quebec typically built regular (gable) roofs.” Deveau explained that “lots and lots of loose hay led to the creation of this roof style” (Perkins, 2012, 109, 114), as the additional angles create more space under the roof.

Many of the barns use hand-hewn timber and braces, with no flared posts or English tying joints. The large pines that became wide barn boards in more southern barns are not so present in northern Maine, so smaller boards of spruce or fir are much more commonly seen building materials (Perkins, 2012, 111).

The Madawaska Twin Barn

The barn that is unique to the Maine side of the St. John River is the Madawaska twin barn, “a large structure consisting of two parallel sections joining to form an ‘H’,” when seen from above, and “never connected to outbuildings or the house” (Konrad and Chaney, 1982, 64). Victor Konrad and Michael Chaney posit that these barns are “a symbol of French Canadian culture, adopted during the period between the 1880s and 1930s when French Valley residents were eager to assert their Franco-American identity.” The architectural style “presents an alternative to the New England connecting barn which prevails in the rest of agricultural Aroostook County,” but also in the rest of the state and even beyond (Konrad and Chaney, 1982, 64-65).

The twin barns were a practical innovation that revealed a distinct cultural heritage:

These barns served the rapidly growing demand for enclosed and protected space on the St. John valley farm . . . the need to accommodate the substantial storage requirements of a variety of potato cultivation and harvesting equipment . . . Interior storage also provided the opportunity to make necessary repairs and to tinker with the machines during the snowbound winter months. The connecting portion served the need for enclosed access between sections and usually had additional granaries, feed bins, and occasionally pens for smaller animals like pigs and chickens (Konrad and Chaney, 1982, 66).

The twin barn idea most likely originated in Quebec, rather than directly from the Valley’s architects, and probably spread through interactions with Quebec migrants. However, only isolated examples of twin barns exist outside of the broader Fort Kent and St. Agatha region. It appears that the twin barn was both specifically needed in the St. John valley and accepted as a distinctly French adaptation to agricultural requirements—increasingly industrial ones—in a potato growing area. Other regions did not have the same factors, nor the same solutions; English cultural regions added more and more connecting barns, but the French of the valley took another route.

Konrad and Chaney conclude that the Madawaska twin barn is the product of two distinct cultures with well-developed traditions and symbols of their own, French and English. This architectural result is significant because it fused strong and distinctive elements of these two cultures and additionally represents a leap away from tradition. St. John Valley farmers could claim both their ties to French tradition and their acceptance of modern American farming practices consistent with the English majority in Aroostook County and beyond - a blend that, much like l’Acadie, represents a whole larger than the sum of its parts.

Most twin barns are gone today. Still, barns are cultural icons that showcase the history and culture of a region and its people. This includes the good and bad. In the St. John River valley, the barns represent the primarily Acadian and Quebecois immigrant, hard-working agricultural background of the settlers of the last few hundred years, but at the same time symbolize settler colonialism in Maliseet territory. This raises the issue of cultural heritage but also ethical land stewardship, Indigenous sovereignty, and a different understanding of land rights and usage than currently prevails. For these reasons, these architectural features deserve greater study.

* In 1787, a surveyor general mapped the region based on Maliseet guidance and created a 3,700-acre reserve at Madawaska (Mateweskok) for the Maliseet nation. The next year, an Acadian petitioned the Quebec government for land at Madawaska. A committee member pointed out that this land request “may encroach on the land set aside for the Maliseet.” In 1790, settlers received a land grant at Madawaska. The 1790 grant plan reduced the size of the reserve. In 1792, the Maliseet Nation petitioned New Brunswick for a grant at Madawaska. They obtained land at Ekwpahak, farther south (Madawaska Maliseet First Nation).

This exhibit was curated by University of Maine (Orono) graduate student Joey LeBlanc, in partnership with the Acadian Archives at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, as part of a Franco-American Digital Archives internship during Summer 2022.

Doty, C. Stewart. Acadian Hard Times: The Farm Security Administration in Maine’s St. John Valley, 1940-1943. Orono: University of Maine Press, 1991.
Dubay, Guy F. Chez-Nous: The St. John Valley. Augusta: Maine State Museum, 1983.
Konrad, Victor A. “Against the Tide: French Canadian Barn Building Traditions in the St. John Valley of Maine.” American Review of Canadian Studies 12, no. 2 (August 1, 1982): 22–36.
Konrad, Victor A., and Michael Chaney. “Madawaska Twin Barn.” Journal of Cultural Geography 3, no. 1 (September 1, 1982): 64–75.
Madawaska Maliseet First Nation. “History & Culture,” (accessed September 26, 2022).
Perkins, Don. The Barns of Maine: Our History, Our Stories. Charleston: The History Press, 2012.