Fort Kent family continues support of local history

FORT KENT, Maine — A portrait of Paul D. Thibodeau (1880-1938) adorns a new sign, hanging on the side of a former freight shed, identifying the building as the Fort Kent Historical Society’s new visitors’ center.

Although the Thibodeau name may be familiar to many in the St. John Valley who have bought insurance in the past 115 years, few may have known of Thibodeau’s connection to the society.

About the same time as the historical society purchased the property on Market Street last year, Thibodeau’s grandson, James Thibodeau, was approached by local author Laurel Daigle, who was doing research for a book on the Thibodeau family.

During their discussions, Thibodeau discovered that his grandfather was one of the founders of the historical group in town. Along with helping to start the historical society in 1925 and serving as its first president, in 1930 Paul Thibodeau commissioned a historical booklette titled, “Fort Kent 1829-1929.”

While working with Daigle, Thibodeau reached out to family members across the country, seeking photos, news clippings, letters and other items about his family.

“He was very involved in the community,” Thibodeau said of his grandfather while sitting in the center that bears his name.

In the weeks of working with Daigle, Thibodeau become interested in following in his grandfather’s footsteps.

“As a result, I became involved. I became a member of the society,” he said.

Thibodeau reflected on his family’s history and the roles, both big and small, his grandfather and other relatives played in the greater Fort Kent community and the St. John Valley.

Born in 1880, one of 14 children to Vital and Methaide Thibodeau in Grand Isle, Paul Thibodeau was schooled in Caribou before attending St. Mary’s College in Van Buren. Thibodeau’s grandfather tried his hand at selling sewing machines and cars before finding his niche selling insurance. By 1902 he had established his own firm, based in Fort Kent.

Paul Thibodeau served on Fort Kent’s board of selectmen, school board, as the town treasurer and in the Maine House of Representatives (1915-1916). His civic involvement included his membership in the local Rotary Club, Knights of Columbus and Knights of Pythias.

In 1906, Paul married Alice Nadeau of Fort Kent. Many of the couple’s nine children worked at the family business and were involved in various community and civic groups. Some also joined the U.S. military, serving in WWII, while others entered religious orders.

Before taking over the family insurance business, following the unexpected death of his brother Romeo, Thibodeau’s father Omer worked for the Fort Kent Water Works. Eventually, James Thibodeau himself would lead the business, retiring in 2008.

Thibodeau is spearheading a fundraising campaign to complete renovations of the former freight shed, which was most recently a karate studio, into a visitors’ center, with a focus on returning it to what better matches the nearby train station.

Donations may be sent to the Fort Kent Historical Society at P.O. Box 181, Fort Kent, ME 04743 or by contacting Thibodeau at 834-6098 or thibair2@gmail.

Because it is located adjacent to the historical train station, and was itself a railroad freight shed originally built in the 1940s, it made sense to remove the vinyl siding and repaint the original wood. The concept is to recreate, in a small way, the feel of the old rail station and rail yard.

The first two of five planned renovations were completed this summer, including the removal of the modern siding and the painting of the exterior to match the train station.

The next phases include extending the eaves, also to match the station. The society also is hoping to build a deck and handicap accessible ramp.

A final phase involves renovating the open interior, although planners have not yet decided on the details of that work, Thibodeau said.

The total cost of the project is estimated at approximately $90,000, according to Thibodeau. To date, organizers have raised about $33,000, which includes $7,000 in grant money, he said.

In-kind donations in the form of donated materials and discounts from Irving Woodlands, Huber Engineered Wood Products and S.W. Collins also have been a big help, Thibodeau said.

The exhibits inside the center currently include items from the Savoy Theater (what is today Century Theater) and the old Fort Kent Telephone Company.

Before there was the Savoy, movies were shown in the basement of the former Catholic convent on East Main Street, which today is a large apartment building.

“Movies were shown there to raise money to help build the hospital,” Thibodeau said.

Reflecting on his family history and the role his grandfather played in promoting local history and community involvement, Thibodeau expressed a quiet pride.

“I think it’s deserving to have the recognition,” said Thibodeau. “He did a lot for the community.”

Today, Thibodeau thinks his grandfather would approve of how the community and supporters of the historical society have embraced and recognized local history.

“I think he’d be pretty proud that its continued. With this building being developed as a visitors’ center I think we will see more people stopping by,” he said.

The new center caught the attention of local residents and visitors this summer.  The site is open 1 to 4 p.m. seven days a week during the summer months.

“We’re reliving the history of the community,” said Thibodeau, a history that his grandfather was proud of as well.

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