St. John Valley Times Year in News 2021, July to December
Editor’s Note: The following is the second of two articles highlighting some of the top news stories from 2021. This article highlights events from July to December. The first installment appeared in the Dec. 29 issue.
Compiled by Jessica Potila and Emily Jerkins
The second half of 2021 was off to a sad start when an elementary school was destroyed by fire, and there were still COVID-19-related challenges to be faced in the St. John Valley. However, there was plenty of good news to report throughout the year. As always seems to be the way of northern Maine residents, people stepped up time and time again to help one another and make positive things happen in their communities.
Makayla Martin of St. Francis was in a snowmobile crash in January that may have just saved her life. The crash left her with a concussion and neck pain so doctor’s at Northern Maine Medical Center ran additional tests to determine the extent of her injuries and found a cancerous mass on her thyroid.
Wallagrass held its annual Pondfest this year and saw a large turnout raising $6,000 toward the construction of a local veterans monument. Pondfest took place annually for six years each summer through 2019. The popular Pondfest celebration returned July 3 after a hiatus last summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Musicians across Aroostook County came together in a memorial concert held for Madawaska music legend Jesse Waltman Jr. who died in April 2020 after a three-year battle with lung cancer.
After more than three decades of law enforcement service, Fort Kent Police Chief Tom Pelletier retired from the profession. Pelletier cited state and federal efforts to rescind qualified immunity for police officers and proposals to decriminalize all drugs as factors in his decision.
Celebrated farmer Al Cyr passed away this year in the very senior living center he had built. Cyr served on the Aroostook County Farm Bureau, Credit Farm Services and the Agricultural Bargaining Council. Cyr left the potato farming industry in the early 1970s and began a new venture — building, renovating and administering nursing homes.
Concerned about the rise in local crime and drug use, more than 60 residents of two small St. John Valley towns met in a gymnasium to talk with law enforcement about the recent rise of criminal activity in the area.
Reynold Hebert retired from the Fort Kent Public Works Department after 43 years of service. Public works vehicles paraded through town in honor of Hebert, and surprised him by traveling past his South Perley Brook Road home.
Residents of Frenchville mourned the loss of Dr. Levesque Elementary School as it became engulfed in flames. The school, built in 1951, caught fire just before 7a.m. on July 25, which devastated one of its two wings. The fire was likely electrical and had started between the wall of the nurse’s office and gymnasium.
Fern Desjardins was elected to the board of directors of the National Association of State Boards of Education in 2019 where she currently serves as chair of the Public Education Positions Committee and has recently been named chair of the Maine State Board of Education.
Turnover in Van Buren had Recreation director Tosha Martin and library director Justin Martin stepping down from their positions this August. At the same time, Presque Isle firefighter and paramedic Kaitlyn Beil stepped up to take over the ambulance department directorship.
In response to the Dr. Levesque Elementary School fire, more than 3,000 people followed the school’s Facebook page where Amazon wish lists had been created by educators. People from all over the country funded the lists, and included personal donations of everything from money to classroom supplies and outdoor winter clothing for students to wear during recess.
A waste water treatment facility that serves two St. John Valley towns received much needed repairs thanks to a $758,000 Northern Border Regional Commission grant. Surface discharge of untreated sewage due to an overflow revealed a need for a costly project to replace a section of sewer force main piping. The current piping is 4 inches in diameter, and the new piping will be 6 inches in diameter to better accommodate waste water flows.
A forest fire was quickly extinguished in St. Francis on Monday, Aug. 9. Firefighters from St. Francis Fire Department, Fort Kent Fire Department and Maine Forest Service thwarted the fire that began at around 8 p.m. and burned more than an acre of land on the back settlement in town.
Madawaska acquired a new ambulance replacing a 2010 unit that was becoming unusable after years of wear and tear, and damage from road salt. The ambulance department bought the truck on a three-year lease-to-own program using money from the ambulance reserve account, which is funded by the department’s revenues.
Valley Unified schools offered vaccine clinics for staff and students ahead of the new school year. The first round of vaccine clinics took place Aug. 23 and 24, with additional clinics on Sept. 13 and 14.
Van Buren held an emergency meeting where a mask mandate for the schools was unanimously voted in. Van Buren was not set up for hybrid learning so the school board was concerned that more families would pull their children out of schools due to the mandate.
At a town meeting in Fort Kent, council members unanimously voted for former Fort Kent Police Department Officer Michael DeLena to replace former Chief Tom Pelletier, who retired from law enforcement earlier in the month.
The town of Frenchville received a $51,716.03 Assistance to Firefighters Grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The grant money will be used to purchase new protective equipment such as boots, turnout gear and helmets for the firefighters. Remaining funds will be spent to replace all fire truck hoses.
A Fort Kent man bought his childhood home to save it from demolition as part of University of Maine at Fort Kent’s plan to build a new welcome center. The home has been relocated to the lot adjacent to the man’s current residence.
Local man, Dennis Kennedy, was making his way to his former home in South Carolina when he ran into a high-speed chase on I-295. The suspect got his vehicle stuck on a grassy shoulder and began to flee. Kennedy and another bystander put their lives in danger to come to the aid of the trooper attempting the arrest. Kennedy has since earned an MSP honor for his role in the suspect’s takedown.
St. Mary’s Church in Eagle Lake has never had a steeple, but at one time did have a cross atop the building that was eventually lost to rot from leaking rain water. Former Grand Knight with the Knights of Columbus Council 8729 out of Eagle Lake, Rosaire Daigle, helped raise $9,000 to put a steeple atop the sacred building.
Night work began on the new international bridge between Edmunston, New Brunswick, and Madawaska. The $97 million project is a collaboration between the U.S. contractors Reed & Reed and New Brunswick-based subcontractors Greenfield Construction. The Maine Department of Transportation and New Brunswick Department of Transportation and Infrastructure are also collaborating on the project.
The St. Francis Historical Society was presented with the 2020 Spirit of America Award from the Spirit of America Foundation. The award honors excellent volunteerism and values organizations that give back to their communities.
University of Maine at Fort Kent Enrollment and Advancement Center was unveiled to the public at a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Located on the east side of Pleasant Street, the welcome center is the main face of the university and unites two sections of campus buildings located on either side of the street.
As with many police agencies throughout the state and country, Fort Kent Police Department has struggled to attract and retain officers in recent years. Now, FKPD is near full staff for officers with new hires and the advancement of one officer.
One of the last chances for Madawaska residents to gather together outside before winter forces everyone indoors for the season, the beautification committee put together Fall Fest which was massively embraced by the community. The empty Kmart parking lot hadn’t seen this much activity in years with approximately 29 vendors, live music, and a bake-sale fundraiser for the Madawaska High School Senior Class.
On a Sunday afternoon in 1966, Ubald Theriault went missing from his Lille residence, never to be seen again. The 79-year-old man’s disappearance captured the attention of St. John Valley residents who enjoyed a virtually crime free existence in 1966. More than half a century after Theriault went missing, some who never even met him still wonder about his fate.
The SAD 27 school board was the first in Aroostook County to consider whether district employees should be paid incentive money to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Young skier Clyde Overton, then 4 years old, received national recognition as a video of him skiing at Lonesome Pine Trails was featured on the long-running ABC television program America’s Funniest Home Videos.
National Honor Society students from Wisdom Middle/High School participated in a community service project to help a Frenchville couple prepare for the winter months by hauling wood into their cellar. The helpful students moved four cords of wood, including a half-cord they brought to the couple’s elderly neighbor.
Hudson Labbe of Eagle Lake, a Fort Kent Community High School honor student and member of Boy Scout Troop 189 achieved the rank of Eagle Scout. Labbe painted interactive gameboards on the Fort Kent Elementary School pavement so that young students could maintain social distancing while still engaging in interactive play during school recess times.
More than two dozen members of the public, many of them parents of district students, attended a meeting of the SAD 27 Board of Directors to encourage overturning a district-wide face mask mandate for staff and students. The attempt failed.
A St. John Vianney Wreath Remembrance Project provided people an opportunity to honor their deceased loved ones while also raising funds for the parish churches.
Fort Kent Police Department received three federal grants to increase traffic safety and enforcement. Maine Bureau of Highway Safety and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration approved the grant money for three traffic safety campaigns focused on impaired, distracted and unrestrained driving.
Volunteer firefighters with Van Buren Fire Department responded to a call at a home that was damaged when a portable electric space heater ignited some nearby combustible materials in a bedroom. The Red Cross was called to assist the resident of the home as the dwelling was rendered uninhabitable.
Northern Maine Medical Center announced that due to an increase in demand for COVID-19 testing, the hospital’s swab clinic would suspend such testing for people needing it for travel purposes. The hospital continued to test symptomatic patients or those who had been identified as close contacts of people through contact tracing.
The Fort Kent Town Council recognized nine volunteer firefighters who donated their time and skills to improve the fire station, saving taxpayers thousands of dollars in the process. The firefighters performed upgrades to the station heating system replacing the original system with heat pumps and upgraded to a heat pump-style hot water heater.
More than 30 volunteers cooked up 300 pounds of turkey, 200 pounds of potatoes and 375 bread rolls which they distributed for free to people on Thanksgiving. All Things Become New of Eagle Lake spearheaded the event, which served 350 people.
Dean Gendreau was named director of the Van Buren Parks and Recreation Department. He previously served as recreation director in Madawaska, Easton and Old Saybrook, Connecticut.
The St. John Valley saw a dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention designated Fort Kent Elementary School to be in outbreak status and Van Buren District School moved to remote learning because of staff members infected or in quarantine.
A holiday tree lighting ceremony at Crosswinds Residential Care in Fort Kent proved a happy and hopeful occasion for residents who last year could only greet loved ones through windows due to COVID-19.
Acadians in the St. John Valley kept traditions alive with a Grosses Têtes (big heads) class in Madawaska. The heads are a staple on the streets of Madawaska during the Acadian Festival’s Tintamarre, a noisy parade involving improvised instruments and noise makers.
For the third time in four months, SAD 27 board members voted to approve a district-wide face mask mandate as residents, and the board members themselves, remained staunchly divided on the issue.
Firefighters from Van Buren and Grand Isle saved a Van Buren resident from the roof of their burning home. Responders rescued the person from the porch roof of the home upon arrival, as flames engulfed the second floor.
A Madawaska woman brought Hot Mess Express, a national volunteer-based group that helps parents who struggle with daily tasks, to Aroostook County. Group members nominate families in need and provide cleaning products, advice on organization, motivational support and even assist those families in completing household chores such as laundry, vacuuming or dishes.
Fort Kent Elementary School students were accompanied by police and firefighters to shop for loved ones during the first Fort Kent Shop With a First Responder event. Anonymous donors provided $75 in spending money for each of the children.
Madawaska Elementary School students, with the help of police officers, bought Christmas gifts for their family members during the sixth annual Shop With a Cop event. The town raised enough money for 10 students who were chosen by the Madawaska School Department.