FORT KENT - Chad Pelletier has strong connections to Fort Kent. Although he was born in Waterville, Pelletier’s family was among the first settlers of the town that lies at the confluence of the Fish and St. John rivers. This sense of connection has lead Pelletier to learn more about his family history and the history of Fort Kent.
“I remember, as a child, having these old ladies pinching my cheeks, telling me how cute I was, and thinking ‘Who are these people?’” Pelletier said. It was the presence of so many relatives in his life that peaked his curiosity about family relationships and ancestry.
Pelletier would later discover that his father’s family, among the first settlers in the area, have ties to Fort Kent back to 1814, and his on mother’s side back to the 1830s. Chad is the son of Edmond and Peggy (Theriault) Pelletier, who live on the Frenchville road in Fort Kent.
Although he did not formally study history in school, he said he did pay attention in his history courses, especially for how things connected back to Fort Kent. This interest has been with him ever since, and he has become a driving force behind several new projects to preserve and share local history.
As a Boy Scout working at the Fort Kent Blockhouse, a National Historic Landmark, he would retell familiar tales to those visitors to the historic site. This brief summary of local history was not always accurate, though, as Pelletier learned later.
“As I got older, I found out that some of those stories were not necessarily true,” Pelletier said. He became intensely interested in what the actual facts were, even if they did not make for good tourist stories. So he began reading and researching, and asking lots of questions, especially of those people who had a living memory of the past.
“I learned most of this history on my own. I read everything I could possibly get my hands on,” said Pelletier. Along with checking facts from sources such as baptismal records and Census reports, he spoke with many residents and local historians.
From this hobby, Pelletier, at age 36, has grown into a respected expert of Fort Kent history, and a person who loves to share that with others. Sitting down with him and a stack of old photographs results in learning something new, as he goes through faces, names, buildings, and long forgotten locations around Fort Kent, with an expertise usually reserved for an older generation.
Pelletier, whose full-time career is as a private duty nurse, also finds time to teach and write about local history. He has taught classes for the St John Valley Senior College and has contributed to several pamphlets and booklets, most recently a book on the 100th anniversary of the St Louis Church in Fort Kent.
Having worked with the local historical society for years, Pelletier has been its president since October 2010. The latest projects for Pelletier and the historical society, and likely its largest to date, are the renovations and reconstructions taking place at the site of the Dube House, on the corner of East Main and Dube streets.
The group still has some interior work ongoing inside the Dube House itself. The Dube family, who had the house moved years ago from a location behind where Rite Aid is now located, was a well-to-do farming family involved in buckwheat production, according to Pelletier.
Other activities clearly visible at the site include renovating the old barn and reconstructing a one-room schoolhouse, based on the Washington School, previously located and now abandoned on New Canada Road, several miles outside of town.
“The old barn had been rebuilt in 1949, with pieces from the original 1860s barn,” Pelletier said. But because the sills were laid directly on the ground, it had sunk almost three feet below grade, he said. The historical society has been able to lift it up and pour a concrete slab underneath. Further renovations will include donated pieces from a barn in Wallagrass, of the same era. Along with the renovated barn, Pelletier and the group are planning an exhibit area in the attached shed.
“We will have displays of logging tools, including early chainsaws, and agricultural tools too,” he said.
The old Washington School, which the group took possession over several years ago, had been planned to be moved to the new site as well. But, according to Pelletier, it was degraded to such a state that it was no longer practical to do so.
“My father, who is a carpenter, said it could be moved, but it may not make it all the way. So rather than spend $5,000 on moving it, we decided to spend the money on creating an exact replica,” said Pelletier.
The group has taken many photos of the school, inside and out, and has done its research, so that the replica will be a faithful one. Construction has already begun with a concrete foundation poured at the back of the site.
According to Pelletier, some grant monies, along with many hours of volunteer labor, have gone into all the work at the site. Donations are always welcome by the historical society, Pelletier adds, especially money. For more information about the society, call 834-5354.
“We have a lot of artifacts, almost too many in fact,” said Pelletier, with a chuckle. “That is one of the reasons we are trying to make more space, so we can display the pieces.”
The work will not stop there for Pelletier, however. He has plans for displays on the history of funeral customs in the area, as well as soldiers from the town and surrounding communities who served in the Civil War.
Over his years, Pelletier has gotten a sense for how the role and identity of Fort Kent has changed throughout the decades and centuries.
“The relationship of Fort Kent to the rest of the world has changed over the years,” he said. “At first, we were on the international scene for years, with the various disputes about the international border. Fort Kent was very prominent.”
Since that time, Pelletier says that the area went through a period where it receded into the background, and became a “sleepy town.”
“Then we had the University open in 1878, the railroads arrived in 1902, and sportsman started to come here as well,” he said. Which brings us to today, where Fort Kent is once again on the international scene with attractions such as Biathlon World Cup events and the Can-Am sled dog races.
Pelletier said that he has had interest in local history, and his family roots, for as long as he can remember. This has served to strengthen his connection to Fort Kent, and preserve that history for others.