Is it a moose? Is it a reindeer? No, it’s Cary the Caribou

10 years ago

HOULTON, Maine — You know Dasher, and Dancer, and Prancer, and Vixen, Comet, and Cupid, and Donner and Blitzen, and of course you recall the most famous reindeer of all — Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer.
But, have you met their northern cousin, Cary?

When driving by, the scene looks very customary for Christmas. Cary the Caribou is hooked to a vintage sleigh on Ronnie Stauffer and Dan Milbauer’s lawn on Main Street in Houlton. The decorations are saturated with Aroostook County history though they seem very traditional for the time of season.
Dan and Ronnie purchased the sleigh in 2009 from Dave and Karen Cohen. This type of sleigh was manufactured in the 1880s by a gentleman named Silas W. Taber. He was a carriage maker/mechanic/blacksmith.
“It was my original plan to put the sleigh on display in front of our house in the wintertime,” Dan explained. “I am very interested in preserving a lot of the older items here. Wagons and sleighs are pretty rare considering how many thousands were in northern Maine ‘in the day.’”
When the sleigh became available, Dan did not let the opportunity slip by to bring it home.
The story of the sleigh and its partner came together in 2010 when Dan and Ronnie purchased an antique store in Monticello, and started Aroostook County Pickers Antiques.
Cary the Caribou, which is named after the Cary family of Houlton, lay disassembled in a back room of the antique shop.
Not knowing too much about it, Dan asked the prior owners if they knew anything about its history, but they couldn’t shed any light on it.
He later discovered from speaking with customers, that during a Caribou Chamber of Commerce promotion in 2001, merchants received a “blank” caribou statue and were encouraged to paint and decorate the pieces to attract shoppers to their stores. The caribou are actually modified archery targets
“This one was displayed at the Chamber of Commerce,” said Dan. “I met the young woman who initially painted the caribou. I had the caribou outside of my antique store and she stopped when she saw it out front.”
Cary is painted brown and features the state of Maine, with different cities designated, along with a compass symbol all in a pastel blue. After the Caribou celebration finished, Cary went for a visit to southern Maine to help promote Maine tourism and has also been featured on the cover of the Maine Magazine.
“After I heard of its history, I assembled the parts and put it out in front of the store,” said Dan. “Customers loved it and would stop and talk about it. Then it occurred to me one day, well, I have a sleigh, I have a caribou (reindeer species). Why not put them together, throw on a harness and blanket and put presents in the sleigh? So, Cary now has a home and is ready to help Santa, if needed, on Christmas Eve, too.”
Dan and Ronnie have been putting the collectible pair on the front lawn for about three or four years.
“Folks like it,” said Dan. “We have had a few people who stop with their children, put them in the sleigh, and take a couple of pictures. Even though it is freezing cold and they have to dig out the snow. But, they don’t seem to mind. It is a big hit and we like it.”
But, Cary’s exterior is aging and needs some attention.
“We are hoping we can eventually get a hold of the young lady who had painted it and have her touch it up,” said Dan. “We would like to repaint it and cover it with a nice varnish coat.”
Dan and Ronnie also change their scenery in the spring and summer to feature a doctor’s buggy, which may have been built by the same gentleman as the sleigh. There were only a couple of people who made them in the area.
The reason Dan and Ronnie acquired the buggy was to correspond with the Lawlis family, who owned Dan and Ronnie’s home for more than 100 years.
“Mrs. Lawlis had a horse named Billy. And most of the folks in town, who were here in the 1940s and ‘50s remember every Sunday after church, she would hook up Billy with the buggy and go for a ride around town,” Dan said. “We have a photo of Billy above one of the stalls inside the barn. There was also a story done on him back a long time ago, so we wanted to find a two-seat buggy of the same model she drove to display.”
So, with the old-fashioned open sleigh and Cary, Dan and Ronnie are preserving two pieces of Aroostook County history and are allowing community members a chance to share the memories. Dan and Ronnie do not mind people stopping by. But, they would like people to be considerate and not just climb on the sleigh without permission.
“Just ring the doorbell,” said Dan, “and we’ll come out.”
That is the most courteous thing to do if the owners are not around.