The Star-Herald’s year in news, Part 1

2 years ago

The following is the first of two articles highlighting some of the top news stories from 2021. This article highlights events from January to June. The second installment will be published Jan. 5.


A fire destroyed the main building at the Maine Department of Transportation’s Fort Fairfield facility early Jan. 3. Fort Fairfield Fire and Rescue Department responded to the fire call at the DOT garage at 86 High St. at 3:20 a.m. The fire also destroyed two trucks, a backhoe and several other smaller pieces of equipment that were inside the garage.

A Jan. 3, 2021, fire destroyed the main building at the MaineDOT facility in Fort Fairfield. (Courtesy of MaineDOT)

The new $18.3 million Maine National Guard building in Presque Isle will officially open this spring, according to a Guard spokesperson. Construction crews are putting the finishing touches on the Northern Maine Readiness Center, located on a 10-acre plot at 6 Edgemont Drive, and expect to complete the work in February. The Readiness Center will be the primary location for four full-time staff members and at least 70 of the 100 soldiers in the 185th Engineer Support Company

A multi-million-dollar solar farm project is expected to generate large annual electric savings for the city of Presque Isle and nearby industrial companies who take part in the project. The Minnetonka, Minnesota-based National Renewable Solutions is developing plans for two solar farms at Skyway Industrial Park, each located on a 15-acre parcel of land near the Presque Isle International Airport. Construction should begin in late spring and be completed by the end of autumn, senior solar developer Brad Wilson said. 


Like the thousands of people who turned out for Presque Isle’s first series of COVID-19 vaccination clinics at NorthernMaine Community College, Brenda Devoe of Washburn, 71, has dealt with her fair share of loneliness and isolation throughout the pandemic. “I have a daughter and granddaughter who work at the hospital [in Presque Isle] and another granddaughter who works in a store. My daughter has been bringing my groceries and leaving them on the porch. They don’t want to risk infecting me,” Devoe said, just hours after receiving her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine

Brenda Devoe (left) of Washburn receives her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine during the first public clinic at NMCC in January 2021. (Courtesy of Northern Light AR Gould)

Redflag laws, invasive gun registration initiatives and a growing fear of proposed legislative firearms restrictions have spawned a burgeoning Second Amendment sanctuary movement intent on preserving the “right to keep and bear arms.” And while there are only two such designated towns in Maine — Fort Fairfield and Paris — more local governments are considering passing gun sanctuary resolutions.

Between the pandemic and a decrease in the amount of seasonal snowfall, ski areas in central Aroostook have dealt more than ever with the need to adapt to the current situation and hope for the best. Though the Mars Hill-based Big Rock Ski Area originally planned to open in mid-December, too many of the 29 trails lacked the sufficient amount of snow and smooth skiing conditions necessary for people’s safety. Instead, BigRock began opening some trails after the NewYear, causing the nonprofit to miss out on revenue from Christmas break, traditionally one of its strongest weeks.

Rachel Burden, a resident of Leisure Village in Presque Isle, celebrated her 100th birthday on Feb. 18 by doing what she loves best – spending time with family and sharing stories that span from her childhood to her post-retirement days as a locally published writer. Though the pandemic made a large indoor gathering impossible, Burden’s birthday still was filled with the joy of seeing family and friends. That afternoon, people from the Mapleton Baptist Church stood outside with a banner that said “Happy 100th Birthday, Rachel,” as they sang “Happy Birthday.”

On a warm summer day in July 2016, then 13-year-old Jacob Williams woke up to find Fort Fairfield Police Chief Shawn Newell ready to take him on a surprise trip to the police station. But the teen was not in trouble, as he initially thought. Instead, Newell presented Williams with a brand-new bicycle to replace Williams’ old bicycle that had broken. The police department had received the bicycle from an elementary school student who won it but already had one.


Fort Fairfield’s Second Amendment sanctuary designation does not mean the town will interfere with law enforcement, according to Town Manager Andrea Powers. The Fort Fairfield town council unanimously passed a resolution in late January declaring the town a Second Amendment Sanctuary for gun owners.

Sometimes it is in the music that a voice is heard. Sometimes it is in the beat of a poem that the heart responds. And sometimes it is in the chanted words that change begins. In a virtual poetry slam, Black Slam, the University of Maine at Presque Isle Black Students Union members, students from Orono and others shared poetry in an interactive experience that BSU president Ines Ngoga said led to spontaneous sharing by those involved.

More than 200 people stopped by Riverside Drive on Thursday for the Aroostook Agency on Aging and Catholic Charities’ monthly commodity food distribution in March. (Melissa Lizotte | The Star-Herald)

 Though the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about many additional food distribution events throughout Aroostook County, one program that began years before is still going strong thanks to a partnership between Aroostook Agency on Aging and Catholic Charities of Maine. The Agency’s Commodity Supplemental Food Program began in 2012 to help budget conscious senior citizens who are on fixed Social Security incomes. Every month volunteers from the agency and Catholic Charities partner to distribute food in locations across Aroostook County.

 Ever since art galleries in Maine closed to the public in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, artists with County roots have used nontraditional avenues to showcase their work and connect with fellow artists. Presque Isle native Daniel Sipe, who now lives in Norway in western Maine, recently launched a new online gallery, Lights Out, with co-founders Reed McLean of Norway and Karle Woods of Belfast. Through the Lights Out Facebook and Instagram pages, YouTube channel and soon to be launched website, they hope to create virtual platforms for artists throughout Maine to post photographs of their work and connect with each other.

People and communities on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border are anxiously waiting to find out when they can be reunited with family and friends and regain cross-border customers for their businesses. Now politicians on both sides of the aisle, and the border, have begun to speak up about the issue as the one-year anniversary of the border closure approaches.


Whether she is on her way to work or traveling across the country, Janice Santos of Perham always has her camera on hand, ready to snap photos of the next image or scene that captures her attention. Though Santos grew up in East Freetown, Massachusetts, a village near Cape Cod, she has lived in Aroostook County since 2004 and recently has rekindled her love for photography. On April 2, Santos showcased 45 photographs at Wintergreen’s First Friday Art Walk opening.

It took the efforts of an entire community to bring 1-year old Luna the pug home exactly a month after she ran off into the woods on the upper end of Academy Street in Presque Isle on March 5. “We were going to drop off a car,” said Luna’s human mom Charlotte Grotton, explaining that it was below zero and very windy that day. “The wind blew the door open and all the dogs ran out. I lost three of them.”

Like in real-life, the student EMS team gets the 911 call. A car has fallen on a man in the auto body shop, severing his leg. And the clock starts ticking for these emergency medical responders.They must decide what to do to stabilize and save him. For Northern Maine Community College emergency medical services students, just such scenarios happen regularly as part of their training, and when they make the wrong clinical decisions, the simulator patient deteriorates quickly. Bleeding can be profuse, pulses can get weak and thready, skin color turns blue. The thing is, if the patient dies, the students can try to save him again.

Tihtiyas Paul, 6, (far left) and Little Feathers Head Start student Ella Carmichael (right) dance with Pauochau and Sipsis Paul during the mini-Mawiomi. (Melissa Lizotte | The Star Herald)

Though their annual Mawiomi of Tribes was still months away, the Aroostook Band of Micmacs held a similar, smaller-scale event that aimed to connect children in their community with important cultural experiences. Little Feathers Head Start hosted the first “mini-Mawiomi,” an event they hope will become an annual tradition. Children from Little Feathers classes wore traditional regalia and took part in drumming, singing and dancing alongside teachers and adult members of the Micmac community. Glo Curtis, a teacher’s aide who helped coordinate the event, said that Little Feathers often incorporates Micmac language and cultural traditions into their preschool curriculum.

The unearthing begins with GPS mapping; with the logging of the latitude and longitude of each tombstone in 50 burial sites found in central Aroostook County. There are Irish cemeteries, Catholic cemeteries, small family plots, some with hard to decipher names and some large with more than 1,000 grave markers. The tombstone clues – a name, a date, an inscription – serve as waypoints for exhaustive research that begins to breathe life into an untold history of The County. Many of the stories are found through church records, death certificates, ship logs, probate records and census data.


The lure of more money and benefits has drained Aroostook County of many young adults for decades, but recent efforts between the businesses who need the workers and the postsecondary schools training them are giving graduates reasons to stay. With population declining and the median age rising, Aroostook County’s postsecondary schools shifted their focus in recent months from loose conversations with business leaders to a partnership model that gives students early career experiences. Rather than leaving students on their own for obtaining internships or other forms of on the-job training, colleges and employers are actively creating those opportunities for students throughout their time in academic programs

The University of Maine at Presque Isle celebrated its graduates virtually for the second time with a prerecorded video ceremony on May 8. Throughout the university 112th commencement, UMPI president Ray Rice invited students to take part in traditional aspects of graduation from their home, such as the turning of their tassels and throwing their caps into the air after receiving their degrees

On April 20, Presque Isle Police Sergeant Mark Barnes left the station after his final day on the job. Police chief Laurie Kelley drove Barnes home in his patrol car, the blue lights flashing as they stopped in front of his home. Police officers, firefighters, family and friends stood on both sides of the street and saluted Barnes as Kelley pulled up next to the driveway. Kelley and Barnes sat together in the car for several minutes as dispatcher Nicole Dyer listed Barnes’s many professional accomplishments and wished him best in his retirement, saying “You can finally call it a day.”

Whether they were picking fiddleheads, shopping at the farmers market or enjoying live music, people who attended Presque Isle’s first Fiddlehead Festival Saturday agreed on one thing: it’s good to get out again. “This is the first time I’ve been back since COVID started,” noted Becca Roe, a Presque Isle native who traveled from Oklahoma to visit family. Roe was one of a dozen people who started the day with a bird watching tour around “Mary’s Mile,” the one-mile loop around Riverside Drive and the community center.

When Emily Driscoll graduated from Washburn District High School in 2020, she was skeptical about whether there would be enough career opportunities locally after college. One year later, Driscoll has begun a full-time position at MMG Insurance as a claims representative and will continue working for the company as she earns her business administration degree from the University of Maine at Presque Isle.


Through many emotional speeches and music performances, Presque Isle High School’s Class of 2021 said goodbye while also looking forward to brighter futures ahead. On Saturday, 111 students sat outside their former middle school, on the same turf where many played soccer or cheered each other on during track meets. The outdoor ceremony, with its clear blue skies and warm, often strong, late spring winds, stood in stark contrast to the smaller graduation ceremonies that the pandemic forced upon last year’s class. 

Twenty-one students from Fort Fairfield High School said their final goodbyes on Sunday to the teachers and administrators who have helped shape much of their lives thus far. Under clear, sunny skies, the Class of 2021 marched onto the high school soccer field and sat facing family members and friends. The maskless, socially non-distanced audience was a welcome change, due to the pandemic that defined the students’ final school year.

Aroostook County has an ambulance problem. Costs for equipment and training are higher than ever, insurance reimbursement rates are lower than they were in the 1990s and nobody can fully staff their roster of paramedics. The state’s authority on emergency medical services, Maine EMS Board, is convening a working group this fall to discuss the future of ambulance services. Meanwhile, in The County, a few departments have taken matters into their own hands in a move that some officials say is untenable given the financial crisis the industry is experiencing.

What do a coffee shop, a ballroom and a racehorse have in common? In Presque Isle, the answer is simple: the iconic Northeastland Hotel on Main Street. The hotel has stood downtown for nearly 90 years. Generations of residents and visitors have gathered at its Coffee Shop, most recently known as the Sidewalk Cafe. The hotel’s Red Room, a large ballroom and dining area once called the Cafe Rouge, has seen countless wedding receptions, class reunions, meetings — and even the 2004 moose lottery.