The Star-Herald

The Star-Herald’s top news stories of 2021, part 2

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 half was published on Dec. 29.

July

For many people who visited the historic James School, hearing the Declaration of Independence spoken aloud was like traveling back in time and realizing the struggles that led to the founding of the United States. The James School board hosted its sixth annual reading of the Declaration. After the raising of the American flag, John Herweh, talent manager at MMG Insurance Co., served as this year’s reader. 

A summer camp that focuses on STEM-based activities returned to help empower the next generation of inventors. Camp Invention, a program of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, brought back in-person activities to the University of Maine at Presque Isle’s Campus Center after a fully virtual program in 2020. Camp director Sarah Sines noted that although Camp Invention offered virtual and in-person options this summer, all 43 students chose to attend in person. That number far surpasses the 11 students from Aroostook who took part last year. 

 Canada has taken its first steps toward relaxing its strict border closure with the United States, ending quarantine requirements for family members, dual citizens and others who qualify to travel across. Though it renewed the non-essential travel ban until at least the end of July, Canada announced that starting July 5 it would ease restrictions on those already eligible to cross. It marks the first time in 15 months that dual citizens and those with family in Canada can travel without quarantining, provided they meet the Canadian government’s requirements for entry. But the remaining restrictions are too great a hurdle for some, even with family waiting on the other side.

Danny Dufour (right) gets ready to throw a bag during the Maine Potato Blossom Festival corn hole tournament on July 10 while Andrew Forsman looks on. (Melissa Lizotte | The Star-Herald)

 Cars lined the streets of Fort Fairfield, as hundreds of people celebrated the return of one of Aroostook’s most beloved summer festivals. The Maine Potato Blossom Festival kicked off with an array of activities, including the annual town-wide yard sales, the Central Aroostook Chamber of Commerce’s Smokin’ BBQ Cookoff and the first-ever corn hole tournament. As early as 8:30 a.m., people browsed various yard sales in search of treasures. Pat Troicke and her family sold toys, games, clothes, books and other items outside her business, Pat’s Sewing Room, on Presque Isle Street. She said being part of the town yard sale is an annual tradition for her family. 

 Norman Trask, an attorney working in Presque Isle, was driving his black Ford F-150 truck in the city when he stopped at the Star City IGA supermarket to pick up a few things on his way home. But before he could even make his way into the store, somebody jumped into his truck and drove off with it. Unbeknownst to the thief, inside Trask’s car was a 5-year-old Bernese mountain dog named Finn, who Trask occasionally brings to work with him from his home in Easton. The dog eventually made it home with the help of people on social media.

August

Hot air balloons soared above Presque Isle and surrounding communities during the Crown of Maine Balloon Festival. After reducing the festival to small-scale events last summer, the committee welcomed 11 pilots to the region. The pilots offered flights, as well as tethered rides and balloon glows at the Northern Maine Fairgrounds. Morning and afternoon mass ascensions of balloons occurred throughout the weekend of Aug. 26-29. Other events included the craft and vendor fair, live music from bands Guilty Pleasure and Star City Syndicate and a meet and greet with balloon pilots. 

Fern Desjardins knew from the time she was a first-grader at Memorial School in the tiny town of St. Agatha that she wanted to become a teacher. Not only did she achieve this goal, but Desjardins was recently named chair of the Maine State Board of Education. Desjardins, 69, was inspired to follow her career path in the way many children are, by school teachers of her own.

After one year without the Northern Maine Fair, people in central Aroostook were more than ready to head to the fairgrounds and check out the family activities and agricultural events that have become community staples. Though the opening night on Aug. 5 began with rain showers, that did not stop at least 200 people from coming out and enjoying the activities.

When Cheryl Morris thinks of her son Adam MacDonald, she remembers the joy he felt while giving back to the community. These days Morris is honoring her son’s memory by contributing to one of his most cherished causes: the Stuff the Bus school supply drive hosted by Aroostook County Action Program and United Way of Aroostook. MacDonald died in April at the age of 35 after dealing with the challenges of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy for most of his life. For several years prior to MacDonald’s death, he and his mother shopped for backpacks and school supplies and donated their purchases to Stuff the Bus.

 After being canceled last year due to the pandemic, the 26th annual Mawiomi of Tribes, hosted by the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, will took place Aug. 27-29. Mawiomi, which translates to “gathering” in the Micmac language, will feature traditional drumming and dancing ceremonies, powwows, food and craft vendors and a community meal at Spruce Haven in Caribou. The activities focus on celebrating Micmac heritage and allowing tribal and community members to connect through the culture.

September

SAD 45 in Washburn became the latest school district in Aroostook County to switch from optional to mandatory masking after an emergency vote by the school board on Aug. 31. The mask mandate passed with a 6-1 vote, with Ashli Bisson voting “no” and Bev Thomas choosing to abstain after expressing disapproval of the CDC mask recommendations. All but two of the 10 school board members were present for the meeting, held at the elementary school gym.

 Presque Isle councilors unanimously approved two different measures that would allow for more vehicle services at the Presque Isle International Airport. Airport director Scott Wardwell began by informing councilors about “ride-hailing services” such as Uber and Lyft that were operating at the airport prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. When those services first became available, Wardwell said, the airport did not officially announce regulations, opting to see whether the market for such services would grow in Presque Isle.

The Northern Maine Readiness Center, located on 6 Edgemont Drive, is now the headquarters for the Maine Army National Guard’s 185th Engineer Support Company. (Melissa Lizotte | The Star Herald)

A new Maine Army National Guard center three years in the making formally opened its doors to the Presque Isle community on Friday. The $18.3 million center is Presque Isle’s first Guard facility since 1950, and will serve as the home base for 75 of the 100 soldiers in the 185th Engineer Support Company, according to Commander Evan Richards. The 185th also has a detachment of 40 soldiers in Houlton who will train alongside those in Presque Isle.

There are two new faces at Presque Isle’s Subway store – owner Khalid Qureshey and manager Summer Carroll – both of whom are striving to provide job opportunities for community members and a positive atmosphere for those who visit. Qureshey and Carroll assumed their new roles after longtime owner John Dufour retired late in the summer. Prior to moving to Presque Isle, Qureshey worked for 27 years as an employee or manager at restaurants such as Burger King, Long John Silver’s and IHOP, most recently in Maryland.

For nearly 20 years, thousands of people have traveled to Aroostook County for the sole purpose of seeing the largest 3D model of the solar system in the western hemisphere. Now the Maine Office of Tourism and the University of Maine at Presque Isle are taking steps to draw even more visitors to the Maine Solar System Model, which stretches 100 miles from the Sun on the UMPI campus to the Eris dwarf planet in Topsfield.

October

People in Fort Kent live just minutes from the Canadian border, separated only by the St. John River. But in order to enter Canada, they must travel 100 miles in the opposite direction and back again. That’s because Aroostook, Maine’s largest county and where most of its residents live near the Canadian border, has only one town – Houlton – that offers COVID-19 testing sites to travelers.

Workers from Butler Farms watch a bin piler unload thousands of potatoes into a former military storage facility at Loring Development Center. Hannah Catlin | Aroostook Republic

After nearly three decades of vacancy, the warehouses and airplane hangars of the former Loring Air Force Base have acquired new tenants – millions of freshly harvested Aroostook County potatoes. The potatoes are as out of place as they look at Loring – which has been largely vacant since the military shut the base down in the mid-1990s and it was reinvented as Loring Development Authority. The County’s potato farmers storing their crops there have never had to do so in the past, but the yield from this year’s harvest is so large that many farmers have had to get creative with stashing their spuds. 

If you were in Mars Hill Saturday and saw people in traditional German costume – the short pants called lederhosen and full dirndl skirts – you were witnessing The County’s Oktoberfest, an homage to fun, food and, of course, beer. The first-of-its kind event drew nearly 200 people to the Legacy Ranch and Event Center in Mars Hill. Turnout was so strong that people are already planning for next year

Despite its rural setting and high poverty rates, Aroostook County is leading the state when it comes to pre-kindergarten enrollment. Though enrollment declined statewide during the pandemic, more Aroostook parents opted for public education than any other part of the state, by a wide margin. Local and state experts say easy access and public investment are a big part of Aroostook’s success. Now legislators and advocates are turning to The County as an example of how public pre-K could expand throughout the state. 

No one deserves to be a victim of domestic violence. That was the message a group of more than 20 advocates, volunteers and community members hoped to spread across The Star City during the Hope and Justice Project’s annual Walk It Up Presque Isle. Prior to the group’s walk, Hope and Justice staff members Mariya Pelletier and Stephen Thibbert read stories from an anonymous survivor of domestic violence as well as a poem about the importance of men not being bystanders to violence.

November

The Presque Isle City Council voted Wednesday to approve Jonathan Martin for a medical marijuana license, making him the city’s seventh cannabis retailer. The city’s list of marijuana businesses has expanded rapidly in less than two years, with four operating now and three more on the way. Councilors first approved the licensing of marijuana shops in January 2020, wanting to tap into the growing industry for its economic benefits. Now the question is whether each of them will get enough business to remain viable.

During the downtime caused by the 2020 pandemic, a local restaurant owner and crew did the only thing that made sense: they changed course. “We pivoted. We locked ourselves in and just went to work,” Michael Stiggle, owner of Timberwolves Restaurant in Mars Hill, said. That work has put them on the Maine food production map, with statewide distribution of their housemade barbecue sauce and the creation of a health elixir that is among finalists in a national competition. In Stiggle’s eyes, it’s all due to divine inspiration and Aroostook County values.

Aroostook County residents from Allagash to Presque Isle woke Monday morning to find large snowflakes falling fast, and sticking to the ground. The National Weather Service issued northern Maine’s first winter weather advisory of the season as a result of the snowfall, which could reach up to 5 inches in areas of high terrain and 2 to 4 inches in lower lying areas. While snowflakes about three inches in diameter were being reported in Presque Isle, Mars Hill — located about 15 miles south — was experiencing rainfall.

Larry Berz, planetarium director for the Francis Malcolm Science Center, (left), and MSSM graduate Connor St. Peter pose next to the 20-inch Dobsonian telescope inside the Center’s new observatory. (Melissa Lizotte | The Star Herald)

The Francis Malcolm Science Center will soon be able to travel to faraway planets and galaxies all without leaving Earth. The Science Center now features a 20- by 24-foot wide and 16-foot tall observatory with a 20-inch Dobsonian telescope and 24-foot-wide roll top roof. The observatory is the first of its kind to be available to the public in Aroostook County. In 2020, Connor St. Peter, now a graduate of the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone, designed the observatory as a Boy Scout project to achieve his Eagle Scout rank. St. Peter, a native of Kenduskeag, supervised the building of the observatory, which was completed this past summer by volunteers and Science Center board members.

In May 2019, the Presque Isle Police Department lost seven of its 21 officers to other departments and federal jobs. More than two years later, the department has 16 out of its goal of 20 officers on staff. Over the last two years, Presque Isle has had problems retaining police officers, who were drawn to other departments for a variety of reasons, including benefits and location. Thanks to new efforts by the department over the last year, retention is improving. The department has been stuck in a loop of hiring new candidates, giving them the proper training and then losing them to other departments, becoming what Presque Isle Police Chief Laurie Kelly calls “a training ground.” 

December

Josh Stahl has never been one to shy away from the great outdoors. What started out as a childhood interest quickly turned into Stahl’s passion. Now, at only 30 years old, Stahl is living out his dream job working in Presque Isle. Stahl is the outdoor program director for the Presque Isle Recreation and Parks department. He started in March 2020, and since then, he has made it his mission to share his passion for the outdoors with the Presque Isle community.

A crowd gathers outside Hub Coffee in Presque Isle Saturday, Dec. 4, after a fun run before the Holiday Light Parade. (David DiMinno | The Star-Herald)

 

The sweet scent of hot chocolate wafted through the crisp December air as Presque Isle’s 32nd annual Holiday Light Parade lit up Main Street. The Central Aroostook Chamber of Commerce hosted the event, which featured 50 sparkling floats and vehicles along with marchers spreading candy and holiday cheer to the hundreds of onlookers lining the sidewalks.

Snowflakes are glistening in store windows, shelves are brimming with merchandise and businesses are humming with customers. After COVID-19 threw the shopping season into chaos last year –  when stores had to alter how they did business or close entirely – merchants in Aroostook County’s economic hub said they feel prepared for 2021, whether it’s musical instruments or Mainemade brews.

The nonprofit ski area Big Rock Mountain has big plans to increase the number of skiers using its slopes. Big Rock Mountain launched a $2.9 million capital campaign to replace the double chairlift on the ski mountain with a quad lift. The goal is to double the capacity of mountain goers, make Big Rock more appealing to a larger market of skiers and shorten the lift ride to the top of the mountain. Big Rock saw a 30 percent increase in pass holders in the last ski season, and anticipates that number to grow.

 The ringing of the Wintergreen Express’s bell called families to climb aboard on a journey to the “North Pole” over the weekend. “Seeing all the kids’ expressions while doing this makes everything worth it,” said trolley driver Herman Legassie. The Wintergreen Express returned to Presque Isle Dec. 10-12, allowing families to take trips on the trolley to view lights throughout the city and then visit the Wintergreen Arts Center — aka the North Pole — to decorate cookies, drink hot chocolate and even meet Santa himself. 

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