Nearly a century of history is now on display in a Presque Isle hotel

1 month ago

A 90-year-old Presque Isle landmark is full of stories, and LeRae Kinney hatched a plan to share them with the community.

Kinney is CEO of the nonprofit Ignite Presque Isle, which bought the Northeastland Hotel in 2021. She and staff have assembled newspaper clippings, photographs and memorabilia into a timeline display that takes viewers from the hotel’s opening in 1932 to today.

The Northeastland has towered over Presque Isle’s Main Street for almost a century, welcoming people from all over Maine and beyond. Ignite PI formed an ambitious goal not only to renovate the building, but to reinvigorate the downtown by making the hotel a community hub. Part of the group’s mission was to find some way to preserve what the hotel has meant to people over the years.

“These are treasures, and that’s what we’re trying to capture,” Kinney said. “The history includes all these stories — the stories of people who live here and the impact the hotel has had on their lives.”

Located in the lobby just before the ballroom entrance, the display has three shelves about 10 feet long, which showcase dozens of framed news clippings and vintage photographs. Interspersed are memorabilia like matchbooks, dining room menus, a uniform shirt and dishes from the former Cafe Rouge, once one of the area’s fanciest dining rooms.

A new timeline display in the lobby of the Northeastland Hotel in Presque Isle features photos and memorabilia from the hotel’s 1932 opening to today. (Paula Brewer | The Star-Herald)

One of the largest clippings is from the hotel’s 1932 opening celebration. There are photos of business gatherings and musical performances, souvenirs from the launch celebration for the Double Eagle II balloon and even a vintage sing-along booklet.

Among the other news items are accounts of when the Coffee Shop restaurant opened in 1950, the addition of a 38-room wing in 1954 and the acquisition of the hotel by the Hedrich family of Presque Isle in 1986, from whom Ignite PI bought the building.

For Kinney, who taught history for 16 years at Presque Isle High School, it was a labor of love. As she sifted through photographs, documents and objects, she thought about different ways to bring the past to life.

She loves the idea of visual timelines and how they illustrate periods in history, she said. Using different elements and objects also lets people touch something from decades ago, letting them interact with a display.

“I always used to tell my students, kind of in jest, that all roads lead to Aroostook County,” Kinney said. “The more I embed myself in this property, the more I see that’s true.”

After researching many different timeline displays and experimenting with some of the elements, Kinney enlisted the help of hotel maintenance staff to construct the shelves. 

She collected vintage frames and three-dimensional letters and numbers, to spell “1932” and “today.” She didn’t have a set plan, but the wall evolved as staff and community members offered input, she said. 

There are so many more artifacts that Kinney envisions the wall as something that will change periodically. There’s room for it to grow into a floor-to-ceiling display, she said.

Against a backdrop of vintage photographs, a silver teapot, two Cafe Rouge mugs and a plate are displayed at the Northeastland Hotel in Presque Isle. (Paula Brewer | The Star-Herald)

Though the downtown and the hotel have had brushes with fame — including appearances by Eleanor Roosevelt, Clark Gable and John F. Kennedy, to name a few — Kinney opted not to include celebrities on the wall at this time because she wanted it to be about local people.

People from all over the country travel to Presque Isle for business or pleasure, and often share a childhood memory or special connection that links them to the Northeastland, she said. 

Most of the contractors who worked on the hotel renovations came from within Maine, she said. One of them told her he remembered coming to Aroostook County with his father and grandfather each fall. They would stay at the Northeastland before heading to the North Maine Woods to hunt.

Another man shared that he had proposed to his wife during an event at the hotel, and the couple celebrated their wedding there. They returned recently to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary at the hotel’s restaurant, Rodney’s at 436 Main. 

“Those stories are touching, and help make this entire project worth it,’ Kinney said. “I mean Ignite PI and how we’ve attached our community mission to the hotel.”

Ignite PI CEO LeRae Kinney points out a small news clipping that forms part of a new history display in the lobby of the Northeastland Hotel in Presque Isle. (Paula Brewer | The Star-Herald)

The nonprofit’s goal has been to revitalize Presque Isle’s downtown, in part by finding out what local people want. Efforts have included the restaurant, business center, art gallery and its newest offering, The Lounge. Launched on Jan. 1 in the basement ballroom area, the space features local music and karaoke in a safe atmosphere, Kinney said.

Ignite PI wants the hotel to remain the heart of the community and give people a reason to visit downtown, she said. 

The history wall is already a draw, she said. The vintage items and photos of people inspire many comments, and residents have often pointed out parents or grandparents in the pictures. People love to page through the sing-along booklet and marvel at the 1936 Christmas menu, where multiple courses are listed for $1.25 — including roast stuffed green goose and English plum pudding. 

That and other vintage menus are even inspiring restaurant staff, who eventually want to recreate some of those dishes, Kinney said.

As the timeline display evolves, she hopes more people will share their input and stories. What she most wants is to see the Northeastland rekindled for a new generation.

“Sometimes we forget that cool things happen here,” she said. “I hope the wall is a reminder of that, and that we can evolve and change and still remain relevant.”