Part IV: Acadian Village, living history
Brought to you by the Inn of Acadia
What makes a place special? What gives a place its character and its uniqueness? Sometimes it’s geographical features, sometimes it’s a large population and tall sky scrapers, but more often, it is history and culture – and few places in this country are as rich in both as the St. John Valley. A person only needs to visit the region once to know the truth in that statement. The moment you enter the Valley from any direction, you will begin to see signs (literally and figuratively) that you have arrived at an extraordinary place – a place where you’re likely to see red, white, and blue on more than just the American flag. A corner of the country where culture runs so thick and deep in a people so proud that bilingualism is not only encouraged, but celebrated, and where the people wear their heritage on their sleeves.
The people of Acadian ancestry who inhabit the St. John Valley are the heart of the cultural experience here. They are the descendants of Acadians from France who settled first in the area now known as Nova Scotia until 1755 when the English government forcefully removed them from their lands, scattering the Acadians in small groups up and down the Atlantic seacoast, and sending some back to France. While most were deported during what is now known as le grand dérangement, the Acadians who eventually settled the St. John Valley regions were actually refugees who managed to escape the deportation, heading inland. Eventually, after a failed attempt at resettlement in the Fredericton, New Brunswick region, they followed the St. John River until settling in St. David in 1785. There’s a popular historical site in St. David, located behind the St. David Catholic Church, marked by a cross, which is the supposed landing site of the first Acadian settlers to the St. John Valley
At the Acadian Village in Van Buren/Keegan, about 21 miles east of Inn of Acadia on U.S. Route 1, visitors can experience life as it was in the earlier days of the Acadian settlement in the St. John Valley. The village opened with four buildings on site in 1976 on land Mr. and Mrs. Charles Ayotte of Van Buren/Keegan had donated. Those buildings included the Morneault House, the Ouellette House, the Rossignol Barn and the Chapel. Today, more than a dozen historical structures have been relocated to the land, restored and preserved, providing visitors with the opportunity to take a walk through time back to the earlier days of Acadian life in the St. John Valley.
Each building on the site has been carefully furnished with historical artifacts appropriate to the time period of the structure. Heritage Vivant, a living heritage society in Van Buren, built the village, which has earned recognition as a Historic National Landmark and is one of the largest historical sites in Maine.
The oldest building on the site is the Roy House, which, according to the Acadian Village website, is thought to date back to the 1790s, making it one of the earliest houses in the St. John Valley. The floor is dirt, as was normal living conditions in the early days. A fireplace was used for cooking and heating and a loft area served as sleeping quarters for the family, who slept on straw mattresses. It’s rough, but sturdy construction has stood the test of time. Philip and Leon Rossignol of Hamlin donated the building which was relocated to the village from Boniface Road. To move the structure, crews took it apart “log by log and reconstructed it on the site.” Standing in the center room of the Roy House, a person is transported way, way back to before electricity and plumbing was in every home, before modern convenience. The experience offers an extraordinary way to learn about history.
Other buildings at the village are historically newer, like the Morneault House built in 1857, or Hamlin Schoolhouse which ran as a school from the 1880s until 1942. All of the buildings, including a blacksmith’s shop, a shoemaker, an industrial building, a barn, a cathedral, and several others, contain extensive displays of machinery, tools of the trade, clothing, bedding, furniture, kitchen equipment, religious symbols, and/or many more artifacts.
In addition to the historical buildings, the Acadian Village offers a few modern conveniences for visitors too, like a souvenir shop, bathrooms, and a meeting house with fully equipped kitchen for parties and meals. Special events are often held at the village, with volunteers donning early era Acadian wear and serving up traditional Acadian foods, or offering demonstrations on the way things were done once upon a time.
The Acadian Village is open daily from noon to 5 p.m. from June 15 to September 15 (longer for special tour groups of ten or more people), so there’s still time to take in this experience. There is admission of $6 for adults and $3 for children required. Find out more about the Acadian Village by visiting its website at http://www.connectmaine.com/acadianvillage/general.html, or call (207) 868-5042.