CARIBOU, Maine — Seven decades ago there was no talent competition, no swimsuits and hardly a pageant, but in 1935 Helen Barnes was crowned the very first Miss Caribou.

“There was nothing to it,” Barnes, 97, said Saturday morning at a tea honoring all former Miss Caribous. “My neighbor said I should enter, so I just put my name in and whoever was doing the voting voted for me.”

Barnes and 26 fellow former Caribou queens were the guests of the Caribou Lionesses and Beta Sigma Phi Sorority, which hosted the event as part of the city’s 150th anniversary celebration this weekend.

“I remember we wore little tops and shorts and there was an evening gown event,” Vivian Sandstrom Merritt, Miss Caribou 1947, said. “It’s not like it is now; back then it was no big thing.”

While Barnes entered the first competition on the encouragement of a neighbor, Sandstrom-Merritt said it came down strictly to numbers for her.

“There were 13 girls who wanted to do it, but no one wanted to be number 13,” she said with a laugh. “I said I’d do it and I won.”

For Darcie McElwee-Leighton, Miss Caribou 1991, the event offered an unprecedented opportunity.

“This is the first time we have hosted an event of this size,” she said. “It is so nice to have all these lovely ladies here today.”

McElwee-Leighton said the whole attraction of pageants such as Miss Caribou starts when a woman is a little girl and goes beyond the notion of frills and fairytales.

“I never thought of this as a beauty pageant,” she said. “It’s more about who you are as a person.”

McElwee-Leighton, who was also the 1991 Potato Blossom Queen, went on to become a successful U.S. attorney.

“The whole Miss Caribou experience really gave me a lot of confidence and ability to speak in public and in front of those juries,” she said. “Just look at these ladies here today. It is clear there is still a sense of pride in having been Miss Caribou, and one has a crown here older than I am.”

Kirsten Bell Albair took her 1968 Miss Caribou title all the way to the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City.

“Yes, it was right there with Bert Parks,” she said of the national pageant. “I remember it was a lot of work and a lot of rehearsals.”

After the tea, the former Miss Caribous participated in the city’s 150th celebration parade — where, just before that event’s start, it was controlled chaos spanning three large parking lots.

“This is just awesome,” Kathy Mazzuchelli, parade co-chairwoman, said as she directed floats, bands, cars and even horses to their designated start sites. “We have 140 units participating [and] everyone knows this is a special parade.”

Among them was Dennis Anderson of Anderson’s Auto in New Sweden and the homemade plane he modeled after one featured in the James Bond movie “Octopussy.”

“I’ve been flying since 1983,” Anderson said. “I hope to get this one out for a test run in a couple of weeks.”

Nearby, Nancy Chandler worked to tie balloons to her float representing the planned Caribou Children’s Discovery Museum.

“We wanted to raise awareness and support for the museum,” Chandler said. “Plus, this is so much fun and so many people are involved.”

Among the celebrities taking part in the festivities were U.S. Senator and Caribou native Susan Collins along with her father, Donald Collins.

Riding in a custom-built gondola was Joseph Kittinger who 25 years ago completed his solo trans-Atlantic hot air balloon flight from Caribou to Italy.

The city’s birthday bash this weekend included concerts, barbecues and a giant fireworks display.

“A parade like this, it’s all about the kids,” Jean Dodd, Anderson’s friend, said.

“And I’m probably the biggest kid out here,” Anderson said from the other side of his airplane.

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.