FORT KENT, Maine — In 1964, Don Levesque was playing basketball with some buddies in Grand Isle when a neighbor rushed over saying they had to come right away to listen to a new record album.
Levesque’s memory of that day and hearing The Beach Boys’ “Little Deuce Coupe” were triggered recently when he saw a black and white aerial photograph that included the lot he played on next to the town’s barber shop.
The photo of the old A.J.Michaud International Harvester tractor garage across the street from the barber shop is among thousands taken in Aroostook County in the late 1950s through the 1960s by State Aerial Farms Statistics Inc., a company specializing in photographing rural America from above.
Triggering memories like Levesque’s are a big reason why Ohio-based Vintage Aerial is digitizing, scanning and making the old photographs available on social media sites, like Facebook.
“Our main goal is to preserve rural America and the parts of rural America that have been lost,” Nathan Lewis of Vintage Aerial said recently from the company’s Maumee, Ohio, headquarters. “We want to get the photos stored and get them shared.”
Back in 1952, Lewis’ grandfather Gale Astles, now 85, was one of those original pilots tasked with photographing the country’s farms, ranches and small towns.
Part fliers, part photographers, part navigators and part cartographers, the men had to do it all, according to Lewis.
“In the old days the pilot flew the plane, took the photos and drew the maps where the photos were taken all at the same time,” Lewis said. “It seems like a lot to do.”
Back on the ground, the film was processed and the photos turned over to door-to-door salesmen who tramped the back roads to the photo locations following the maps drawn by the pilots. On site, they attempted to convince the property owner to purchase copies of the images.
“My grandfather spent 50 years taking those photos,” Lewis said.
According to Lewis, State Aerial had pilot photographers like his grandfather all over the country and thanks to them, today Vintage Aerial has a library of more than 24 million vintage images of rural America from Maine to Oregon.
“There were other companies doing the same thing back then,” Lewis said. “Unlike most of those others, there was a woman — I think her name was Diane — in the office who insisted everything be saved not thrown out.”
In December, Vintage Aerial published 17,000 of those images taken in Aroostook, Oxford, York and Piscatiquis counties on its Facebook page, according to Lance Roper, Vintage Aerial’s social media coordinator.
The company plans to publish an additional 20,000 images on Facebook taken around Maine in February.
“People are seeing photographs they have never seen before of places that are really important to them,” Roper said. “We want people to come to our site and hopefully leave comments about the photographs and help identify where they were taken.”
Unlike many photos taken elsewhere in the country, the Maine images, Roper said, do not have information indicating their exact locations. He’s hoping members of the public can help him out.
“The Maine identification information was lost a long time ago,” he said. “When people comment and help us locate where the image was taken, we can recreate the map and build an amazing online tool to help people reconnect with their past.”
Amanda Barker grew up in Bridgewater and now lives in Nashville Plantation, both located in Aroostook County. She’s been busy sharing the photos with Facebook friends and family ever since she saw the first one a few weeks ago.
“I love history,” Barker said. “I find it fascinating to see where we’ve come from and to understand why and how we’re at the point we are. When a friend of mine from my hometown posted a picture of her family’s Oliver tractor store and potato house in downtown Bridgewater, I immediately got pulled in.”
Barker found dozens of aerial images taken of childhood haunts and locations.
“So many of those pictures are my stomping grounds,” she said. “They are home regardless of the fact it’s someone else’s house. I’ve been in those houses or biked through the yard and look how it’s changed.
Photographs like those in the Vintage Aerial library are a great way to track an area’s change, according to Chad Pelletier, president of the Fort Kent Historical Society.
Though he’s been unsuccessful so far in finding any Fort Kent photos in the online collection, he is enjoying the ones taken east of town.
In particular, he noted a 1960s era photo of the old Fred Albert house in Madawaska that stood where the town’s district courthouse now stands.
In the 1970s, the house moved to its current location in St. David behind the Tante Blanche Museum.
“It was part of a really sizable farm,” Pelletier said. “It’s really nice to see that house in context [and] that’s important for future generations to see.”
Vintage Aerial started digitizing the images in 2010, Roper said.
“We started meeting some of these old guys who had these rolls of film,” he said. “We wondered what would happen to that film and we saw a massive opportunity there.”
The company has made the images available for free on Facebook, but does charge for printed copies, which Roper said helps fund the preservation efforts. Framed prints start at $129. More information is available at vintageaerial.com.
“We believe we have the largest single-subject photo index in the world,” Roper said, adding the company plans to add another 9 million images from other collections to their library in the future. A team of technicians is currently scanning about 18,000 images a day.
“What we really like are the stories that are coming out on these photographs,” he said. “We are looking for the anecdotes, for location identification and we want people to tell us the stories behind the photographs.”
All of the images are very high quality, Roper said. Most were taken using Leica cameras on black and white film.
“Those pilots were really daredevils,” he said. “You have one pilot flying the plane, taking photos, changing film and writing on a map while flying a low altitude.”
Amanda Barker said her mother told her she remembers seeing those planes circling over Bridgewater.
“My father went through the Monticello and Bridgewater [Vintage Aerial photos] and some of Blaine, Mars Hill and Littleton,” Barker said. “He made a list of every home and who lived there over the years as he’s known it. As with anything history related, it was melancholy to see how many of the places have deteriorated or are gone.”
“I’m at the age where nostalgia means something,” he said. “I don’t often drive through Grand Isle anymore and when I do I see familiar houses with strangers living in them. These photos bring back more vivid memories.”
Barker said one of the photos, shared by her 80-year-old uncle, sparked the memory of “a chum of his who had dared him to ride a work horse [and] uncle ended up riding the horse literally through the barn wall and out into the chicken coop.”
Those are the stories Roper and Lewis want.
“We want people to share the photos we publish on the Web,” Roper said. “Put them on Facebook, Tweet them and help us add information to this collection to make it more enjoyable for everyone.”