This photo from 1970 sparked one Madawaska resident's observations of the St. John Valley then and now. From Left: Neal O'Brien, Alvey Dubois, Dayton Cannan, Ernest Chasse, Lucien Cyr, Louis A. "Pee Wee" Cyr, Edward Cyr. Credit: Courtesy of Mike Cyr

MADAWASKA, Maine — A surveyor from Madawaska was digging through his office when he found an old photo from his father’s term as town manager.

Mike Cyr said Louis A. “Pee Wee” Cyr became town manager when Cyr was in high school and served for another 10 years through the 1970s into the 1980s.

Cyr’s father had given him the photo after Louis’ retirement. Pictured were his father, along with Fraser Paper’s president Neal O’Brien, councilors Alvey Dubois and Dayton Cannan, selectman Ernest Chasse, road commissioner Lucien Cyr, developer George Dugal and state Sen. Edward Cyr.

These men were some of the leaders of a community that at the time was surging with population and commerce. The area saw a slump in the 2000s as businesses began to close and youths left the area seeking better opportunities. Now town leaders see COVID-19 as a path toward a comeback.

“One of the good things about COVID is that it forced people to find ways to work at home,” Cyr said. “Although the populations of these communities have dwindled, the ability to work from home in remote areas could make [places] like this grow in the future.”

Madawaska had a population of more than 5,500 people in 1970, but by 2020, it had dipped to 3,867, according to the U.S. census. The largest out-migration was the decade between 2000 and 2010 at 11 percent.

The same changes that have happened throughout small-town America — such as in manufacturing — are experienced in Aroostook, but Madawaska has been lucky to have Twin Rivers and Fraser Paper stay around, Madawaska Code Enforcement Officer Denise Duperre said.

Even with such a stable larger employer, many smaller businesses folded. In the 1970s and 1980s, Madawaska’s streets were lined with businesses and shopping centers, and most days saw these places bustling with people, Duperre said.

“Retail back then was hopping because that’s what retail was,” she said. “Now that everybody shops online, there’s no such thing as brick and mortar anymore — even banks, everything’s a card.”

Cyr said he remembers getting his first job at Zayre — a department store similar to Walmart  — which was located where Marden’s is now. His starting wage was $1.80 per hour. Class sizes in schools were easily three times what they are now. His class had 150 to 160 students graduating compared with the 20 to 60 students per class now, Cyr said.

But much of life in the St. John Valley has remained the same, even with technology advancements, a fluctuating population and structural changes such as pocket parks and demolished buildings, he said.

As recently as 10 years ago during her time on the board for Aroostook Aspirations Initiative, Duperre said one of the major challenges small towns faced was people leaving their hometowns to follow job opportunities in larger communities around southern Maine or in another state entirely.

“I remember sitting on that board and thinking it would take one catastrophe to send people from out of the area running for the hills,” Duperre said. “I was thinking along the lines of 9/11, but, no, it was COVID.”

Cyr and Duperre said they have seen more families moving back into Madawaska and the rest of the St. John Valley in recent years, although they did not quantify it. But there are fewer houses for sale and people from other places are moving to Madawaska, they said.

With the influx of people buying homes comes greater racial, educational and cultural diversity to what once was a predominantly white Catholic community, Duperre said.

Madawaska is not just about remote living, it’s also population, or the number of stores on Main street, Duperre said. Located between the St. John River and Long Lake, Madawaska is in the middle of a recreational playground that everyone envies from New York north, Duperre said.

“I think it’s growing again. It’s not an internal growth, it’s external. Now people from here are moving back home and they’re bringing other people that have heard how great this area is to raise a family,” Duperre said.

Correction: An old photo sparking thoughts of population and economic growth did not include George Dugal in the photo’s caption.