PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — A room-sized ploye, old chainsaws and Jupiter have one thing in common: Aroostook County.
There are things you can’t find in Aroostook County: passenger rail, name-brand stores and a certain type of doughnut, to name a few.
But the Crown of Maine is home to a sense of hospitality and a work ethic that for decades have distinguished it in the state and the nation. Say “The County” and everyone knows which county that is. And for those who favor the unique and sometimes quirky, the region also boasts some attractions you won’t find anywhere else in Maine.
Here are five things you can only find in Aroostook County.
That’s one big pancake.
It’s true: the world’s largest ploye is made every year in the St. John Valley.
Long considered staples of the Acadian diet, ployes are thin buckwheat pancakes typically eaten rolled up and served with a meal. The centerpiece of Fort Kent’s annual Ploye Festival is the creation of a ploye that will really serve a crowd.
For more than 20 years, Janice and Joe Bouchard of Bouchard Family Farms have hauled a 12-foot griddle into the middle of the festival, which is heated over a bed of charcoal. The batter is made from about 50 pounds of the family’s commercially marketed ploye mix and water, and poured onto the griddle from five-gallon pails.
Once the colossal crepe is cooked, chefs scrape the ploye from the griddle with shovel-sized spatulas, and offer pieces to anyone who wants to partake.
Museums that make you go ‘hmmm.’
Every area has its special historical treasures, but The County boasts some collections that are so unique people might say, “There’s a museum for that?”
Fourth-generation mortician Tony Bowers opened the Rest in Peace Museum in Island Falls just last month, which is the first of its kind in Maine and probably one of only a handful in the country. Visitors will find embalming tools, caskets and other artifacts that were part of the morticians’ trade throughout the last century, some of which were used by Bowers’ great-grandfather, Russell Eugene Bowers, who opened the family’s first funeral home in 1900.
A bit farther north, the Nylander Natural History Museum in Caribou holds fossils, mineral specimens, insects and taxidermy collected by early 20th-century naturalist Olof Nylander. Born in Sweden, Nylander once was a field collector for the U.S. Geological Survey, according to the city of Caribou. The museum opened in 1939.
If tools of the woods trade are more your thing, Maine’s only chainsaw museum should be up your alley. Louie’s Antique Chainsaws in Allagash displays a collection of more than 300 vintage chainsaws used over decades of forestry, including large models that took two men to use.
These planets are aligned.
Thousands of people have traveled to Aroostook County for the past 19 years just to see the Maine Solar System Model, the largest three-dimensional model of the solar system in the western hemisphere.
Developed by the University of Maine at Presque Isle and more than 700 donors, students and volunteers from all over northern Maine, the model is actually built to scale, with one mile representing one astronomical unit — 93 million miles, the distance from Earth to the sun.
The path begins with the sun, which is actually located on the UMPI campus, and continues down U.S. Route 1. The nine planets, seven moons and three dwarf planets are represented. The final site is Pluto and the rest of the dwarf planets, located at the Maine Visitor Information Center, which is temporarily housed at the County Co-op and Farm Store at 53 Main St. in Houlton.
School lets out for potatoes.
There’s no question Aroostook is potato country. It’s also the only place in the state where school is dismissed so students can work the harvest.
Before mechanical harvesting became the norm, crews of teens and younger kids would hit the fields, often before daylight, to pick barrels full of potatoes from mid-September through early October. Older teens could work on harvesters or trucks as hand picking diminished.
Despite the hard labor, people often have fond memories of their days in the fields. Those chilly mornings, bag lunches and the drive to fill the most barrels rooted them in history and tradition, and picking helped young people learn the value of work — a key driver in the famous County work ethic.
Though some parents and school districts have sought to eliminate the break because it interrupts the educational flow and most students don’t work in the fields, Aroostook farmers have said student labor is still critical to helping them bring in their crops.
See the sun first here. Sometimes.
The first rays of sunrise in the continental United States hit Mars Hill Mountain first, at least six months out of the year.
From about mid-March to mid-September, when the North Pole receives sun for 24 hours a day, Mars Hill is the first spot in the country to see sunlight.
During other parts of the year, Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park and Lubec’s West Quoddy Head have the honor of first light.