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Home » PEOPLE AND PLACES in ME » MAINE (all topics) » The Other Maine
The Other Maine

DIY in the 207

By Alex Seise | March 28, 2011

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While renovations are a big project no matter where they’re tackled, they always seem to become a little more hands-on in rural areas and the Saint John Valley is no exception.

Before Renovations

In the County, the nearest electrician is booked for months in advance; all the general contractors in a 100 mile radius are nowhere to be found for weeks on end; and decorators, well, they tend to double up with a “day job” to make ends meet and are hard to find without a strong pulse on local gossip chains.

But just because hired help is hard to find doesn’t mean that the residents of Aroostook County let their homes fall to pieces. Rather, the hardworking people crack their knuckles, roll up their sleeves and grab a hammer, channeling Thor as they morph into bona fide weekend warriors. It’s simply the way things are done.

A few hours after closing on our home in Madawaska, David and I decided that there had never been a better time for us to put our Bob Vila hats on and give this DIY mentality a shot. We settled on an electrical project to get started; an old fixture in the dining room was in sore need of an upgrade. Unfortunately, being our first time working with electricity, we hastily twisted wires together and nonchalantly tucked them back into the ceiling mount. As David threw the circuit breaker back on, the new fixture sizzled violently before letting out a tremendous pop and an exasperated puff of smoke. To this day, I’m certain that a few residents across the Saint John River in Edmundston, New Brunswick noticed the bright flash and bang in that warm summer evening.

Despite our initial failure, we talked to neighbors to learn more about how repairs work this far north. Phone books are for newcomers to the home repair business and successful ones rarely place ads in print. Instead, homeowners are guided by the bright beacons of roadside signs and the chatty recommendations of friends.

The Renovations are Complete!

It’s not difficult to penetrate this network; booking an appointment is a whole other story. Schedules fill rapidly with appointments, and many service businesses find themselves overwhelmed in the under-served area. As the population diminishes, the primary hope for new help lies in the hands of the few young souls that stick around the area and in freelancers who work full-time in other industries.

Even emergency home services can be troublesome. After a frigid snap in late January when the mercury hovered far below zero, the cold water pipe in our recreation room froze. Fortunately, we caught it within hours; after a call to the plumber, we learned that the earliest he could winterize the room was over a week later. Between a steady dribble of water from the faucet and a MacGyver-esque contraption involving six cinder blocks, a space heater and a broom set up in the garage, we managed to keep the pipes just warm enough without burning down the house.

During the long months of winter from early October through late April, residents of Northern Maine tend to go a bit stir crazy. Known informally as “Renovation Month,” the period between mid-February and mid-March sees a spike in home improvement projects up and down the Route 1 corridor from Houlton to Allagash. From grand kitchen remodels to simple fix-it work, this period is a busy one for hardware stores and laborers alike. The bug inevitably nibbles at practically every single household, and it tends to linger all the way through the mud season when snow piles melts and the ground spews forth rich, runny soil.

Homemade Valences!

And yet, despite being novices, David and I are starting to slide right into the mindset of these proud Acadians when it comes to projects around the house. We replaced the charred fixture in the dining room with a new chrome one, carefully installing it and clapping gleefully when it flicked on without an explosion. Several rooms now boast new coats of paint, including one that required the removal of deliriously stubborn textured walls. Even our plumbing skills have begun to bud as we learned to turn off water to certain parts of the system and replace individual components.

Home projects in Aroostook County aren’t just about nit, grit, hammers and nails.   Even a lot of the crafts and decorations are made in the comforts of one’s own house.   The valances and tiers in our dining room are shining proof of this.   Though you can find a few curtains at Kmart or Marden’s (the fabulous surplus store we have here in Maine - there’s one in Madawaska and a few others dotting the state), they’re expensive and the selection is extremely limited.   Most handy people opt to make their own.   A few weekends ago, I went out and bought myself a Singer sewing machine, thirteen yards of fabric and some thread.   Materials cost me $37, and in two days, I’d created eleven valances and fourteen tiers for the dining room and kitchen.   My creations even made it into the Marden’s newsletter this month!

We may never host our own show on HGTV, but we are certainly starting to pick up on how people live and thrive this far north. Just don’t expect to see us advertising in the phone book anytime soon.

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