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A View of Long Lake from Centennial Park
The Other Maine

Saint Agatha, Life from the Water

By Alex Seise | November 12, 2012

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When the seasons change in Northern Maine, you notice it.

The Welcome Sign, Approaching From Frenchville

The natural phenomenon is so sharp that it is impossible to miss.   Each year, a warm 70-80 degree day in late August gives way to a frosty evening, ushering in arboreal foliage a few days later and replacing summer's festivities with the joys of autumn. The other seasonal shifts are equally dramatic.

Nowhere are these changes more evident than in seasonal villages like Saint Agatha, Maine.

Perched on the northern tip of Long Lake, the 12-mile long reservoir that serves as the recreational hub of the Saint John Valley, Saint Agatha is a tiny town with a big vision. And unlike other incorporated areas along Route 1 and the Aroostook Scenic Highway that have slowly rusted from the inside out and allowed their buildings to sag under the weight of apathy, this hamlet is thriving thanks to its seasonal delights.

It all starts each spring. A rural community, Saint Agatha's main economic force comes from farming. Chief among its bounties: famous Maine potatoes, sowed in the cool soil along quiet country roads. In the early spring, though, before the leaves and blossoms unfurl, the potato crops give the land a lunar feel.

A Barn Just Outside Downtown Saint Agatha

This was how David and I first experienced Saint Agatha over two years ago. Driving along Route 161, a wild and winding byway, we turned at an old farmhouse onto Ouellette Road. It had been surprisingly warm during most of our visit, though a cold front was descending onto the land.

Climbing up the hills, the pocked land stretched as far as the eye could see and met the gray sky at the horizon. Each pit was the home of an individual potato plant; collectively, the holes gave the farmland a forsaken look.

It wasn't until we reached our destination, the Lakeview Restaurant, that we understood the town's charm.   Off in the distance, shrouded by fog, the lake glistened under its temporary ice shelf. Upon it, the sleepy town of Saint Agatha stirred in the twilight as lights flickered on to ward off the growing darkness.

Downtown Saint Agatha is charming, and during the summer, it feels more like a coastal village from Downeast Maine than a remote town in Aroostook County. Main Street sweeps by the large Catholic church, the post office, the town office and the combined Wisdom Middle / High School before it curves along the lake in the distance. Sunlight dances off the surface of the water, reflecting into the town and brightening its streets.

Gentle Waves on the Surface of Long Lake

The population, normally somewhere around 1,000 people, swells during the summertime as seasonal residents take to the lake. Simultaneously, year-round farmers tend to their land in preparation for the autumn harvest.

It is this duality that highlights Saint Agatha's economic brilliance. Capitalizing on the efforts of locals, it also lures in out-of-towners and valuable tourism business. Perhaps it is a result of sheer luck and circumstance; being on a lake is a valuable asset to any community looking to tempt folks with the great outdoors.   However, the town's leverage of its situation is so strategic and streamlined that it appears to be anything but haphazard.

Even as the summer swell rocks back into a lull, Saint Agatha manages to keep up momentum as the crops are plucked from the ground and sold at market. Farms operate in overdrive as children from the surrounding areas return to the combined middle and high school in the downtown.

The Saint Agatha Catholic Church

Meanwhile, straggling tourists wander in for their last swims and rides on the lake for the year, catching glimpses of the changing leaves from the water.

The winter catches Saint Agatha off-guard each year, bellowing in with frightening winds and cold, stinging snow. But even that doesn't stop the little town from pushing on. The summer amenities on the lake are transformed into a wintry paradise, offering ice fishermen and snowmobilers warm meals and shelter from the elements. And yet again, Saint Agatha manages to profit off its perfect location; strategically nestled in the very center of the northern Saint John Valley, it is a hub for nearly all snowmobile, snowshoe and cross-country ski trails in the area.

No matter what season, Saint Agatha is far from dwindling. In fact, the town's stability and quaint atmosphere are a draw for both locals as well as out-of-state visitors. Its blend of old-fashioned past times and a progressive economic strategy is refreshing, much like the waters of the pristine lake that fuels much of its success.

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