Fort Kent, Maine — My grandmother grew up in a big house on a hill in Fort Kent, Maine, a few hundred yards from the Canadian border. The house had a porch and a turret and, in the bathroom, a Jewish ritual bath. My grandmother’s mother was a religious fanatic. Her father, Jake Etscovitz, was the Potato King.
Though he lived all his life at the edge of the wilderness, the Potato King dressed for Fifth Avenue. He wore a suit in his potato fields, to his car dealership, to his music store, to his gas station, and to the tiny synagogue down the street from his house. Today, on a wall at the car dealership he once owned in town, there’s a picture of him looking like Bugsy Siegel in three-piece pinstripes and a tall fedora. It’s 1928, and he’s standing in an open garage door with eight men in mechanic’s coveralls. His hands are in his pockets, his hips pushed out, a little grin on his face. He looks ready to eat the world.
Fort Kent is five hours north of the Maine you’re thinking of. There are no lobsters up there, or summer camps, or L.L. Bean flagship stores. The Bushes vacation 360 miles south. The highway ends in Fort Kent, a state road goes on another two dozen miles, and then it’s just loggers and moose and black flies.
When the Potato King died in 1946, he was still just a lord of the sticks. His son Harry, who he had sent to Harvard, was called back to Maine to take over the backwoods empire. By the time I was born in 1985, Harry and his wife were alone in Fort Kent. The family had left, the businesses were gone, and Fort Kent seemed at once a fairy tale and a tragedy: We were kings, but it didn’t work out.
Harry died in 2000. Last year, when Harry’s brother died, I started hearing the Fort Kent stories again. This time, it didn’t make sense. Why would a Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrant settle in the most remote town in New England? How did he get rich there? And why did Harry get left behind?
In May, I drove to Fort Kent to dig for family secrets in the ruins of the Potato King’s empire.
I had a theory that the Potato King was a bootlegger.
I didn’t have much to work with. My grandmother Rose Leah left Fort Kent when she was 16 and never moved back. My dad visited as a kid, but hasn’t been there since he was in his early 20s. The stories I heard gave a child’s impression of the place: the lakes, the massive winter snowfall, the horses, the garage, the long roads through the woods.
The Potato King’s house had something like a dozen bedrooms, and there were always 10 or 15 people living there, between the family and the servants and the boarders and the rabbi the Potato King would keep around to kasher the meat. My grandmother had a pony that pulled her around in a sleigh. She remembers her uncle Ellis sneaking past her room at 6:30 in the morning, bribing her with a dollar so she wouldn’t tell her mother that he had been out all night gambling at the Arcadia Hotel.
The only adult accounting of Fort Kent in its prime was on a tape that my dad recorded with his grandma Bessie, the Potato King’s widow, in 1970, on an early cassette recorder. Bessie had begun to lose it by then, and she was reduced to three concerns: music, the immutability of Jewishness and the inevitability of persecution. She sings in Yiddish and in Russian, tunes that sound like they should play under a slideshow of Roman Vishniac photos. Then she translates a song for my dad: “It’s no matter what you are/ But a Jew you always are/ It’s no matter what you do/ To the law you’ll all be true.”
When my father asks Bessie on the tape why she became religious, she doesn’t understand the question. “I am religious!” she tells him. “I like to be, it’s good. God helps everything.”
Bessie’s Orthodoxy was extreme and superstitious. She burned her toenail clippings in the oven to protect herself from curses. Her mother once broke an arm falling down the stairs at the house in Fort Kent on a Friday and refused to go to the hospital until after Shabbat. Her father was a Lubavitch rabbi with a Rasputin beard and a tall black yarmulke. Bessie insisted he was the chief rabbi of Brooklyn.
She tells confused, fragmentary stories on the tape: There was a pogrom in Russia. The Russians came for her grandfather’s money. An uncle sent them to Brooklyn. She went to Fort Kent with her brother, a traveling photographer who had married one of Jake’s sisters. A judge called her on the phone one day. “I was so scared I was shaking,” she says. It turned out that he just wanted her to translate for some Russians who had been found working in the woods.
Listening to her voice, it sounds like Bessie had never stopped running. She sings about Czar Nicholas, who had been shot 52 years before in a basement in the Urals. Fort Kent, for Bessie, was a pretty good place to hide. The Cossacks or the Russians, or whomever she thought she was hiding from, wouldn’t find her there. And if things got bad in the United States, if the pogroms came to Brooklyn, she could cross the river to Canada and be safe.
That wouldn’t have been enough for Jake. Jake wasn’t afraid. His old photos reek of ambition. He’s overdressed in every one, ready to negotiate you down and buy you out. He was hungry. So why did he settle for Fort Kent?