Josh Nathan-Kazis checks out his roots in Fort Kent, Maine.
Everyone in the Facebook group called “You know you grew up in Fort Kent, Maine, when…” is talking about my great-grandfather.
I’ve been lurking all day.
The great thing about travel writing in 2014 is that you can eavesdrop on locals’ reactions to your story when you’re back home. I don’t know what the guys having coffee at the Napa Auto Parts store in Fort Kent are saying about “The Rise and Fall of the Potato King,” my article about my great-grandfather’s ambitions and failures in northern Maine, which the Forward published on Tuesday.
But I can read what they’re posting online.
Most of the comments on that Facebook page are small memories: One man, whose profile says he lives in Portland, Maine, posted about sledding down the little hill in front of my great-grandfather’s house when he was a kid. Another remembered detouring through the Etscovitz garage on the way to school to warm up on cold winter mornings.
One woman wrote that she remembered someone named Old Man Etscovitz showing up in town to skate in a flooded, frozen lot near the Etscovitz garage. Others said that Harry, my great-uncle, had been friends with their dads, or that their dads had worked for him.
On the Facebook page of the St. John Valley Times, a local paper, one commenter posted about Harry’s golf game, which sounds like it was exuberant, if not so skillful. (The lead story on that newspaper’s website on Wednesday, by the way, was about a state trooper who hit a moose and totaled his cruiser while responding to another moose-related accident. In case you thought I exaggerated the moose threat in my story.)
I got emails, too. Kevin R. Haley, the grandson of John Vaillancourt, who ran my great-grandfather’s potato farm, wrote to say that remembered the auction in May 1985 when Harry finally sold off all the farm equipment. Kevin’s grandfather lived next to the site of the old synagogue in Fort Kent; when he was a kid, it was Kevin’s job to mow the grass around the plaque that marks the spot.
“Your article had me daydreaming about days that to me at least seemed simpler,” Kevin wrote.
And I heard from Kelly Dechene, who grew up in Fort Kent in the 1970s and 1980s. “Your family name was one that was as common as the word ‘potato’ around the dinner table of locals,” she wrote. “We all knew of Harry — and you should know that never a sour or bad word was ever heard about the type of man he was.”
I would have preferred to talk with all these people over eggs and toast at Doris’s Café. That’s a 600 mile drive from my desk in lower Manhattan, though, so Facebook was nice.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.