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.
‘Fort Kent seemed at once a fairy tale and a tragedy: We were kings, but it didn’t work out.’
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?
I’ll admit that the liquor smuggling theory was a stretch. I had just started watching “Boardwalk Empire,” the HBO show about rumrunners and mobsters in Atlantic City in the 1920s, and it may have primed my imagination. Still, a few facts seemed to line up: During the Prohibition, you could cross the United States border where it bisected the St. John River by hopping from bootleggers’ boat to bootleggers’ boat. Big Fred Levesque and Maxime Albert ran huge networks of smugglers and big fleets of cars that shipped liquor into Fort Kent from Canada and down the East Coast. The Potato King lived in the midst of all that, with plenty of cars of his own. Why wouldn’t he have been smuggling liquor? Between the Bronfmans and Arnold Rothstein, bootlegging was as Jewish a business as bagel-making. Plus, he dressed like a gangster. And who’s ever heard of a Jewish Potato King? I imagined myself as arriving in Fort Kent the prodigal prince of thieves, meeting old border jumpers in dark taprooms under green lampshades. It sounded way cooler than finding out I was the great-grandson of a couple of terrified refugees hiding in the woods. I headed north.
Part 1: Hitting a Moose
Fort Kent is a town of 4,000 people on the northern tip of Maine’s tremendous Aroostook County. Up there they just call Aroostook “the County.” It looks deceptively small on the map, but the County is bigger than Connecticut, with fewer residents than Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Its towns and highways hug the New Brunswick border to the east; everything else is forest, mostly privately-owned logging land. U.S. 1, which starts in Key West, Florida, runs up through the County and ends in Fort Kent.
I was worried about the drive up. It had started with my cousins back in New York, who spent time in Northern Maine as camp counselors. They told me that the difference between hitting a deer and hitting a moose was that if you hit a deer, the deer died; if you hit a moose, you died. That sounded like a campfire horror story, and I ignored it until the people at the car rental counter at the Bangor airport said pretty much the same thing.
In the spring, the moose come out from the woods to lick salt off the asphalt, trailing a universe of fleas and ticks. Adult moose have no natural predators in Maine. They fear nothing, and are about as skittish as a fully loaded logging truck. Their eyes are 7 feet off the ground, too high to reflect a car’s headlights. Their black coats make them invisible at night. If a bull moose is standing on the shoulder of the road, you could drive right by him without knowing it. Or, if he decides to step onto the pavement, you could run into him, knocking out his legs and sending his half-ton body arcing through the windshield and onto your lap.
Harry hit a moose once. It totaled his car, though he walked away. I remember hearing about it when it happened and wondering how a relative of mine could live in danger of moose. Squirrels, sure. Deer, maybe. But we were city people. It was as if he had been bitten by a koala.
Googling anxiously in my Bangor hotel room, I found newspaper articles about a summer night in 2013 when state police responded to seven separate moose and deer strikes around Fort Kent. I wondered if the Forward would have sprung for a Humvee. (Ed.: No.)
The Potato King’s father, Louis Etscovitz, came to Aroostook County in 1903 from some forgotten village in the Russian empire. He traded cattle, slaughtered them in Fort Kent, and then sold them to the lumber camps in the forests outside of town. He was gored by a bull, but died of pneumonia. Etscovitz was an assumed name, probably bought to ease his exit from Russia.
His siblings came later under their given name, Rapaport. I have an undated photo of them, five old immigrants in black. They look dressed for a funeral, though their faint smiles suggest a wedding. Most of them settled in less remote parts of Maine. One of Louis’s brothers opened a furniture store in Bangor; they called him Pappy Rappy.
Louis, meanwhile, stayed on the edge of the woods, keeping his fake name. His sons kept the fake name and stayed north, too. When my grandmother was a girl, she had cousins up and down U.S. 1. The Potato King’s brothers and sisters spread from Fort Kent and filled Aroostook with Jews. Every city in the County had a Chevy dealership owned by an Etscovitz brother: Jake had his in Fort Kent and in Madawaska, Sam in Presque Isle, Max in Houlton, Abe in Caribou. There were cousins in Island Falls and Mars Hill, and distant connections in Fort Fairfield and Van Buren. They would come together a few times a year for a B’nai B’rith dinner in Presque Isle, where the women wore hats and the men wore suits and everyone packed into a few short tables under a banner with the number of their B’nai B’rith lodge.
The Jews decided to form the lodge at Milton Adelman’s bar mitzvah in Mars Hill in 1937. I heard about him from a distant relative in Bangor. Maybe he could explain why Louis and his sons preferred to hide in the backcountry. I tried calling him the night before I started driving north. The line was disconnected. I put his name into a Nexis database. Same number. I wondered if he was dead.
Part 2: The Last Jew
He wasn’t. A series of chance phone calls led me to a busy diner in Mars Hill called Al’s, where Milton Adelman and I shared a booth. I asked him if he was the last Jew in the County.
“I hope not,” Milton said.
He told me about a rabbi he had met, and an old friend in Presque Isle. Still, there aren’t many. And Adelman is certainly the only Jewish potato farmer left there. If I was setting out to understand the Potato King, lunch with Adelman would be a good place to start.
Restaurants in Aroostook County are nothing special, but the diners are brilliant. Al’s has a simple breakfast menu and a cute country waitress. I ordered eggs. Milton told me that, when he was young, his parents mentioned my grandmother as someone he might date.
Mars Hill is about 195 miles north of Bangor and 70 miles south of Fort Kent — which is to say, in the geographical center of nowhere. It’s a bedroom community for Presque Isle, which is a sad joke, because Presque Isle is asleep. Presque Isle Air Force Base closed in 1961, and then Loring Air Force Base near Caribou closed in 1992; any need these small rural cities had for suburbs is long gone.
Al’s is in the middle of Mars Hill’s funky main street. Down the block, there’s a little motel and a pizza place with a garish checked sign that’s either retro or oblivious. Milton, a retired potato farmer, seemed to be a regular at the diner. More Mainer than ghetto Jew, he’s 89, has an iPhone, and carries a wooden cane that looks heavy enough to knock you out.
Milton never dated my grandmother, but his brother Yale married one of her cousins. Yale and Milton’s father came up from New York to work as a peddler, and then opened a department store before he started farming during World War I. They kept kosher until Yale came home from the University of Alabama and told them it was silly.
Still, they were Jewish. Milton remembers playing poker in the basement of the Presque Isle synagogue. That long white building is still there, but it’s empty and boarded up, the stained glass gone. Most of the Jewish families in Presque Isle owned stores on Main Street: The Shapiros sold clothes, the Weinbergs sold clothes, the Goldsmiths sold sporting goods. After the bases closed, the Walmart killed whatever was left of Main Street when it opened in 1993. All of the Jewish stores are gone now; nearly all of those families have moved away.
‘Harry hit a moose once. It was as if he had been bitten by a koala.’
In Mars Hill, meanwhile, Milton and Yale were potato men, some of the biggest around. They had potato farms, a potato shipping operation, and, later, seats on the New York Mercantile Exchange to trade potato futures. Today Milton has a house on the corner of one of his old potato fields. His kids didn’t stick around. “I gave them too much education,” he said. “Couldn’t keep them on the farm.”
Farm life was hard, and potato harvesting was miserable. Before mechanical harvesters, a tractor would pull a digging machine down the potato rows, turning the soil. Then a team of laborers — men, women and children — would pluck the potatoes from the dirt, dropping them in baskets, which they transferred to 180-pound barrels that they would hoist onto a flatbed truck. That stopped on Milton and Yale’s farms in the mid-1950s. French Canadian workers who the brothers had hired for harvest season went on strike in 1954, so in 1955 the brothers bought their first mechanical harvester. In 1956 they did away with handpicking altogether. When Milton’s kids were little, he had them walk behind the harvesters and pick up potatoes that the machines had missed.
In Mars Hill today, the schools still close for a few weeks in the fall for the potato harvest. As recently at 2002, Aroostook County school districts reported that over 1,300 students did potato-related work during that break, according to a University of Maine paper.
Milton’s children own the potato fields now. They lease them to the McCrum family, whose sprawling potato operation is one of the last big ones in northern Maine. You can still see a few potato farms and potato brokerages on either side of U.S. 1, but the industry here is a small fraction of what it was when the Adelmans started farming. Maine was the top potato producing state in the country in the 1940s, responsible for 12% of national potato production in 1941, according to the USDA. By 1979, plenty of other states had ramped up their production, but Maine was still growing about 8% of U.S. potatoes. That all fell apart in the 1980s, thanks to Idaho’s utter domination of the potato industry, bolstered by federally-funded irrigation projects, better marketing, and American’s love for French fries.
Maine farmers planted mostly round whites, smaller spuds than Idaho’s big russets. Russets are more-or-less uniform in size, easy to apportion in a recipe, easy to cook as a baked potato, and perfect for manufacturers to slice for French fries. The Idaho farmers marketed them well, using just a handful of brand names, while Maine potatoes were packaged by countless small farms with uneven quality standards. Hampered, too, by the shorter growing season, the state’s potato farms started to close. In 2012, Maine produced just under 4% of the U.S. total potato yield.
Up in Fort Kent, my great-grandfather Jake was long dead by the time potato production in Idaho became a problem for the Maine farmers. But the general hardships for the Potato King would have been the same as those the Adelman brothers faced in Mars Hill: tough conditions, difficult work, and farm troubles that seep into every corner of your life. The potato business is decades behind Milton. Still, he continues to think in terms of the potato. As we walked to our cars after lunch, I asked if the potatoes had been planted yet this year. He gestured up at the town’s humble ski hill, still patched with muddy white spots, and said no. “My theory has always been, you can’t plant potatoes until there isn’t any snow on the mountain,” he said.
I left Adelman, promising to say hello to my grandmother for him. It rained the rest of the way to Fort Kent.
Part 3: Trapped in the Wilderness
A cerebral hemorrhage foiled the Potato King’s escape from Fort Kent.
When he died in 1946, just shy of 50, Jake Etscovitz had been making plans to leave Maine. He was already a big wheel in town: He had the garage and the car dealerships and the potato brokerage and the fields. He was a Mason, and wore a Masonic ring of black onyx. He owned a share of the Savoy, a small local theater that opened in 1917 with a showing of “The Birth of a Nation.” He was vice president of the local telephone company. And he had a little store next to his car dealerships where he sold records.
His next move, according to my grandmother, was to get out of town.
My grandmother’s stories make Fort Kent sound like a blast, but it’s clear that the Etscovitzes had frustrations. Preserving Bessie’s Orthodoxy was hard, but fulfilling Jake’s huge ambitions was harder.
In 1919, Jake’s father Louis helped found a synagogue in Fort Kent called Beth Israel. The original bylaws, handwritten on a yellow ledger, are at the Acadian Archives at the University of Maine in Fort Kent. It cost $10 to join the congregation, plus an annual fee of $6. They built a synagogue at the foot of Klein Hill.
The congregation didn’t last. They disbanded in the 1930s. The few Jewish families in town were leaving, and there weren’t enough Jews for a minyan. They left the building standing, unused, until Harry tore it down in the 1970s. Jake and Bessie were married in 1920; by the time their kids were young, there were few other Jews left in Fort Kent.
“They really established a Jewish citadel in the wilderness,” my grandmother told me over the phone from Brookline, Massachusetts in early May, a few days before my trip. “I mean, to maintain an Orthodox home is quite the thing in a place like Fort Kent.”
They installed a mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath, in a large bathroom in the Elm Street house. They brought up rabbis to board in their house and slaughter meat for them. They observed the holidays as best they could, but even their relatives seem to have found their religiosity out of place. Lena Shur Dennis, the Bangor cousin, described them almost as radicals. “They would bentsch, my God,” she said, referring to the recitation of grace after meals.
Jake’s ambitions, meanwhile, were bigger than Fort Kent. He sent both of my grandmother’s brothers to Harvard, a gesture of immense will that served, in part, to show Jake and Harry how marginal Fort Kent was.
The schools in Fort Kent were bad. When Harry was a sophomore, Depression-era shortfalls forced the high school to pay its five teachers in town scrip, a makeshift currency that even the local stores refused to redeem for face value. When Harry got to Harvard, he realized fast that he was in trouble. In a 1982 interview I retrieved from the Acadian Archives, Harry said that he spoke such terrible English when he arrived that he was placed in a class for foreign students. His mangled argot, learned from Yiddish-speaking parents and filtered through French-speaking classmates, must have sounded absurd to the tweedy Harvard men. “I was mocked,” Harry said.
Instead of trusting my grandmother to the local schools, Jake sent her to Brookline, a Jewish neighborhood in the Boston area, to attend the public high school starting in ninth grade. She lived in an apartment, accompanied by a Fort Kent girl sent with her as a maid. Jake, meanwhile, was working on a big investment. The details are vague, but my grandmother says he was looking to distribute gas for the Gulf Oil Company in the County. How that would have gotten him out of Maine is unclear, but, according to my grandmother, he had already invested money in the plan and rented a house for the family in Brookline.
Then he died.
My grandmother told me this last bit just days before my trip. That Jake had just missed getting away changed the tenor of the tragedy. Now those decades that Harry spent in Fort Kent started to sound like an accident that was almost avoided. As I drove the last leg of the journey, through the rainy pinewoods on the stretch of Route 161 between Caribou and Fort Kent, I wondered if the trip was an arrogant mistake. What was I going to say to the people I met there? Hey, I’m your boss’s great-grandson; he died trying to leave this hopeless backwater?
Road signs kept announcing tiny French towns that failed to materialize. Finally, late in the afternoon, I rolled into Fort Kent.
Part 4: Auto Parts and Coffee
Lew Morneault sells worms out of an old fridge outside of his house on Fort Kent’s main drag. The worms come from earth-filled crates he keeps in his garage. Also in his garage, pegged high up on the wall next to a plastic sprinkler and an old tennis racket, are the mud flaps off an old G.M.C. truck. The rubber is corroded and the corner is dark, but the first few letters are enough: “Etscovitz Chevrolet. Fort Kent Maine.”
Lew worked at Harry’s dealership for 17 years before opening his own small used car business. He’s retired now. Lew and his wife Bernadette fed me hot tea and homemade whoopie pies at the small table in their kitchen.
I had arrived in town the night before and checked into the Northern Door Inn, the only motel in town. My room smelled like someone had spilled a bucket of Bengay in the shower. From the front door of the hotel I could see the checkpoint on the U.S. side of the International Bridge, swarmed with customs and border patrol vehicles, and, beyond it, the river and Canada. It was nice out, so I strolled through the parking lot, past a marble shrine marking the end of U.S. 1, and down the block toward Elm Street to see the house where my grandmother grew up.
It sat on its low hill, half-hidden by trees, the turret unmistakable. Jake’s old car dealership was just around the corner. The Savoy, Jake’s old theater, was gone, but I found the parking lot where it used to be and the movie theater next-door that replaced it. I stopped into Al’s Dairy Freeze for a tiny pizza, thrilled by this close encounter with places from stories and old photos.
At the Morneaults’ house the next day, those stories started to change.
Like most people in this part of the St. John Valley, Lew and Bernadette are Acadians, descendants of French colonists who settled here in the 1780s. Today in Fort Kent you hear Acadian French at the table next to you at the diner and across the counter at the hardware store. It’s an ancient dialect, and the majority of residents here speak it from birth. Lew and Bernadette have lilting Acadian accents that sound vaguely Belgian.
‘I was really, really far from New York City.’
Lew, wide-faced and gregarious, had printed pages and pages of information he had found online for me about Jake and Harry. It was Bernadette, however, who spoke first. She was short and warm, with white hair and a sweet face like Mike Doonesbury’s Midwestern mother in the Garry Trudeau comic strip. When she was 15, she told me, she and her sister lived in my great-uncle Harry’s house as maids.
This was in the mid-1950s, and went on for a year and a half. They told her not to mix milk and meat in the kitchen, fed her, and paid her $7 a week. Bernadette went to school in the mornings and worked in the house in the afternoon. “We weren’t very rich here, you know,” she said.
Bernadette helped take care of Harry’s daughter Nancy, then just a baby. In the summers, when Bessie came to stay in Fort Kent, Bernadette would take care of her, too. She remembers shipments of kosher meat coming from Boston packed in dry ice, and Bessie cooking for Shabbat all afternoon on Friday. “She’d start about noontime and she’d cook a storm away,” Bernadette said. “I can still see her, the stuff flying around.”
Lew started courting Bernadette when she was still living in the Etscovitz house. He was just starting out then, still working in Harry’s service station, years away from being promoted to salesman at the dealership. Bessie was old, and she had never learned to drive, so Lew would sometimes be told to drive her and her sisters to Edmundston on the Canadian side, to go shopping. One day, Bessie asked Bernadette to bring him over to talk. “She offered me a chair, she looks me right in the face,” Lew said. “She says, ‘Every time we have a good girl working for us we have a jeezle tramp come in and marry her,” using a gentle Acadian curse.
For all my fixation on Jake and Bessie, it was Harry that Lew and Bernadette wanted to talk about. I hardly knew Harry — he lived far away and died when I was young, and when he came south he visited Boston, where my grandparents and most of my dad’s cousins lived, not New York City, where I live. But Lew and Bernadette remembered Harry well. How, at the Lions Club steak dinners, Harry would bring the chef a can of pink salmon to put on his plate. How Harry didn’t trust a particular Etscovitz relation, also in the car business, and wouldn’t talk to him when he visited the dealership. How, when Bernadette lived in the house, Harry made sure she went to church during Lent. They said he was a good businessman, and a good man.
At 5 pm, Lew ended our interview and said we had to go. We got into my rental, a gray Chrysler 200 filthy with bug splatter from the long ride up, and drove a half a mile down the road to the Napa Auto Parts store, where Lew has a standing daily appointment by the coffee machine. The others were already there when we walked in, a few retired guys in blue work clothes. The place smelled pleasantly of auto grease. The men spoke to each other in French, switching to English just for my benefit. We talked about the Jews who used to live in town, and the old “Jewish church.” I told them I hadn’t been able to figure out where the synagogue had been when I walked around the night before.
The coffee klatch broke up fast at 5:30 and I drove Lew home. His grandson was outside the garage with a friend and two pickups, getting worms from the fridge for an afternoon fishing trip. As I drove past the big supermarket on Main Street on the way to my next interview, I saw the driver of a Ford F-150 gesturing out of his window for me to follow him. I drove past, not understanding, then realized that it had been one of the men from the auto parts store and circled back around to find him. He turned off the main drag and down a few quiet streets before stopping in front of a small empty lot with a stand of young pine trees. We got out and walked into the clearing. A plaque on a boulder in the middle of the clearing commemorated, in Hebrew and in English, the synagogue that once stood there.
“They brought to this region of Northern Maine their cherished spiritual heritage which they bequeathed to their posterity,” the plaque read.
The man, a retired truck driver named Wallace Bouchard, said that he remembered when Harry hired his friend to tear the synagogue down in the mid-’70s. After saying some kind words about Harry, and remembering the 1979 Chevrolet four-wheel-drive pickup that Harry sold him, he got into his truck and drove off.
Part 5:Tough Country
I loved Fort Kent.
In the morning, I left the motel and drove down Main Street, past the office of the local online newspaper, the Fiddlehead Focus, past the dollar store and the Sears and the gas station. The air tasted fresh, like you’re getting a first go at a mouthful before it gets rebreathed a zillion times on its way down to New York. The St. John was running high, but the Fish River, which cuts through town to join up with the St. John, seemed higher. A riverside canoe pullout near the center of town was inundated. Ducks floating near the bridge one instant were a hundred yards downriver the next.
I had chosen a good season to visit. In the winter, the snow at the sides of the road can get so high that, in a bad year, the highways feel like tunnels. In the early summer the flies can make you insane, and in the fall the place is frantic with potato harvesting. The spring, though, is lovely — as long as the river doesn’t flood.
In 2008, after a winter in which 15 feet of snow fell on Fort Kent, the St. John rose up to the top of the dike and then backed around it, flooding the pews of the St. Louis Catholic Church. An emergency gravel drop saved Main Street, but just barely. Ice floes nearly took out the International Bridge.
It’s tough country. All the men I met wore boots. Most of the cars on the roads are pickups with auxiliary fuel tanks in the beds. The young guys wear baseball hats with logos of truck part companies. At night, the parking lot across the street from the St. Louis Catholic Church fills with pickups parked in rough circles, kids leaning on the hoods. There’s a red-sided bar called Bee-Jay’s, a “slaughterhouse,” one local warned me, known for brawls. I chickened out of drinking there.
My second night, looking to do some exploring, I crossed the International Bridge to find dinner in Clair. The Canadian border post looked like a bulked-up tollbooth, and a man leaned out the window to take my passport. It didn’t take long to realize that this was going to be more serious than the half-hearted interrogations of the passport-stamper at JFK. The mustachioed border agent had lots of questions: Where are you going? Why are you here? Are you going to be doing reporting in Canada? He asked what I was going to do when I was done with dinner. I said I wasn’t sure; maybe I’d drive around a bit. He suggested I tell him that I would cross back to Fort Kent. I told him I would cross back to Fort Kent.
As it turned out, there wasn’t much to eat in Clair. It’s a tiny village with one fancy restaurant and a dessert stand. A McDonald’s ad points back across the border. I followed the ad.
Back from Canada, following a brief interrogation at the U.S. border post, I had dinner at the Swamp Buck, an unremarkable local bar and grill, then stopped at Al’s Dairy Freeze for an ice cream. I was standing by my car in the parking lot when a monster lifted pickup with chrome exhaust pipes peeled down Elm Street and around the corner toward Main. At the wheel was a tiny girl, no older than 16, no taller than 5 feet. Huge plumes of dust billowed in her wake.
I was really, really far from New York City.
Part 6: Antlers and Black Flies
When the Potato King lived in Fort Kent, a particularly talented local could have spoken Swedish over breakfast, French at lunch and Yiddish at dinner — all within a half hour drive of Jake’s garage.
Today, only Yiddish is missing.
East of Fort Kent, Route 161 rolls past the Potato King’s old potato fields. The mailboxes on either side of the road repeat the same names over and over: Ouellette, Pelletier. The Acadians in the St. John Valley share only a few dozen last names. In Fort Kent it seems like everyone is a Daigle. (“There’s more Daigles than dirt in Fort Kent,” one Daigle put it to a local I met.) In Madawaska, they’re all Cyrs.
Thirty miles down the road in Allagash, there’s a diner called the Two Rivers Lunch with a giant moose head on the wall. The antlered deer hanging below looks kitten-sized by comparison. The moose head angles down toward the tables, like it’s foraging for scrambled eggs. You could park a bicycle between its 64-inch-wide antlers.
The diner is on the property of Tylor Kelly’s Camps, a hunting lodge on the last bend of the Allagash River, just before it joins the St. John. Tylor Kelly has an accent that’s particular to the town of Allagash, population 240 — Tylor Kelly included. It’s half-Maine, half-Irish, a patrimony from the 19th-century Scottish and Irish immigrants who poled up the St. John River, looking for places to plant potatoes.
And there are still others in the area who continue to preserve their own linguistic traditions. On the lip of the valley, overlooking the brown potato fields and the pine forests, are the towns of Stockholm and New Sweden, settled by Swedish immigrants in the 1870s. Today, the old folks there still speak Swedish. Just 40 miles from Fort Kent, New Sweden’s cemetery flies a Swedish flag outside its small white chapel. The names on the graves there are out of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”: Holmquist, Hjulstrom, Peterson, Bloomstrand.
In the St. John Valley, you don’t assimilate. You hunker down and hang on to what’s yours. The French people live with the French, the Irish with the Irish, the Swedish with the Swedish. For Yiddish-speaking Jews fleeing the vastness of the Russian Empire, it would have seemed possible to hold on to their traditions here. Given enough Jews, they could have built their own shtetl along the St. John, a cluster of Yiddish families to add another language to the polyglot Valley.
Part 7: A Misspelled Invitation
Almost everyone in Fort Kent mispronounces the name Etscovitz.
I heard Lew Morneault do it first. He said it like it was a Russian patronymic, ending in a hard “itch,” like the middle part of “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.”
No one in my family says the name like that. We pronounce it with a soft “its” at the end, like it’s German — think “Leibniz” or “Nimitz.” So I assumed, at first, that Lew’s pronunciation was some sort of Acadian bastardization.
Then I remembered a strange misspelling on the copy of Jake and Bessie’s 1920 wedding invitation that my grandmother keeps in her house. Printed in bold gothic type, the name Etscovitz is rendered “Etzkowich” in two different places on the invitation. Sure, Jake’s mother didn’t speak much English. But how do you misprint the name of the groom and his mother on a wedding invitation? Read out loud, though, “Etzkowich” sounds just like the name as Fort Kent pronounces it. Maybe it wasn’t a coincidence.
‘It’s no matter what you are/ But a Jew you always are.’
“My father was a big smuggler. We’d get up in the morning and there were six, seven new cows in the pasture.”
Etscovitz, in the spelling and pronunciation we use, is a weird, rootless last name. There are no Etscovitzes in the phone book who aren’t descended from Louis. It doesn’t sound like anything. It doesn’t even sound that Jewish.
Pronounced Lew’s way, though, the name sounds acceptably Russian. I wondered if the early Etscovitz generations pronounced it that way. It felt like I had found a clue, hidden in this strange shadow name. Maybe living under a name that sounded Russian made them feel like they could hide again if they had to. And if they changed the pronunciation to the vaguely foreign “its”-ending at the start of the Cold War, it wouldn’t have been the only way they rewrote their past to seem less Russian. There’s a video interview of Harry from 1988, also in the Acadian Archives, where he says that Louis Etscovitz came from Poland. That seems almost certainly an invention to avoid identifying himself as Russian.
Louis and his son Jake may have seen in Fort Kent a welcoming spot where Yiddish-speaking Jews could fit in among Acadian Catholics and Swedes and other ethnic misfits. But they were hedging, too — keeping a safe name, just in case.
Part 8: No Bridges
There are no strip malls in Fort Kent. There are some chain stores — a McDonald’s, a Rite Aid, the Sears. But the restaurants are local, the motels are local, some of the gas stations are local, even the supermarket chain is local. The local real estate developer I met was a Fort Kent native with lumber money. Flipping through the radio dial, it sounds like most of the stations are in French. English-language television wasn’t available here until the late 1960s. Fort Kent feels like an island that the American monoculture has yet to colonize.
It’s not that it hasn’t tried.
I met Chad Pelletier and Laurel Daigle, two among Fort Kent’s surprisingly large troop of local historians, at Doris’s Café one morning for breakfast. The diner is on the edge of town, in a building it shares with a small post office. I saw a fox run through the field across the road as I stepped inside. Regulars’ mugs hang on pegs by the door, and French toast costs $1.90. I had two eggs with homemade bread and some tea, all of which blew out of the water the offerings at Al’s in Mars Hill that had seemed so fantastic the day before.
Chad and Laurel explained why people in Fort Kent speak French. Filled out with context I got later from Lise Pelletier (not a direct relation of Chad’s), who directs the Acadian Archives at the university, it’s a story that starts in 1750s, when British colonial authorities decided to chase French-speaking Acadian farmers off of the island of Nova Scotia and give their land to British subjects from New England. A force of 2,000 Yankee volunteers sailed to the island and rousted out the Acadians, rounding up over 10,000 and shipping them to various English ports. Many died, others were made prisoners. A few escaped to the woods and avoided deportation, only to wander for generations, eventually settling in the St. John Valley. They farmed along the river and, joined by French-speaking people from Quebec, built towns that bridged the St. John’s banks. No one bothered them, or even seemed to notice they were there, for 50 years. It wasn’t clear whether the French settlements were in New Brunswick or the U.S. There were no bridges across the river, and certainly no customs posts. It was almost its own tiny French-speaking country, half-forgotten by its neighbors.
That changed after Maine became its own state in 1820. Increased logging activity sparked border conflicts. Militias were formed, and the U.S. Army built a squat two-story wooden blockhouse that still stands at the center of Fort Kent. There are small rifle slots all the way around. One wonders, when looking at it, what the fort’s guardians would have done if an attacker tossed a match. Luckily no one did, as the brief and bloodless border spat, called the Aroostook War, claimed no lives. The border ran straight down the middle of the St. John.
The partition was received by the Acadians as yet another disaster. The original towns were rent in half. La Grande Décharge split into Clair on the Canadian side and Fort Kent on the Maine side; La Grande Rivière became St. Leonard and Van Buren; Petit-Sault became Edmundston and Madawaska. Today, bridges connect each of the split cities. Local Acadians say they still think of the valley as a single region, but conditions are vastly different on the two sides. In the Canadian towns, Acadian French is the first language. The signs are in French, there are French schools, and business is conducted in French. On the American side, the Acadians feel that their culture has been suppressed.
That suppression started in earnest in 1919, when the Maine legislature banned French instruction in public schools. The Ku Klux Klan was more powerful in Maine than anywhere else in the North, and its Protestant members hated the Catholic Acadians and pushed anti-French laws. Acadian children were forced to speak English at school and punished if they didn’t. And there were other complications: Acadian French is subtly different from both the French spoken in Paris and the French spoken in Quebec, and even the French-speaking nuns at the local Catholic schools often didn’t speak the dialect. “We didn’t speak the right French, so we were punished for that. We didn’t speak good English, so we were punished for that,” said Marc Chasse, yet another local historian. “It gets to you after a while.”
The Acadians’ revenge was to smuggle relentlessly, for generations.
Part 9: A Busy River
Everyone in Fort Kent has stories about smuggling. Their father was a smuggler, or their grandmother smuggled, or they smuggled. It’s as if the whole town engaged in a vast anarchist conspiracy, a big goof on the federal government.
“That river was busy,” Lew Morneault said.
They smuggled livestock and tires, booze and the week’s shopping. Smuggling could mean wearing a new suit home and not declaring it, or walking a herd of cattle across the frozen river at night, or sneaking illegal Canadian laborers over for the potato harvest.
“My father was a big smuggler,” Laurel Daigle said. “We’d get up in the morning and there were six, seven new cows in the pasture.”
Two retired sisters told me a story, presumably apocryphal, about a farmer who shod his cows with men’s rubber boots turned backwards before sending them across the snow-covered ice. Chasse’s father got caught smuggling building materials from the Canadian side. A retiree remembered her grandmother stuffing her pockets with purchases to hide them from the customs agents. One local told me he once sold 25 tires to a man from the Canadian side, who filled them with air and had them pulled across the river behind a rowboat, two at a time. A former customs agent told me about a local liquor smuggler who, in the 1970s, would cross from the Canadian side into Fort Kent in a roomy Buick, fill it up with cheap U.S. booze, drive the liquor to a cabin he had in the woods, smuggle the liquor through up there, and then go back to Fort Kent, his Buick empty, to cross legally back to Canada.
The people who told me these stories said they had no problem with me using their names, yet it feels weird to implicate them in print, so I haven’t. In Fort Kent, though, there’s absolutely no stigma against smuggling. The local priests preached that it wasn’t a sin. And that attitude survives: In 2009, after a Fort Kent man was charged with smuggling large amounts of marijuana, locals sent the court 150 letters of support for him. Letter-writers included the priest of the Fort Kent parish and a local state legislator.
Smuggling wasn’t seen as an alternative to hard work. To the contrary, most of the other anecdotes I heard during my time in Fort Kent were about tough, dangerous labor. Bob Marquis, a retiree whose father Edgar worked most of his life for Jake, remembered picking potatoes as a kid on Jake’s farm every fall from the time he was 7 until he was 14. “Dad would bring us to the potato fields, and he’d come back at 10 to give us lunch, give us a break, 15 minutes, and then at noontime he’d come with our dinner,” Marquis said. “At 2 in the afternoon he’d come with a couple of donuts and a soft drink, and at 5:30 he’d pick us up.” They used the money they earned to buy clothes for the winter and pay for the dentist and new glasses.
Joel Plourde, a retired senior employee from Harry’s garage, was Fort Kent’s champion potato picker. When he was a 16 or 17, he averaged 140 barrels a day during harvest season. On his best day he picked 163 barrels. Plourde’s feat is famous in town. Chasse said that Plourde’s nose bled from the effort on his record-breaking day. Each barrel weighed over 150 pounds and earned him just 35 cents.
‘My father was a big smuggler. We’d get up in the morning and there were six, seven new cows in the pasture.’
Chasse told me that his father, in addition to smuggling, spent all winter in the woods, chopping timber. He left for the camp in October and came home in Easter, spending the time sleeping 20 men to a blanket, eating beans and lard, and boiling his clothes once a week to kill the lice. “He had a tough time,” Chasse said.
People in Fort Kent still work hard. The smuggling, however, has been suppressed. After September 11, the borders here were flooded with federal agents. The border agencies have built new outposts and monitoring systems, and the attitude among the officers at the crossings has changed.
You need a passport now, and sometimes the computers tell the agents it’s your turn to get searched, and a quick trip to Clair can turn into a many-hours-long dissection of your car and everything in it. Border officers turn up on patrol in favorite local riverside picnic spots. The locals resent the buildup. It’s made it harder to smuggle, but it’s also made it harder to live.
None of this is a secret in Fort Kent — not the smuggling or its decline. So if the Potato King was smuggling on the side, I would have heard about it. Everyone I asked said he hadn’t, not during Prohibition or at any other time. It’s not impossible that he was discrete, and that everyone who knew about it is dead. But it seems unlikely, in a place as small as Fort Kent, that something like that would have stayed secret.
Foiled in my HBO-inspired effort to reinvent my great-grandfather as a liquor kingpin, I headed to his old garage to figure out who he had actually been.
Part 10: An Etscovitz Museum
There’s a wall at Valley Motors in Fort Kent dedicated to Jake and Harry Etscovitz. When I described it to my parents the night after I saw it, they said it sounded like a shrine, which isn’t quite right, though it’s not quite wrong, either.
The dealership sells Chevys, Buicks and GMCs. It’s a long gray building on Main Street with a flashy showroom in front, a 30-second walk from the Potato King’s old house. The stretch of Main Street is hard to square with the old pictures of the place. There’s a Subway sandwich store on the lot now, and a nail salon and real estate agency in the buildings next door where Jake had his music shop and his brother-in-law had a small grocery.
Chad Pelletier took me by to see the history exhibition after breakfast at Doris’s. Along a wall in the back of the dealership, behind the showroom and across from the parts department, there are little sections of wall dedicated to each of the dealership’s historical owners. Chad, who is the head of Fort Kent Historical Society, put together the exhibit with the receptionist at Valley Motors. There’s a rusted sign that says “Etscovitz Sons Garage,” an old phone and cash register, and a portrait of Jake in a suit and tie, his eyebrows nearly as thick as mine.
Jake opened the garage in 1923. His father pulled him out of school when he was 11 or 12 to work as a butcher and a cattle trader, but Louis was dead by 1920 and Jake was responsible for his mother and his siblings. The car industry was new at the time. Jake dragged an old barn to Main Street and opened a garage, and then a gas station. He started selling Packards, then Dodges and Plymouths and Chevrolets and Pontiacs. He opened another dealership next door, called Valley Motors.
The potato business came later. Jake’s father had owned some land where he had his slaughterhouse, but Jake acquired more. He took swaps for cars — livestock, oats. Leroy Martin, a local developer, said that Jake had a field outside of town where he kept sheep and cattle and pigs he got off the farmers. “If they couldn’t meet the necessary money, he was a real negotiator,” Martin said. James Pelletier, a local retired businessman (also no relation to Chad), said Jake repossessed a few farms after the farmers couldn’t pay for their cars.
In the 1940s, Jake pulled strings to get a newly married grocery store employee named John Vaillancourt exempted from the draft. In return, John took over Jake’s potato business. Jake had fields outside of town and a big building by the railroad tracks for storing and packing the potatoes. The firm was called Esco Potatoes; the potatoes were sold under the brand name Comet, in burlap sacks with a red Sputnik-like ball shooting across a blue field. Esco grew its own potatoes, but it also brokered potatoes for other smaller operations in the area, buying up their crop and packing it into Comet bags. It was a big operation, but not the biggest around — Potato King, it turns out, is an epithet invented elsewhere, probably among some urban Jewish relations, and never breathed in Fort Kent.
Chevy King may have been more apt. Jake sold trucks, too, both to the lumber men and to the farmers. James remembers him in the showroom in his double-breasted suit. Jake never drank, unusual for a businessman in Fort Kent at the time, when it was hard to find someone sober enough to do business with in the afternoon.
The potato and car operations grew gently intertwined: The dealership took delivery of its cars from the railroad sidings at the Esco building. And when the potato industry went bad in the 1980s, the car dealership did, too. Harry got out of both around the same time, in circumstances that were unpleasant and a little frantic. By the late 1980s everything was gone.
Sour endings aren’t unusual here, however. In the 1940s, James Pelletier told me, every hundred acres was farmed by a family with some fields and livestock. There were 60 small farms in Fort Kent in the 1950s, according to Chasse. But that decade saw many of them collapse and the farmers move to Connecticut, where midsize industrial cities were booming. One more family business falling apart is hardly remembered.
The original Etscovitz Chevrolet building burned down in an electrical fire in 2012. “You could see it 10 miles away,” Chad Pelletier said. “It was instantaneous.”
Today, the new cars are parked where the burned-down building used to be. The dealership’s new owner, Steven Pelletier, James’s son, bought the business after the fire and reopened it in the building next door, which had once housed part of the dealership. Steven then resurrected Jake’s garage’s old name. He told me that the theme of the reopening was that “Valley Motors was coming back to Fort Kent.”
I was floored. That this was Steven’s marketing ploy suggested, first, that nostalgia for a car dealership was even possible, never mind marketable, which seemed a strange idea. Even harder to imagine, though, was that anyone would feel nostalgic for the suit-wearing, teetotaling, farm-repossessing Potato King everyone I met described.
Yet the marketing scheme seemed to have worked. At an open house a few months before, men came to visit who had been shop foremen decades earlier to share old stories. A guy drove up in a Corvette he had bought at the dealership in 1966.
I sat with Steven and his father James on couches at the dealership, talking about the old days. On Saturdays, James said, when the lumber workers came out of the woods with their trucks and dropped by the garage for repairs, Harry would be there with a bottle of whiskey. The lumber men and Harry would drink together, and everyone would hang out.
Once again, I had been focusing on the wrong guy. This wasn’t about Jake and his potato kingdom. This was about Harry and the dealership. In pickup truck country, the garage is like the pub for the English, or the Equinox for yuppies. Harry was their barman. They were nostalgic for Etscovitz Motors, but they were also nostalgic for Harry.
“The Etscovitz were a real part of Fort Kent,” James said.
Part 11: A Backhoe With a Tumor
In a parking lot on the edge of town, Harry’s best friend’s son was showing me a machine with iron claws and spinning teeth that reminded me of an inquisitor’s torture device.
Matthew Martin is a middle-aged guy with a tanned face and an L.L. Bean sweatshirt. His dad Leroy was one of Harry’s buddies. Leroy bought a summer place outside of town just next door to Harry’s. After Harry sold his businesses, he would hang out in the chair by Leroy’s office door, under a painting of a canoe on a lake.
Leroy and Matthew are lumber men. Leroy has white hair, a sharp nose, and work boots. When he was in his late 30s, Leroy was managing a quarter of a million acres of woodland for the Canadian conglomerate J.D. Irving. He had 250 men working under him, making Harry’s operations look small by comparison. The Martins have diversified now — Leroy’s a local developer, though the family still works in the woods. Matthew’s hell-machine, a Caterpillar 501 Track Harvester, is a key tool of their trade. Parked in the lot, the thing looked like a backhoe with a malignant metal tumor. Matthew tried to explain to me how it worked, but I could hardly follow — it cuts with one blade, measures logs with laser, churns wood with the wheels. It was hard to picture. He suggested I look for a video on YouTube.
I did. Holy shit. It’s like God has a hand made of blades and spiked wheels, and He’s using it to pull trees out of the ground and cut them into neat pieces. The hunk of metal at the end of the Cat’s arm can grab a tree, chop it down, turn it sideways, strip its branches, and slice it into a pile of logs in about 10 seconds. I watched it twice. It was like staring at a campfire.
The Martin men said one harvester can do the work that a team of 50 could do with horses. Some big firms run the machines all night long out in the woods, the operators safe in climate-controlled cabins.
In Fort Kent today, the young men who stick around do so to try their luck as logging owner-operators. They buy a big machine like a Cat 501 and pay timber landowners so-called “stumpage” fees for the right to harvest their land. They don’t need to camp out in the woods like Marc Chasse’s dad did. Instead, they leave the machines on the land they’re cutting and drive in and out on the lumber roads in their big pickups, carrying fuel in the auxiliary tanks in their truck beds.
The forests aren’t as dangerous as they used to be. Matthew has a GPS device and a satellite phone when he’s out working, and a pickup with plenty of gas. Even so, you need to have your CB radio on when you’re driving down the lumber roads so you know when an 18-wheeler is about to come barreling out of the trees.
Graduating from Harvard and then moving back to a place where most other men were worrying about getting run over by an 18-wheeler on a lumber road must have been hard for Harry. When he was young, before Jake died, Harry had hoped to be a lawyer, according to Leroy. Harry served in the Navy during the war, but he got sick and was discharged. After Jake died, Bessie ordered him to stay in Fort Kent.
“[Bessie] told him that he couldn’t just leave all the accomplishment and all the work his dad had done,” Leroy said. Harry told Leroy he had agreed to stay for a year before going back to school. “It never happened. He stayed with the dealership, and he stayed with farming, until he passed away… But his love was always to be a lawyer.”
Harry made friends with local lawyers. He kept lots of law books in his house. He handled negotiations to buy the local hospital from the nuns who had run it. And when Leroy had legal questions, Harry offered his amateur advice.
“I think after a while he accepted the dealership,” Leroy said. “He got to employ some of the best mechanics and some of the best people around at the time.”
I wondered if that had been enough.
Part 12: ‘It’s a Compensation’
I drove out to Eagle Lake, half an hour from Fort Kent, where Jake had a summer cabin. There’s an old photograph from the ’60s of my grandfather on the porch at the cabin in white pants and a button-down, one arm around Harry, dangling a 2-foot-long trout from his index finger.
At the Eagle Lake Grocery, I asked the man in the back cutting vegetables where the Etscovitz house was. I followed his vague directions down a wooded road until I found the tipped-over mailbox. I knew I had the right place when I saw the mezuzah on the door. The cabin is still owned by Harry’s daughter, though it was closed for the winter, so I couldn’t go inside. I walked out onto the back porch through a cold rain. I could almost recognize the deck chairs.
The next day I drove back to Bangor wondering what would have happened if the family had stayed in Fort Kent. What if the synagogue stayed open and Bessie had been more assertive, and Jake had been less ambitious, and my grandmother had stayed home for high school and Jake hadn’t died so young? I imagined an oven full of toenails and a lifted pickup and stories about the potato harvest. I might be a decent fisherman, or a moose hunter.
Okay, probably not a moose hunter. Still: None of it sounds so bad, but for the toenails.
Things worked out differently. Louis Etscovitz went to Fort Kent to be inconspicuous. But there was opportunity in the valley, a place where others on New England’s margins had created lives where they could live among their own and do fine for themselves. Louis’s son the Potato King wanted more. Everything that happened after was a consequence of his ambition: the Harvard educations, Comet potatoes, 1966 Corvettes, maybe even his high blood pressure and early death.
Also a consequence of that ambition was Harry being forced back to Maine and drop his own ideas about how his life would go. Yet Harry seemed to have adapted, and Fort Kent seems to genuinely miss him. The son of the Potato King turned out to be a regular guy.
In one of the old interviews with Harry from 1982, the interviewer asked if he was happy living in Fort Kent. “What is happiness? A full stomach? A satisfied mind? Going to bed with a pretty girl?” Harry said to the interviewer. “You be out fishing in a boat, you’re happy for a while. Playing golf. Watching a football game or a basketball game or in the company of a group, drinking beer and shooting bull. So many different things. But we’re all looking for it. So living here, maybe there’s a lot of things we can’t achieve because we don’t have the wherewithal to do it, but there are a lot of things we have here that you can’t find in the places that have a lot of these other things. It’s a compensation.”
When Jake’s ambition failed, Harry took the fall. He landed gracefully.
The True Story of Maine’s Potato King — My Great-Grandfather’s Rise and Fall
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.