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WHY GO: Four percent of the nations potatoes come from Maine, and of that 4%, nearly all (97%) come from the ground around Presque Isle ME. In the early 1900’s the town had 22 one-room schoolhouses so that kids could be close enough to their family farm to help with the harvest. In fact, many Mainers travel north each year just for the 100 lb sacks of cheap potatoes found in a slew of roadside stands. But of course, that’s not the only reason to spend a night in this Northern Maine town, in Central Aroostook County, just 15 minutes from the Canadian border. You’ll find incredible snowmobiling, great x-country skiing, international ballooning history, a world class Biathlon facility, a famous horse, and an unsettling piece of U.S. military history. So, plan a night, have an excellent meal, and find out why Presque Isle is worth your while.
Things to Do In, to and from Presque Isle ME
VISIT: Patten Lumbermen’s Museum, Patten. About an hour south of Presque Isle on Route 11, travelers generally stop in Patten on their way to and from Baxter State Park, which lies directly to its west, for last minute camping provisions and a tank of gas. It’s a nothing town, except for a cute gift shop (Red Moose Gifts), a convenience store and the Lumbermen’s Museum, which has seen better days but still promises to impress.
The nine buildings that make up the Museum create a physical time-line of the lumberman’s life: from the most rustic 1820 Logging Camp to a larger early 1900’s cabin with mess hall and sleeping quarters, and plenty of heavy equipment through the years. The main log building is completely reconstructed from original hand hewn 1840 house timbers. In the early 1800’s all men slept in the same bed under the same long blanket. Clothes were dried over the fire on a “stink” pole – wet socks and clothing emitting an odor most foul. It was said you could smell a logging camp a half-mile away.
Though not in the best shape, you’ll get a gander at the ingenious machinery created to maximize the cutting and shipping of timber. As logging is a year round industry, water was spread from hole-studded buckets atop a road-icing cart, driven on dirt roads to form ice paths for smoother sledding. Later, log haulers with cleat tracks, providing traction to wheels, were developed. The Museum showcases the 1910 Lombard Steam Log Hauler – a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark – the first to be patented in the USA.
For now, antique artifacts have been left to age ungracefully – the museum’s founders didn’t provide an endowment large enough for constant upkeep. So, the Lumberman’s Museum relies on visitors and contributions and its wonderful annual “Bean Hole Bean Dinner,” a baked bean dinner prepared the way they did it in the logging camps – by digging a deep hole, nesting a huge bean pot atop a burning fire, and letting it cook overnight. Sign up if your visit just happens to line up, usually the first weekend in August. Mid May to mid Oct – Fri – Sun 10-4, in summer open Tues-Sun 10-4. $8.
PHOTO OP: Solar System Planets to Scale, Houlton to Presque Isle on US Route 1. Starting at the Houlton Information Center (northern end of I-95) and running 40 miles to the U. of Maine Campus in Presque Isle on Route 1, keep your eyes open for the eight planets in the solar system that stand by the side of the road, built in 2000 by the people of Aroostook County in cooperation with the University of Maine at Presque Isle. The actual objects are 93,000,000 times the size of each model rendering this array the largest complete three-dimensional scale model of the Solar System in the World. Bigger planets (Jupiter, Saturn), of course, are easy to spot, but the smaller ones not so much. Given all the hoopla a few years ago around a similar project in the Nevada desert on 7 miles of dry lakebed, this one deserves attention for sure.
VISIT: Presque Isle Air Museum at the Northern Maine Regional Airport. Opened in 1942, right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Presque Isle Air Force Base was the northernmost AFB in the county, and as such was chosen as home to the nation’s first Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles.
From 1958-1961, the Air Base also housed a cache of Snark Cruise Missiles, stored in low-slung grey hangars and ready for launch on 16-foot launch pads at any time. Sixty seven feet long with a 42 foot wingspan, the nukes could be land-launched with a range of 6,300 miles – about as far as Moscow. The Base closed in 1960, but you can still see the remnants of the launch pads, some warehouses and a small museum with declassified documents and photos. Incredible. Open 24/7, free.
VISIT/SNOWSHOE/SKI/MOUNTAIN BIKE: Nordic Heritage Center. A first-class training facility for Biathlon competitors (x-country ski, riflery), guests are also invited to use the grounds during non-competition days to mountain bike in warm months and x-country ski or snowshoe in winter on 22 miles of trails, some lit at night. Lodge hours 6am-10pm, Trails lit in winter 4:30-8:30pm. Ski and Snowshoe Rentals – $10.
SEE: Double Eagle II Balloon Launch Site. Here, on August 11, 1978, the Double Eagle II took off from the USA, landing just outside of Paris 137 hours later on August 17th. It was the world’s first successful transatlantic hot air balloon flight, making the cover of Sports Illustrated, Time and Reader’s Digest. A monument marks the spot of this historic flight.
TOUR: The 1875 Vera Estey House, Presque Isle Historical Society. Vera lived in this home in a tony part of town (now called Doctor Row) until her death in 1986 at age 92. An entrepreneur, she grew and sold tulips and lilies to the Boston Fresh Flower Market for a living, never married, and lived a good life filled with travel and fancy dress. Her home is both a repository of her top-of-the-line appliances (G.E. 1929 Monitor Top Fridge), clothing (black-bird-topped hat, mink coat, ostrich purse), and furnishings (silk fringed lamps), and ersatz museum of Presque Isle historic oddities – like the Civil War pegleg (warn by an injured vet who had one for weekdays and one for Sunday).
But perhaps the most curious story revolves around the most celebrated Presque Isle resident – John R. Braden: A horse. In the roaring 20’s heyday of harness racing, any community, no matter how remote, wanted some hide in the game. So, the good men of Presque Isle’s Moosleuk Club got $4,000 together to purchase a fitting horse, named John R. Braden, from a Tennessee farm and began to race him in 1921. Braden started in 68 races over 4 seasons, winning 31, earning a whopping $48,000 (which was split between the investors and local charities) over his short career . The community threw a banquet in Braden’s honor, invited the steed into the hotel and allowed the horse to drink champagne from the ornate silver Winner’s Cup. Braden died in 1929, much cared for and much loved. He is buried in town. Tours once a month or by appointment, $5.
TOUR: Molly the Trolley and Other Walking Tours Through The Presque Isle Historical Society. Docents lead driving and walking tours, as well as historical presentations throughout the year. Check website for information. Tickets $5-$10 depending on event.
MOVIE THEATER: Braden Theater. See first run movies in this theater named for a horse. (See above). Look above the box office window to see a carving of the famous Presque Isle harness racer after whom the theater is named.
Where to Eat in Presque Isle ME
EAT: Café Sorpreso. Surprisingly sophisticated for a town on the edge of the Maine “wilderness,” Café Sorpreso dished out one of the best meals I enjoyed in the state. Simple elegance, large black and white photo portraits on white walls, hardwood tables set with fresh flowers, Sorpreso is fantastic and upscale enough to win favor in a much larger city. Even better, talented chefs are adept at a wide range of food, from Pan Seared Scallops in Vermouth ($25), “Heavenly Haddock” ($22) – blanketed with buttery cracker crumbs – a light and excellently prepared dish, to Lamb Kabob ($26).
EAT: Governor’s Restaurant and Bakery. Perfect if you’re just in the mood for comfort and pub food and don’t want to spend too much.
EAT: Locals love Gram Russo’s for Italian at the Presque Isle Convention Center and the coffee-shop Riverside Restaurant for no-frills breakfast.
Where to Stay in Presque Isle ME
STAY: Presque Isle Hampton Inn. Once again, I must recommend a chain hotel (on the upper end of mid-range) due to the paucity of inns and B&B’s in Presque Isle. This Hampton Inn, however, is full of friendly folk, is brand new, with nice clean rooms, granite bathrooms and a hot and cold breakfast included in the rate. Nothing extra-ordinary, but comfortable, safe and arguably the best place to stay in town. King rooms $109-$170.