The Jewish History of Aroostook County

by Natalie Cohen (April 2011)

My family name is Koven.  I lived in Grand Falls, N.B., which is 3 miles from the Maine border and Aroostook County.  I left Grand Falls in 1948 but my memories are still vivid.  At that time there were many Jewish families living in the County from Fort Kent to Island Falls.

It is not known for certain what originally brought these Jewish families to Aroostook County but many of them were farmers and it may have been that the weather and fertile soil was similar to their home countries.  There were some who had been merchants and they became the peddlers in their new home.  My father, Herbie Koven, was one of these men.

During my time in the area, Jews and Gentiles lived peacefully side by side.  I do not remember any animosity.  I did ask Ray Givetz if he knew of any incidents and he also said “no”.  I do remember in the ‘60s when the synagogue in Presque Isle was desecrated, the Bangor Daily News or Kennebec Journal wrote an article about how the local townspeople came to the synagogue to help clean up the “mess”, because and I quote, “this shouldn’t and doesn’t happen here”.  My husband, Max, and I were at a rally held in Augusta in conjunction with the desecration and were amazed that so many people, including teenagers, came to show their support for the Jewish congregation.  As far as we know none were from Aroostook county.

Most of the community in Grand Falls were Catholics.  There was one other Jewish family, the Simkovitz’s.  At a town meeting, a gentleman got up and made a motion that all stores close on Catholic Holy Days.  One man objected saying Herbie Koven closes his store 3 days a year but you do not hear him asking us to close ours on Jewish Holy Days.  The motion was tabled and never brought up again.  I was not really aware of Anti-Semitism until I moved to Montreal at age 18.

In Fort Kent, and surrounding areas, there were enough families to support a synagogue. The synagogue has been removed, but there is a rock with a plaque showing just where it had stood and it is inscribed with the names of the families.  Jacob Escovitz, who was farmer as well as a car dealer, had a Mikva in his home as well as 2 kitchens – one for meat and the other for dairy.

Most of the families were involved with the potato industry.  As far as I remember, there were no Jewish families in Madawaska, but across the bridge in Edmonston, N.B., there were several.  They were merchants or cattle dealers.  They also were involved with the families in Fort Kent.  In Van Buren, there was the Harris family who were merchants.  One of the Harris sons, according to my memory, was the only Jewish person from Aroostook County to be killed during World War II.

As we all know, to cross from Canada to the U.S. or vice versa, we must stop at Customs, well my father, who was excited, was driving into Van Buren to pick up a meat order from Bangor to be used for the “Bris” of my younger brother and he forgot to report.  The State Trooper picked up my father at Mr. Harris’s store and if it weren’t for Mr. Harris, who gave my father the $1,000.00 for the fine, the car and my brother and father and I would have been stranded.

In Limestone, there was one family, the Marks, who were potato farmers.  Fort Fairfield had several families, some of whom were merchants, but there were others who were involved with potatoes also.  Ten miles north in New Brunswick, in Perth and Andover, there were 2 families.  One family had 6 children.

We, my mother and my older brother, drove 24 miles each week to Andover, N.B. to take Hebrew lessons.  A Rabbi from Woodstock, N.B. came up (he drove 40 miles) to teach Hebrew, prepare the boys for Bar Mitzvah and to kill our chickens (he was also a shochat).

In Caribou, there were 4 or 5 families, one had a grocery store, one man sold car parts, another was a car dealer and the rest were involved with potatoes.  One of the men was a Sunday school teacher.

Presque Isle was the hub of our Jewish activities.  I believe this town had the most Jewish families.  There were merchants, an antique dealer, a car dealer and again families involved with the potato industry.  Mr. Harry Green, a merchant, owned a large building on Main Street.  His store was on the first floor, but upstairs was where, until the synagogue was built, we held Sunday school and had family get togethers.  The only International B’Nai Brith Lodge and Chapter held their meetings there.  From the kitchen many meals were served and all our deli and kosher food came from Sklars in Bangor.

During the war the boys from the air base in Presque Isle were invited to our Seders, Holy Days, breakfasts, etc.  All the homes, including ours in Grand Falls, were opened to them.  I was made mascot of one of the squadrons.  Also, I remember, a cousin of mine who lived in Presque Isle, met and married a flyer from the air base.

As you know, the schools in Aroostook County close during potato picking time.  So until our synagogue was built in Presque Isle we used the high school gym for our High Holy Day Services.  Families, like ours, who had distances to drive, stayed at the hotel or the local families opened their doors to us.

Two or three of the men from Presque Isle, took it upon themselves to get the synagogue built.  The synagogue then became the center of all our activities. My younger brother was one of the first to be Bar Mitzvahed there.  The dinner was held at the hotel.  My mother and father helped, instructed and observed the hotel kitchen being prepared, so that the food would be strictly kosher.  Again, all the food came from Bangor.   Due to lack of families and money this lovely synagogue may soon be closing.  It is now open only for the High Holy Days, although a family from Sydney, N.S. held their daughter’s Bas Mitzvah there recently.

When Loring A.F.B. was in operation in Limestone there were many Jewish families stationed there.  Again, the Jewish community opened their doors.  The air base had a Rabbi, Rabbi Henry Isaacs, who subsequently served as the Rabbi at the orthodox synagogue in Bangor for 39 years.

Mars Hill had the Adelman family.  Mr. & Mrs. Adelman Were two of the founders of the Jewish community.  He was a potato farmer.  Both sons, Milton and Yale, and a daughter, Elizabeth, married and brought up their children there.  Elizabeth and her husband had a store.  Milton is still living in Mars Hill.  I believe that at one time you could buy their potatoes at Publix in Florida.

In Houlton, there was a car dealer and maybe 2 or 3 other families.  There were 2 brothers who practiced law there.  I’m not sure if any of the Jewish families is still there.  I know that none of the Escovitz’s is.

Jake Shur, who was a potato farmer, lived in Island Falls.  His son Arthur, still lives there and is in the potato industry.

Generally, religious services were held only on the High Holy Days and other special occasions.  However, every Sunday the community gathered for religious studies. I have many happy memories of being a part of this wonderful community, being with other Jewish families, and observing many traditions of the Holy Days, etc.  We traveled 48 miles to Presque Isle.  It didn’t matter what the weather was like, unless Presque Isle called it off – we went.  After Sunday school, we would end up at the home of one of the local families.  We would spend the day going to movies, hanging out, or doing our homework together, while our parents either went back to the Synagogue or just had an adult occasion.  By midnight, we would be picked up and taken home.  I recall all the wonderful memories of families and friends.

The only ones left in the county that I remember are my cousin, Arthur, in Island Falls, Milton Adelman and Alvin and Ruth Weinberg of Presque Isle.

The Jewish community of “the County” was not only generous to Jewish philanthropies but also to the communities in which they lived.  Max and I attended a Jewish fund drive in Presque Isle and within a ½ hour $100,000.00 was raised.  My parents attended all functions.  We had picnics, get togethers, and socials.  We were only a phone call away from everyone.

Whenever I meet any one from the County and ask if they know of the Escovitz families, they always reply, “My parents bought all their cars from them”.  They would then tell me of the other families and the contributions they made to their towns.