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Houlton Town

Aroostook County, Maine

Houlton Town Hall is located at 21 Water Street, Houlton, MW 04730.
Phone: 207‑532‑7111.

Houlton as described in 1937 [1]

Attractive and tree-shaded, Houlton combines the qualities of the old-fashioned country town with those of a modern city. The seat of Aroostook County, one of the richest potato-raising regions in the United States, and focal point of the northernmost part of Maine that is actively developing its assets as a recreation area, Houlton has become a large commercial center. Yet, in spite of the heavy traffic of motor trucks and automobiles over its smooth pavement, Market Square, the spacious heart of the town's business district, retains an atmosphere reminiscent of creaking wagon wheels and patient horses tethered to sidewalk hitching posts. And the residential sections, sweeping upward and away from the Meduxnekeag River through the center of the town, have a leisurely, almost rural air somehow paradoxical to their broad streets and well-kept appearance that would do credit to a modern suburb. It is doubtless the lack of crowding and the many fine old elms as old, some of them, as Houlton itself that preserve so well the dignified atmosphere of a New England town.

Houlton lies in a shallow natural bowl between wooded ridges. To the east the terrain rolls upward to the town line where, adjoining the highway, the frontier between the United States and Canada has the usual custom houses and markers, and is fortified only by a few bushes and a dilapidated fence. At the west end of the town the fertile land is traversed in a general north and south direction by a large esker or "horse-back" which is considered one of the world's outstanding examples of this type of glacial formation. An esker is a ridge of gravel created between the walls of a crack or groove in the glacier and left standing as the ice receded. Besides being a trading center for most of Aroostook, Houlton is the shipping point for potatoes produced in the surrounding farm regions. Although early in its history it was known as a lumbering town, most of the operations were actually carried on along the rivers to the north, especially on the Allagash, the Aroostook, the Meduxnekeag (Indian for 'where people go out'), and the St. John.

Lumbering operations near Houlton began in a small way. The first settlers made a business of turning out limited quantities of shingles and boards, which they rafted to Woodstock and Fredericton. A saw mill was erected in 1810 by Aaron Putnam, one of the fathers of the settlement, when Houlton's first dam was built across a small creek. Early lumber drives were worked under severe handicaps, the greatest of which was the necessity of trucking the rafts around Jackson Falls. Since potato farms quickly supplanted the wooded districts of Aroostook, the lumber industry, never as extensive as in Penobscot and Somerset Counties, soon ceased to be of primary importance.

When, in 1799, the citizens of New Salem, Massachusetts, petitioned the legislature of the Commonwealth for money with which to found an academy, they were granted, as was customary, a piece of land in the wilderness of Maine, to sell it if and as they could. This grant is now the south half of Houlton; the northern part is a section of the Williams College grant, presented at about the same time to the Williamstown, Massachusetts, institution. A group of New Salem men purchased the academy land. Of the original thirteen, however, only three (Joseph Houlton, from whom the town eventually took its name, and Aaron and Joseph Putnam) ever actually saw the land. These men established their settlement in 1805. They found that ingress to their new home was not only arduous but dangerous, for beyond Old Town the District of Maine was largely unexplored forest, dense, and trackless. The journey to the site of Houlton had to be accomplished by way of a complicated system of waterways and carries from the Penobscot, or up the St. John River to Woodstock and thence through the woods. Development of the land was slow. The newcomers had to struggle for their existence as if on a distant frontier, for supplies were brought in to them only after infinite labor, and the growing season was very short. A cow was a luxury, and every piece of mill machinery was worth its weight in gold.

In 1822, William H. Cary of New Salem came to Houlton, where he built the spacious house on the hill above the present Canadian Pacific Station. He, with his son, Shepard Cary, founded Gary's Mills, a combination of foundry, carding, and grist mills, thus establishing the town's first industry of importance. Members of this family contributed to the political, social, and economic development of their town and State.

A road built in 1827 connecting Houlton with Baskahegan greatly facilitated transportation, and Houlton finally ceased to feel itself set apart from the world when in 1828 it was the garrison for seven companies of United States Infantry. The National Government purchased twenty-five acres of land; the Hancock Barracks were constructed and a parade ground was laid out, and Houlton found itself the northeastern most military station in the United States. A new era of prosperity began. The presence of the post stimulated local trade, gave the people a market for their produce and labor, and attracted more settlers to the town. Finally, in 1832, the construction of the military road (now Maine 166) between Houlton and Bangor was completed.

With the outbreak of the so-called Aroostook War (1839) that climaxed the old border controversy, Houlton jumped into national prominence. Twelve companies of Maine militia were sent in, and through the bitter cold of the long winter they subsisted on hardtack and salt pork and what little food the overburdened inhabitants could spare them. Major R. M. Kirby, in charge of the army post, refused to take any part in the 'war' for fear of placing the United States Government in a compromising position. The dispute was finally settled, and the national boundary established. Eight years later, the Government withdrew its troops and the post was abandoned.

Houlton thereupon entered upon an economic slump from which it began to recover in 1862 when the New Brunswick Railway (now the Canadian Pacific) was built from St. Andrews, New Brunswick, to a point on the Woodstock turnpike only five miles from town. By 1870 the branch had been extended into the town so that communication with the seaboard by way of New Brunswick was opened. The following year the European and North American Railway (now the Maine Central) was completed from Bangor to Vanceboro, thereby giving Houlton rail connections by a circuitous route with the cities to the south. Up to this time Houlton had to market its products in New Brunswick, and now not only the town itself but the whole of Aroostook County was able to capitalize on its agricultural resources. In 1894 the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad reached Houlton; within a few years it had extended its line through the northern territory as far as Fort Kent. By this linking of Houlton and the surrounding country with the great national markets, a new prosperity was brought to the people of Aroostook; they expanded their farming operations, the population began to increase rapidly, and Houlton was prominent in the development of the country.

The railroads remain of first importance to the continued economic success of this region, for the difficulties of highway transportation are considerable. In spite of the efficiency of modern snow-removal equipment and the improved conditions of the roadways, drifting snow often renders motor traffic completely helpless; heavy trucking over the unsurfaced roads of the country is possible only during a short period of the year. Houlton therefore remains chiefly important as a railroad shipping center.

  1. Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration, State of Maine Development Commission, Maine: A Guide 'Down East,' 1937, American Guide Series, Riverside Press, Cambridge MA; Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston