Side Trips: Fort Fairfield Block House Preserves Era of Conflict in Northern Maine

Aug 21, 2014

The Fort Fairfield Block House.
Credit Nick Woodward / MPBN

FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine - There are lots of reasons to take a trip to Aroostook County: pretty scenery, poutine - and a side trip to Canada is just minutes away. But for some history buffs, the town of Fort Fairfield is an essential stop for its role in an old border dispute that flared up in the late 1830's. At the center of that conflict stood the town's block house fort. While the original structure was mostly dismantled, the old fort was rebuilt and restored to its original appearance about 40 years ago. It now serves as a museum, detailing two centuries of life along the border.  

 

The Fort Fairfield Block House, with its fat, square, rough-hewn timbers, sits right in the middle of town on a busy street. Logging trucks blare past and there's a steady stream of cars heading back and forth across the New Brunswick border, which is less than a mile away. Everything seems busy and good natured in Fort Fairfield. But 200 years ago, this was a frontier spot, and at the epicenter of a tense conflict known as the Aroostook War.

"Up here we call it the Bloodless Aroostook War, because there was no one killed, or no one injured during the war," says Frontier Heritage Historical Society member Bill Findlen, who takes care of the Block House and opens it by appointment only. He says while no shots were fired during the Aroostook War, tempers on both sides flared between 1838 and 1842 over one important resource: lumber.
 

Historic items on display inside the Fort Fairfield Block House.
Credit Nick Woodward / MPBN

And the tensions had started decades before. Prior to the Boston Tea Party, there was an event called the Pine Tree Riot, where Northern New Englanders rose up in protest over an English rule that reserved the tallest, straightest trees - so-called King's Pines - for the Crown. But following the Revolutionary War, and then the War of 1812, it still wasn't clear who owned what.

"The line between the United States and Canada wasn't defined," Findlen says. "The Canadians were coming up the river, cutting the timber, floating it down, and, of course, they wanted the big King's Pine, to make their masts and send them over to England."

But the Americans wanted access to the same pines, so they took to stringing heavy chains across the Aroostook River to stop the logs from reaching Canada. There's one of these on diplay in the museum.

"You notice how it's all pitted and so forth," Findlen says. "It was found down on the river bank and donated to the historical society, so it's a neat piece to be able to find something original that goes back that far."

While such disputes are now settled through trade negotiations - perhaps with the odd act of civil disobedience - the American government back then responded by building a fort on the river from those coveted King's Pines, and staffing it with an armed militia. Fortunately, the whole affair was brought to a peaceful close in 1842 with the signing of a treaty that finally established a permanent border.

It's a short chapter in the history books that the rest of the world may have barely skimmed, but for history buffs, like Walter Grant of Calgary, Alberta, it's one of the most exciting stops on his summer road trip.

"So I drove down last Wednesday to Little Big Horn, and then I traversed across the upper states and went to Gettysburg, and spent the last few days there. So it's just been a great experience," he says. "I came up here to actually see this. Out of all the forts that I was looking at, this is the one I wanted to see."

Grant, who describes himself as a military history enthusiast, says it's not that easy to find a block house fort to tour outside the Northeast. "The structure itself is unique, and it's amazing that it can house - I think they said it can garrison 50 guys here? So that was fascinating in itself, that you could put 50 guys in a place like this."
 

Some of the kitchen items preserved in the Fort Fairfield block House.
Credit Nick Woodward / MPBN

But Dawn Findlen, who cares for the Block House along with her husband, is quick to point out that the collections go well beyond military history and into the realms of daily civilian life. She's arranged the upstairs of the fort to show more of the home utilities that people would have used over the last 200 years, from doughnut turners to cook stoves.

The collection also features an original table that the troops garrisoned in Fort Fairfield would have used. And, she says, they're working on a new display that details the birth of the electronic age, from record albums to computers. "There was a little boy come in, and he looked at one of those thick, big records and he went over to his mother and he said,  'Mom, come see the biggest CD you ever saw!' Dawn Findlen says. "So, you know, it's good for them to know what life was, and how it has changed."

The Fort Fairfield Block House is only open regularly during the July Potato Blossom Festival. Anyone wanting a tour should contact the Frontier Heritage Historical Society. They can be reached through the Fort Fairfield Chamber of Commerce.