Beer, boots, and now a movie. Tiny Allagash sees its name become a brand
ALLAGASH, Maine — The lyrical name of this North Woods village conjures a wilderness paradise that inspired the 19th-century author Henry David Thoreau and continues to resonate today, a mystique that marketers have eagerly borrowed.
There’s the Allagash Brewing Co. in Portland, which makes Belgian-style beer. The Maine retailer L.L. Bean sells Allagash Cargo Pants and Allagash bison-leather boots. There’s even a movie called “Allagash” that’s in the works, a crime thriller set in Maine that stars Tom Berenger.
It’s enough to make some of the 217 residents of this far northern town worry that their home’s rugged identity has been reduced to a symbol, and that corporate branding from afar — Portland is a six-hour drive, for example — has co-opted its image without giving much back.
“We want to define Allagash, not let a brewing company do it,” said Louie Pelletier, a 50-year-old former logger who runs a woodworking and furniture business. “Don’t tell the world what we’re like.”
So far, defining Allagash has meant different things to people who live here and to those “from away.” And it’s not difficult to understand why.
This is literally the end of the paved road, 450 miles from Boston, a thickly forested place at the frontier of New England where the tar gives way to dirt and dust on the logging routes to Canada.
Schooling for the town’s 24 children from kindergarten through high school is 30 miles away in Fort Kent. The nearest Walmart is two hours away in Presque Isle. And major shopping excursions, often conducted over a weekend, mean a four-hour drive to Bangor.
“I don’t even know if I consider this New England,” said Chace Jackson, a 28-year-old whose accent bears little resemblance to the Down East stereotype.
No “ay-uhs” in Allagash. It’s tilted more to Canadian, with traces of the softer tones heard in that country’s maritime provinces.
It’s partly a result of the Scottish and Irish pioneers who settled Allagash nearly 200 years ago, and whose descendants still form the core of a heavily Celtic enclave among Acadian and other French-Canadian families in the St. John River Valley.
“It’s a culture that’s very peculiar and unique to Allagash,” Jackson said of the town, whose 129 square miles of land make it the state’s largest.
But even as the name gains prominence in 21st-century consumer culture, many of Allagash’s residents are looking for ways to preserve the town’s faraway ambience and their bonds to one another.
The population is estimated to have shrunk by 70 percent from close to 1,000 people in the 1960s. The timber industry doesn’t attract or need as many workers as in the past. And some outdoor guides are worried that the intensive, corporate logging that does occur is taking its toll on the moose, bear, deer, and fish that have long thrived in the region.
“I drive through and think what it used to be,” said Hilton Hafford, 61, a guide whose family has deep roots in Allagash. “We don’t have the wildlife we used to have.”
Hafford is a longtime name here, as are a handful of others such as MacBreairty, Kelly, O’Leary, and Pelletier. The core of the community is descended from the first group of permanent white settlers, who arrived here in the 1830s at a testy time when the nearby border between Maine and New Brunswick had yet to be settled.
That shared heritage had remained a strong but often-quiet source of pride until recent decades. Now, as the population dwindles, where Allagash came from and where it is going are gaining more importance.
“Our history is us. That’s who we are,” said Darlene Kelly, 60, whose family has lived here for six generations.
“We’re folks from a community that is getting smaller and smaller and smaller, and we want to hold onto it,” said Kelly, who owns the only restaurant in town. “We’re not trying to say, ‘This is ours and you can’t have it.’ But Allagash is so much more than a great beer.”
Rob Tod, who founded the Allagash brewery, said the name refers to the federally protected, 92-mile Allagash Wilderness Waterway, “a beautiful and rustic area that embodied the spirit of the beer I wanted to brew.”
The company gives 1 percent of its sales to organizations that support Maine communities, Tod said, including a total of $19,500 in donations to the Allagash Wilderness Waterway Foundation.
For Moose Towners, a once-derogatory term that Allagash residents now embrace, building a sustainable future without eradicating the past is the key. An economic development group has been formed, as well as a stakeholders board that puts community leaders at the table with business interests, Kelly said.
The median household income for Allagash in 2017 was $27,000, less than half the state’s median average of $56,277 and the national average of just over $59,000. Like many communities in northern Maine, the town has an older population, with a median age of nearly 57.
Jackson, who lives in Augusta and works for a nonprofit group, said he felt compelled to leave Allagash so he could build experience and resources to return some day.
“The only way I could make Allagash work was by going away,” said Jackson, whose father, a former logger, is president of the state Senate.
But even as outdoor tourism is helping Allagash — a Maryland couple even visited this year to view the Northern Lights, Pelletier said with some surprise — more than a few locals are worried that their favorite fishing hole might be discovered or the look of the town will change.
Pelletier, who said incremental change is welcome, let out a long sigh and paused several seconds when asked whether the town would be able to preserve its character.
“I’d hate to see that forgotten,” he said.
Dee Jalbert, whose 4 acres border the St. John River, thinks one way to help Allagash is to let its name circulate commercially.
“It adds to the allure of the area,” said Jalbert, the librarian for the Fort Kent schools. “In no village or spot or location do people have exclusive rights to the name.”
Still, the right level of attention can be fodder for debate, even for an area that could use an economic shot in the arm.
“I don’t want to be around all the noise,” Jalbert acknowledged.
She looked out at the St. John River, a broad swath of water that ripples over a carpet of stones toward its junction with the Allagash River. Their waters, which meet near Kelly’s restaurant, will eventually reach the Bay of Fundy.
“I feel I have a piece of paradise,” Jalbert said wistfully with a smile. “Let’s keep it a secret.”