International Festival 50th Anniversary

As this is the 50th Anniversary of the first St. Croix Valley International Festival we thought it a good time to look back at its history. The International Festival is unique in many ways but so is the relationship among the four border communities, Calais, St. Stephen and the two Milltowns which historian Harold Davis aptly describes as “An International Community on the St. Croix.”

As far as we can tell from researching national newspapers over the last century the St. Croix Valley’s International Festival in unique. No other border communities on either the northern or southern border hold a similar event.

Legionnaires International Festival Parade 

The flags displayed in the photo above exemplify the international nature of the festival. The Stars and Stripes, the Maple Leaf of Canada, the Union Jack of the British Empire and the flag of the United Nations are all proudly displayed in a parade of bands, floats, civic organizations and military and law enforcement from both sides of the border. The marchers have crossed the international bridge while customs and immigration inspectors join the crowd as spectators. Hours before the parade runners had completed the 5 mile loop through the four towns and crossed the border twice to cheers by Customs and Immigration officers rather the familiar request for “passport please”.

St Stephen decorated for Queen Victoria Day

While the International Festival is unique, the spirit of the event is woven in the fabric of the St. Croix Valley. International celebrations have been the rule not the exception in the valley for 150 years. Queen Victoria’s birthday and the 4th of July were always celebrated on both sides of the border.

From Harold Davis’ history of the St. Croix Valley:

For many years after 1860 the twenty-fourth of May, birthday of Queen Victoria, was one of the principal holidays along the border. Schools and business houses on the New Brunswick side closed, and there was a gala celebration. Sometimes Calais tried to continue as usual, but the band, fire department, and at least half of the town crossed over to join in the fun. Calais school children always demanded but were rarely ever given a holiday, so a lot of them played hooky and went merrily over to St. Stephen chanting defiantly:

The twenty-fourth of May

 Is the Queen’s birthday

 If ya don’t give-us a holiday

 We’ll all run away

In 1900 the Calais Superintendent of Schools warned the students of his intention to take harsh actions if they skipped school on May 24th to attend the Victoria Day celebrations. Many disobeyed and were suspended for a year but the outcry from both sides of the border was so great he was forced to back down.

Mounties and American and Canadian military in 4th of July parade, St Croix Hotel. 

Calais historian Ned Lamb recalls:

Every big parade crosses the bridges. Why the last Coronation Parade for the English King came into Calais marching to the lilting music of the Maine Stein Song. So why shouldn’t we celebrate the friendly relations between the places. July 1, Confederation Day, July 4, Independence Day. It was one of England’s great statesmen who, standing at the tomb of Washington spoke of him as the founder of the British Empire. Let us enjoy our friendship and the days of the Jubilee.

 Frontier Days in 1961 was a predecessor of today’s International Festival and it was a very big deal. Frontier Days article The program for Frontier Days was 100 pages long, listing 9 days of events. It included messages of congratulations from President John F. Kennedy, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and other political notables. Original poetry in the program was interspersed with local histories and ads from nearly every business in the area. Events ranged from the Frontier Week Beard Contest to a challenge baseball game between Gov John Reed and his executive council and Premier Louis Robichaud and his cabinet. The umpires were the Governor of Massachusetts and the Premier of Nova Scotia. A fishing derby featuring Red Sox great Ted Williams attracted many of the famous fishermen of the day to the area and each day was filled with concerts, dinners, grand balls, square dancing, contests of every sort including a bathing suit contest sponsored by the Lions Club, an international soap box derby and a huge parade on July 4th. Patricia Stewart of Calais won the beauty contest and Ted Williams hit a single for each side in the baseball game.  Sadly many of the businesses in the program are only memories-The St Croix Valley Drive-In, Unobskeys, Lincoln Motor Court, Donovan’s Nationwide, Pollock’s Mobil, Down East TV., Western Auto,  Andrews Tobacco Stand, Grant’s Dairy, Algar’s Cleaners, Osbourne’s Pharmacy,  Cole Bridges, Barnes Bros., H.S.Silverman, Jim Kelly’s Clothing, Tupper’s Cabins, The St Croix Music Shop, F.L. Stewart, Vira’s Restaurant, Molly’s Restaurant, Bates Jewelers, Trimble’s Shoe Store, Cassidy’s Shoe Store,  Cold Spring Motor Court, Ross Bros., and Webster’s General Store in Robbinston are all gone. 20,000 people were expected to participate and apparently most of them came. Presiding over this magnificent event was Bob Treworgy, Calais businessman and, for a week, Mayor of the entire St Croix Valley.

Frontier Days was not repeated, and it wasn’t until the spring of 1974 that there was any discussion of holding another international event. On March 31st, 1974, the Bangor Daily News reported on a meeting of the Calais Chamber of Commerce:

Calais: Dave Fenderson, President of the Calais Chamber of Commerce, announced come on Thursday plans for the chamber to assemble Wednesday at the Rankin Chevrolet Olds garage at 7:00 PM. Other upcoming events also were noted.Chamber representative Perry Rankin also has unveiled plans for an International Festival to be held on August 9 through 11 and reviewed the possibilities of the Calais Rotary and Lions Club, JCs, and Calais Rod and Gun Club joining in the international festival.

1st International Festival just two weeks away

On July 26th the Calais Advertiser confirmed that the Chamber and many other local organizations from both sides of the border had been hard at work putting together what was to be become the International Festival and on July 30th the Bangor Daily published the schedule of events for the 1st International Festival:

The festival’s schedule of events, in addition to the opening church supper at 5 P.M (U.S. time) Aug. 9 will be: an auction at the old post office in Calais at 6 p.m. sponsored by the Calais Lions Club; a 9:30 p.m. international ball in the St. Stephen arena hosted by the St. Stephen Curling Club, and the 10:30 p.m. beauty pageant in the arena.

Aug. 10  will include another church breakfast room 7-9 a.m. in the Calais Methodist Vestry, prepared by the church men’s club; a golf tourney starting at 8 a.m. at the St. Croix Country Club on the River Road; open house at the Washington County Vocational Technical Institute at Calais, featuring the new dormitories at 10 a.m.; all day sidewalk sales in both cities bordering the St. Croix River; a lobster feed at 11 a.m. in the St. Stephen arena under the direction of the St. Stephen Rotary Club, with a 7 p.m. serving also listed; and a series of sports events at the Milltown, N.B., and St. Stephen, N.B-, Rotary Field beginning at 9 a.m. Water skiing at the international, bridge at 4-5 p.m. will highlight the events.

Also on Aug. 10, shooting matches, sponsored by the Calais Rod and Gun Club at Charlotte at 3 p.m. will be followed by a New England supper; a dance will be held at 9 p.m. in the Calais armory under Calais Rotary guidance. a country hoedown engineered by the St. Stephen Lions Club will be featured at 9: 30 p.m. in the St. Stephen, N.B., arena. On the concluding day of the festival, Aug. 11, a flapjack breakfast will be served from 9-11 a.m. in the St. Stephen Masonic Hall. The Masonic’s Luxor clown unit will be flipping. The three concluding events will be: a chicken Barbecue from 2-6 p.m. on the Calais Main Street by the Calais Jaycees; a pop-pie contest in the Mart parking lot 1-3 p.m. at Calais, sponsored by the Fire Fighters of Calais; and the band concert at 2 p.m in the Calais Memorial Park. Joe Driscoll of Calais will be the conductor.

Photo in Advertiser of Festival Events 1974

The first festival was modest by later standards, there was no parade but from these modest beginnings the festival grew to an event attended by thousands, featuring a spectacular parade on Saturday. The schedule of events published in the Bangor Daily for 1989 shows a weekend which would tire even the most enthusiastic reveler.

Schedule of events 1989

National papers began to mention the festival in their “What’s Happening in August” columns and the St. Croix Valley received some press coverage nationally such as this article in the Helena Montana Daily Record in 1988:

1988 Independent Record Helena Montana

Neighborliness Ignores International Boundaries

CALAIS, Maine (AP)

 Gunpowder was at a premium during the War of 1812 and none was available when residents of this small border city wanted to add a traditional bang to their Fourth of July celebration. No problem. They simply borrowed some from their neighbors across the St Croix River in St. Stephen, New Brunswick. So what if Canada and its mother country, Great Britain, were at war with the United States at the time? That was hardly sufficient cause for St. Stephen to refuse its neighbor.

It’s always been that way, says Bill Francis who lives in his native St. Stephen but operates a gift and wood products shop on the U.S. side. There’s a strong national identity, but people try to make it a community.

We get along better than we would if we were in the same country, says Calais City Manager Nancy Orr, St. Stephen Mayor Billy MacCready claims the strong and enduring relationship is unequaled in any other pair of border-straddling communities along the frontier.

Calais, a commercial center of 4,200 near the eastern corner of Maine, obtains its water from St. Stephen, a chocolate-making town of roughly 5,000. When a fire breaks out in either community, firefighters from both sides of the border routinely cooperate. “The trucks don’t stop at Customs when they’re responding to a fire, Ms. Orr said. Canadian golfers frequently travel to Calais to tee off, although St. Stephen recently opened its own course. Mainers frequently play hockey at an arena in St. Stephen, and swimmers in New Brunswick look forward to a new pool planned in Calais.

During the first week in August, the towns jointly sponsor an International Festival, which includes a parade that begins on one side of the border and ends on the other, reversing direction from year to year. A significant number of people work in one country and live in the other. Some hold dual citizenship and cross-border marriages are common. I probably dated more girls from St. Stephen than I did from Calais, said Calais Mayor Drew Case, whose wife is from St. Stephen. Why? I don’t know. It just worked out that way.

Half the people around here have relatives who were born in Canada, or vice versa, said Barry Thompson, a U.S. Customs officer.

St Stephen has no radio station, so WQDY-AM and FM in Calais serves both communities, broadcasting news and public service announcements from both sides of the border and carrying high school basketball games involving the Calais Blue Devils or the St. Stephen Spartans. International Radio, WQDY, 1 o’clock Eastern, 2 o’clock Atlantic time, the announcer says for the adjoining time zones, then gives the temperature in Fahrenheit and in Celsius for his metric neighbors. General manager Dan Hollingdale estimates that at least half the stations listeners and nearly half the advertising revenue come from the Canadian side. Hollingdale holds dual citizenship, because he was born at Charlotte County Hospital in St. Stephen before Calais Regional Hospital opened in the mid- 1950s.

The Calais-St. Stephen crossing is on a principal land route from New England to the Canadian Maritime Provinces and is one of the half-dozen busiest customs stops along the entire U.S.-Canada border. Local shoppers often cross the border in search of lower prices and more plentiful selections. Residents say they are often recognized and waved through the border checkpoint when crossing to jobs or shopping.

Americans may cross into Canada for lumber and building materials or unusual items of clothing or yarn, customs officials say, but far greater numbers of Canadians cross for everyday purchases, including less expensive gasoline, poultry and milk.

 I don’t think there’s a cow in Canada. No one buys milk over there, Thompson joked.

The 1812 gunpowder story is likely apocryphal although it is fair to say the locals observed an unofficial truce during the conflict. Unlike Eastport, which was occupied by the British, life went on pretty much as usual in Calais and St. Stephen although of course there was no international festival and parade across the bridge. In fact, there was no bridge- getting across the river involved taking the ferry across the river which was located at the narrowest spot on the river- Ferry Point.

One of the most popular events of the Festival was the Ducky Race on Sunday. Hundreds crowded the shore to cheer on their duck in hopes of winning one of the substantial cash prizes. It was also exciting to watch the dozens of boats trying to catch the flock before they escaped downriver and out to sea. No doubt a few got through every year and some may have managed to find the Gulf Stream and Europe.

And of course there were the raft races. We think these characters may have won the race in 2004.

Be sure to check out the Festival Facebook page for information and many photos from prior festivals. 

Enjoy the festival.

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