Maine's Franco-American heritage dates back to early French explorers, Acadian settlers and French missionaries. Today, Franco-Americans are Maine's largest ethnic group, and in 2010 Maine elected its first full-term Franco-American governor. You can learn more about this community's contributions to Maine's history and culture by visiting museums and heritage centers and participating in festivals.
In addition to surnames found throughout the state, French names designate forts and battlefields, as well as towns (although often, pronunciation has been Anglicized) and parks, including Acadia, which honors the name first bestowed on the region, Acadie. Approximately 60 percent of Lewiston-Auburn's population is Franco-American and its cultural identity and Catholic connection remain intact.
You can learn more about contemporary Franco-American culture at the Franco Center for Heritage and the Performing Arts in Lewiston. At the Museum LA in Lewiston, you can learn the story of local Franco millworkers. If you'd like to hear a Catholic service in French, you'll find separate services conducted in French and English at Saints Peter and Paul Basilica—New England's only basilica, renowned for its rose window, a replica of one at Chartres.
To really experience Maine's Franco-American joie de vivre, you can seek out these festivals celebrating the culture: Biddeford's La Kermesse; Waterville's Franco American Festival; Lewiston's Festival Franco Fun; and Augusta's Le Festival de la Bastille. At these events, you might also be able to savor traditional foods such as boudin, creton, tourtierre and tarte au saumon.
Maine's Acadian heritage can be traced to 1604 and a scrap of rock and timber in the St. Croix River—right between what is now Maine and New Brunswick. Tiny St. Croix Island held France’s first settlement in l'Acadie—Acadia in English—a colony on America’s North Atlantic coast. The St. Croix Island settlement didn’t last, but Acadia grew until it included much of today’s Atlantic Canada.
War ended the colony and exile scattered the Acadians. Then, the second chapter of Maine’s Acadian history began. In 1785, 16 Acadian families fled Fredericton, New Brunswick—pushed out, ironically, by American Tories who’d fled the American Revolution. The Acadian families traveled up the St. John River and resettled in St. David, in northern Aroostook County. You can see the St. David Cross, which marks their landing site, at the Acadian Cross Historic Shrine.
There are a number of Acadian heritage sites throughout the St. John Valley. At The Acadian Village in Van Buren, you'll find 16 reconstructed buildings dating from 1785 to the early 1900s. In Lille, you can learn about Acadian culture at Musee culturel du Mont-Carmel, located in a former Catholic church. You can also learn the story an Acadian folk hero who fed many starving families during the difficult winter of 1797 by visiting the Tante Blanche Museum in Madawaska. At the Albert Homestead in Madawaska, you'll find an 1870 log house built by the Albert family, a 19th-century one-room schoolhouse, and a tool shed that houses artifacts related to farming and logging.
You can also immerse yourself in Acadian culture at the annual Acadian Festival in Madawaska in June. This multi-day party includes a reunion of one or more of Maine’s Acadian founding families—some years, more than 5,000 far-flung descendents have returned from around the globe.
While touring the St. John Valley, you might want to consult Voici the Valley Cultureway, a guidebook and CD highlighting the heritage and sites. Other good resources include the Acadian Archives at the University of Maine at Fort Kent and the National Park Service publication Acadian Culture in Maine, which also has expanded online resources.