A Letter from the County
For twenty years Echoes has been a labor of love.
Four times a year, a dozen or so friends laden with casseroles and goodies - fuel for a day's work - arrive at Kathryn Olmstead's home in Caribou. "The Echoes house is a big, old house with lots of rooms," Glenna Johnson Smith says, "so we spread out and stay until the job is done."
That job - slipping nearly three thousand copies of the latest issue of Echoes magazine into envelopes for a journey that may be as close as the nearest town or as far away ass[for the rest of this story, see the February 2008 issue of Down East]Spain - is a labor of love. "We like the magazine and see it as a good way to volunteer," says Smith, of Presque Isle, who accepts no pay for her work as the magazine's associate editor. "We enjoy the sociability. We often say, the faster we talk, the faster we work. We cook a big lunch - we have some marvelous cooks who come - and we eat together around the dining room table."
It's fitting that Echoes is readied for mailing in much the same communal spirit with which Aroostook County once harvested its famous potatoes. On its surface, Echoes is a magazine about life in Maine's largest and northernmost county, but the quarterly has a broader mission: to honor and preserve the simplicity, community, and rootedness of rural culture.
"In the course of the first five years of the magazine, we found a sense of urgency about a quality of life that is at risk in today's world," says Olmstead, the editor, who co-founded Echoes in 1988 with Gordon Hammond. "Readers talk about the idea of a place where people know you by name."
As it observes its twentieth anniversary, Echoes, with a paid circulation of just under 3,500, remains as humble as the rural traditions it honors. Front and back covers are each adorned with a single color photo - perhaps a barrel full of newly harvested potatoes or a black bear cub hugging a tree trunk - that is always beautiful and honest, never a heavily doctored agrarian fantasy ("Echoes magazine: Barely visible wherever magazines are sold," reads one ad). Inside, the photographs and illustrations are black and white, with the exception of four center pages typically reserved for a color collage.
Running about fifty pages, the quarterly magazine offers a mix of feature articles, essays, and poetry about country life, as well as personal remembrances such as this past fall's account by a Caribou woman of listening to shortwave radio broadcasts during World War II. Other recent subjects have included the text of Bridgewater farmer Jim Gerritson's remarks to the Slow Food International forum about the challenges facing family growers as organic production goes corporate, an illustrated tongue-in-cheek essay about the art (or not) of stacking wood, and a report on the creation of the world's biggest ploye at the Ployes Festival and International Muskie Derby in Fort Kent. (Ployes, a creation of the Acadians who settled the St. John River Valley, are light buckwheat pancakes often served at dinner as a flatbread.) In every issue, a note on the contents page thanks the volunteer mail crew and "the writers and photographers who return or refuse paychecks."
Indeed, Echoes has had a transformative effect on the County, which, with one of the highest poverty rates in the state, has been steadily losing residents for decades. "One thing that always bothered me was students who'd say, `I'll be so glad when I get out of this hole,' " says Smith, a retired Presque Isle High School teacher of English. "You don't hear that so much anymore. Echoes is one of the things that has helped turn that around."
Olmstead agrees. "Some Aroostook expatriates who have subscriptions have come back to live," she says. "I don't know if we've made any political impact in the state, but people tell us the magazine has made a difference. It's helped create a sense of pride."
Echoes did not start out as a magazine with a mission. The first issue, in fact, was a tourism guide prepared for several Aroostook chambers of commerce by Hammond, an advertising consultant who had worked in Boston and New York before moving to Maine in 1975. Olmstead, a University of Maine journalism professor and freelance writer, happened to interview Hammond just as his project was wrapping up. The Michigan native told Hammond she had dreamed of publishing a magazine about northern Maine ever since she'd lived in New Sweden, where she had worked as a newspaper reporter and editor for ten years.
When people mistook Hammond's guide for a magazine and wanted to subscribe, Olmstead and Hammond formed Echoes Press. They published the second Echoes - the first actually intended to be a magazine - in July 1988. Over the next several issues, circulation grew by hundreds of exceedingly loyal subscribers. (Today about half live in the County, while the rest are spread throughout every state and Canadian province, as well as Sweden, England, and elsewhere in Europe.) In a 1991 column, Olmstead and Hammond made an appeal for contributions because advertising revenues weren't supporting the magazine. More than fifty "Friends of Echoes" donated twenty-five to five hundred dollars each, which the partners used to build the subscriber base.
Twenty years have brought changes, of course. Hammond is no longer heavily involved, although he does contribute illustrations. Olmstead, now an associate dean of students at the University of Maine in Orono, drives home to Caribou on weekends and works on Echoes in an office above her garage. She, Smith, and assistant editor Mary-Ann McHugh - the only paid staffer - gather around a table to sift through contributions, sometimes reading poems aloud. Olmstead hopes to someday hire an advertising representative - "we almost break even most years" - but for now that's her job, as is delivering the magazine to stores all over the County.
The magazine's appearance and content have not changed dramatically, but the focus has been honed. Early on Olmstead realized that Echoes had tapped into a deep yearning for a simpler way of life, often defined by readers as the communities they knew as children, places where neighbors knew and helped each other. Hence Echoes' original slogan, "the voice of Aroostook," has given way to "rediscovering community."
"It's not just nostalgia," Olmstead offers. "It's about what we can learn from the past to guide us in the present and the future."
For more information, contact Echoes Press, Inc., P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736-0626. 207-498-8564. www.echoesofmaine.com
- By: Virginia M. Wright