Astride a border.
Like many communities in Quebec's Eastern Townships, this pleasant town on the U.S. border was founded by New Englanders after the American Revolution. Both the architecture and the names of the hamlets--Stanstead, Knowlton, Dunham, Ogden--suggest an oasis of Anglo-Saxon heritage in French Quebec. Today, with Cite Cantons-de-l'Est 90 percent French-speaking, most of Stanstead's residents are comfortably bilingual.
An amalgamation of three smaller villages (Stanstead Plain, Rock Island, and Beebe), Stanstead is a border town, and proud of it. In fact, Stanstead's position astride the U.S.-Canadian border is its defining characteristic. But the very border that prompts celebrations all but disappears along the leafy streets of Stanstead and its American counterpart, Derby Line, Vermont. In lieu of fences, a knee-high marker at the foot of Church Street shows Canada on one side, U.S.A. on the other, while a nearby sign points the way to Customs and Immigration.
Beyond the corner where U.S. Customs and Douane Canadienne face one another across a two-lane street, only a painted yellow stripe marks the boundary between Canada and the United States. The stately homes on the north side of the appropriately named "Rue Canusa" have Canadian addresses; their neighbors to the south reside in the United States.
Nor is Canusa Avenue the only geographical oddity in Stanstead. The community of nearly thirty-two hundred people is famous for its "line houses," or buildings that straddle the international border. Seine of these buildings can be traced to the U.S. era of Prohibition, when crafty, locals took advantage of the town's strategic position on the route between Montreal and Boston to engage in smuggling.
But the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, built directly on the border, began with nobler intentions. Martha Stewart Haskell had the building constructed in 1901 as a memorial to her husband, American businessman Carlos F. Haskell. A historical marker describes the monumental building as "a symbol of the harmony between the two countries."
Cross-border harmony notwithstanding, this part of the boundary was disputed for seventy years. It seems that from time to time the crew surveying the 45th parallel in 1771 strayed off course. Eventually, in 1842, a treaty stipulated that the international boundary would remain as originally drawn.
In the library, a black line crosses the wooden floor, running diagonally under reading tables and chairs. "We decided to paint the border after a fire broke out here in the 1990s," explains head librarian Nancy Rumery. American and Canadian fire companies cooperated in responding to the blaze. But then the problems started: "We had both American and Canadian insurance companies," says Rumery. "Each said the other was responsible. It took two years to settle the claim."
Upstairs, a scaled-down replica of the old Boston Opera House, complete with Victorian stage sets, still presents plays and other performances. Here, too, a black line angles across the floor, so that most of the audience sits in the U.S., watching thespians emote on a stage situated in Canada.
The building, a historic monument, has two addresses--one Canadian and one American. The only entrance, however, is on the American side. Despite recently heightened security, patrons who live in Quebec are allowed to enter the front door without going through customs, says Rumery--"as long as they park their car's on the Canadian side."
This year Border Fest/ Frontieres en Fetes took place on May 29. Besides the parade, the celebration consisted of day-long activities at the school Jardin des Frontieres and open house at many historic buildings. The theme--Our Roots/Nos Racines--was very much in evidence at the Colby-Curtis Museum, housed in a nineteenth-century mansion built of local granite by an American family. A tourism pamphlet at the museum warns visitors not to stray across the border, but if you do, "vous ne serez pas le premier" (you won't be the first).
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|Title Annotation:||!Ojo!; Stanstead, Quebec|
|Author:||Wyels, Joyce Gregory|
|Publication:||Americas (English Edition)|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2004|
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