by Donald Cuccioletta
The question asked in the title, taken from the song “Est-ce-que tu vas à Old Orchard encore cet année?” from a 1984 album by Sylvain Lelièvre, can be heard throughout Quebec as the snow melts and the sun starts to radiate on the spring horizon. For francophone Quebecers it is time to think and organize the summer holidays, ushered in on June 24 by la Fête de Saint-Jean.
The phrase “Québécois at the beach” usually conjures up images of Quebec’s snowbirds escaping winter for Florida’s sunny shores. But the Florida winter exodus is a recent phenomenon, reaching its peak in the 1990s and now beginning to dissipate because of the high insurance costs for fixed-income pensioners, increased transportation costs and the loss of trailer parks and inexpensive motels resulting from the boom in condominium construction along the Florida coast. To most Québécois, the seashore evokes one memory most of all – Old Orchard Beach, Maine. In every francophone family in Quebec, at some point since World War II, someone has visited Old Orchard.
Established in 1657 by its first settler, Thomas Rogers, Old Orchard was originally called the “Garden by the Sea.” Its current name is taken from the “old” apple orchard which, perched high on a hill above the sandy beach, served as a landmark to sailors for many years. In 1837, a farmer named E.C. Staples began taking in summer boarders at his farm and, based on this experience, built the first hotel, the Old Orchard Boarding House. Under his tutelage, Old Orchard became a sought-after summer retreat for Bostonians, with restaurants boasting of “shore dinners.” In 1842 the first steam railroad from Boston to Portland was completed, and in 1853 the Montreal-based Grand Trunk Railway extended its service from Portland to Old Orchard to accommodate the rich from Montreal who took their summer holidays there. In 1896, the first steel pier was built as well as a number of lavish resorts, nicknamed the “Velvet Hotels” because of their Victorian design and style. Over the next five decades Old Orchard was to become the summer destination for many of the new rich in Canada and the United States, with summer homes owned by Kennedys, Fitzgeralds and Molsons. Indeed, the teenaged Rose Fitzgerald, John F. Kennedy’s mother, met her future husband Joseph P. Kennedy in Old Orchard.