On February 21, 1878, Maine governor Selden Connor approved and signed an act which would establish a training school for teachers in the Madawaska territory. This step meant that people in the region could be trained so they could teach at schools within the territory, and thus begin educating and “Americanizing” the people of the St. John Valley.
An amount of $1000 was set aside in the state treasury to establish and maintain what became commonly known as the Madawaska Training School. In the early years of the school’s history, the location for the training of teachers alternated between Fort Kent and Van Buren, and in 1884 the school serving the lower section of the territory moved from Van Buren to Grand Isle. Then in 1886, issues of overcrowding in the Fort Kent location were addressed for the first time. Each year enrollment numbers had increased, and by this time applicants had to be turned down for want of better accommodations. Vetal Cyr, the first principal of the Madawaska Training School, described the existing school house in the Fort Kent area as “small and cold,” and that “no changes or repairs” had been made to the school buildings. He summarized his position by stating that “at Fort Kent a new school house is much needed,” in hopes that the state would soon remedy the situation in the way of new buildings. It was shortly after these statements that the State Superintendent of Common Schools recommended that the school be permanently located in Fort Kent and that suitable accommodations be made for the school in the construction of facilities. The money was appropriated for building permanent facilities for the school in Fort Kent, and the school finally had a permanent location and facility by the 1888-1889 school year.
Throughout its years as the Madawaska Training School, the University of Maine at Fort Kent saw multiple expansions, curriculum additions, and a total of three principals. New dorms and classroom facilities were built, and changes were made to include a normal school curriculum in 1927, with the program being expanded in 1934 and again in 1948. The last principal to serve the school under its name of Madawaska Training School was Richard F. Crocker, who served the school from 1926 to 1955. It was under him that the training school saw the most change. The normal school curriculum was added under him, enrollment expanded significantly, a physical education program and several sports programs were added, as well as the construction of a new gymnasium.
The year of 1955 proved to be a year of change for the school in many ways. First, an electrical fire caused the destruction of the original Nowland Hall. This disaster lead to the State Board, which was already seeing declining enrollment at the school, having to decide whether the training school would remain open. The Alumni Association, in response to the threat of their alma mater closing, rallied to increase the enrollment at the school in an attempt to save the school. The result, alumni acting as recruiters for the school, was believed to not only be able to save the school, but was hoped to eventually make the possibility of changing MTS into a four year college a reality. Their efforts were ultimately successful in keeping the school off of the chopping block, and the name of the school was changed to Fort Kent State Normal School that same year. Under its new name, the school saw its fourth and final principal, Joseph “Joe” Fox, who served the school from 1956 to 1971. Though originally the fourth principal of the school, he served long enough to see the school become a four-year college and change names three times; first to Fort Kent State Teacher’s College in 1961, then to Fort Kent State College and finally to the University of Maine at Fort Kent in 1970. At the end of his term, he had not only served as principal, but also as the university’s first president.
Since becoming the University of Maine at Fort Kent in 1970, the school has continued to see changes, both physically and academically. A variety of liberal arts majors and minors have been added through out the years. Originally established as a teaching school, UMFK’s teaching program remains one of the strongest in the state. However, programs such as Applied Forest Management, Electronic Commerce, Public Safety Administration, Nursing, Computer Systems Administration, Behavioral Science, Biology, Business Management, English, Environmental Studies, French, Social Science, Criminal Justice and Human Services are also available to students.
With a vast assortment of programs available, the school’s enrollment has continued to increase exponentially, while still maintaining its reputation of a quality education and personal attention to students’ needs. Even today the school continues to expand, including the building of Violette Camp for Environmental Studies, the construction of Nadeau Hall to house the Nursing Department and a Technology Center in 2001, renovations to Cyr Hall in 2002, the construction of a new building to house the Acadian Archives and administrative offices slated to begin in 2003, and the construction of a new residence hall facility. In the past 125 years of the school’s existence, it has grown from an enrollment of approximately 46 people per semester in the first year to an estimated 900 per semester in recent times. A university of continued academic growth and diversity, the University of Maine at Fort Kent’s growth has been greatly influenced by the rich history of itself and the region it serves. Born of the need to educate the local culture, the University of Maine at Fort Kent continues to live up to its history of academic excellence. Though it now serves the global community, UMFK will always be a part of the rich cultural history of the St. John Valley.
* Historical information referenced from “UMFK: A Century of Progress” by Roger Grindle.