I keep my eyes wide open all the time …
You’ve got a way to keep me on your side …
I walk the line.
As part of our travel series, we have been writing about some of our discoveries in and around the places we temporarily call home. (If you missed our “Love Letter to a Mountain” article on September 7, 2017, you can check it out here.)
Among our happy discoveries as part of this grand exploration is that a wealth of hidden and not-so-hidden gems can be found in some of the most unexpected places. Such is the case with the Haskell Free Library and Opera House in the towns of Derby Line, Vermont (in the United States, approximate population: 629) and Stanstead, Québec (in Canada, approximate population: 2,800), which we explored in September before we moved to Maine.
In many ways, it is unsurprising that this public space was created and deliberately placed on the international border, located at both 93 Caswell Avenue on the United States side and 1 rue Church on the Canadian side. This is currently the only library in the world that exists and operates in two countries at once.
This library and opera house—as well as several other buildings in this community through which the international border runs—is a fascinating curiosity, and likewise, so are the towns themselves. The border runs right through the center of what has been for centuries considered one happy, international community. Until fairly recently, residents—including those who lived on the three streets that cross the border—came and went more or less as they pleased with only the slightest of formality. After all, the two sides share a drinking water and wastewater system, and their fire departments frequently collaborate in property- and lifesaving efforts. Babies born to Stanstead families are often born in the United States since it offers the closest hospital. Residents of both countries team up for curling. It wasn’t that long ago that the residents—many of whom are linked by intermarriage and dual citizenship—shared schools, places of worship, physicians, and more, and they could just nod and wave at the border patrol agents when crossing back and forth because the community is small and just about everyone knew everyone else.
Sadly, though, the world in which we live now is creating significant problems for the townspeople who for so long all but existed without concern for the border. Local resistance to the increasing security in recent years has included, among other things, maintaining an international border marked with a charming row of potted flowers. But this lovely floral border is now the only one left; all the rest are locked down with iron gates, and all of them—even the flowerpot crossing—are equipped with cameras and weight sensors. Border patrol agents are everywhere—on foot, in SUVs, at border stations; in fact, there are more than four times the number of agents in this tiny community than there were in the late 1990s.
One of the streets that crosses the border is called Canusa Avenue—clever!—where the border runs essentially right down the middle of the street, east to west. Drivers on the north side of the line, heading west, are in Canada, and those driving east are in the United States. Because the houses lining the south side of it are in the United States, under the new rules, whenever Canusa Avenue’s American residents pull out of their driveways, they have technically left the United States and therefore must report to a border station! (For a more in-depth description of the Canusa Avenue situation, check out this article.)
Even a simple game of toss-and-catch can become a complicated matter: people playing on either side of the line—which could easily happen in neighborhoods bisected by the border—would have to go to customs to declare the ball every time they caught it. There are places where neighbors are separated only by a grassy lawn, but to visit one another, they must first report to customs.
When standing on a street on the US side of the line and looking at the next street over, one can observe that all the street signs are written in French. This is very different from many other borders, particularly in this part of the country; in most of those cases, one is often driving through rolling farmland or along an interstate from which the imposing border crossing stations are clearly visible upon approach. In these towns, one can simply unknowingly wander across a bit of lawn, cross a sidewalk on the wrong side, or even just enter a building from one side and exit from the other and end up accidentally border-jumping—thus becoming subject to detention and/or fines courtesy of the ubiquitous customs agents—so one must be very attentive and vigilant. Aimless, curious meandering around this pretty little area to see what might be at the end of one charming street or another is not at all recommended.
Despite some of the logistical concerns and extra qui vive involved with visiting this unique community, it is well worth the visit, and we indeed recommend it. (Just please be careful where you park and where you walk!) Spend an afternoon cozied up with a good book in front of a fireplace within the library or take in a performance in the opera house. You’ll have an intriguing story to share with others later!