Family Fun for Five Dollars or Less: Houlton, Maine and Around Aroostook County
Looking for frugal family fun in “The County” this summer? This list will help get you started.
As far north as Aroostook County is, and with the current cost of gasoline, having a few local activities is critical to balancing an affordable family entertainment budget. Some of my favorite picks?
Drive the Maine Solar System Model and Incorporate a Picnic.
Carpool with another couple to keep the gas costs down, or consider taking a motorcycle for a fun cost saving measure. Starting in Presque Isle at the university campus, take a driving tour, stopping at each planet for a family photo opportunity. When you get to the planet Pluto at the Houlton tourist information and visitor’s center, stop to let the kids and pets blow off some steam, use the restroom and incorporate a picnic. This really is the best stop for it along the entire course. Free wireless twenty-four hours a day, picnic tables, BBQ pits, bathrooms, a small playground area and a walking circuit are all available. Bonus? If you forgot picnic supplies or any other emergency items, you are within visual range of a large Hannaford grocery store and a Walmart. There is one more element in the system, the dwarf planet Eris, located by the veteran’s memorial at the four way intersection in Topsfield. If you decide to be thorough and drive all the way down, you’ll be able to stop for pictures at the scenic turnoff along route one, between the towns of Orient and Danforth. (Known to locals as the “Million Dollar View”) It’s most beautiful in the autumn, but it’s suitably striking year round with a commanding view of several lakes and forests extending across the border into Canada.
In Houlton, they do this every Thursday night throughout the summer, next to the library in Monument Park. Bring a blanket or your own lawn chair. Often local businesses also hand out balloons and other similar freebies for the kids. There’s also a snack bus if you feel like splurging. In Presque Isle, Sunday afternoons are the free concert opportunity of choice, with Riverside Park being the location. A cool bonus for the Presque Isle and Houlton concerts is they can each be integrated with the solar system model activity mentioned above for an even niftier day with the family.
The Children’s Summer Reading Program at Cary Library.
The Cary Library in Houlton offers a free reading program for children all summer long. To keep the kids reading, they have them report on one book for every four they read. To keep them coming in the door, they have fun free activities all summer long, including food prep and snacks, a trip to the riverside with a marine biologist, and other similar activities of interest. It doesn’t cost you anything, keeps the kiddos psyched about reading, and provides great traffic for the library.
The Peanut Carnival.
This has been held every summer since I can remember. This year’s was scheduled for August seventh, but checking the Chamber of Commerce site will keep you informed each year as to the exact dates. It’s held in the Gentle Memorial Building (otherwise known as the Rec. Center) and has several carnival games . The cost? A different amount of peanuts for every game. Bags of peanuts are available for under two dollars, and children can buy them with their folks when they enter the building. Now tell me, how many family activities are still out there these days where your children can literally “play for peanuts”?
Games in the Park.
Once summer starts, the outdoor ball games are close behind. Most of them are held at Memorial Park, which is also where Houlton’s annual Fourth of July State Fair is held. Park your car and watch whatever football, baseball, T-ball or softball games are going on, free of charge. If the kids get antsy, take turns walking them across the way to the rather extensive playground. During the day, it’s full of children participating in the Parks and Rec Department’s Just for Kids summer program, but in the evenings there should be more than enough room to let the kids . . . well, be kids. Bring a blanket and some snacks and you’ve got an evening for free.
As any astronomer will tell you, the less light pollution, the better. This means extremely remote areas are prime observing locations. And, with Aroostook County being this far north, you are in a position to see extreme northern sky events others may not be able to. Last year, my husband got mentioned in a major magazine's newsletter for contributing information about an event he was able to observe that the folks at the magazine couldn’t, due to their less northerly location. How can you start? With a blanket and a clear night sky, you can have a fun family evening for free. Granted, with my husband being an astronomy enthusiast, we’re rarely without a telescope or at the very least a laser pointer. But really, you don’t need any of that to have a successful family star gazing experience. Pick up a good resource book on the constellations (The hubster recommends Princeton University’s 2008 edition of Stars and Planets.) or pick one up at the library. Have a contest to see who can find the most properly identified constellations, stars or naked eye observable planets. If you notice one of your children showing extra enthusiasm or a natural ability, you’ll know whether or not it’s worth trying to pick out the perfect telescope this Christmas. Stars aren’t the only naked eye viewing opportunity in the night sky. Here’s a link to an article detailing some free online resources for spotting meteors, satellites and even tracking overhead passes of the international space station. All of these things are viewable from the most extreme northern locations in the state of Maine.
Just for Kids.
This is a summer program offered by the Parks and Recreation department in Houlton, Maine. It runs from late June through early August. (This year specifically it was June 23rd – August 7th.) The cost for local residents for the entire summer program is $125.00. Why am I including it here? Because per day, it adds up to well under five dollars. Bonus? It gets cheaper every time you add an additional child. Sign up two of your children, and the total cost is $175.00. For every child after that, it’s only an additional $40.00 per youngster. Years ago, this was my summer job to earn book money for college, and I can personally guarantee the following: This program ROCKS! Arts and crafts, organized games, theme days, a spray pool, great playground equipment, games and other toys for them to check out every day, snacks on special event days . . . and these are just the highlights. When I spoke with the department director today, he told me that this also now includes free lunch, provided by the food service department of the Houlton school district. How cool is that? A full five days of care with multiple staff packed full of activities and free lunch for less than twenty-five dollars a week per child? Holy bargain, Batman!
Coffee and a Big Stop.
Part of the Irving Blue Canoe / Big Stop chain, this local landmark is open twenty-four hours for good food whenever you want it. One of their popular breakfast sandwiches is called the Big Stop, and closely resembles a breakfast sandwich from a popular fast food chain with its ham, cheese and scrambled eggs between two toasted English muffins. It’s cost? Two dollars and eighty-nine cents. Pair it with a small coffee for a buck twenty, and you are under the five dollar total. Bonus? This retro style diner and large truck stop have free high speed wireless. So if you are traveling through and need to get connected, this is a convenient place to do so.
The Agricultural Museum.
This farmer’s haven just north of Houlton along route one in Littleton has basic summer hours of 1:00 – 4:00 on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from June through September. Lots of neat agricultural exhibits are offered, and they host activities as well for children. Making butter is one that was on the agenda for this season. Entry fees are three dollars for adults and a dollar each for students. Large groups can apparently negotiate separate rates, depending on the number of people. This museum is also on the solar system’s model, so if you are driving the circuit as a day activity, this is a good one to include as well.
There are several places in the area to enjoy this, but in Houlton, there is a free access ramp on River Street. Put your canoe or kayak in the water and go for it.
Aroostook State Park.
Just south of Presque Isle, this state park offers swimming, hiking, camping and facilities for changing and having an afternoon cookout. If you are under five or over 65, you’ll get in free. Ages five to eleven get in for fifty cents, and if you are between the ages of 15 and 64, you’ll get in for a buck. Not bad for a day of family fun.
Have another great suggestion for frugal family fun in Aroostook County? Participate in the discussion and add your idea.
(Written in participation with Wise Bread's open group write for affordable regional events. Readers and writers from sites other than Wise Bread are welcome to join in and post a link to your online article in this discussion thread.)