I found myself admiring the border guard’s moustache. I forgot to ask his name, but I’ll always remember his thick, lush moustache. I had no idea where he’d come from: one minute I was taking pictures, the next the SUV was next to me. I guess I was so engrossed that I hadn’t heard the engine.
I was surprised to see him, which is odd in retrospect. Anyone taking photos at an international border is bound to attract attention. He was the first person I’d spoken to since I’d left the motel that morning in Swanton, Vermont. It had taken me a couple of hours to get to Derby Line on the Canadian border. Aside from Newport on Lake Memphremagog I’d barely seen any civilization at all. I’d become beguiled by the Northeast Kingdom, a rural, green, mountainous area of Vermont. So far today I’d seen moose and bears, I’d driven my little Corolla up endless muddy roads and it was caked in dirt. But I’d seen nobody.
I was so enraptured that I had no idea how dodgy I must have looked, camera in hand, snapping away..
“What are you doing here?” the Border Patrol Guard’s mustache ruffled as he spoke.
“I’ve wanted to come here for years! This building’s been an obsession of mine!” When I first read about the Haskell Library, I knew I had to see it. But it’s so out-of-the-way, I never thought I’d make it. The nearest sizable town, Montpelier, is 70 miles south. The nearest city, Montreal, is 100 miles away and in another country.
I can now see that the awkward silence in our conversation was because the guard was sizing me up, but it just encouraged me to carry on talking. I continued to enthuse at him. “I travel round the country, photographing weird roadside attractions and oddities. Just the thought of a library that was built half in the USA and half in Canada made me excited.”
“I think it’s closed.”
“Yeah, I could only make it today. I knew it’d be closed. I’d have loved to have seen the inside. I’ve heard there’s a black line across the floor marking the border.”
“There’s an opera house in there too.”
“The stage is in Canada, but the seats are in the USA.”
“That’s so cool!”
“Did you read the sign?”
The main entrance to the library is in the USA, in Derby Line but the bulk of the library is actually in Canada. It was built between 1901 and 1904 by Martha Stewart Haskell and her son Horace, members of a wealthy cross-border family. The library wasn’t built on the border by accident: it was designed to serve the communities of Derby Line in Vermont and Stanstead in Quebec. Canadians living in Stanstead are welcome to cross the border to visit their library.
And that border is marked by a series of plant pots. They look very pretty, but wouldn’t really stop a determined interloper. I’m sure there are cameras pointing at the plants (how else did the border guard know I was there?), but there’s nothing to stop someone just wandering from one country to another.
We talked a bit about the library and how it really brings both communities together. It’s not just the library that straddles the Canadian-American border, these two towns almost meld into one. The border guard told me about a street in town where the northern half is in Canada, the southern half in the USA. It’s wittily called Canusa Road.
Things got really crazy, he told me, during Prohibition. Many residential houses also straddle the border and during the 1920s you could walk in through the front door of a private house in the USA, head out to the back and find yourself in a bar in Canada. I don’t think Prohibition was easy to enforce up here.
We talked for maybe 30 minutes. The border guard was such a lovely chap which makes me even more regretful I didn’t catch his name. But then it was time to move on, I had an agenda to stick to. I’d been to the edge of the USA again. Edges are an obsession, it’s what had drawn me here. That moment of change, that ending. And here, straddling this particular edge, stood this unique library, this bastion of knowledge and culture in a beautiful and remote borderland.
I went back to my car mulling whether I should try to grow a moustache again before driving off deeper into The Kingdom.
Haskell Free Library and Opera House/La Bibliothèque et Salle d’Opéra Haskell
Addresses: 93 Caswell Avenue, Derby Line, VT 05830, USA and 1 Church Street, Stanstead, QC J0B 3E2, Canada
Hours: see website for hours and events.