History of Calais Shaped by European Immigrants

The Main Street of Calais is lined with buildings built at the behest of European immigrants, including the Becketts of Scotland, the Kalishes of Prussia, the Unobskeys of Russia, and the Bernardinis of Italy, among many others. (Photo courtesy of St. Croix Historical Society)

By Lura Jackson


The human story is one of migration, and, indeed, there are few human populations today that can’t be considered to be immigrants at one time or another. In Calais and the nearby communities of the St. Croix Valley, the arrival of European immigrants significantly shaped the development of the area into its modern form.

The first Europeans to arrive in this area were mainly French fur traders, but they were also joined by frontiersmen and their families from Massachusetts. “It was a pretty rough and tough bunch,” said Al Churchill, President of the St. Croix Historical Society, describing how they were folk that for one reason or another didn’t fit as well into traditional society.

In the 1830s, the first major population surge occurred when the lumber industry hit its stride. Lumber barons had been scouring the Northeast for easily accessible lumber, and they found it in the St. Croix Valley. The Todds, the Boardmans, and the Eatons were among the lumber families that moved in to the area, bringing with them a swath of workers, many of whom were from Massachusetts. “They essentially clear cut the St. Croix Valley, much to the consternation of The Calais Advertiser editor [and founder] John Jackson, who railed against them for despoiling the land and leaving nothing for future generations,” Churchill said. “But that’s what they did.”

The lumber barons made a major impact on the area, but it was the immigrants that arrived in the 1850s that began to actively transform the Calais region. Churchill refers to these immigrants as “the Builders” for their efforts in creating a life for themselves and their families rather than simply exploiting the land. 

The first of the Builders was John G. Beckett from Scotland. He began to build wooden buildings on Main Street, including a two or three-story building where The Schooner is now located. It was behind the Beckett building that the Great Fire of Calais started in 1870, destroying the business district and many of the shipping vessels on the waterfront. “Other than the Civil War, it was probably the most important event in Calais history,” Churchill said. 

Just like the three little pigs of fabled legend, Beckett was not ultimately deterred by the loss of his wooden building, and he soon began the construction of the brick building that now sits in the same spot. The financial setbacks were significant, however, and within a year he lost the building to the mortgage holders.

Beckett wasn’t finished with his efforts to transform the downtown, and soon he made arrangements to construct another brick block next to Calais Federal Bank (later Stewart’s furniture). His fortunes continued and in 1884 he bought the Bank Corner building (now the Urban Moose), and he proceeded to build another building next to the Bank Corner building to house Beckett and Co. “Beckett was really the first of the immigrants to come here on a shoestring and to take a lot of gambles financially,” Churchill said.

The 1850s saw the arrival of several other prominent immigrant families. Joseph Kalish arrived from Prussia, eventually building the Calais Federal building that was adjacent to one of Beckett’s constructions. The McAllisters came from Scotland and built the 4-story building now being restored by Seavey and Young, and the Silverstones came from Germany to build the block where the Calais Bookshop is located today. Charles McIninch of Scotland came to operate a drug store at the corner of Main and Monroe where Mercier’s salon is today. Each of these families contributed to turning Calais into the mercantile center that would sustain it for the next 60-80 years, Churchill explained.

Prior to the Builders, another noteworthy group arrived in the region en masse as a result of the Irish Potato Famine. Many of the Catholic Irish settled in Eastport, but some of them came to Calais as well. They were generally welcomed and well-received. The 1822 Eastport Sentinel reported the following: “Hundreds of Irish Emigrants [sic] have landed in this place in the last 24 hours. Our streets are literally filled with men, women, and children. Their appearance, generally, is respectable. They appear to feel much satisfaction in stepping on the ‘land of liberty, flowing with milk and honey.’ We welcome them to our shores, and they will realize their most sanguine expectations. They must remember, however, that it is by honest industry they can obtain the milk and honey.” Per Churchill, “They didn’t have to worry about that, because immigrants generally work very hard.”

In the 1900s, the second significant wave of immigrants arrived in the St. Croix Valley. Among them were 1,000 Italians that were specifically brought here to construct the Woodland mill, some of whom settled in Calais afterwards. Of the Italian immigrants, the Bernardinis are notable for operating a fruit business that would later become the Boston Shoe Store. Other Italian families included the Toris, the Checchis, the Pisanis, and the Dimitres, many of whom also purveyed in fruit. 

The Unobskeys came to the area in the same era from their original Russian homes. They settled in Eastport originally, but soon heard that Calais had a reputation for being very open-minded with no hints of anti-Semitism being rumored. “Sarah was shocked to discover that Jews could own land,” Churchill said, referring to a privilege not offered to those of Jewish descent in Russia and most of Europe at the time. “She made a decision for the family that they were going to somehow buy as much property as they could in Calais.” They purchased the piece of property that became the A & P, and opened a small store there. Eventually they build the brick block that would become the theater, the Unobskey store, the A & P building itself, and the Unobskey Professional Building in the center of Main Street. “They were responsible for building up a lot of what remains of our brick buildings on Main Street.” Other Jewish families joining the community were the Levis and the Urdangs, the latter of which settled in St. Stephen. 

The 1900s also brought Nils and Carl Olsson from Sweden. Nils was a businessman and Carl was a builder. In the 1920s, they built the massive brick block – now mostly gone – where F.A. Peabody Insurance is today. Across the street, they built the building that would contain Newberry’s store, the block that today hosts Rachel Ashley’s Jewelry store, and a large wooden building down by the Customs office that was later torn down where Nils ran his first clothing store selling goods produced in his clothing factory. 

The immigrants of the 1900s were responsible for building much of what remains of Calais today. “In the heyday of Calais, a good number of merchants and a fair number of the buildings were built by immigrants, many of which came here destitute,” Churchill summarized. “They took the risks necessary to build a community in what became the business center of this area.”