What makes a great Maine hometown? The answer, of course, depends on what you’re looking for. Nonetheless some towns stand out when you start combing through census and other data. That’s what we did with 494 cities, towns, and plantations. After much number crunching and debate (for an explanation of our methodology, scroll to the bottom of the page), we turned to subjective knowledge. We compared our own experiences and we talked to residents, whittling our selections down to six well-rounded communities that we think deserve your attention. The list may surprise you. These are not the towns that typically attract attention from travel writers, but when it comes to people putting down roots, they are Maine’s sleeper hits. Along the way, we recognized dozens more communities with unique characteristics that anyone thinking of relocating should consider (buy the March issue to discover more places to live in Maine).
Disagree? Tell us where you think the best places in live in Maine are in the comments section below.
Median Age: 42.9
Median Household Income: $60,156
Households Below Poverty: 5.5%
Median Home Price: $218,000
Graduation Rate: 86.50%, Kennebunk High School
The beach isn’t for everybody. A century ago, with Kennebunkport already a burgeoning seaside resort, the portion then known as North Kennebunkport seceded in an effort to preserve its agrarian roots. The town — which reverted to Kennebunkport’s 18th-century name, Arundel, in 1957 — remains a rural outpost, a rare pastoral respite along the I-95/coastal corridor in York County that residents prize. “It’s a very quiet community with not a lot of congestion,” says Todd Shea, Arundel’s town manager. “It’s very, very important to the residents that the rural character be maintained.”
Arundel has a high proportion of home-based businesses, such as the Snazzy Pet Bed & Biscuit, along with dairy farms and other agricultural enterprises. But the town also straddles Route 1, with its standard commercial ventures — including the famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) Bentley’s Saloon. It’s a biker bar owned by legendary racecar driver Bentley Warren, who twice competed in the Indianapolis 500. “You can go anywhere in the world and you’ll find Bentley’s T-shirts advertising the town of Arundel,” Shea says. “It’s not a popular thing to say, but in a lot of ways he’s put us on the map.”
At least among the current generation. Years ago the man spreading the word was Kenneth Roberts, a historical novelist from Kennebunk whose books included Arundel. Partly because of that book — whose title refers to 18th century Kennebunkport — and partly because of confusion caused by Kennebunkport businesses such as the Cape Arundel Inn, some visitors assume that Arundel is right on the coast. But the entire town is inland.
Even so, it’s home of The Landing School, a post-secondary school that prepares students for careers in boat design and building. “They tout themselves as being in Kennebunkport,” Shea says with a laugh, “but we have the boat-building school.”
Median Age: 43.7
Median Household Income: $65,449
Households Below Poverty: 6.3%
Median Home Price: $180,000
Graduation Rate: 89.59%, Mt. Ararat High School
If, as some believe, the future of Maine is going to look a lot like its past, then Bowdoinham may be the future of Maine — small farms, artists and artisans, and small businesses, all supporting one another in a local creative economy.
Back in 2008, Down East branded Bowdoinham “A Very Crafty Town,” because so many people here make their livings with their hands. They are farmers and gardeners, potters, woodworkers, chefs, carpenters, photographers, fiber artists, musicians, and boatbuilders. Little Bowdoinham even has its own artisans guild, arts center, and farmers market. And in recent years, Bowdoinham has become even more crafty.
In 2012, the Long Branch School & General Store, dedicated to teaching traditional crafts and promoting sustainable living, opened in an old bank building. And the same year the Bowdoinham Community Development Initiative began organizing local citizens to make short-term, low-interest loans, which thus far have enabled Bowdoinham farmers and craftspeople to purchase a tractor, greenhouse, sheep fencing, new roof, and a wood-fired oven.
“Over the years, the people in charge have not sold Bowdoinham out,” says Tony Cox, a picture framer and one of the cofounders of the local crowdfunding initiative. “There are a lot of people here who care about the future of Bowdoinham and who are willing to work for it rather than for a fast buck.”
In 2011, the citizens of Bowdoinham adopted a vision statement that is the very model of Maine modesty and realistic expectations. “In the year 2021,” it states, “Bowdoinham is pretty much as it is today, only better.”
Median Age: 38
Median Household Income: $69,008
Households Below Poverty: 6.3%
Median Home Price: $220,000
Graduation Rate: 87.96%, Gorham High School
Gorham is one of the fastest-growing towns in Maine, having grown from a population of 11,856 in 1990 to 16,667 today. And judging by the median age of 38, a lot of the people moving to Gorham are young families.
Some of Gorham’s obvious attractions are the residential campus of the University of Southern Maine, good public schools, and proximity to Portland, which is just 10 miles east and much easier to get to since the Gorham Bypass relieved the village’s clogged main artery in 2010.
What truly distinguishes Gorham, however, is less obvious — the level of community involvement. Some 600 parents volunteer in a school system with 2,600 students, and that’s not counting sports booster groups. Close to 1,000 people enroll each year in enrichment courses through the adult education department. With the schools, the town, the public library, and the university all presenting arts and cultural events, there’s always plenty to do. Even the biweekly Gorham Times is a volunteer effort.
Sheri Faber, a former Gorham Times editor who still reports the news and compiles the police blotter, has been co-owner of The Bookworm, the town’s independent bookstore, for 25 years. What makes Gorham special, says Faber, who moved to town 34 years ago from New York City, are the people. “There’s a lot of local involvement,” she says, “and a lot of recognition of the need for helping other people.”
Median Age: 42.2
Median Household Income: $78,639
Households Below Poverty: 6.6%
Median Home Price: $165,250
Graduation Rate: 91.16%, Hampden Academy
Hampden could easily have been swallowed up by Bangor as the city spread south along the Penobscot River, but thanks to careful planning, the popular suburban river town is still very much its own community.
“We’ve worked hard at maintaining our identity. So far, we’ve done it,” says Thomas Brann, a retired University of Maine forestry professor who has served on Hampden’s planning board and town council for 20 years.
Hampden calls itself “The Community of Choice in Central Maine,” and a great many of the people who choose to live there are professionals in the fields of healthcare, education, and law. Where the statewide percentage of residents over 25 with bachelor’s degrees or higher is 27.3 percent, more than 40 percent of Hampden residents are college educated.
“Hampden doesn’t sacrifice character for development’s sake,” says Dean Bennett, the town’s director of community and economic development. “Hampden grows with a purpose and that attracts knowledgeable, educated people.”
The town places a premium on education, and the brand-new, $50 million, 175,000-square-foot Hampden Academy (enrollment: 746) is a high-performing secondary school both academically and athletically. Hampden is such an attraction for young families, in fact, that the town has already surpassed the 2020 population projection contained in the 2010 comprehensive plan, a somewhat controversial document opposed by local property rights advocates.
A tidy residential community where only 13 percent of the tax base is commercial, Hampden is a preferred suburb that has managed to keep growing while preserving
its historic past and rural character. “If you plan for the long term,” says Councilor Brann, “you don’t make too many short-term mistakes.”
Median Age: 43.2
Median Household Income: $56,912
Households Below Poverty: 5.7%
Median Home Price: $145,000
Graduation Rate: 91.88%, Camden Hills Regional High School
There is only one town in Maine where, in a two-mile stretch, you will find a Scottish bagpipe workshop, a wind-powered fiber mill, one of the country’s finest collections of restored antique fire engines, and a retirement home for two arthritic circus elephants. That’s the bucolic community of Hope, nestled amongst the hills, lakes, blueberry fields, and apple orchards five miles west of Camden village.
Quirkiness is part of Hope’s appeal, but it is a relatively new characteristic of this former farming community, acquired from the young artists, craftspeople, and professionals who have, over the past 15 years or so, moved inland in search of affordable housing. Hope has escaped a bedroom town’s dull fate, thanks to the Hatchet Mountain Publick House, a tavern serving some of the best fish and chips in the state, a number of small trades shops, the new Sweet Tree Arts organization offering classes for all ages, and, especially, the Hope General Store, which was resuscitated several years ago by Scotsman Andrew Stewart and quickly became the once sleepy town’s social center. Here is where community events, from triathlons to jazz festivals, are hatched and where residents proudly buy their Hope is Hip bumper stickers. (The store is currently for sale by Stewart, who has accepted a job as director of Hope Elephants.)
“There are a lot of people who want to be in Hope,” says Chris Pinchbeck, the bagpipes maker. “Part of it is the eclectic mix of people who have businesses in Hope — Ben Leavitt, the metalworker; his brother Josh, cabinetmaker; their father, the cobbler; Christian Andrus, the carpenter; Andy Swift, the world’s foremost authority on American LaFrance fire engines; Lorraine Smith, who specializes in rare species of geraniums. It’s definitely partly due to the younger energy. And part of it is size. Hope is still small; we’re still reaching out and new things are invited to come in.”
Median Age: 41.1
Median Household Income: $63,704
Households Below Poverty: 13.3%
Median Home Price: $185,000
Graduation rate: 92.81%, Leavitt Area High School
Turner takes a tired Maine joke and turns it around. You can get there from here. With its proximity to Lewiston–Auburn (10 miles south), Turner is ideally situated as a bedroom community. But that label damns with faint praise. There’s so much to do in the area, who wants to laze the day away in bed?
Turner’s gently rolling hills are dotted with farms, including the state’s first organic dairy, Nezinscot Farm, which has a cafe and store and hosts special events like a fall fiber and weaving retreat, and Caldwell Family Farm, well known for its organic beef. The town also has long been a draw for fishermen, hunters, hikers, and snowmobilers. And in 2009, it became the home of Maine’s newest state park, Androscoggin Riverlands. Some 88 percent of the park’s 2,675 acres are located along Turner’s eastern perimeter. “If you like to get out,” says Gary Best, assistant regional manager, Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, “whether it’s hiking, mountain biking, ATVing, hunting, or fishing — this park has got it all.”
Roughly half the state’s population can reach Androscoggin Riverlands in less than an hour’s drive. “But when you’re paddling down the Androscoggin River along the park,” says Best, “you feel like you could be way up in the North Woods.”
Turner’s population has grown by more than 15 percent since 2000, and that trend is expected to continue. “Oftentimes when a state park is in a town, it’s an economic engine that can drive development,” Best says. “People go to that park as a destination.”
A bedroom community as a destination? It’s another turnaround for Turner.
Why These Towns?
We used both data and anecdotal evidence to select our six great Maine hometowns. Using statistics from the Maine Office of Policy and Management’s census data center and the U.S. Census American FactFinder database, we crunched the numbers.We started with all 494 Maine cities, towns, plantations, and unorganized territories. We screened out places with a median household income of less than 95 percent of the state median of %48,129, factored in unemployment rates, age diversity, population growth, and housing affordability to narrow it down to 52 towns. Then we excluded towns with high school graduations rates below 85.34 (the state median) to bring it down to 21. After that we visited towns, interviewed residents, and considered cultural institutions, recreation, work commute, and intangible qualities like sense of community.
We sourced data from the Maine State Data Center, U.S. Census, and Maine Department of Education.
Photo Credits: Paul Cyr (photo is of Patten, Maine), Patryce Bąk, Bridget Besaw/Aurora Photos, courtesy university of southern maine, Mike Hastings/downeast.com, Chris Pinchbeck, Jerry and Marcy Monkman/Aurora Photos