The Heart of Gardiner

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Gardiner, a small city on the Kennebec, keeps making big plans — and this time they might even come true.

  • BY: VIRGINIA M. WRIGHT
  • PHOTOGRAPHY BY: ALAN LAVALLEE

After his great aunt died in the late 1980s, John Shaw joined members of his extended family in her Gardiner home to divvy up her furniture, artworks, and antiques. He knew the place well. August vacations on Great Pond in North Belgrade, a lifelong family tradition, had often included excursions to the Yellow House, as the rambling mansion on a plateau above the Kennebec River is known. “It was like a museum of semi-well known people of Americana,” Shaw says with a grin. The memorabilia included photographs of his great-grandparents, the prolific Pulitzer Prize-winning children’s book author Laura E. Richards and her husband, architect Henry Richards, who moved into the Yellow House in 1876, and letters from President Abraham Lincoln to Laura Richards’ mother, Julia Ward Howe, the abolitionist who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Now the house was for sale, and the price was a bargain compared to real estate in Shaw’s hometown of Concord, Massachusetts. “I said to my wife, ‘We could live here. We could actually own a mansion,’ ” Shaw remembers. “Pretty soon, it went from being an interesting idea to buying the house from the estate and moving in.”

Wedged between the Kennebec and Cobbosseecontee Stream, the small city of Gardiner (population 5,800) was part of the appeal. “Gardiner has a rich history — the Cobbosseecontee was the perfect waterway for the technology of the 1800s, and there once were lots of mills along it including the paper mill my great grandfather managed,” Shaw says. “And, like Concord, Gardiner has a literary history. The poet Edwin Arlington Robinson grew up here, and my great-grandmother filled a kind of maternal role for him. He spent a lot of time in this house.” For Shaw, Gardiner’s well-preserved nineteenth-century downtown, punctuated by the handsome brick Queen Anne-style library that great-grandfather Henry designed, sealed the deal.

What Shaw soon found, however, was that history — or more precisely, memory — came with a challenge. Where he saw potential, some longtime residents saw decline. “I’d say, ‘What a beautiful downtown!’ and someone who was born here would say, ‘There used to be all these great factories. We used to have jobs. The town is economically depressed.’ They were seeing what was missing. I was seeing what could be.”

Others who moved to Gardiner in the eighties — newcomers and returnees like Mike Giberson and Neil Andersen, owners of the A1 Diner, and Logan Johnston, founder of Tilbury House publishers and owner, with wife Phyllis Gardiner, of Oaklands Farm — saw it, too. Today, after nearly twenty-five years of what Giberson calls “baby steps,” “what could be” appears tantalizingly close to becoming “what is.” Water Street, the downtown’s heart, is dressed up with brick sidewalks and vintage-style street lamps, building facades are restored, and the riverfront that industry abandoned is home to a grassy park with a shoreline boardwalk and a rail trail following the Kennebec for nearly seven miles. Recently, a new crop of entrepreneurs, lured like their predecessors by affordable real estate, have trickled into town to open boutiques and cafes and to nudge Gardiner closer to its new identity as a destination for shopping, culture, and recreation.

“The notion that Gardiner could be a showplace has slowly, slowly taken traction,” Shaw reflects. “It’s like a snowball that we’ve been pushing uphill. It’s taken a lot of effort but it keeps getting bigger and bigger, and when the snowball reaches that crest, it’s going to take off with a momentum all its own.”

 

LOCATED seven miles south of Augusta, Gardiner is both a bedroom community for the state capital and a service center for a smattering of small central Maine towns, including Farmingdale, Hallowell, Chelsea, Randolph, and Richmond. Savvy Down East-bound vacationers who want to avoid traffic congestion on Route 1 know it as the largely rural community they traverse on their way to Route 17 from the Maine Turnpike. They zip over the Kennebec River unaware of the busy little downtown nearby.

Most of the activity is on Water Street, a roughly quarter-mile stretch bookended by the Gardiner Post Office and Gardiner Public Library. One block east are Gardiner Waterfront Park, completed two years ago, and Maine Avenue, home to a hardware store, a Hannaford grocery, and the handsome, but empty, 101-year-old Gardiner Railroad Station. Rising above Water Street to the west is a dense residential neighborhood of large old homes and, on the plateau, the leafy Gardiner Town Common where a farmers’ market convenes every Wednesday, spring through fall. Other than a Rite Aid and a McDonald’s, downtown’s fringe is surprisingly free of chain-store sprawl.

Historically, Gardiner’s economic strength came from its location at the head of deep-water navigation on the Kennebec; ocean-going vessels can sail no farther inland. Here, too, the Cobboseecontee Stream drops more than one hundred feet over its last two miles to the Kennebec, and the waterway bears remnants of the stone dams that once tapped that power.

The city owes its name to Silvester Gardiner, a physician and one of a group of Boston merchants who purchased thousands of acres along the Kennebec in the mid-1700s. But it was Silvester’s grandson, Robert Hallowell Gardiner, who transformed the wilderness outpost into a village, building mills, stores, an inn, and wharves. His legacy includes two of the city’s prominent landmarks, Christ Episcopal Church, a stone gothic church that anchors the northeast corner of Gardiner Common, and Oaklands, a castle-like mansion on an eight hundred-acre estate that Logan Johnston and Phyllis Gardiner farm and manage for the extended Gardiner family. Robert Gardiner also founded the business that continues to play a leading role in Gardiner’s development: the Bank of Maine, formerly Gardiner Savings Bank, is one of the city’s largest employers, and it has been a generous financial supporter of downtown revitalization efforts, most notably the waterfront park. Robert Gardiner might even be given a little indirect credit for Gardiner’s literary credentials: Henry Richards was his descendant; the Richardses moved to Gardiner when Henry was asked to manage one of the family’s mills.

Edwin Arlington Robinson, a three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is the better known of the city’s prestigious literary duo. Although Robinson experienced a great deal of sadness in Gardiner, and he moved away when he was twenty-eight, the city has embraced its identity as the likely inspiration for Tilbury Town, the village of lost hopes and lonely people that appears in many of his poems. Gardiner Regional Middle School students spend a few weeks studying the poet, and the public library has created a self-guided walking tour of the places he frequented. Robinson’s ashes are buried in the family plot at Oak Grove Cemetery.

Contemporary Gardiner is perhaps best known for the A1 Diner, a 1946 Worcester dining car sitting on steel stilts alongside the Cobbosseecontee and serving an eclectic selection of traditional diner fare and international cuisine. Boston-trained chefs Mike Giberson and Neil Anderson bought the restaurant from Giberson’s father in 1987, an especially tough time for the city. The last of the shoe, clothing, and paper factories had recently closed, and the business district, where residents had once been able to buy everything from furniture and appliances to dresses and business suits, was all but shuttered. “It was a ghost town,” Giberson recalls. “There were no draws other than Renys, the library, and a smattering of small businesses.”

Giberson sees parallels between the way he and Anderson reinvented the A1 and the way they and their peers in the business community and city hall prodded downtown in a new direction. “We were the new guys, trying to keep the traditions while adding a new excitement,” he says. “My dad’s complaint was that his clientele was dying off. We didn’t want to scare everyone away, but we needed to attract a younger clientele.” The diner’s adventurous menu made it a favorite of food critics and travel writers, nevertheless, Giberson admits, “It’s been a struggle. But this past winter was the best we ever had.”

Restoring downtown’s vibrancy has required similar patience and persistence. Early efforts often met with skepticism and resistance. “It’s been baby steps,” Giberson says. “You have to take the long view.”

Indeed, the first step toward creating Gardiner Waterfront Park was taken in the eighties, when the Gardiner Rotary Club purchased and cleaned up a former Webber Oil storage tank property. Around the same time, residents formed a nonprofit organization to purchase Johnson Hall, a brick, four-story Civil War-era 
theater on Water Street. The building now hosts a variety of performances and other events in a 110-seat theater on the first floor, but the ultimate goal, a $5-million renovation of the grand performance hall upstairs, is still being pursued. “That would be the best thing that could happen to Gardiner,” Giberson believes. “Cultural institutions drive downtowns forward. Every time Johnson Hall has a show, we’re busy. It brings people to town.”

Gardiner’s transformation picked up steam in 2001, when the city became one of the state’s first Main Street Maine communities, adopting a comprehensive methodology for downtown revitalization developed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Aside from leadership and know-how, the Gardiner Main Street program has provided a consistent and sustained focus even as membership on city boards and in business organizations has changed.

It also assured that the downtown business district was not forgotten as the city turned its attention to the development of Libby Hill Industrial Park near the Maine Turnpike. “The mayor and city council made the decision not to put all our apples in the Libby Hill basket,” says Logan Johnston, who is serving his second term on the city council. “Everything was done in parallel. That was critically important. As companies look to invest at Libby Hill, they also look to what else the community offers, and what we have to offer is a vibrant downtown.”

Over the last few years, several new businesses have filled some of the vacant storefronts in downtown Gardiner, a direct result, Johnston believes, of those more than two decades of baby steps. “Another generation of folks is coming along,” he says. “Not many are from Gardiner but a lot are from Maine and they like what they see here. They’re moving here, establishing businesses, and starting families. They are coming up behind us and taking up the slack as we are getting older. It’s terrific.”

Among the new arrivals is Kara Wilbur Bensen, who moved to Gardiner when her husband, Mike, landed a teaching job in Augusta four years ago. The Bensens purchased a building on Water Street and made their home upstairs (their kitchen pantry is a former bank vault). On the first floor is Sweet Love, Kara’s pleasantly unconventional tearoom and consignment bridal boutique (it may be the only place in Maine where you can find a Monique Lhuillier wedding dress).

“Choosing Gardiner was not a challenge,” says Bensen, who also directs the Maine office of the Town Planning and Urban Design Collaborative. “It was obvious that this would be the town we’d live in. It has everything you would want in a downtown whose historic fabric is still intact. We have one vehicle and we’re able to get away with that here. We can walk to the post office, the grocery store, the dry cleaner. There also is an exciting energy, where the efforts of residents and business owners is supported by the city. It’s incredible to find such enthusiastic and helpful people in city hall trying as hard as we are to make something happen here. I think the planets are starting to align.”

Yet Gardiner’s renaissance also is at a stage that is particularly attractive to first-time entrepreneurs, says Lisa Liberatore, who is Bensen’s partner in Sweet Love (it is her Baxter Tea Company brews that Bensen serves) and the owner of Lisa’s Legit Burritos across the street. “This is a downtown where I could get started. I could not have afforded a place in the Marketplace in Augusta,” Liberatore says. Like the Bensens, she and her husband own the building that houses their business, a common phenomenon that she believes accounts for the optimistic spirit on Water Street. “We have a community, and we understand that we need each other to be successful,” she says. “The business owners support each other. If I run out of onions, I can go across the street to Gerard’s Pizza and the owner, Jeff McCormick, will give me one, and I do the same for him.”

That collaborative spirit was cited by the Orton Family Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping the “heart and souls” of small towns and cities, in December when it awarded Gardiner a one hundred thousand dollar grant. The money will support a two-year project during which residents and business owners will hone their vision for the city. Their work will shape the city’s comprehensive plan and inform city council and planning board decisions. “The idea is to get as many people from the community involved as we can,” says Amy Rees, owner with her husband, Rob Lash, of the nine-month-old Water Street Café. “We want kids involved, seniors involved, business owners, low-income residents — we want everyone to have a say.” The initiative, Rees believes, illustrates Gardiner’s distinctive strength. “It’s small enough that you can make a difference,” she says.

Rees, an advertising and marketing executive, and Lash, a sculptor, moved to Gardiner from Windham seven years ago. They purchased a 15,000-square-foot retired school building, turning it into a home and art studio. “We were thrilled because it was so much cheaper than anything in Portland,” she says. “Gardiner seemed up and coming, but then the recession hit. Now it feels like it’s starting to come back. With several months of a good economy, we could have a really beautiful downtown.”

Then, like John Shaw and his snowball, Amy Rees turns to a metaphor to describe the anticipation. “It’s like we’re out there on a surfboard waiting for the right wave to come,” she says, “and when it comes, we’re going to ride it right into the beach.”

If You Go: The Greater Gardiner River Festival, featuring a carnival, food vendors, children’s activities, arts and crafts show, and Maine’s largest fireworks show, will be held June 20 to 23 in downtown Gardiner. On Saturday, June 23, Water Street will be closed to traffic for the Gardiner Arts & Crafts Festival, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For details, visit gardinermaine.com

Virginia M. Wright is the senior writer at Down East.

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