Hope is Hip
How a midcoast farming community became one of the coolest places in Maine.
- By: Virginia M. Wright
- Photography by: Chris Pinchbeck
Every summer Andy Swift throws a huge party with live music in his barn on a pastoral slope overlooking Bald Mountain in Hope. On one of these occasions, an out-of-state guest assessed the artists, writers, farmers, and athletes mingling among the antique fire engines that Swift restores for an international clientele and remarked appreciatively, “Wow, Hope is hip!” Swift took the stage and repeated the line, drawing whoops and cheers.
Among the partiers was the Hope General Store’s new owner, Andrew Stewart, who recognized a good rallying cry when he heard one. Within a few days he was selling the
bumper stickers that have made “Hope is Hip” the unofficial motto of this Camden Hills hamlet. This isn’t a case of excessive town pride. Just a few years ago, Hope Corner, the town’s center, was all but shuttered. Today it is home to several businesses, including a blacksmith, a woodworker, a home builder, two apple orchards, and, most recently, a fine
tavern that, in a reversal of the usual traffic patterns, is making Hope a destination for folks from neighboring Camden and Rockland. Sometimes, the quaint crossroads even bustles, thanks to a string of celebrations like a children’s carnival, the Hatchet Mountain Triathlon, and the Hope Jazz Festival, relatively new inventions that already feel like traditions.
“Maybe it was a perfect alignment of the planets,” muses Bill Huntington with a shrug as he considers the origins of this rural renaissance of which Hope Spinnery, his wind-powered fiber-processing mill, in the notch between Hatchet and Moody mountains, is a part. “More likely, it was the right combination of people at the right time. Because we’re all people with small businesses in a small community, we promote each other — you don’t find that kind of support in a bigger town. Still, I don’t think Hope would have gelled the way it has if Andrew Stewart hadn’t revived the Hope General Store. So much of what has happened here over the last few years is due to being able to walk in that store and run into three or four people that you know.”
A young Scotsman with a playful spirit, Stewart remodeled the abandoned store four years ago with the conviviality of a British pub in mind. He stocked the shelves with necessities (milk and bread), treats (140 varieties of beer), and a few exotics (Bovril, tahini, and curry paste). He reserved a corner for the post office, which he wooed back to town, and he created a nook for tarriers, furnishing it with a pair of sofas and an open kitchen where he could hobnob with customers as he made their sandwiches and pizza. “I literally had no clue what the response would be,” he reflects, “but opening day was pretty exciting. I overheard great conversations: ‘I can’t believe I’ve lived here ten years and never run into you before!’ People appreciate having a place to meet up as much as having a place to buy milk.”
In the general store, nudged by Stewart’s enthusiasm for his new home, Hope’s old-timers and newcomers discovered something to keep them from hurrying out of town in search of things to do: each other. “Andrew has created a fire in the center of town,” says Emily Davis, owner with husband Brien of nearby Hope Orchards. “You go in there and you see the neighborhood.”
Legend has it that Hope’s name was derived from the trees that stood at each of the diamond-shaped town’s corners: H for hickory, O for oak, P for pine, and E for elm. “It’s a good story,” says Bill Jones, president of the Hope Historical Society, “but it’s probably just that: a story.”
Whatever the origins of the name, Hope has been hard-pressed to deliver on its promise for much of its 205-year history. The rocky Camden Hills that embrace the town are lovely but difficult to tame, Jones says, and most of the farming families who once formed the backbone of the economy gradually quit Hope in search of better living elsewhere.
A retired World Bank economist, Jones is a former summer person whose parents bought an old church carriage house in the 1940s and moved it to the banks of Hobbs Pond, one of several small lakes cradled in Hope’s hills. At the time, Hope was one of Maine’s biggest apple producers. All but two commercial orchards have been long abandoned, but the gnarled remnants persevere in the wooded slopes and valleys, sweetening the air in spring.
Wild blueberries, on the other hand, flourish on the highlands. Jones is among twenty-odd residents who grow and sell a combined nine hundred tons of blueberries a year. Hope’s agrarian rhythms survive in the arrival of the honeybees, who pollinate the tiny flowers each spring, the raking of the berries in summer, and the reddening of the fields in fall.
Dairying, too, endures at William and Francina Pearse’s place above Hobbs Pond. The couple live in the two hundred-year-old farmhouse where William was born and their son, Chris, manages the herd of seventy cows and calves, whose view of the pond and 1,101-foot Hatchet Mountain, Hope’s most prominent peak, is one of the finest in town. “We put the heifers out in May,” Francina says, “but people start coming around weeks before that, wanting to see them.”
When the Pearses married in 1963, about 450 people lived in Hope, roughly half the town’s population at incorporation in 1850.
Things changed rapidly in the eighties and nineties as workers from Camden and Rockland sought less expensive inland housing. By 2000, Hope’s population had more than doubled to 1,310 residents, making it the fastest growing community in Knox County.
All that new blood didn’t do much to invigorate the town, however. Indeed, Hope Corner seemed sleepier than ever as the elementary school was relocated to the other side of Hatchet Mountain, the Grange Hall faltered, and the 180-year-old general store closed. “Things got pretty low down,” Francina, a former selectman who remains active in town
affairs, says. “When the grange went out, I felt bad. I worried about what would happen to the building.”
With downturns comes opportunity, and brothers Ben and Joshua Leavitt — Ben is a blacksmith, Josh, a woodworker — were among the first to take advantage of the vacancies, moving their workshops into an old garage across from the store. Brien and Emily Davis arrived to rescue Hope Orchards from certain development, and Tom Griffin started growing and selling vegetables at Hope’s Edge Farm. Sensing the time was right to pursue his own dream, Bill Huntington quit his elementary teaching job and opened Hope Spinnery.
Andrew Stewart came next. Seduced by the idyllic countryside when he visited his sister, a Colby college graduate teaching at the Maine Media Workshops in Rockport, he extended his stay. “One month turned into two,” he remembers. “I got a job bartending and kept driving past the store, which was for sale. It wasn’t the only store I considered buying, but it was the only one that was closed. The idea of starting over appealed to me, and I liked the traffic that came through town every day.”
His vision of the store as a community gathering spot has exceeded his expectations. Here is where chats about town needs — a new fire station, for example — have turned into plans for fund-raisers, like a winter festival, replete with ice sculpting demonstrations, dogsled rides, and Nordic ski races. Here, too, is where folks shared their concerns about the development of Hatchet Mountain and cooked up the Hatchet Mountain Triathlon to help raise the money to purchase the parcel and enabled its permanent conservation. Likewise, the Jazz Festival and several other events were hatched from conversations that began in the store.
To be sure, Andrew Stewart has been the spark behind many of these ventures, but he describes himself — and the store — as facilitators rather than instigators. “There is a tremendous amount of volunteer support for these events,” he points out. “There’s a real desire for a community here and a willingness to make it happen.”
The activity has given others the confidence to start businesses, adding to the momentum. Two summers ago Brian O’Neil opened the Hatchet Mountain Publick House on the property he’s owned since 1996. Despite the bleak economic news this past winter, the tavern never lacked for customers. “The people here want to make sure we stay,” O’Neil believes. “It’s a close-knit community. It’s rare for me to come in here on a Friday or Saturday night and not know at least some of the people here.” His long-range plans include an upscale dining room and reception facility. Meantime he’s passing out his own bumper stickers: “Hope is Happening,” they read.
The old Grange Hall has found new life, too, as the home of Pine Ridge Carpentry. Homebuilder and cabinetmaker Christian Andrus encountered some resistance at first, and as he set about gutting the structure to install electrical and mechanical systems, he found out why: The building is beloved. Folks kept stopping in to check on his progress and reminisce about the dances and bean suppers they’d attended there. “I made a decision to put it back together as close to what it was as possible,” he says. “I salvaged all the parts — the wide pine wainscoting, interior doors, and other details.”
He invited the town to his opening reception, and his renovation was warmly received (Francina Pearce is a fan). “I felt embraced,” he says.
Most of these businesses are one- or two-person operations, but no one here works in isolation. O’Neil hired Josh Leavitt to build his bar. Several residents are shareholders in Tom Griffin’s farm, a community supported agriculture enterprise. Andy Swift, the fire engine restorer, brings in Ben Leavitt to do metalwork. And every one of the tradespeople have been sponsors and active planners of the festivals, fund-raisers, and concerts that have been born in the Hope General Store.
That, says Andrew Stewart, is what makes Hope hip. “Hope is warmer and more supportive than most any place I’ve been,” he says. “I’ve got the best job in the world.”
See a video of Hope by photographer Chris Pinchbeck here.
- By: Virginia M. Wright
- Photography by: Chris Pinchbeck