A Winthrop native reflects on the downtown’s former glory — and its future redemption.
- By: George Smith
To the twelve-year-old boy, it was wilderness, a place of escape and high adventure. The wilderness was only a short half-mile walk from his house up to the very top of High Street, through a forest of sugar maples, huge oaks, and fir thickets, over the hill and into the next valley. He’d seen bobcat, deer, partridge, and lots of squirrels in the woods, but it was along the small brook that meandered through the bottomland where he spent most of his time. That cold, sheltered brook held trout, wild trout, colorful trout, huge six- and seven-inch trout.
Nestled in his backpack with the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and candy bars, the boy carried a can of worms, dug from his 4-H garden or plucked off the lawn after a good rain. His fishing gear was basic stuff: an old rod hardly longer than the boy, and a small, closed-faced spinning reel, something his dad had discarded. A bare hook was tied onto the end of the monofilament line hefty enough so that he never lost a hook to the bottom.
Ever. A good thing, because he only had a couple of hooks.
His fishing technique was simple, too: sneak along the alders, poke the rod out over the brook above those places where he knew a trout would be hiding, drop the hook lathered with a gob of worms into the water, drift it past the hideaway, and when the trout darted out, give the rod a sharp yank that hooked the trout and hurried the fish up and out of the brook.
The boy knew this water, every riffle, deep pool, long undercut bank. He didn’t know this was reading the water. He just knew where those trout lived.
Returning home in the late afternoon with a creel — really just an old canvas bag he’d found in the barn — full of ten trout, well, that was the finest kind of living for a twelve-year-old boy.
His mom would fry them up in cornmeal in an old cast iron skillet for supper. And, yes, they tasted great.
Of course, things change. Even deep, cold, fast-running brooks. And when the boy returned to town after college to settle, he trudged one morning up to the end of High Street and was surprised to find that it had been extended deep into his wilderness. Much of the forest was gone and the last half-mile of the brook he had fished so many times now ran in a rock-lined ditch through a housing development.
He fished the entire length of the brook that day and caught only four trout, all less than six inches long. You can’t go back, even to fish.
But the memories of that idyllic childhood, my idyllic childhood growing up in Winthrop, remain vivid. Every downtown store had a local person’s name attached: Bruneau’s Market, Lavallee Photo, Otto Weston Hardware, Helen’s Fruit Market, Smith’s Gas Station, McNamara’s Bakery, Wilson’s Dollar Stores.
With owners in the store, Winthrop’s Main Street was the gathering and shopping place for townspeople, and in the summer, a spot where tourists from every state could be seen. These were the days that the inland lakes drew as many tourists as the coast — something else that has changed.
In my hometown, a five-year-old kindergarten kid could walk the mile from his house to school, right through downtown, with nary a worry. Today, they bus kids across town.
A lot of mistakes have been made. Winthrop’s downtown scene can be found today only on old postcards and photos, buildings torn down or moved, owners long gone, an unsightly parking lot smack dab in the center of downtown. Most tourists stick to the coast. Ironically, after moving the old Wilson’s building back off Main Street to create the eyesore parking lot, some townspeople are now talking about moving the building back so that it fronts on Main Street.
But can we really go back?
Well, sort of. My hometown for the last thirty years has been Mount Vernon, a small rural community with a village square, general store (if they don’t have it, I don’t need it), library, café, post office, and wonderfully diverse collection of eccentric and talented people.
Everything I learned in Winthrop has been carried here. Everything I valued can be found here.
I have gone home again. It’s just in a different place.
- By: George Smith