It ought to be called Independence, this central Maine town whose citizens gather monthly to share a meal prepared with foods grown on local farms. Whether meatloaf and potatoes or turkey with all the fixings, the community supper is delicious, fun, and powerfully symbolic. Here, tucked into rolling hills thirty minutes from the nearest center big enough to have a supermarket, hums a hamlet of just under two thousand people. Its village is neat and polished, the storefronts are open for business, and there is no trace of the decay that mars other rural communities whose self-sustaining economies have evaporated.Or perhaps the name should be Audacity, for that's what it took to found a college in a place like this without so much as a one-dollar endowment. All the more audacious that this happened forty-two years ago, when the town's economy turned on a five-hundred-thousand-chicks-a-week hatchery and Maine's poultry industry was on the brink of bust. Despite an early history that might be titled "How Not To Run a College," the school today enrolls 520 students and offers more environmental majors than any other American college.
But why re-label a town already perfectly named? That village, after all, was reenergized by neighbors using their own dollars and labor to improve it. That college was launched by citizens to benefit their town, and they held it together for the sake of that goal even as the institution teetered on bankruptcy and the door to the president's office revolved and revolved.
These acts define unity, and Unity the town is named.
"Unity is in the middle of everything or the middle of nowhere, depending on your point of view," says John Piotti, a state representative, executive director of Maine Farmland Trust, and former head of the Unity Barn Raisers, a citizens organization that many credit with nurturing this community's uncommonly strong sense of place and commitment to self-reliance. It's true. Unity sits at the intersection of Routes 9 and 139, about midway between Augusta and Bangor and midway between Waterville and Belfast. Interstate 95 is fifteen miles west, placing Unity beyond sprawl's reach, but the town's roads are well traveled by trucks detoured from the highway by weight limits.
Small as it is, the village (a designation rarely used by locals who, Piotti says, prefer "downtown") is nonetheless the service center of farm-dotted northern Waldo County, with amenities like a grocery, a health center, two banks, restaurants, a racetrack (Unity Raceway, "Maine's Toughest Oval") and, most unexpected, a handsome two hundred-seat performance center that hosts acts of regional and national acclaim as well as Unity College's environmentally themed guest lectures (past speakers include Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.). Outside Waldo County, Unity is best known as home of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) and its Common Ground Country Fair, a wholesome three-day celebration of rural, sustainable living that draws more than fifty thousand people every fall. As they cross into town, travelers are greeted by signs reading, "Welcome to Unity, Where Old-Fashioned Values Are Not Old Fashioned."
Unity is sublimely pastoral. The town's highest point is only six hundred feet, yet views are long and sweeping, owing to open farmland and Unity Pond, or Lake Winnecook, on Unity's northern border. The Quakers who settled the area more than two hundred years ago knew it as Twenty-Five Mile Pond Plantation (Unity Pond was twenty-five miles from Fort Halifax in Winslow). When the town was incorporated in 1804, residents named it Unity to express their support of Jeffersonian democracy. Over the next 150 years, industries came and went — grist and carding mills, a cheese factory, shoe and pants manufactories, vegetable canneries, and an ice business that, in season, cut three thousand tons of the state's "best and bluest ice" daily from Unity Pond and sent it by rail to ships in Belfast. In summer, the same railroad brought vacationers to the Central House hotel, where William Jennings Bryan once delivered a campaign speech from the veranda and, some fifty years later, Bing Crosby spent the night. Farming has been the constant. At one point, more than three hundred farmers worked Unity's soil. Today they number about twenty, but Unity remains the heart of a larger agrarian community, counting more than fifty farms within a ten-mile radius.
Today's Unity - the civic-minded, environmentally conscious, determinedly independent college town - evolved from a feisty response to an early 1960s development that threatened to sap the town's vitality. That was the construction of Interstate 95 between Augusta and Bangor which, to the dismay of local businesspeople, looped well around Unity, the most direct path. Adding insult to injury, Unity was left off the 1963 official state highway map because of a printer's error.
In 1965, one year after the Fairfield-to-Newport section of Interstate 95 opened, a group of businesspeople, led by Unity Telephone Company president Bert Clifford, announced plans to establish a liberal arts college. "Unity College was started in part to get Unity back on the map," says John Zavodny, chairman of the college's department of advising and services. "The poultry industry also was drying up and that was a big part of the economic base."
The suggestion of a college began as a joke in the wee hours of a meeting convened to choose a project benefiting the town (other ideas included a sock factory); nevertheless, it captured imaginations. In September 1966, the Unity Institute of Liberal Arts opened on the northern slope of Quaker Hill, land donated by a hatchery.
It had fifteen teachers, most of them professors coaxed out of retirement, and thirty-nine students, many of whom were looking to avoid the draft. Tuition was $990.
Today, Zavodny's office is in South Coop, one of the renovated chicken coops that formed the original campus. While the institution has developed tremendously in forty-one years, it remains modest, with an almost outpost feel. This, in part, is what appealed to Zovodny when he quit East Tennessee State University for Unity in 2000. "I was smitten by the idea that someone could pull off having a college that isn't the higher education equivalent of a factory farm," he says.
Zavodny was attracted to Unity's environmental focus, which emerged with the flowering of the American environmental movement in the 1970s. The college's own blossoming, however, was painful. Started on a shoestring with no financial cushion, the school relied heavily on student tuition to meet expenses. Unity suffered severe financial setbacks that jeopardized its accreditation. The founding businessmen, who didn't fully understand the economics of an academic institution, clashed with trustees and educators over Unity's direction. The school has no official written history, so the turning point is unclear, but turn it did. With 152 staffers, forty-nine of whom are full-time or adjunct faculty, Unity College is now the town's largest employer. Under the leadership of President Mitchell Tomashow, who arrived last summer after a thirty-year career with Antioch New England Graduate School, Unity is poised to boost its national profile as "America's Environmental College."
The college is just one of several threads that form Unity's rich culture. Another was spun by the late Bert Clifford, a dairy farmer and postmaster who acquired the local telephone company and then, in his golden years, struck it rich by winning two telephone service lotteries, spawning the companies Unitel and Unicel. He poured his money into Unity, building the Unity Centre for Performing Arts and Field of Dreams, a lakeside athletic complex. The bronze Forest Hart sculptures of a running black bear, moose, and doe and buck positioned dramatically on the historical society's lawn are Clifford's gifts, as are two of the village's most prominent buildings — Clifford Common, which houses the town office and post office, and Unity Foundation, one of two grant-awarding charities established by Clifford. Clifford's unilateral philanthropy was not without controversy (he once offered a $1 million endowment to Unity College in exchange for the resignations of the president and trustees), but no one questions his love for Unity, which yet benefits from his generosity.
Another thread is sewn by the Unity Barn Raisers, whose 450 members are residents and businesses from Unity and surrounding towns. They, more than any institution or individual, have shaped Unity's identity as a proactive community with clearly defined values. The grassroots organization was founded in 1995, soon after Unity adopted its comprehensive plan, a process that had successfully involved many residents in sharing visions for the town. The planners, however, didn't believe their job was finished. "They decided it was important to make sure the community developed in ways that built on the existing economy, that kept our rural working landscape and character, and that continued to create better lives for people here," says Tess Woods, the Barn Raisers' executive director, a town selectperson, and a Unity College alumna.
The Barn Raisers, then led by Piotti, set their sights on downtown, where all but a few storefronts stood empty.Us
ing grants, they opened a community center in the old Masonic hall. It has rarely gone a day unused since. More important, it became a catalyst, attracting several businesses, including the health center. The Barn Raisers, funded largely through money raised locally in annual appeals, have since compiled a long list of achievements: a farmers' market, a trails network, a public beach, a community gym, and those monthly suppers that remind folks that farming here is very much alive. "But the greatest accomplishment," Piotti believes, "is that we turned the community from one that felt destined to take whatever future is thrown at it to one that feels the future is in our hands and we can craft it."
More and more, these threads intertwine. The Unity Foundation funds the salary of the Barn Raisers' community service coordinator, who works with Unity College students on local school projects and trail building. The Barn Raisers and MOFGA are creating a local farms guide illustrated by college students. The Clifford Foundation has made Unity College the steward of the Field of Dreams and Unity Performing Arts Centre. Unity College's goal of a sustainable campus echoes the Barn Raisers' commitment to rural vitality, which echoes MOFGA's support of Maine farmers. Examples of partnerships and shared values go on and on, threads weaving together, creating Unity.