On a map, New Gloucester is one of those amorphous sort-of towns, a loose-knit community on the road between Portland and points north, best known for the Shaker village on the north end of Sabbathday Lake. But down at ground level New Gloucester has enough going on to make a Saturday afternoon drive in the country an attractive October option.
One of the best places to start is the farm stand at Pineland Farms (see page 64), full of autumnal apples, pumpkins, gourds, and other late-season garden produce perfect for stocking up against winter's cold, along with the farm's own cheeses. Coming up from the south on Route 231, the stand in the red barn hard by the highway appears quickly, and it's easy to shoot past before you know it. Or even overlook it among the brilliant fall colors of the trees lining the road.
The town itself, especially on the east side along Route 231, has a decidedly rural, agricultural quality even beyond the Pineland property. This is the side of town that was first settled back around 1740 by pioneers from Gloucester, Massachusetts. They built lumber mills along the Royal River and logged off the land to create fields and pastures.
The settlers and their descendants also built a collection of magnificent homes, Federal and Colonial manses that speak of the early prosperity of the town's farms and lumber industry, as does the magnificent First Congregational Church on Gloucester Hill Road (left off the highway as you head north). Built in 1838 and still equipped with a working - and accurate - tower clock, the church anchors the "lower village" that was once the center of town life.
"The people who came up here in the early days were pretty well off, comparatively speaking," explains Reverend Linda Gard, archivist for the New Gloucester Historical Society and the church's pastor. "They were Tories, by and large, and they came to Maine to hedge their bets on the failure or success of the Revolution."
Gloucester Hill Road features the best view in town. The vista stretches to the north and west from the hill across the road from Opportunity Farm for Boys, a century-old refuge for youngsters in need of support and guidance. Opportunity Farm for Girls is just down the road beyond Thompson's Orchards (207-926-4738). The Thompson family has owned their farm since 1906. Each fall they open the twenty acres of pick-your-own Macs, Cortlands, and a dozen or so other apple varieties to the public. The farm offers freshly squeezed cider, doughnuts, and on weekends tractor rides for the kids.
New Gloucester is best known, of course, for the striking Shaker village on Route 26 just below the Poland town line. Founded in 1783, less than a handful of believers remain in this last surviving active Shaker community. These days the farm is protected by conservation easements, and the Shakers and a cadre of volunteers still stock the store with the society's famous homegrown herbs and handcrafts. In October the apples from its orchards are valued autumn treats. (See www.shaker.lib.me.us
A few miles south of the village and just across the border in Gray is the Maine Wildlife Park operated by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (maine.gov). Open through Veterans' Day, the park features a broad selection of Maine's native animals, some on permanent display and others being rehabilitated before returning to the wild. For those Maine residents who have never seen a moose and question their existence, the park has all the proof they'll ever need. The park has an associated fish hatchery, and there is a second fish hatchery off Route 202 in New Gloucester just a few miles north of Gray. Both hatcheries are open to the public seven days a week - 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. in New Gloucester and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. in Gray.
All of these places are just added benefits, though, to a quiet autumn jaunt down narrow tar roads lined with trees brilliant in their fall foliage. New Gloucester is its own attraction, a place apart from the rush and bustle of Portland and Lewiston-Auburn where you and the kids can experience an old-time Maine autumn outing. Maybe those old Tories had the right idea.