Down East 2013 ©
One summer afternoon a few years ago, Wayne Davis set out for a drive into the countryside south of his home in Farmington. It was new territory for the retired marine biologist who had recently married and relocated to Maine, and he ventured onto the back roads that rise and tumble through the farmland and forests of the Kennebec River valley. Suddenly, at the foot of a long hill, there it was: a wee village pinched between a glinting lake and a pond.
Kids splashed on a little beach next to the community center, a former church with Victorian stick-work painted deep green. There was a brick general store selling everything from curtain rods to pesto, a couple of small antiques shops, and a two-hundred-year-old shingled gristmill — waterwheel and all. “I had this experience that I don’t have the words to describe,” Davis recalls, placing his hand over his heart. “The place had an emotional impact on me. Something just felt right. I didn’t even know the name of the town, and I didn’t know how to get back.”
When he stumbled upon the hamlet again six months later, he not only made a point of knowing where he was, he began looking for property, settling on a 1915 automotive garage whose ruptured walls and sagging roof were challenges he was eager to tackle given the building’s glorious perch on Minnehonk Lake. With its large industrial-style windows, open floor plan, and drywall whose jaggedy edges expose rock walls, the home and guest lodge he has created is a bit unconventional, but that makes it perfectly suited to the little town of Mount Vernon. “Eclectic,” says Davis, summing up his adopted hometown’s nature. “We have artists, writers, educators, farmers, and retirees who have created what the world is looking for: a real community. It’s a hidden valley, a little oasis.”
“Quirky,” agrees Quimby Robinson, whose family roots in Mount Vernon stretch back to 1792. “Whenever I tell people where I’m from, they say, ‘That’s an interesting town,’ or ‘That’s a quirky town.’ It has that reputation.”
It’s a reputation of relatively recent history, he explains, made by people like cosmetics doyenne Elizabeth Arden, who fell in love with Mount Vernon when she was a guest at a friend’s summer home on Long Lake in the 1930s.
Arden immediately bought the property next door and built a lodge-style health spa whose well-to-do clientele included Eleanor Roosevelt, Judy Garland, and Ava Gardner. As a teenager in the early sixties, Robinson chauffeured “Miss Arden” whenever she was in town. “She loved it here so much, she’d stay until the last minute and expect us to get her to the airport in Augusta in fifteen or twenty minutes,” he says.
Others who left their mark are Erskine Caldwell, who penned much of his 1932 novel, Tobacco Road, at Greentrees, his wife’s family’s lake house, and wildlife artist and Maine State Museum Curator Klir Beck, whose rehabilitation facility for sick and injured animals was a modest family attraction in the late 1950s.
Soon after came the back-to-the-landers and the hippies, dozens of them, some of whom lived communally in a vacant village hotel. Their raucous multi-day parties are remembered today with a fondness that belies the consternation shared by many townspeople at the time. Perhaps that’s because, as the hippies matured and mellowed, their philosophy of personal freedom proved to be compatible with the traditions of independence and self-reliance that have defined Mount Vernon for more than two centuries. (Forty-one years ago Time magazine held up Mount Vernon’s annual Town Meeting as an example of “one of American democracy’s oldest rites.” The town holds its 223rd annual meeting this June.)
“Mount Vernon’s reputation as a sort of hippie place goes back to the 1700s, from what I understand,” says Barbara Skapa, who lives in a 180-year-old farmhouse just above the village. A hand-painted sign for her Echo Ridge Farmstead Cheese invites passersby to peruse a small refrigerator, money jar on top, just inside her front door. “We’ve got a really interesting mix of people and we all get along pretty well. The attitude here has long been live and let live.”
SITTING in the Belgrade Lakes region between Routes 17 and 27, the well-traveled roadways that extend northwest from Maine’s capitol city of Augusta toward the college town of Farmington, Mount Vernon (population: 1,524) has been insulated from those business centers’ sprawl. Its two-lane roads loop around hilltop meadows, yielding panoramas of Kennebec County’s highest peaks to the northeast and the White Mountains to the west, and they dip into wooded valleys, skirting nearly a dozen ponds and lakes.
Here and there one finds relics of the small industries around which the town was settled, including that vacant gristmill in the village and a solitary smokestack known as “The Chimney,” the remnant of a tannery that once stood on the Taylor Pond outlet to Echo Lake. The backbone of Mount Vernon’s early economy was farming, as the shuttered and sagging barns scattered throughout its forty square miles testify. Six hundred-acre Raydic Farm, where the Hall family has been milking cows for 175 years, is the lone survivor of that era. “You can go through the woods and see all the cellar holes,” says George Smith, who lives in a 1790 farmhouse on Hopkins Pond.
“Seventy-five percent of the town’s 25,000 acres was open farmland. Now that’s all gone to forest.”
That’s fine with Smith, who is the former executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine (and a contributor to DownEast.com). He likes the excellent hunting, fishing, and wildlife watching he finds just outside his front door. “A few days ago, a neighbor called and said, ‘Look out your window,’ ” Smith says. “There was a big bull moose walking out there, and we all ran out and took pictures. An hour later, another neighbor calls and says, ‘There’s a doe and two fawns swimming across the stream.’ Next, a bald eagle landed in my pine tree. We have tremendous wildlife.”
Smith and his family moved to Mount Vernon from his childhood hometown of Winthrop thirty years ago. “We wanted a more rural community,” he says, “one with an annual town meeting like the Winthrop I remember.” In the years since, he has served on numerous town boards, including selectmen and planning, and he can remember only one controversy — the decision sometime in the 1980s to move Town Meeting from the Odd Fellows Hall to the elementary school. “People were so irate that they voted all of the selectmen out, but they got back on the board the next year,” Smith recalls with a chuckle. “You read about so many communities in turmoil, but that hasn’t happened here.” He specifically cites the way people with diverse recreational interests, from hiking to ATV riding, came together a few years ago to create a use plan for the 6,400-acre Kennebec Highlands conservation area, which sprawls over Mount Vernon, Vienna, New Sharon, and Rome. “This is a community that tends to focus on practical, commonsense solutions,” he says.
Mount Vernon also is a community that is content to be what it is: A rural town off the beaten path. Indeed, notes selectman Russell Libby, the town’s Comprehensive Plan encourages the growth of small farms (there are roughly twenty) and other cottage businesses, but it makes no mention of the job-creating industries or regional shopping centers that preoccupy economic development directors in larger towns.
With only a handful of businesses, the village is a vibrant expression of that vision. The ninety-year-old general store sells a broad selection of merchandise (drill bits, birdhouses, and live bait) and food (hot dogs, spaghetti, and Barbara Skapa’s esoteric French cheeses), allowing residents to keep shopping trips to Augusta to a minimum. The Olde Post Office Café, where retired newspaper publisher Bob Wallack serves breakfast and lunch, has become a social center since it opened five years ago. Likewise, the community center is well used. Some thirty to fifty people show up for breakfast at the weekly Saturday Morning Café, an ongoing fund-raiser that helps pay for improvements to the structure, which the town purchased after the United Methodist Church moved out several years ago. Tuesday mornings belong to the men; they stop in early for coffee, eggs, and bacon, tossing a few bills in the basket for the local food bank. And hardly a month goes by that the center is not open for a craft show, supper, or dance featuring music by the Burnin’ Band, a rock group whose members include some of Mount Vernon’s most active citizens — café owner Wallack; organic asparagus farmer and electrician John Pino; Pino’s wife, Michele, a social work administrator; metal artist Bia Winter; Dale Perkins, a teacher at Kents Hill School in neighboring Readfield; and John Archard, the tobacco enforcement coordinator at the Maine Attorney General’s office.
That roster leads us to another benefit of Mount Vernon’s location: While the town is just enough out of the way to preserve its rural character, it also is just close enough to Augusta, Waterville, and Farmington to attract some of the well-educated and publicly engaged people who work in those places. “The people who live in Mount Vernon are all over the political and intellectual map,” says Libby, who, as executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, is often in Augusta himself, testifying before the state legislature or meeting with Agriculture Department officials. “Some of them are very skilled professionals, but they are also pretty low-key and casual in their day-to-day lives. Almost everyone here has something else they are involved with besides what they do for a living — we have some very good craftsmen and some excellent musicians. It’s a variety that doesn’t happen often in small towns.”
IT'S JUST BEFORE before 9:30 a.m. at the Saturday Morning Café, and Ann Warren, the day’s cook, is setting a long table in the community center’s main hall with steaming platters of chicken and apple sausage, mushroom bread pudding, and blueberry cobbler. “We make about a hundred dollars on a Saturday morning,” she says. “It adds up.” The fund-raiser started a few years ago as a simple coffee-and-cinnamon bun affair, but now members try to out-do each other with their spreads. (Michele and John Pino, the asparagus farmers, once served bacon from their own pig.)
Warren, an artist, confesses life in Mount Vernon took some getting used to when she and her husband, Donald, moved here from Manhattan twelve years ago. “The center has been a wonderful way to get acquainted with people,” she says. “The people I knew in New York would make assumptions about who lives in small towns in Maine and they’d be totally wrong. They think we sit on a bale of hay and talk about when to plant the potatoes. In fact, there are constant surprises in discovering what people’s experiences have been. My gosh, I’ve never met so many readers in my life or so many people who are politically astute and know what is going on in the world. It’s been a very welcoming place to us.”
Such stories of old-fashioned neighborliness abound. Wayne Davis says he spent nearly every day of eighteen months converting that old automotive garage into the Lakeside Loft, and he loved every minute of it. “I woke up each morning and couldn’t wait to get here,” he says. It wasn’t just the opportunity to exercise his creativity in an inspiring setting that energized him. It also was the way Mount Vernon embraced him and his wife, Christine.
“Early on in the project, a gentleman stopped by and said, ‘If you’ve got the time, I’d like to drive you around and introduce you.’ People were thrilled that the building was getting a new life. They made themselves available and gave us real quality advice. They were looking out for us.”
A few summers ago, John Pino was working in his field, which was parched by a season-long drought. “This guy pulls up in a pickup truck, and there is a giant water pumper in the bed,” Pino recalls. “He says, ‘I think you should get your tractor and put this pump on it and water your crops.’ I didn’t even know him. He just saw me as someone who was working hard, and nature was beating me. That’s the way it is here. People take care of each other. You can’t get a flat tire and wait more than ten minutes for someone to come along and help.”