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Central Maine’s Powers

Thorndike: A Town the Trains Left Behind 

by | Sep 5, 2022

photos/Holly Zadra

For one September weekend a year, the sparsely populated northwest corner of Waldo County becomes an agricultural mecca for folks attending the Common Ground Country Fair, in Unity. Over 60,000 people descend upon the area, passing farms, fields, and humble, nondescript towns on their way. For many, the villages of Unity and Thorndike are just passing scenery.

Some fairgoers travel through Thorndike driving north on Route 220, but most never set foot in its tiny village, instead arriving at the fairgrounds via the village center of Unity, with its fully restored railroad depot. In Unity you might glimpse the town’s iconic bronze moose sculpture; its colonial brick-and-clapboard buildings, like Clifford Commons, all fastidiously maintained; or drive through Unity College’s campus — all results of the fortune made by telecommunications pioneer Bert G. Clifford.

According to interviews in an Edmund S. Muskie Oral History Collection, Clifford was raised in Unity and, for 16 years of his adult life, he milked cows in the morning, drove a busload of children to school, used that same bus to transport up to 23,000 chickens to Central Maine farmers during school hours, then drove the students home, returned home himself, milked the cows again and went to bed. The obituary for Bert’s partner, Coral, indicates it was she who encouraged him to ditch the chickens and pursue telecommunications. Bert bought majority shares in Unity Telephone Co., founded UniTel Corporation, and then established Unity College — endeavors that made it possible for him and Coral to support local philanthropic projects and to play with trains. 

In the late 1980s, Bert hired a broker to find a steam engine. The broker discovered one, as well as its accompanying tender, five passenger cars, two dining cars and a sleeper car that had been covered and hidden in a cave in Sweden since World War II. Bert shipped it all, including two attendant engineers, to Maine, and eventually parts of that decommissioned train ended up in Thorndike.

Doug Nye.

Channing and Doug

Channing Howard owns land in the center of Thorndike, as well as structures that include a grain elevator-turned-storage facility, a caboose made in 1910, and the Central Maine Auction House, whose last auction was held in 1999. According to Doug Nye, who owns one of the Swedish boxcars on Howard’s property, a painting sold at one of those auctions 30 years ago for $95,000. Dusty, faded photos tacked to the wall reveal a time when the gallery was filled with hundreds of people sitting shoulder-to-shoulder while three auctioneers simultaneously worked the crowd. The Howard family’s antiques business once supplied props for companies like Applebees, L.L.Bean and Land Rover, whose interior designers sought to create an old-timey atmosphere. Nowadays, Doug observed, there are more antiques than the market can consume, and “instead of having a stack of suitcases, there’s a [large format] picture of a stack of suitcases” in those corporate restaurants and retail spaces. The Howards’ vast auction space is for lease. 

Channing tinkered in the background and stayed mostly silent as Doug called out Perdue Farms and other agribusiness giants for putting local, family farmed–chicken and –grain producers out of business, which then caused the railroad — no longer transporting chickens or feed — to fail in the 1980s. Commercial freight business through Thorndike soon followed agricultural freight off the rails. “Railroad of failures,” I heard Channing mutter. 

Not the type to linger on such topics, Doug clarified that he’s “not a railroad buff.” He sells antique car parts on eBay for a living and operates the Dented Can, a performance space inside his boxcar where I once saw Doug and Pam the Ham (a.k.a. the musical duo Cantankerous) open for singer-songwriters Sara Trunzo and Bill Giordano. Before being permitted to enter I had to sign a waiver absolving the venue of legal responsibility for injury or death. Inside, a casket hangs from the ceiling in back — another reminder to visitors of their ultimate fate. 

The day I reintroduced myself this summer, Doug was wearing a familiar floppy canvas hat, dirty jeans and work boots. His thick fingers and rough hands reveal the strength born of manual labor. He grew up in Ohio and eventually “wound up halfway to Brooks” — the next town east of Thorndike — “at a commune/hippie place.” Though it’s doubtful anyone would break into the Dented Can, Doug locks it up every time he leaves. “This is the first time I’ve ever had keys in my life,” he said.

Doug hosts very few events at the Dented Can these days, but he graciously hosted me on a spontaneous two-hour tour of the trains, the storage facility and the auction house. He drives a military-grade Dodge tactical vehicle made in the ’70s – the type once used as an ambulance on the frontlines of war. Where a red Geneva cross once may have been displayed there’s now the insignia of the Right Wing Wacko Rockers, painted in black, red and yellow; an American flag; an outline of Maine’s borders with the words “TO STIR THE POT” inside; and an accompanying door badge that reads, “Tolerance is a man without conviction.”

“Things are not going good in America,” Doug said, then launched into an impromptu history of the Velvet Revolution that toppled the one-party rule of Czechoslovakian Communism. In what I assume was at least a meta-critique of “cancel culture” in the U.S., he noted that Czech poet-turned-President Václav Havel spent nearly four years exiled as a political prisoner, along with 1,000 others, where, because he couldn’t publish poetry, “he brewed shitty beer.”

When Doug offered me a lapel pin that read, “Walk away from the radical left,” I used it as an opening to ask about the political divide between him and his neighbors: Diana Prizio, who owns an adjacent parcel of land, and the anarchist couple who sell radical books out of the boxcar next to his. Doug didn’t bite. “I’m too conservative. I voted for Trump, so anyways,” he said, his voice trailing off before he finally added: “We’re still friends.”

Link Harjung.

Link and Sophia 

Boxcar Books sits quietly behind buttercups and flowering onions at the end of this line of immobile train cars. Inside, thirty-something owner Link Harjung sells rare books and oddities on weekends. Wearing blue coveralls the day I met him, he has an unassuming manner, a few visible tattoos and brow-line glasses. He sat beside a plastic human skeleton with Dungeons & Dragons dice for eyes, a taxidermy bird perched on its collarbone, a name badge that reads “The Boss of Me,” and an “I [heart] Thorndike” pin. As we talked, Link often paused in thoughtful consideration. He chooses his words with care. 

Before moving to Maine, Link traveled the country hopping trains, playing music, and farming out West. There he met Sofia Albam, who sings and plays guitar, viola, piano and banjo. Link said that in the West, an act of God like wildfire or drought could be ruinous for poor working people like themselves. Having visited Waldo County, the two noticed that “rather than a rural dead zone, it felt vibrant.” 

Nine years ago, while living in Portland “before it got crazy expensive,” the couple bought a farm at auction in Troy, the town north of Thorndike, and began homesteading and playing shows a few times a year. They stopped performing in 2020, when so much else stopped, being reluctant to “gig behind plexiglass screens” and busy raising their toddler.  

Link got to know Diana Prizio when she asked for help moving an attic-full of books. She said she hoped to open a bookstore one day — a dream Link shared — but at the time she was busy restoring the Farwell Mill, located right across the tracks from the idle boxcars. That’s when Link and Sophia bought the boxcar, one opportunity among many that Link said would not have materialized for them outside Waldo County. 

Someday, with the help of one of Diana’s businesses, Little Letterpress, Link said he’d love to publish affordable zines that will help bring radical works like The Communist Manifesto and Peter Kropotkin’s anarcho-communist classic, The Conquest of Bread, into greater public consciousness. The shop currently sells first editions of fiction and non-fiction titles, zines, and works by hard-to-find authors like Penobscot poet Carol Dana (Red Hawk). On my visit, I spotted a copy of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, a book by steampunk/folk-horror writer and musician Margaret Killjoy, and anarchist how-to books and classics. There’s also vintage clothing, herbal tinctures, and a typewriter, should you suddenly become inspired to write your own story.

When he’s not at the bookshop, Link farms and cuts firewood. He wasn’t raised on a farm, so he’s had to learn a lot in a short time. He feels bittersweet about the music he doesn’t play as often as he once did, coupled with the loss of vanity that accompanies doing maintenance on a skidder, sharpening a chainsaw, changing a horse’s shoes or ensuring there’s enough wood to burn for winter. As a traveling musician, he merely pondered a homesteading life; now he’s living it. “It fills my soul a little more to grow food and live simply,” Link said, “to play music for myself and my family.” 

Link recalled that the anarchist bookstores, or “infoshops,” he visited in his younger years were places one could find zines or a free box of clothes, or wash dishes for a meal. “My frame of mind,” he said of that time, “was that we had a separate world — just us — reinforced by small circles.” As white nationalism rises, Link noted that some vocal and empowered leftists have the attitude that it’s not their job to teach others about politics. Fascists, on the other hand, eagerly invite impressionable people into their circles to spread their hateful ideology. Since moving to Maine, “I’ve realized mutual aid and people power can’t happen in a life separate from the masses,” Link said.

Sofia Albam Harjung raises their precocious child, Esker (named after the gravel ridges left behind when the Laurentide Ice Sheet retreated from this area some 15,000 years ago), and cares for ducks, horses and goats on their homestead in Troy. Last year she started a handmade clothing company called Tilth. She designs and sews sturdy yet beautiful petticoat pants and jeans, high-waisted denim town shorts, painter shirts, and more. Grateful for the internet (even though she views social media as a cesspool), Sofia said she gets to do what she likes here and makes decisions for herself that feel sustainable. A tagline she posted online that got popular read, “Everybody should have good jeans.”

After spending most of her childhood and adult years in urban environments, Sofia said the shift to rural Maine gave her the mental health she’d sought her entire life. “Having a quiet place where I don’t have to talk to anyone if I don’t want to is a privilege everybody should be able to have,” she said. When she does want to consult with others, she noted that Waldo County offers overlapping systems of support for homesteaders, including the Belfast Co-op, Maine Farmland Trust, Unity Food Hub, Daybreak Growers Alliance, and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, which puts on the Common Ground Fair.

Urban social life is organized around belief systems, Sophia said, and that can divide even close neighbors. But out here, “you have to mingle with your neighbors, and if your neighbors are crazy Trumpsters, you have to find a way to communicate — about land use or whatever,” she said. “In that way, it’s more humanizing, you know; they aren’t evil people.”

I asked Sofia what she wished for. “Besides the fall of capitalism?” she quipped, then added, “Continuing health and, gosh, I hope we don’t find PFAS [so-called “forever chemicals”] in our well.” Musing on peak oil and city life, she feels better positioned to weather the future because they heat with wood. “In the event civilization doesn’t collapse, I’d like to keep growing our bookstore, caring for the land, finding more folks to be friends with, and raise Esker, of course.”

A regular at Boxcar Books who moved here from Colorado, Marc Durant said, “In the absence of a coffee shop, [Boxcar Books] is the unofficial community space of Thorndike.” In this community, there’s a refreshing acknowledgement of the immense difficulties and precarious circumstances we all face, coupled with active attempts to make things better one house, one book, one conversation or one person at a time. Durant believes it’s the land — the fertile soil and the woods — that draws people to Central Maine, while “the speed of life and goat-milk soft-serve in Monroe” keep you here. “I sleep better,” Marc told me. “I have more energy. I feel like a human.”

Across from where Marc is building his home, in the neighboring town of Jackson, there lives a member of the “sovereign citizens” movement. “We have to come to terms with that,” Marc said. “Of course I would help them. We deal with people as people, not as abstractions. I see my neighbor walking her child every day, so unless she starts training a militia…” — he ended that thought mid-sentence.

Link and Sofia said they’ve also seen more visible signs of white nationalism lately: Confederate flags, Nazi SS symbols, trucks bearing stickers that say “1488” [a white supremacist code number] and “We must preserve the fatherland.” But they also continue to meet more anti-fascists and people with radical-queer identities in the area.

“With all the privilege I have, I’m asked to be the frontline with people of color and trans folks who are frequently on the end of abuse,” Link said, adding that most people would rather not acknowledge we’re “an election away from militias mobilizing.” Turning that fear into action — mutual-aid organizing, building community, fostering strong ties with neighbors — is how anarchists transcend political and social divisions for the benefit of all, Link explained.

Diana Prizio.

Diana

Diana Prizio arrived in Maine from Connecticut with the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and spent nearly two decades caretaking a 300-acre farm and running a wholesale bakery. When she inherited a “barn full of things” after her mother’s death, she set up shop in Thorndike’s former post office, now called Garden Variety. Diana cooked for MOFGA when it was still named MOFA (Maine Organic Foods Association) and located in Augusta. Through a Department of Agriculture grant, she networked small farmers around the state and brought the original producers and vendors to the earliest Common Ground fairs.

Since 2015, Diana has been the driving force behind the Farwell Project, an effort to revitalize the feed-and-grain mill (built in 1890) and its adjacent general store and lumber mill, all of which were “slowly falling downhill” when the nonprofit bought them that year. She spread interest and built a board of directors that includes both Doug (who carries the small mortgage on the property) and Link. She applied to get the property listed on the National Register of Historic Places and fundraised to save the buildings. 

With the subsequent addition of the Thorndike Grange Hall, the Farwell Project grew to include four buildings with long-deferred maintenance needs requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of work and materials — in a town without the population to support it. So far, the Davis Family Foundation, Viking Lumber, and a federal grant have collectively provided about $500,000. Half a million more dollars will be needed to finish the job.

Diana is, of course, very busy. Wearing practical clothes, with silver braids and no makeup, she carries herself calmly and with confident humility. In addition to overseeing the four Farwell buildings, Little Letterpress and Garden Variety, she tends the Railcyclers — recreational tandem pedal bikes built for riding the abandoned rail line running through town. 

Diana said downtown Thorndike was once a bustling village with a theater, two department stores, two new-car dealerships, and freight lines and passenger rail that ran three times daily from Burnham to Belfast. The old general store, where farming families once gathered around a woodstove to share news and gossip, now functions as a storytelling museum and shop. The grain mill — the last of its vintage to still have all its working parts — hosts Belfast’s Game Loft four times a week, during which teens gather for non-electronic pastimes.

Thorndike lost its lifeblood when the train stopped running and the mills stopped producing, Diana said. Her nonprofit would like the museum to be a real general store again, but they lack the funds to stock it and there isn’t much of a clientele to shop there. Plus, they don’t want to compete with the Amish general store or the hardware store, both located just up the road in Unity. 

A poster promoting the Farwell Project reads, “Let’s not let small towns go extinct,” with the word extinct highlighted. It’s telling that there’s a museum of a general store in Thorndike rather than the real thing. Yet there’s palpable energy among the people here and a rare sense of community. 

Diana said rural Maine helped her embrace imperfection — “not having to perfect my surroundings, being able to wear old pants to town, not caring if my shirt has a rip even though I’m supposed to be a [presentable] adult.” Diana recalled a recently deceased friend who regularly visited the old Farwell Brothers Store. He’d knock loudly and announce, “It’s the building inspector. I came to be sure everything here is crooked and creaky.” Once he was inside, she said he’d dramatically pound the floors and declare, “I don’t want to see any Connecticut here!”    

“Hopefully, Maine has gotten me to leave my Connecticut behind,” she told me.  

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