News, Views, Happiness Pursued

Central Maine’s Powers

A new series about life in the heart of the state

by | Aug 7, 2022

photo/Penny Oliphant

Thirteen years ago I moved with my partner, Vaughan, and our son, River, from an unaffordable, 900-square-foot apartment in Bozeman, Montana, my home state, to Pittsfield, a Central Maine town about halfway between Waterville and Bangor along Interstate 95. We loaded our belongings into the bed of a Dodge diesel pick-up that ran on scavenged fryer oil and drove across the country to a house that’d been vacant for more than a year, save the mice nesting in the toaster. Inherited from Vaughan’s grandparents, the three-bedroom, two-story Colonial was fully furnished in rural Maine style, down to the worn linens, six rolls of Scotch tape, empty collectible bottles of Jim Beam and Wild Turkey, and dozens of canning jars in the cellar still filled with unidentifiable food. Since we arrived, I’ve given birth to two more sons in the room at the front of the house 20 feet from the spur by which roughly 7,000 cars and trucks pass daily between I-95 and “downtown.” Their placentas are buried beneath a young black walnut tree that will someday shade the road.

Before leaving the Rocky Mountains I read Helen and Scott Nearing’s The Good Life, dreamt of grafting apple trees, and made a thousand assumptions about rural Maine. Shortly after we got here I attended the Common Ground Country Fair put on annually by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) in nearby Unity. I gawked at the intricate pen-and-ink renderings and radical ideology of the Beehive Collective’s giant murals hanging at the entry gate. I ate butternut squash ravioli and saw metalsmiths and hippies, working dogs and basket-weavers, skilled artisans and farmers of many kinds leading workshops. I also soon learned that my new home in inland Somerset County was very different from neighboring Waldo County, home to the coastal city of Belfast, the islands of Islesboro, and Unity. Even Unity wasn’t the Unity I’d imagined. From 2,500 miles away I couldn’t see the cultural poverty, economic depression, or the sweaty guy at a parade in Clinton whose t-shirt read, “Bitch make me a sandwich.”

These days I own and operate a tiny yoga studio in Pittsfield and I’ve been working on a personal writing project that intersects copper, labor, and intergenerational trauma and healing. In this series for Mainer, “Central Maine’s Powers,” I’ll be sharing the unvarnished stories of the people and the forces that have shaped this part of the state for good and ill. Though the beauty of this place is undeniable, much of its history is not — from the attempted genocide of Wabanaki people by settler-colonialists to the rise and fall of family farming and the poisonous ghosts of industrialization. These are the stories of people drawn here, like myself, “from away,” and those stuck here, by fate or circumstance, since birth. A friendly neighbor of mine once succinctly summed up the current state of affairs: “You can afford to live here, but you can never afford to leave.”

My in-laws live a half-mile down the spur. Twenty miles north, in Ripley, stands the family farm where we cut, haul, split and stack the wood that heats our home. There’s no store, no post office and no gas station in Ripley, but on clear days you can see all the way to the Chairback Mountains in the 100-Mile Wilderness north of Dover-Foxcroft, and on clear nights the stargazing is unparalleled. The farmhouse in Ripley contains more than a century’s worth of family belongings — diaries, photos, rusted farm implements, and china, purchased one plate at a time, that only comes out on holidays — curated by the eldest member of the Woodcock lineage still in residence. The front porch, like the backbone of the barn, is sagging with age as the earth draws everything deeper into itself with every spring thaw. 

This is where I first fell in love with Maine. On a rainy November day, my first ever at that Ripley farm, I wandered alone through the barn and the old dance hall filled with miscellany. As I emptied a bucket of compost, the drizzle, the quiet, the sheltering density of clouds overhead and the privilege of space enough to build soil ignited something in me that I hadn’t known was missing: a feeling of promise.

The following summer, my partner’s grandfather died. At his celebration of life I witnessed rich and poor alike fill a musty, beautiful old church in the center of Pittsfield to share dozens of homemade pies and touching, sometimes hilarious stories about Doc Woodcock. A palpable sense of community, built over many decades, washed over me. I recognized the deep connections, as well as the tenderness and vulnerability displayed when a beloved community member dies. I didn’t feel any rigidity among those gathered that day — that came later. I’ve since come to recognize both the charm and the insularity these communities create. 

photo/Penny Oliphant

Sinking in

Among the half dozen reasons we wound up here was housing. As our young family weathered intersecting economic and health crises during the Great Recession, we were priced out of Bozeman, one of the fastest-growing micropolitan areas in the U.S. Pittsfield offered a house and a familial safety net. I woke my first morning here with a steadiness of breath I hadn’t experienced in years. Despite the truck traffic that shakes the house and the near constant buzz of passing cars, I felt protected. 

In those first days I drove lonely, foreign roads to a farm in West Pittsfield where I made $8 an hour working five acres of diversified, MOFGA-certified organic vegetables. Vaughan struggled to build a small business and wrangled with politicians and regulators to help support renewable energy policies and projects. Pregnant with our third son, I managed nausea and wept for the cold, dry, hard earth out West, and for our son Ari, then seven and living with his father, whom I could not bring along to the East. Yet I was never happier.

Vaughan grew up here; I didn’t. Being a “mixed” family of out-of-staters and native Mainers leaves us in limbo among the mostly white, mostly older residents of this town, a place where there’s almost no anonymity and where locals make both unspoken and overt categorizations of one’s insider or outsider status. I still have little idea how members of the Cianchette clan — founders of Cianbro Corporation, the construction giant headquartered in Pittsfield — are related to one another, nor where the old barn stood that burned to ashes two decades before my arrival, yet is still used as a guiding landmark. I like to speak up about my feelings and struggles, but that doesn’t endear me to the more taciturn townspeople. I’m continually confounded by this culture that simultaneously values adherence to Yankee tradition and nonconformity.

A recent transplant to Pittsfield had asked her realtor to find her Stars Hollow, the fictional Connecticut town in Gilmore Girls, in Maine. Pittsfield’s small-town character charmed me, too: the fall soccer games played on trim fields next to vibrant hardwood forests; the community suppers, held to support local farmers, at the VFW and in church basements; the volunteer Garden Club members who tend the flowers and shrubs that make the streets pretty; neighbors who host “happy hour” with homemade sourdough and cocktails that rival any Manhattan bar’s. 

But I was pointedly reminded of my outsider status when I got involved in civic affairs as the then-youngest (at age 40) and only female (and pregnant) member of the Pittsfield Planning Board, and afterward as an engaged and concerned mother of four. I’d thought there was nothing more insider than to champion the uniqueness of this place, to advocate on behalf of the people who live and work here year-round and the locally owned businesses struggling to survive. 

Yet when the Canadian fossil-fuel behemoth Irving Oil Ltd. planned to erect an excessively large sign for its gas station and junk-food store, I was the sole voice arguing that it should conform to the specifications in the town’s sign ordinance. I was branded “anti-business” when I requested a Family Dollar store’s exterior design better fit with the architectural styles of other retail spaces nearby. No one seemed as offended as I was when a Central Maine Power representative declared the company would take land by eminent domain if there were any objections to their transmission-line plan. And the town literally paved the way for a new Dunkin’ by building a sidewalk to the fast-food franchise where no sidewalk had been before. 

Meanwhile, mom-and-pop businesses continue to struggle for lack of similar infrastructure improvements. When I noted the flexibility we were willing to give wealthy corporate outsiders, despite their projects’ being in direct conflict with the town’s comprehensive plan, I was shunned by the insiders, because … well, cheap coffee. 

The former San Antonio Shoe Mill in Pittsfield. photo/Penny Oliphant

Just another swab story 

It’s been over 200 years since Maine became a state, and by many measures — including the health of the land and water — the quality of life for those living in the heart of this place continues to decline. Two centuries is a good run, but it’s a mere blip on the timescale of people who have lived here harmoniously for 13,000 years. The Penobscot, one of the oldest continuous governments in the world, have to fight for basic economic and social parity while the settler majority slides toward poverty and division. The rise — or, really, the revival — of organic agriculture has been a positive development, but it hasn’t come close to creating the widespread economic security and social stability of pre-industrial family farming. Last century’s manufacturing boom left in its wake abandoned and sprawling infrastructure and pollution. The remaining paper mills fend off criticism of continued poisoning, now with a new name: per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or “forever chemicals.” Added to these seemingly intractable difficulties are fentanyl overdoses, intergenerational poverty and social isolation. Under such conditions, the arrival of the next monolithic corporation represents, in the words of a septuagenarian born in Pittsfield, a “renaissance.”

In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, Puritan Medical Products — a COVID-test-swab manufacturer headquartered in Guilford, a small town in neighboring Piscataquis County — received over $50 million in federal funding to expand into Pittsfield. Guilford (population 591, poverty rate 37.2 percent) is the town that embraced then-President Trump during his visit to celebrate Puritan’s work. Many would say Guilford fits the Trump-pumping stereotype cast on rural folks. You can see it on the yard signs and the flags that fly there, and you can see it by the signs and flags that are missing.

In partnership with Cianbro, Puritan spruced up 100,000 square feet of vacant manufacturing space along the Sebasticook River in downtown Pittsfield to make more swabs. Then, on a sunny day in October 2020, about 70 people gathered a half-mile upriver of that facility for a cheery press conference announcing yet another swab factory — Maine’s third, Pittsfield’s second. Sen. Susan Collins and local dignitaries lauded the new facilities and the jobs they would create. 

Pittsfield’s second swab factory was developed on the site of the former San Antonio Shoe (SAS) mill. Cianbro demolished that picturesque, three-story brick mill; its workers carefully placed bricks and granite window sills on pallets to be shipped to the daughters of SAS founder Terry Armstrong. The daughters plan to display the building’s remnants at a shoe museum in San Antonio that honors their father’s legacy. The remaining acres of the former SAS property are for sale as industrial lots.

Puritan has a huge impact on a town this size, as did Connecticut-based UTC Fire and Security, and General Electric, and General Signal, and SAS before it. It draws people for shift work and provides health insurance — at least, as long as the plague lasts. Gossip swirls about workers, especially those on second shift, who get high to stomach the monotony of their jobs. 

In the heat of August last summer I saw a woman parked on Easy Street slump forward onto her steering wheel and pass out. It was so hot, I worried she might die in her greenhouse of a Plymouth. I knocked on her window; she roused and rolled it down. I asked if she was OK, as the pungent smell of hard liquor wafted out of her car. She smiled and said, “Thank you. I’m just waiting for this shift to leave so I can park for mine.” 

I’ve replayed that moment in my mind many times since that day, seeing myself in that car, waiting for that shift at that new job, feeling the close heat of summer with the windows rolled up, being so drunk I nod off before work. Had I witnessed worse things in my life, let my taste for bourbon get the better of me, survived some unshakeable trauma or seen no better path, she could have been me. I often wonder if I embarrassed her in my act of witness, or if she could feel me seeing her, seeing me, seeing all of us.

The stories that come from here are complicated, and it takes an element of masochism to weather it all: black flies, the Good Old Boys Club, ticks, and a teetering economy. This place demands you to do it yourself, because that’s the only way it will ever get done, except that none of us ever does it that way: we ask our neighbors for help. And that reliance on each other at the heart of rural living is what creates the palpable tensions and conflicts we continuously try to unknot. 

A 20-minute drive from Pittsfield to Thorndike brings you to a line of Swedish boxcars. About five years ago I saw singer-songwriters Sara Trunzo and Bill Giordano play a show in one of those cars, a venue called the Dented Can, owned by musician Doug Nye. When I visited with Nye last month, he offered me a lapel pin from the RWWR — the Right Wing Wacko Rockers — that reads, “Walk away from the radical left.” Right next to the Dented Can is Boxcar Books, out of which thirty-something songwriter Link Harjung sells rare books and hosts anarchist poetry readings. 

The metaphorical space between those boxcars is where the stories I plan to share arise, where the complexities of our diverse human responses to landscape and survival, to power and employment, purpose and pleasure, peppered with some measure of frivolity, wisdom, and simply not knowing, beg us — outsiders and insiders alike — to listen and to be heard. By sharing stories of the people and places that make this region special, I hope to reveal those interconnections and inspire us all to realize what “the good life” really can be.

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