Skowhegan A to Z
An ad hoc encyclopedia of Maine’s Place to Watch
by Carl Davulis
In the course of their yearly migration along the Kennebec River — to Merrymeeting Bay in the summer, and up to The Forks in the fall — the Abenakis would stop twice in Skowhegan. On their way down, they would spear salmon in the deep pools at the bottom of the falls and array the fish on racks to dry in the sun. On their way back up, they would collect the dried fish as sustenance for the winter months. “Skowhegan” is believed to mean “a watching place” or “a place to watch” in their language, or more specifically, “a place to watch for fish, with the intention of spearing them.” Hence the town’s motto: “A Place to Watch.”
“We are in a former cellblock,” Amber Lambke says as we walk into her office at the Somerset Grist Mill. Until 2008, this science-fictional building was the Somerset County Jail. Lambke, a speech therapist-turned-miller/food activist/developer, and her business partner, Michael Scholz, bought the building for $65,000 and renovated it over several years. “The County began showing the building when it was still full of inmates,” Lambke tells. “We bought it knowing that we wanted to reestablish the infrastructure for milling grains, as a way to bring back our grain economy here in Central Maine.” And what is grist, exactly? “Grist is whatever you put between stones to mill.” In this case, the grist is wheat and oats from local farmers who, if their grains are not certified as organic, must take a solemn oath of organicity. Lambke’s flour and oats are sold under the label Maine Grains at natural-foods stores throughout the state, and at the mill’s Pickup Café.
A free public restroom, one of the hallmarks of civilization, can be found within Alton’s Way, a covered walkway that connects Water Street and Commercial Street.
Bank some calories at The Bankery, a high-end patisserie and bread bakery located in the former Lincoln Industrial Bank (formerly Augusta Trust Company, formerly Second National Bank). The beautiful brass cash register and safety deposit boxes are original; the vaults are now the walk-in fridge and freezer. Their signature treat is the Opera Cake, which bears a treble clef-shaped drizzle of chocolate. Bring your insulin.
SEE AND HEAR “CECIL THE HOOK” TELLING STORIES OF HIS ADVENTURES ON A MAINE WAILING SHIP — text from a painting by a guy who wishes to be identified only as “a guy who makes interesting paintings.”
The arcade at the Central Maine Family Fun Center may not be “The Best Game Room In Central Maine!” — ICE-BALL is not Skee-Ball, and the pinball gets a failing grade — but they do have Ms. Pac-Man, and the air hockey is elite. The Cold War-era computers in the bowling alley seem to be running UNIX.
“GROW OLD ALONG WITH ME / THE BEST IS YET TO BE,” reads the outermost ring of the cast copper sundial in Coburn Park. The dial’s gnomon (the part that casts a shadow) is missing, but the central image of the Reaper reminds us that there exist only two times.
It is said that the 45th parallel runs directly through Creep City in West Athens, and that this geographical phenomenon is the source of the region’s mysterious pull.
KENNY THE ARMLESS UNICYCLE’S CROSS FREAK SHOW 1891 “ALIVE”
“Downtown Skowhegan is a curious mix of your traditional Main Street stuff — jewelry store, clothing store, hardware store — and the kind of stuff you typically associate with a quote-unquote ‘revitalized downtown,’ which would be things like The Bankery, specialty shops, the art gallery,” says Dugan Murphy, the polymathic executive director of Main Street Skowhegan. (Portlanders may remember Murphy’s bike shop in Bramhall Square, The Bike Cycle, or his architectural history tour, “Holes in the Urban Fabric: A Cycling Tour of Portland’s Most Ill-Fated Demolitions and Redevelopments.”) “If I’m talking to potential tourists, I’d say include Skowhegan on a trip to places like the Forks, for kayaking or whatever, or other outdoorsy things, where you’d stop into Skowhegan as, you know, the ‘town’ part of your trip. But if I’m talking to people who might consider moving here, I’d say to the people in Portland, who feel like they’re running into walls trying to find affordable space for stuff that they wanna do, Skowhegan has the kind of price points, and the kind of space, that Portland used to have in the ’70s.”
The bespectacled eyes of T.J. Eckleberg watch as you approach John Richardson’s frame- and clock-repair workshop on Skowhegan Island. Richardson is a sculptor as well as a machinist, and his gallery of creations includes replica pre-Columbian statuary, a miniature Bossy Gillis (the notorious mayor of Newburyport, MA, who governed from jail for 60 days during the first of his six terms), a pewter wizard’s hat with walking feet, and a ceramic diorama that imagines Botero’s “El Baño” in three dimensions.
The infamous West Athens Fourth of July parade is no more, but the Exiles Motorcycle Club has found an alternative venue for their summer bash at the grounds of the equally defunct Athens Fair. What does it take to become an Exile? “I can’t tell you,” Scruff Dog explains to me. “Because you’d write it in your paper. Then I would come find you. And I would tattoo it on your fuckin’ back.” After firmly establishing who is in charge of our conversation, Scruff Dog welcomes me warmly to the Exiles’ celebration — a family-friendly affair — and shows me around the fairgrounds with pride.
“Some people call this part of downtown Skowhegan ‘The Flat Iron District,’” Murphy says, referring to the trapezoidal wedge of buildings between Water Street and Commercial. “A lot of people call it ‘The Rotary,’ but as an organization we’re trying to move it toward ‘The Flat Iron District,’ because, you know, ‘The Rotary’ makes you think of Augusta.”
You can smell the rubber boots from the street as you approach Griffin’s, a Platonic heaven of basic clothes. Need a red woolen crusher? A bucket hat for beach tourism? Green Dickies? Paisley bandannas? I buy the last Skowhegan Indians duffle bag for $5.99.
In January, Amber Lambke and contractor Stephen Dionne bought the former Grange Hall from the Skowhegan Savings Bank for $15,000 and a promise to fix up the building, which had been slated for demolition. Lambke, who recalls contradancing at the Grange in the early 2000s, hopes to restore the hall to its role as a community gathering and performance space. “Upstairs there’s still a beautiful dance floor, the stage, and these antique muraled curtains,” she says. “The downstairs — these granges had large galley kitchens and eating areas for potluck suppers — we’re probably going to convert to become space for a tenant. We’re talking seriously with an entrepreneur who’s interested in marrying himself to all the grain-based stuff that’s happening here and starting a micro-malt operation, which would malt grains for brewers.” And what is a Grange Hall, exactly? “The Grange is an old agrarian civic organization,” Murphy explains. “Technically, it’s a fraternal order, like the Masons. You might have noticed that most towns in Maine have a Grange — it was historically the center of community social life in lots of rural communities. The Presumpscot Grange in Portland was a Grange until just a few years ago. I used to rent it for punk shows when I was a teenager.”
A Bad Bowtie weathervane with a negative space “H” sits atop Hight Chevrolet, a fixture on Madison Avenue since 1911. “I’ll challenge you to find an older car dealership,” Murphy says. “Know what I mean? How can a car dealership be any older?”
Superlatives of the “world’s largest” variety rarely attach to masterpieces of modern art, but a case can be made for the Skowhegan Indian, a 62-foot wooden sculpture of an Abenaki fisherman made by Maine artist Bernard “Blackie” Langlais. The Indian peeks out between overgrown trees at the northern end of the municipal parking lot and gazes upon the Cumberland Farms. His Watching Place — an angular, almost Constructivist block of cast concrete — fairly approximates the rocks of Skowhegan’s gorge. Langlais was a student, and later a teacher, at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, but you could be forgiven for reading the Indian as kitsch Americana — the work was commissioned by the Skowhegan Hospitality Association, who presumably wanted a roadside attraction. Many winters have transpired since the sculpture was erected in 1969, and it is gravely in need of conservation work. His right arm, spear, and weir (a sort of fishing net) are in storage at the studio of contractor (and Grange Hall co-owner) Stephen Dionne. If the project’s boosters meet their fundraising goal of $65,000, Dionne will perform the renovations in the summer of 2014, dubbed “Indian Summer.” “We’ve been very good at resisting the urge to use the phrase ‘Be an Indian Giver,’” Murphy says.
A path behind Island Dairy Treat (“Flurries in the forecast!”) leads down to the Kennebec, right above the steel cable and STAY BACK signs strung across the river to prevent the careless canoeist from plunging over the falls. A concrete cube just offshore demands to be scaled.
I challenge the reader to find a more symbolically charged physical embodiment of Americana than Jesse LaCasse’s hand-turned wooden baseball bats, which he wholesales to the Skowhegan Indians, as well as their rivals down the Kennebec: the Waterville Panthers and the Winslow Black Raiders. His fish clubs may lack the same folksy charm, but are purported to be the most humane method of doing the deed. Both are available at LaCasse Shoe Repair, which is stacked floor-to-ceiling with boots of every imaginable variety and vintage.
The KNEADING Conference unites bread bakers from around the world on the grounds of the Skowhegan State Fair in late July; the subsequent Artisan Bread Fair is free and open to the public. The Maine Grain Alliance, the event’s host, owns a mobile wood-fired pizza oven (built by Albie Barden of Maine Wood Heat, using a Le Panyol core imported from France) that it fires up for the Farmers’ Market at the Grist Mill on Saturday mornings.
On your drive up Route 201, stop off at the L.C. Bates Museum in Hinckley to witness another century’s vision of natural history: crude taxidermy set in lushly painted dioramas, and a rock and mineral collection nonpareil. Bring your Geiger counter.
“This was your classic little pizzeria with, like, a grumpy guy,” Murphy explains, gesturing to the restaurant that is now M Thai. In 2003, HBO transformed the pizzeria into the Empire Grill, a 1930s-era diner, for the filming of Empire Falls. “Everything you see that looks kinda art deco-ish is, like, fake-old. So, these windows used to be rectangular, and they cut off the corners and put that kind of faux-brushed aluminum on there. That’s why the door has that diagonal cut to it and stuff.” The film set was converted to an actual diner, which folded in 2010. Vicky Soikum, whose Thai truck does the circuit of state fairs, opened M Thai in 2011, bringing basil and lemongrass to the denizens of the Watching Place. It is impossible to imagine the booths and counter of the Empire Grill in the current space — your basic carpeted Thai restaurant, with a framed poster of Thailand’s King and Queen and an elaborate shrine to, I think, Buddha. The octagonal windows let in lots of light. The chef was barefoot. The food was OK. The wait staff are the sort of heartbreakingly sweet Central Mainers one travels a hundred miles north of Portland to experience.
An informational sign by the river reads: “1648: Moquine-Nathanda, son of Nayowomet, the Kennebec River Sachem, sold to William Bradford and Associates all land from Cushnoc (Augusta) to Wesserunsett for four hogsheads of provisions.”
The old Mr. Paperback sign is still up at the vacant storefront in Skowhegan Village Plaza. Skowhegan does not have a bookstore.
During his 2007 residency at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, artist James Sham raised $9,000 — including a donation from Ed Harris, the diner’s filmic proprietor — to create the Muffin-A-Day Endowment, a fund whose interest would provide a muffin to one Empire Grill customer every morning in perpetuity. The fund was disbursed to donors after the Grill’s closing; the plaque explaining the endowment was supposedly given to the post office, or town hall, or someplace — we spent the morning searching for it, but the muffin plaque turned out to be a MacGuffin.
In the center of Skowhegan, where many New England towns might have a green, one finds the vehicular chaos of the Municipal Parking Lot. Detailed architectural plans exist that would give order to this lawless waste and also create a strip of green space leading up to the Skowhegan Indian. “This project is totally ready to go,” Murphy insists. “Funds from the state have been approved, but have been temporarily blocked by Governor LePage.”
“Don’t mourn for me, Jane,” reads the Mystery Gravestone, a slab of marble on view at the Skowhegan History House. The stone, which had been flipped upside-down and used as a doorstep, was discovered in the 1980s when a contractor dinged a shovel against it while digging a foundation for a porch on Madison Avenue. The name on the gravestone appears to have been intentionally effaced, leading local historians to believe the stone had been discarded by its carver.
New Balance continues to manufacture sneakers in the former Dexter Shoe factory overlooking the falls. A current advertising campaign boasts that “one in four New Balance shoes are made or assembled in the US.” Only in an economy devastated by the flight of manufacturing could this statistic be framed as a selling point, but one in four is not nothing, especially to the factory’s employees. The factory outlet store is on Walnut Street.
The balcony of the Old Mill Pub overlooks the gorge just below Skowhegan Falls; hearing loss may result from an overlong meal. To eat the Veggie Wrap is to race against time, for its grilled surface cannot contain the chthonic mass of sautéed spinach and portabella mushrooms for long. Budget your napkin. Two offerings from nearby Oak Pond Brewing were on tap: Dooryard (its hoppiness fizzles into a metallic abstraction) and Nut Brown (dark and sweet, with a flavor that improves toward the bottom of the glass). I can’t believe I’m writing this, but the potato chips were really, really good.
A man I met on Water Street told me about the Boy Scout’s trial of silence as he strives to attain membership in the Order of the Arrow.
The Paper Klip is an archive of the paper-based technologies of yore, and its logo is a masterpiece of graphic design. For $2.40 I bought a half-size clipboard that perfectly fits my Moleskine.
The aforementioned Pickup Café, where weekly CSA shares are bagged and distributed, transforms into a farm-to-table restaurant during the Farmers’ Market and serves a full-menu brunch. “The garage doors open up, and we spill tables outside with umbrellas,” Lambke shouts above a soundtrack of air compressor, nail gun, and table saw. As we spoke, new bathrooms were being constructed in anticipation of the Café’s application for a beer-and-wine license. The Pickup Café should be open for dinner by the time this story hits the streets.
Plows for Sale 474-3371
“Those pole trucks go through all day long,” Murphy says, as a flatbed stacked high with logs nearly takes out my assistant, Alexandra.
A plaque affixed to a boulder on Skowhegan Island commemorates Benedict Arnold’s “DARING BUT ILL-FATED EXPEDITION” up the Kennebec-Chaudière Corridor to Québec. It is believed that Arnold and his men camped on the island with their bateaux.
The Depositors Trust Co. building is the site of the River Watch Mural, painted by students from the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1999. A “NO TRESPASSING NO PARKING” sign is bolted over what one imagines must be an explanation of the artwork.
The little hand of the clock in front of Russakoff Jewelers suggests that it stopped at 10:40. The big hand has fallen off and rests at the bottom of the clock face.
Belfast-based fiber artist Sarah Hewitt is the only Maine resident among the 65 students at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture this summer. A dispatch from day one: “mind blown wide open so quickly by artists from Spain, Israel, Argentina, Mexico, Italy.”
At Skills, Inc. I buy a cloisonné pin of a cartoon cat, to replace the one I lost on a bike ride to Cousins Island. I pass on a Fisher-Price Grand Piano with rainbow keys. In general, the thrifting in Skowhegan is insane.
The young man who operates Skow Town Taxi tells me he believes “Skow Town” confers more dignity than “Skowvegas,” whose entry into the vernacular is comparatively recent. (Pronunciation note: locals say something like “Skuh-WEEG-n.”) Pizza slices are now available at the taxi stand on Skowhegan Island; cold slices from the fridge half price.
The Skowhegan Opera House, on the upper floor of Town Hall, is locked when I visit, but the stage is visible through windows and peep-holes in the balcony’s A/V booth. On display in the lobby is an impressive collection of Empire Falls artifacts, including an architectural model of the fictitious town.
A banner for a short-lived (and widely panned) flea market droops from the face of Solon Manufacturing Company, a former Popsicle-stick-and-tongue-depressor mill that stands vacant next to the raging Skowhegan Falls. Rumors surface periodically that this beautiful brick giant will be renovated into condominiums or artists’ lofts.
The Strand Cinema, built in 1929, has a ticket booth on the street, three screens with balcony seating, trompe l’oeil murals, and a malevolent haint. Given that literally everything in Skowhegan is haunted, it may be fatuous to speculate whether the ghost is real, but the testimony of Cheyenne, a young manager, is chilling and sincere. A Peerless Magnarc High Intensity Lamp gathers cobwebs in an upstairs corridor. The frightful faces cut into the wall sconces suggest neither comedy nor tragedy, but eternal discontent.
The Swinging Bridge, one of two footbridges that cross the Kennebec in Skowhegan, is a gephyrophobe’s nightmare. A sort of gentlemen’s club convenes weekdays on a park bench nearby. BYOB.
The former jail’s panoptic Control Room and Surveillance Center now houses Tech Spot, an after-school program where students run an IT help desk and tutor adults in the ways of digital technology.
“I think a good place-setting info-bit to include,” Murphy says, “would be to mention that downtown Skowhegan exists at the confluence of U.S. Route 2 and U.S. Route 201. It’s the only place where both the routes come together, right here in the Flat Iron District. Route 2, I know, goes west to Burlington, and then east to — I’m not sure where. 201 is part of a historic thoroughfare connecting Quebec City with the rest of Maine. It’s a major route for Quebecois tourists going to Old Orchard Beach, for instance.”
SEE THE NEWLY DISCOVERED COUNTESS DRACULA THAT WAS LIVING IN BLUEMOOR CASTLE IN BLUEMOOR, NORTH DAKOTA AND NOW TOURING THE USA WITH THE FIFTH GALAXY, SEVENTH STAR, FOURTH PLANET FRENCH COLONY VEXGARO TRAVELING CARAVAN SHOW.
In Xana-Do did Missy Curtis an insane crenellated turret decree. This monumental beauty parlor was constructed, like much of post-war Europe, from Lego-like modular blocks of concrete. “Next time you are driving by, please stop in, it is beautiful inside!!!” Missy writes in response to my e-mail query. Located just a mile past the Yogi Bear–themed RV park at Yonder Hill.
Maine artist William Zorach spent twelve summers teaching at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture between 1946 and 1961. In a 1949 letter to his daughter, Dahlov Ipcar, he writes: “ABSTRACT AND NONE-OBJECTIVE SCULPTURE TAUGHT IN SIX EASY LESSONS—RESULTS GUARENTEED ORIT’S YOUR OWN FAULT COURSE OF 6 LESSONS $100.00 NO REFUNDS.”