Autumn in Paris
Paris Hill has been called Maine’s Mount Olympus for its powerful residents, but what accounts for the village’s enduring allure
- By: Edgar Allen Beem
- Photography by: Dean Abramson
Why, we sometimes wonder, would folks who could afford to live anywhere in Maine choose to live way up on Paris Hill in a picturesque but remote corner of Oxford County, so far from the coast, so far from a city, not even on the water? The answer might well start with the hill’s location, with a veiw unsurpassed in terms of distance and beauty, particularly at this time of year.
Location, location, location
When approached from the south via Route 26, Paris Hill seems just a low mound lost among the Oxford Hills. The first view is from the sprawling commercial strip of shopping centers, chain stores, and manufactured housing companies that line the road as it passes through Oxford into Norway and South Paris. Just past Market Square in downtown South Paris, the Paris Hill Road is a detour to the right that leads uphill from the twenty-first century into the nineteenth.
Most Maine towns of any prominence are situated on bodies of water, along the coast and up the rivers, but Paris Hill is an exception. The Little Androscoggin River does flow from West Paris down through South Paris, Oxford, and Mechanic Falls before joining the Androscoggin proper in Lewiston, but Paris Hill presides above it all.
According to local lore, Paris Hill was high ground settled after major flooding in 1785. It also provided favorable pastureland and good defense against Indian attacks, and had the appeal of a longer growing season. Local folks will tell you that frost comes late to Paris Hill. It’s often warmer on the hill than down in the town, so flowers bloom longer into the fall.
The long view
The view from Paris Hill is fifty miles west into the White Mountains of New Hampshire and two hundred years back into its own past. From the brow of the 831-foot hill above South Paris, local residents look across the same autumnal landscape of painted trees, ponds, and lakes that their forebears did, a panorama stretching all the way to Mount Washington.
The best view is from the ancestral home of Paris Hill’s most famous resident, Hannibal Hamlin, vice president under Abraham Lincoln [Down East, August 2009]. The five vine-covered pergola arches of the Dr. Cyrus Hamlin House (1806) frame the view in a splendid pentaptych of uninterrupted fall foliage.
Paris Hill’s best-known current resident is real-estate developer Robert Bahre. Several times a year, the present owner of the Hamlin House lifts off from the distant horizon and crosses the view from Paris Hill in a helicopter, breaking the peaceful spell of the past with the excitement of prop wash and rotor thump as his chopper lands where the mansion’s tennis court once stood.
The former owner of both Oxford Plains Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway is also one of the country’s foremost collectors of antique cars.
One day a year, on Founder’s Day in July, Bahre — who now spends most of his time on the far side of the view on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee — opens the two vast car barns below Hamlin House to the public, providing a privileged view of Duesenbergs and Packards, Cadillacs and Stutz Bearcats, Corvettes and Mercedes in a panoply of shiny greens, reds, creams, yellows, and browns to rival that of the surrounding landscape.
The living history
A visitor to Paris Hill can be forgiven for mistaking 2009 for 1809, yet Paris Hill is not a place frozen in time. It is a living community, perhaps unique in Maine in the way it combines elements of past and present, old and new, summer colony and year-round village. It sits up in the Oxford Hills like an un-gated Prouts Neck or a pristine Castine magically transported inland from the coast.
The Hamlin House is the Federalist centerpiece of the Paris Hill Historic District, an intact nineteenth-century hilltop village of distinctive buildings dating to when Paris Hill was the seat of Oxford County government. Hard by the Hamlin manse is the little granite bunker of the county jail (1822), next to that the jailer’s house (also 1822), the cantilevered structure of the courthouse (1815), and the red brick bastion of the old registry of deeds (1826).
This little cluster of former public buildings is surrounded by a handsome neighborhood of Federal and Greek Revival homes, most staid and stoic in their white clapboards and black shutters, all attended by the great white bulwark of the First Baptist Church of Paris (1838) on the town common. The neighborhood was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
Town resident Winnifred Mott helped organize the Hannibal Hamlin Bicentennial Celebration, held on August 22, to mark the two hundredth anniversary of Hamlin’s birth here on Paris Hill.
“It’s sort of like a little piece of heaven,” says Mott. “There’s a peace here that people love.”
The glorious past
In 1805, pastoral Paris Hill was chosen as the shire town of the newly formed Oxford County, and being the county seat defined the village for the next ninety years.
A visitor today might hardly imagine the extent to which Paris Hill was once a seat of political power in Maine. The village produced four Maine governors, three speakers of the Maine House, three presidents of the Maine Senate, twelve U.S. representatives, two U.S. senators, and, of course, Vice President Hannibal Hamlin.
The bustle and activity when court was in session filled the Union House (1808) with Democrats and the Hubbard House (1806) with Republicans. All the legal hustle and political bustle came to an end, however, when the county seat was moved to South Paris in 1895. It seems the railway that reached South Paris in 1847 couldn’t climb Paris Hill, so after decades of wrangling, the body politic abandoned the village to private owners. What followed has been a hundred and fourteen years of solitude.
Many of the present-day residents of Paris are descendents of old Paris Hill families. They treasure their connections to the past and the pleasant way in which being bypassed has left their village so well preserved.
Winnifred Mott, for instance, lives in a shady farmhouse that has never been out of her late husband’s family. Her friend Julie Demont’s family owns four of the most historic buildings on the hill, Demont herself residing seasonally in the Registry.
“A lot of my family have been in the military,” Julie Demont explains. “When you travel all over the world, you don’t really have roots. This is where our roots are. Our friends are here, and the things we love to do.”
The sense of community
Among the things people like to do on Paris Hill is “walk the green,” a one-mile loop around Lincoln Street, Tremont Street, and the Common that attracts walkers from all over the area. There’s also golf at the Paris Hill Country Club, a little nine-hole course owned by its members but open to the public, and public suppers at the Community Hall, the former Paris Hill Academy (1856 to 1901). A bit more exclusive is membership in the picturesque Sandy Shore Swimming Club down on Norway Lake. Still, Paris Hill maintains its privacy without snobbery.
The lure of nature takes Paris Hill residents up onto Streaked Mountain, which forms the backdrop to the village, for hikes, berrying, and rockhounding. The chief cultural attraction of the village is the Hamlin Memorial Library and Museum, locked away behind the heavy iron grates of the old Oxford County Jail.
“We moved to Paris Hill from Bethel mainly for the community,” says Wendy Penley.
“There’s a diversity of ages, an economic diversity, and a huge sense of community and working together. There’s the country club, the library, the church, the community hall. We’re all very tight.”
Residents of Paris Hill are as tight with the past as they are with the present. Every house has a history; every resident is conscious of who lived where and how they were related.
The quick and the dead coexist as equals. And there are ghosts everywhere.
“That house is where the famous Littlefield murder happened in 1937,” says Mott, indicating an old house across the street from the country club. “We’re still talking about that one. It put Paris Hill back on the map.”
Dr. James Littlefield and his wife, Lydia, were killed in October of 1937 in a sensational murder apparently committed to cover up a teen pregnancy and possibly incest, the murderer being either the unwed mother’s boyfriend or her father. The bloodstains have reportedly never come out of the wall in the bathroom where Dr. Littlefield was bludgeoned and strangled.
“And that’s not the only house on Paris Hill that has a ghost,” whispers Mott.
A peaceful retirement
Commerce is also something of a ghost on Paris Hill. The old Paris Manufacturing sled factory is long gone, as is the J.C. Marble gunpowder factory, and there hasn’t been a store on the hill since the 1950s. Those still engaged in commerce tend to make their money elsewhere: distilling vodka in Freeport, trading internationally in palm oil, or importing clothespins from China.
As is the case in so many places in Maine, Paris Hill’s lovely setting and historic architecture tend to attract retirees from all over. Janet Brogan, the new president of the Paris Hill Historical Society, moved to the old Marble homestead in 2006 from California, where she and her husband ran a winery.
“We jumped off the deep end,” says Brogan, explaining that she and her husband, Michael, first came to Paris Hill in 2005 to visit friends. “We fell in love with the village.
The people are so welcoming, so accommodating, and there was so much gratitude for us saving an old house and barn.”
Making it to the top
Neighbor Bob Moorehead, president of the Paris Hill Country Club, jokingly calls the fine old homes on the hill “money pits” — expensive to purchase, restore, and maintain. Having grown up in Norway and South Paris, Moorehead has seen Paris Hill evolve from summer colony in the 1950s through the restoration boom of the 1970s into the bedroom and retirement community it is today.
If you live on Paris Hill, Oxford County’s most desirable neighborhood, you’ve made it. As a member of the Maine Press Association Hall of Fame, Moorehead made it to the top of his profession. He purchased his Paris Hill home in 1993 after retiring as general manager of Central Maine’s Morning Sentinel in Waterville.
“It’s quiet — it doesn’t change,” says Bob Moorehead of the timeless appeal of Paris Hill, then qualifies himself. “It does, but it changes very slowly. I’ve known a lot of these people for a lifetime. It’s kind of tribal, really.”
The past has a future here
The wheels of change do turn slowly on Paris Hill, but they turn inexorably. Four years ago, there were no homes for sale on the hill. Today, with the population aging and the economy in recession, there are close to a dozen. Unlike many Maine communities, where publicity can be unwelcome, folks on Paris Hill are eager for the word to get out about their historic old village. They’d love to see some “Sold” signs on those lovely old homes. They’re eager to have new neighbors. Yet if the past is any indication, while people may come and go, Paris Hill, Maine’s Olympus, will endure.
- By: Edgar Allen Beem
- Photography by: Dean Abramson