Along the Sandy
A quiet river valley serves as the gateway to Saddleback and the Rangeley region. Most travelers pass through without stopping,
- By: Michael Burke
- Photography by: Dean Abramson
Rangeley, in the language of tourism, is a “destination” town, a place people head to for skiing, snowmobiling, fishing, hiking, recreating; a place high on the top of Saddleback Ridge with a movie theater, gift shops, a ski area, expensive summer homes, an obvious economic base, a future. Most people who head to Rangeley take Route 4 from the college town of Farmington, and they do not stop until they reach their destination.
Not stopping, they travel beside the Sandy River and pass Strong, Avon, Phillips, and Madrid, the only communities along this river corridor. They might not even notice these places, and if they do, they might say to themselves, “What do people do here? How do they live? What are their lives like?”
As with other small towns in Maine, the communities along the Sandy River have an existence that is both tenuous and grounded, backward-looking and curiously promising. They are places that invite romantic, and troubled, visions. They are the places we imagine we’ll move to some day, to get away from our oppressive, communal lives; and they trouble us, because of how impoverished our lives there might be, because we can’t imagine what it is like to live there.
And yet, people do.
The Sandy River flows down from Rangeley, but the human stream historically traveled uphill. Strong, the town at the bottom of the Sandy River’s journey, came into being in 1801; next was Avon (accent on the second syllable, a rather twee pronunciation for rural Maine), in 1802; then Phillips in 1812, and finally Madrid (pronounced “Mad-rid,” with equal weight on the syllables, not as with the Spanish city) in 1836. With the exception of Madrid, all of the “downtowns” — if such a term doesn’t seem too grand — on the corridor are bypassed by Route 4, a bypassing which seems both literal and figurative when you are driving past and barely register, off to the side, somewhere “over there,” homes, lives, what might be a village.
Strong is where the river makes a sharp right turn going downstream and Route 4 makes a sharp left going up. If you’re not careful at that corner you’ll keep going straight, across the bridge on Route 145 over the Sandy (to everyone it is just “the Sandy”) and into town. Here you’ll find the quintessential story of any small town that the road passes by. On your right is a grand old house on a hill, the former home of the town doctor, now a private home that sometimes functions as an inn, except there is no sign out front to indicate what it is and it isn’t actually open to the public anyhow, except on occasion to those in the know, a reticence which seems to fit the character of the Sandy River corridor perfectly.
Beyond is the former Forster Mill, the mill that made Strong “the toothpick capital of the world” at one time and was a major employer in town until 2003, when it closed, a victim of all of the forces that batter small towns in Maine and everywhere: competition from foreign mills, diminishing domestic demand for the product, an aging facility, and so on. An explosion in one section of the mill followed in 2009. But as an apt metaphor for the corridor, the mill didn’t die. It has reopened in the last few years as the Geneva Wood Fuels mill, making wood pellets for furnaces and bringing at least some employment back to town. Next door is the White Elephant gas station cum café, a combination which is familiar in much of Maine but which should give us pause when we think about it. The café is the kind of place that serves a hunter’s breakfast in deer season, provides both gas station pizza and lobster stew, and where you can buy shotgun shells, good wine, and see a stuffed bobcat.
There are no new houses in the towns of the corridor, only restored ones and ones from the century before last that are threatening to fall, are falling, have fallen. And nothing like city planning, either, as mixed in with the residential part of Strong is the log yard where I get my sap-wood slabs in spring from Alfred, the owner. I’ve only met Alfred once; usually I call and tell him I want to come up to get a load, he tells me where to find it and where to leave the money (ten dollars for a pickup truck load), a business transaction that doesn’t happen in most other places.
Back on Route 4, the Sandy on your right, you glance occasionally over and see the river meander — a valley river here, for the most part, sashaying back and forth in a drifting way, making gravel bars, carving away the banks. You soon come to Avon, a town of mystery, at least according to my informant, a local art critic and resident of the Sandy River corridor. Over a beer one day he tells me there is a road in Avon where people speak their own dialect, because the residents of the road have remained somewhat insulated over the generations, and if one of those residents goes to the emergency room down in Farmington, the medical people have to get a translator in order to be able to understand him or her. I love this probably apocryphal story, hoping it is true, and like a good journalist, try to confirm it. I ask a local if she’d care to talk about it. “No,” she says with a shake of her head, and that’s all she’ll offer. I ask a doctor friend in Wilton. “Never heard that one before,” he laughs. Another friend, a professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, says, “Oh, yes, that’s true.” So there you have it, a mystery.
The Sandy River corridor is the kind of place that leaves its snow signs up all year long. One sign in Avon, in August, says “snowplow turn ahead.” Avon also has its own airport, the dirt-and-grass strip of the Lindbergh Airport (named in a burst of enthusiasm in the late 1920s, no doubt), from which local residents fly in their own planes to the unlikely places they have to report to occasionally.
Next is Phillips. There is a bit of the frontier to Phillips — in winter the houses isolated by yards of snow, and the mountains just beyond rising to Rangeley. These houses seem to belong only partly to the community, perhaps mostly to the woods. But you don’t have to see it; you can pass by on Route 4, perhaps swing in to the gas station and grocery story that are on the highway, and miss the rest. But if you do you’ll miss the Sandy River and Rangeley Lakes Railroad that once ran from Rangeley to Farmington, and Daggett Rock — the largest glacial erratic boulder in the state of Maine — and an English-only antiques shop.
I’m quite sure the shop is the only English-only antiques shop in Maine, perhaps in all of New England. It is owned by Sue and Bill Hunnisett-Reed. An antiques shop is no surprise, but an English-only antiques shop is, and that it is owned by British transplants really is. The shop is on Main Street, in an 1870s house that had been moved from Weld in the late 1800s. Sue is no doubt going to get tired of this question, but it had to be asked: Why Phillips?
It is a complicated answer, having to do with their desire for open space for their two children, several years of vacation visits, immigration difficulties. They were looking for a house they could afford, to be the storefront for their antiques business, and found it, after much searching, in Phillips. “We actually liked it because Route 4 doesn’t come through the center of town,” she says, “but it’s not so far off the road that people can’t find us.”
As neither a native of Maine or even of the U.S., Sue has the perfect perspective from which to judge the prospects of this part of the corridor. “There is a lot of positive feeling about Phillips,” Sue says. “And it seems to us there are quite a few people who have chosen to live in Phillips, and other people who come back year after year say they can see the positive changes in town.”
The library in Phillips is a particular success story, so I turn to librarian Hedy Langdon, who not only knows the town, but also knows the experience of coming here from somewhere else, which is part of the puzzle of the Sandy River corridor: There are those who are born here, and those who come as adults; the former have no say in the matter, the latter do. We don’t wonder why someone chooses to move to San Francisco or Boston or Chicago, but we need to ask why someone would come to a small, perpetually bypassed town in a county with fewer than a dozen stoplights.
Hedy knows. She came to Phillips in 1986, after “just driving around, looking for a place I wanted to live.” There was less traffic in Phillips than where she was from in Connecticut, it was beautiful, and cheaper than Rangeley, her first option. As she says, “people love this place,” and come for many reasons: “the mountains, hunting, an outdoor paradise. The same reasons they came one hundred years ago, really.” Yet, “it’s tough to live here,” she admits. She guesses that three-fourths of the residents are natives, and one-quarter transplants. She says the immigrants are the ones who tend to stay, surprisingly.
This is the story one hears over and over from people in the corridor: the admission that it is hard to live in these small places in the twenty-first century, and of the many people who try to and do make it work. I hear of a relative newcomer with ambitions to start a museum in Strong, how the entire town comes out for fifth- and sixth-grade basketball games in Phillips, about someone who sells her chocolate around the world from her home along the corridor, about how one couple in Strong kept the mill going for the last seven years until it could be sold to a business that could afford to operate it. Eventually it even occurs to the visitor that perhaps it takes more courage to live here, more character, than most of us possess.
In any case, from Phillips you’re immediately heading up a hill, and clearly entering a new geologic and floral zone. Where the Sandy was a meandering river before, now it is a mountain stream — narrower, smaller, and more sharply pitched as it disappears and reappears beside and under the road. About three-and-a-half miles from Phillips, you come to a place that is calling for you to pull over; where the world spreads out before you, a massive, impressive view. Here you can look across the Sandy’s valley, to Mount Abraham and the eastern end of the Saddleback Range, a dramatic view, in every season, and it reminds you of one of the reasons why people live here: It is more beautiful than where you live.
Three or four miles on is the last location along the Sandy River corridor. (“Location” rather than “town” because it isn’t a town but a dis-organized place – well, it’s a long story.) You come to a cryptic sign: “Madrid” it announces, “The Best in Maine.” The sign invites the question, the best what? Shouldn’t it be the “best town,” the “best community,” the “best something specific”? But no, just the “best,” which has the virtue of applying, possibly, to anything and everything about Madrid. My art-critic confidante, who himself moved from San Francisco to Phillips a decade ago, tells me the story of the Madrid signs. It seems a man from the Midwest, who lives in his own Madrid there, makes signs for all of the other Madrids in the United States and drives around in the summer delivering them, which might explain the generic nature of the greeting.
Madrid is just a cluster of houses right on the shores of both Route 4 and the Sandy, which flows directly beside the road here. There are no businesses that one can see, and hardly anything that smacks of community, unless you take the right turn at Reeds Mills Road, cross the Sandy, and find the obligatory white building that suggests church or schoolhouse. In this case, the old village schoolhouse building is now the Madrid Historical Society, which even last summer had a sign announcing an upcoming meeting with a plea to “kindly bring a log or two to feed the fire.”
Madrid is no longer a town. Ten years ago it went through the legal process of dissolving its government, becoming un-organized, which sounds like some sort of Orwellian act, but is a frequent event in Maine, when a community gets to be too small to support itself. In a way, to be un-organized is another metaphor for the condition of these towns in the Sandy River corridor, the ever-present threat that, ultimately, they won’t be sustainable and will lose their identity. But that’s the gloomy view, and Madrid still has such oddities as the Star Barn Yoga Studio, and people who live way back in the hills at the very end of roads, as people used to do 150 years ago. Indeed, this is one of the charms of the entire corridor. My professor friend says it well: “The nineteenth century still exists there.”
The Sandy becomes a tumbling creek, falling from step to step, as at Smalls Falls, and then ending — or, beginning — at one of its headwater ponds, Sandy River Pond. Beyond that you enter the gravitational pull of Rangeley, with its condominiums and restaurants and shops and stores. But you’ve already arrived at your destination, so you turn around and head back down, this time flowing with the Sandy, back into the nineteenth century.
- By: Michael Burke
- Photography by: Dean Abramson