The Rural Route
The charming village of Cornish has reinvented itself as the perfect destination for a country drive.
- By: Virginia M. Wright
- Photography by: Dean Abramson
It’s a lazy morning in the Ossipee Valley, and Cliff Whitney agrees to take a break from cutting granite posts and benches in the big yard he has carved out of the woods. He leads me into a weathered barn behind his house and shows me his pride and joy: a 1925 Ford Model T Woodie Wagon, its birch body varnished to a gleam. “It’s a fun little ride,” he says, and he offers me one into the village of Cornish, his boyhood hometown, half a mile away “The reason Cornish is where it is,” Whitney explains over the clatter of the Model T’s motor, “is that you can almost walk to where the Saco and Ossipee rivers meet right over there.” He gestures to the east. “And in the village, you’ve got the millpond. Just about every little old town in Maine is where it is because of some water feature.”
Whitney noses the wagon onto Main Street (Route 25), where suddenly we’re surrounded by a collection of nineteenth-century wooden storefronts, most of them bearing signs reading “Antiques,” the commodity for which modern-day Cornish is best known. To our right sits slender Thompson Park shaded by maple trees, ablaze now in reds and golds. The park is ringed by a fancy wrought iron fence that Whitney tells me is a relatively recent replica of the original, which was donated to a World War II iron drive, and it is a point of pride in this community of 1,365 people who raised thousands of dollars in a few weeks’ time to have it built.
Whitney turns left at the millpond, a corner anchored by a building that could be mistaken for a red schoolhouse if it weren’t for the waterwheel on its side. But the waterwheel itself is a counterfeit; Whitney knows because he built it himself when he had an antiques business there. Now a jewelry store, the building has been a firehouse and a jailhouse; there are neither schoolchildren nor millworkers in its past.
The Model T climbs peppily up High Street, where tidy gentlemen’s farms enjoy sweeping views of the White Mountain foothills in neighboring Baldwin, Hiram, Porter, and Parsonsfield, then onto Old Limington Road, where the Cornish settlement began in the 1700s (several of the houses and a church were moved downhill to the banks of the Ossipee in the mid-nineteenth century). Whitney pulls into Maple Hill Alpaca Farm, the home of Edna and Howard Carr, who I’ve been told started the business that led to Cornish’s rebirth as a destination for antiques lovers.
“That’s a pretty heavy responsibility,” Edna wryly says of the claim. Nevertheless, she concedes that downtown Cornish was very nearly a ghost town when she and Howard purchased the Masonic Hall next to Thompson Park and opened Cornish Trading Company, an antiques and gift shop, in 1989. They sold it two years later to Francine O’Donnell, who expanded it to multi-dealer antiques mall, which attracted antiques lovers, who in turn attracted more dealers. (The store is now owned by Lisa and Mike Fulginiti, who first came to town fourteen years ago in search of a vintage yellow tole tray.) Today there are half a dozen or so antiques shops in the two-tenths of a mile that is the village proper, and many more sprinkled throughout the countryside.
But that’s only half the story of Cornish’s renewal. One year after Cornish Trading Post opened, Edna explains, the Cornish Association of Businesses (CAB) formed. The CAB spearheaded improvements to the village’s infrastructure and appearance (the Thompson Park fence is one example) and created what has become the town’s largest celebration, the annual Cornish Apple Festival, held the last Saturday in September. Now home to a supermarket, a pharmacy, a handful of banks, and nearly a dozen restaurants, Cornish has supplanted Kezar Falls as the Ossipee Valley’s commercial center.
“People like it because the village end hasn’t gone to McDonald’s,” Whitney says. “Someday it may, but there will probably be a huge uproar. Anything that threatens to cause us to get a streetlight causes an uproar.”
There’s good cause for the heightened sensitivity. Quiet as its back roads are, Cornish is very much on the beaten path, as evidenced by the steady traffic on Route 25, a main link between Portland and the White Mountains. Portland, Biddeford, Sanford, and the ski and outlet-shopping mecca of North Conway, New Hampshire, are all less than an hour away, making Cornish both an easy country drive and even a sub-suburb. “Many of the people who live here commute to work,” says Diann Perkins, who, with her husband, Linwood, and several other Cornish natives has been instrumental in the restoration of the grandstand and bandstand at the Cornish Fairground, a beloved landmark that hosts summer concerts, harness racing, and other horse events. “There are no mills here to employ them anymore.”
Diann grew up in the village in a house that had no telephone — the family took their calls across the street at the drug store, where Linwood’s father’s big sow often rested on the front step. She witnessed the village’s decline after the mills closed and the farmland was sold for house lots. While she misses the drug store and its soda fountain and the many orchards that once covered the hills, she is pleased with Cornish’s new identity. “I’m very proud of this town because no matter where we go, people know about our restaurants and antiques places, and they like what our center looks like,” she says.
Not surprisingly, the businesspeople like it, too. “Everybody here helps each other out,” Shannon Surette, owner of Full Circle Artisans Gallery, says of the cooperative spirit. “We all work together. I feel like I’m on big people’s Sesame Street: We all have the same hours: 10 to 5, closed Tuesdays. We all put our flags out around the same time, and we wave to each other and call out ‘Hello! Good morning!’ ”
- By: Virginia M. Wright
- Photography by: Dean Abramson