Down East 2013 ©
Welcome to Wiscasset, the most idiosyncratic village in Maine.You were expecting something else, maybe? “The prettiest village” is what the Route 1 welcome sign famously boasts. that’s true, but that motto doesn’t fully capture Wiscasset’s charms, which are these: First impressions are useless. The unexpected is the norm. Incongruity is harmony.
What makes Wiscasset unique is the variety in who we are,” says town planner Jeffrey Hinderliter. “Depending on how you arrive, your first perception will be, ‘this is what Wiscasset looks like,’ and you will be only partly right. If you come from the south on Route 1, you see eighties and nineties strip mall development, but if you come from the north, you see a historical village. If you come from the west on Route 27, you see a rural Maine town with lots of farmland. If you come by water, you see a deep-water port with commercial fishing and recreational boating. Wiscasset is all of these, and the deeper you explore, the more that diversity expands.”
For starters, the self-proclaimed “prettiest village” is also the self-proclaimed worm capital of the world. That’s right, in direct view of the High Street aristocracy, as the denizens of Wiscasset’s most elegant homes are sometimes called, commercial diggers in thigh-high rubber boots pluck snakelike, milky-pink bloodworms (with fangs, no less) from the Sheepscot River’s dusky tidal flats, some of the richest bait worm grounds in the state.
It gets curiouser. Four miles southeast of that classic New England village, with its vintage white churches and Federal-style mansions, there stood, not so long ago, an entirely different sort of architecture: a domed nuclear reactor. Today that eerily deserted and gated lot is being eyed for a hydropower plant of mind-boggling dimensions — and yet you won’t be able to see much of it at all.
Which brings to mind ghosts. Wiscasset’s old homes are said to be creeping with them — women who scowl from windows, men who lurk in hallways. Remember, too, the haunting twin schooners that rotted for six decades in Sheepscot Bay in full, unashamed view of vacationers stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Donald Davey Bridge, which carries Route 1 to Edgecomb. Any other coastal town would have declared those ruins eyesores and hauled them to the dump. Not Wiscasset, which saw beauty (and tourist dollars) in the disintegrating hulks. (The remains were removed only when they became unrecognizable and a navigational hazard.)
Then there are the people. Daniel Sortwell, a seventh-generation Wiscassetite, describes his town as a collection of characters, some of them whip smart, a few delightfully eccentric, and a great many civically engaged. “Wiscasset is full of incredibly interesting people,” says the thoughtful and soft-spoken former food industry executive who roasts small batches of smooth, rich coffee in an eighteenth-century barn under the name Big Barn Coffee Roasters. “There are a lot of unique individuals who aren’t afraid to speak their minds.”
These days they’re talking about renewable energy — the hydropower plant and two other innovative projects have the potential to make Wiscasset the state’s leading electricity-generating town once again. They are talking, too, about traffic. A few weeks ago, the United States Army Corps of Engineers selected a route for rebuilding Route 1 around Wiscasset village, which in the summer produces one of the most frustratingly congested stretches of roadway in the state. The bypass has the potential to transform downtown, but no one is popping corks (or hanging black bunting) yet. There has been talk of a bypass for more than fifty years. Even Sortwell, whose thirty-five-acre property will be bisected by the new road, expresses a weary skepticism about whether it will ever come to pass: “I’m not losing any sleep over it.”
Perched on the banks of the tidal Sheepscot River where it is so wide and deep it might be mistaken for a lake, Wiscasset village comprises one of the state’s finest collections of nineteenth-century architecture. The buildings are relics of Wiscasset’s reign as the most important shipping port east of Boston, a few decades of bustle and prosperity that slowly deflated after the Embargo Act of 1807.
The residents of this living museum love their history, but few express it with as great a sense of fun as John Reinhardt, better known to Maine schoolchildren as the Opera Man. Mirth bubbles just under the surface as Reinhardt describes how he ended up in Wiscasset after a twenty-three-year career traveling the world as an opera singer with the United States Navy Band. “I came for a niece’s wedding,” he explains, relaxing his wiry six-foot-five-inch frame into an armchair at the Highnote Bed-and-Breakfast, a Carpenter Gothic-style house laden with scrolls and latticework. “It was fall and it was gorgeous. This house was for sale, and I fell in love with it. I put a down payment on it and went back home to Virginia Beach, rented an airplane, and flew my wife, Marie, up here to see it. At first she wasn’t too happy with me, but now she absolutely adores it.”
Along with keeping an inn and dealing in antiques, Reinhardt directs the Pocket Opera Players, which performs classic operas in English for schoolchildren. It was his staging of Pergolesi’s The Servant Mistress in the 1761 Pownalborough Courthouse in neighboring Dresden (once part of Wiscasset) that led to his appointment as president of the Lincoln County Historical Association. Now, with the yearlong celebration of the 250th anniversaries of Wiscasset and Lincoln County well under way, Reinhardt is finding plenty of opportunities to indulge his twin loves of theater and history. In a reenactment ceremony earlier this year, he was Major Samuel Denny, the royal governor who in 1760 bestowed the title of town upon Pownalborough, as Wiscasset was then known. (“Was Samuel Denny?” Reinhardt says in mock protest. “I am!”) This past spring, he had schoolchildren wriggling on classroom floors in homage to Sheepscot sea worms, which are commercially harvested by about one hundred people, more than half of them from town. This summer, at Reindhardt’s behest, residents are posing as surly prisoners of the Old Lincoln County Jail, which the association manages as a museum along with the Pownalborough Courthouse. “There are so many things going on with the anniversary,” Reinhardt says. “For years Wiscasset has been a traffic jam in summer. Now we’ve actually got a reason for people to find themselves in a traffic jam.”
Despite the traffic, Wiscasset has a festive, leisurely air in summer, even when it isn’t throwing a birthday party. At the corner of Main and Water streets, the shorts-and-T-shirt set lines up all day long at Red’s Eats, the takeout stand whose extra large lobster rolls have earned endearments from food writers nationwide. Diners linger, too, on the porches of two other well-established restaurants, Sarah’s and Le Garage, each offering a fabulous view of the Sheepscot. Several times a day, the Maine Eastern Railroad, which travels between Brunswick and Rockland, unloads tourists who fan out to explore places like the Nickels-Sortwell House and Castle Tucker, mansion museums detailing the lives of nineteenth-century sophisticates, and the Musical Wonder House Museum, a former ship captain’s home crammed with vintage music boxes, player pianos, and phonographs. Pedestrians poke in and out of more than two-dozen antiques shops sprinkled around the one-quarter square-mile of brick sidewalks and narrow streets that comprise the village’s heart.
Even lawyers arguing their cases in the Lincoln County Courthouse, an 1824 edifice so beautifully preserved it could serve as a set for To Kill a Mockingbird, succumb to that summer feeling as they brownbag it in the Sunken Garden, an old cellar hole that has been transformed into a hidden oasis. “My favorite thing is seeing them, with their ties loosened and their briefcases, talking law,” says Susan Blagden, who lives in the High Street home of her ancestor, Samuel Emerson Smith, Maine’s tenth governor. “At least I like to think they’re talking law. I’d be so disappointed to learn they were talking about American Idol.”
Blagden, Wiscasset’s longtime town meeting moderator, is sitting in her own secret garden, an immaculate hedge-framed lawn, once the site of a fourteen-room ell that burned in the 1950s, a fate she wryly suggests was a blessing in disguise: “Can you imagine the dusting?” The main structure, built in 1792 by Judge Silas Lee, is frequently cited in travel guides for its architectural significance. It also is regularly mentioned in collections of New England ghost stories. Lee Payson Smith, Blagden’s great-great-great-grandmother, is among the spirits said to haunt the place, rocking her way through eternity in a second-floor window. “The family never sees the ghost,” reveals Blagden, her eyes twinkling behind large framed glasses. “The closest family person to see her was my grandmother’s half-sister, Mary.” The story goes that Aunt Mary was miffed because she hadn’t been introduced to the old woman standing on the bedroom balcony — an old woman only she could see.
Wiscasset (population: 3,500) is not and never has been a cottage community. The village’s seasonal rhythms are a late twentieth-century phenomenon. “We used to have a five-and-ten, a drugstore with a soda fountain, at least three grocery stores, two gas stations, two hardware stores, and a shoe store,” Blagden remembers. “We’ve seen our downtown disappear, and we’ve become a less close-knit community. But this is not unique to Wiscasset; it’s everywhere.”
The transformation is expressed on the shelves of the Wiscasset Old General Store, the oldest commercial building in town. A hardware store when owner David Stetson’s father bought it in 1949, Stetson began placing gifts and souvenirs alongside the hammers, plumbing supplies, and bottled gas about twenty-five years ago. “We lost some customers during the construction of the Davey Bridge,” he explains, “and then it got so local people didn’t want to go downtown anymore because of the traffic. We had all these tourists coming in — we called them loopers because they’d do a loop around the store and leave.” Today the store’s transition is almost complete. The entire first floor is given over to wines, gourmet jams, guidebooks, sun hats, and colorful cloth handbags, but a small selection of house paint, nails, screws, and extension cords can still be found downstairs.
The antiques stores shutter for winter, but a few shops enjoy a year-round trade. “So many of our stores are geared to people from out of state,” says Kelley Belanger, whose two-year-old boutique, In the Clover, sells women’s clothing, skin care items, and perfume. “I wanted to bring something practical and affordable, yet beautiful to town — a store for the people who are here all the time as well as those who are passing through.” The traffic doesn’t trouble her. “It’s eight weeks a year and millions and millions of dollars,” she says. “It’s a great venue.”
Across the street at Rock Paper Scissors, Erika Soule has also found a niche in practical indulgences — artist-designed greeting cards and handmade papers. “You have to ride the wave,” she says. “July is not January, and it never will be. I have a great local following from Camden to South Portland. I don’t see them so much in the summer because it’s busy, but that’s fine.”
Like many people in town, Soule exhibits signs of bypass fatigue. “People are always talking about the bypass. My whole life has been the bypass,” she sighs. “I have mixed feelings. If the business community and the town and the state do some really great planning, it could be a good thing. But traffic counts have been down the last few years, and to take people’s properties for a problem that occurs for such a short time of the year . . . I don’t know.”
She is concerned that the new roadway will create a scenario similar to Belfast’s Passagassawakeag River bridge, where northbound travelers gaze upon the downtown they just missed. “You may look back and say, ‘Oh, that’s a cute little town,’ but you’re probably not going to make the effort to come back,” she says, “and that would be a shame.”
Architect Paul Mrozinski has a daring vision for downtown Wiscasset. It involves not only a bypass, but also elimination of the Donald Davey Bridge. “It’s a big leap for a lot of people,” the former chairman of Wiscasset’s Transportation Committee concedes. “I’m asking them to look beyond where we are now and see how good it could be. Who wouldn’t want to come to a quiet historic village on a beautiful harbor? I know those who are frightened of it now would love it.”
Mrozinski and his wife, Sharon, moved to Wiscasset from California twenty-three years ago, having been introduced to its antiques scene by friends. They started Treats, a specialty food store now under different ownership, and the Marston House, specializing in vintage linen sheets, peasant smocks, and textiles from France. “We love the fact that Wiscasset is a real year-round town, that it hasn’t been overrun with summer people,” Mrozinski says. “We love the well-preserved eighteenth-century architecture. We love the antiques community. We don’t love the fact that Route 1 goes through the center of our village.”
Nonbinding referenda over the years suggest most people in Wiscasset and neighboring towns agree with Mrozinski on that point. “A bypass is needed for a lot of reasons,” says Robert Faunce, the Lincoln County planning director and a member of the Midcoast Bypass Task Force, a group of representatives from eight area towns and environmental interest organizations created to help MDOT interpret public response to its latest corridor study. “One of the most important is the salvation of Wiscasset village. During peak summer traffic, you have 25,000 vehicles going twenty-five miles per hour on a two-lane road. To see the effect that has had, one only has to look at how many traditional services remain. There’s a bank, but that’s about it. With a bypass, those services could return and exist compatibly with the uses that are there.”
The bypass issue has been kicking around since 1958, when the Maine Highway Commission, the progenitor of today’s Maine Department of Transportation, was in the early phases of rebuilding Route 1 between Bath and Waldoboro. “The commission told Wiscasset to get ready, and the town hired Wright-Pierce engineers to sketch out a route,” recounts Don Jones, chairman of Wiscasset’s Transportation Committee and a longtime bypass proponent. “Then nothing happened.”
That’s pretty much been the story ever since, according to Jones, who has prepared an eleven-page timeline of the issue. The chronology shows one multi-year study after another, interspersed with completion of other Route 1 projects, including the Newcastle-Damariscotta bypass in 1962, the Nobleboro bypass in 1970, and the Wiscasset-to-Edgecomb bridge replacement in 1983. Some novel ideas, like a super bridge over the village and a tunnel under it, have been floated and sunk, and Wiscasset has tried a variety of strategies, like angled parking on Main Street, crossing guards, and traffic lights, none of which made traffic flow much faster. Bypass opponents have called for other measures, like relocating Red’s Eats, creating a center turning lane, and construction of a pedestrian bridge.
The route that was recently identified by the Army Corps of Engineers is one of three alternatives that emerged from the bypass task force’s work. However, it is not the northernmost route that the task force and MDOT preferred. Rather, the corps, whose task was to identify the “least environmentally damaging practicable alternative,” settled on the southernmost route whose long bridge ends in Edgecomb alongside the Davey Bridge.
It is the choice that makes the eventual dead-ending of Wiscasset village as envisioned by Paul Mrozinski most possible — MDOT Chief of Planning Kat Beaudoin has said the Davey Bridge would not be removed as long as it had a useful life, but its future would have to be weighed when it is due for replacement. “It’s hard to see MDOT maintaining two bridges right next to each other,” Faunce says. In contrast to Mrozinki’s vision, he believes both Wiscasset and Edgecomb would better benefit from keeping the link. “It’s important for their futures,” he says. “I see the likelihood of a traditional village popping up in Edgecomb around the Davey Bridge once traffic is reduced. And all of a sudden that bridge becomes walkable.”
The corps’ decision is an important hurdle — this is the furthest the bypass issue has ever advanced — but it’s still just the beginning, hence the continued skepticism in Wiscasset and other towns. MDOT must now apply to the corps for a federal Clean Water Act permit and seek funding to begin purchasing affected properties. Even if it goes smoothly, the process will take several years.
“The bypass is one of those things where you can’t win,” says Don Hudson, the recently retired director of the Chewonki Foundation, an environmental education school and camp on Wiscasset’s Chewonki Neck. “Nearly half the people think Wiscasset can be better shared by figuring out how to deal with the heavy traffic without a bypass. The other half want a bypass so the town isn’t destroyed by traffic. That’s been the problem for fifty years: how to resolve the fundamental conflict in these ways of loving Wiscasset.”
As Wiscasset waits, it continues to seek ways to rebound from the loss of Maine Yankee, which represented 93 percent of the town’s tax base before it powered down in 1998 (the dome was imploded in 2004). “The flow of money dribbled out pretty fast,” says Bob Blagden, chairman of the board of selectmen (Susan Blagden is his sister-in-law). “My taxes doubled and then that figure tripled. I’d like to see some of the industrial tax base we had in the past to help keep taxes in line and to fund some of the infrastructure we built with Maine Yankee money. The biggest example is our sewage treatment plant and system, which is too big for the customer base. It would not have been built like that if Maine Yankee didn’t pay for it. Our schools system is another
example. It is probably a bit bigger and more rambling than it needs to be.”
Maine Yankee may be generous to Wiscasset once more. The pressurized water reactor, along with the shuttered oil-fired Mason Station Power Plant, left behind substations and transmission lines that have attracted the attention of two Toronto-based developers. Riverbank Power Co. is investigating building a $2 billion, thousand-megawatt, hydropower station at the Maine Yankee site. Almost entirely underground, it would be a first-of-its-kind development and the largest construction project Maine has ever seen. Transmission Developers, meanwhile, is considering stretching a $1 billion cable, capable of transmitting one thousand megawatts of excess power generated in Maine, from Wiscasset to Boston. In addition, the Chewonki Foundation is working with the town on a $2 million tidal energy project with turbines in the Sheepscot River.
All of the projects are in early, but active, stages, according to town planner Jeffrey Hinderliter, who predicts at least one, if not all three, of the facilities will be under construction within five years. “We have the transmission lines and the substations, but equally important, energy generation is in the collective consciousness of the people,” Hinderliter says. “It’s our history. We’ve lived with it and that’s a very important point for a developer when you start talking about NIMBYs. This is a population that’s used to it on a scale as large as a nuclear plant.”
So it is that Wiscasset carries on, preserving the past and courting the future with equal determination, a quality that fascinates Edgecomb author Lea Wait, who has set four of her historical novels for young people in the town. “Wiscasset hasn’t been tampered with,” she says. “You can take a walk and get a feeling for what it was like two centuries ago. Yet Wiscasset has always been a town that fits itself to circumstances. This is a town that went from being a shipping port to building Maine Yankee. That’s an incredible continuum.” And it continues to expand.