After spending three years looking for a location to open a coffee shop, Carson Lynch was ready to throw in the towel and accept a job at a natural foods grocery. Then someone told him that the new Gorham Grind in Gorham village was for sale. “I knew it was meant to be,” he says of the minute he stepped in the door of the restaurant that afternoon in 2005. “It was sort of Twilight Zone: The layout was exactly as I envisioned it, down to the couch and the fireplace. The color scheme was what I planned. The lighting was correct.”
The intersection of Routes 25 and 114, the village’s heart, was a bonus. “At the time, it was one of the busiest intersections in the state, located in the fastest-growing community in Greater Portland,” Lynch explains. “In coffee, location is everything.”
It wasn’t long, though, before Lynch understood the reason for the intersection’s infamous reputation. The roads are primary routes for carrying traffic between the Maine Turnpike and western Maine, as well as workers commuting to and from Portland, just ten miles east. Forty thousand cars and trucks passed through the crossroads daily, bringing with them two-and-a-half hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic in the late afternoon. “The intersection was so busy, and this town has grown up so quickly around it, that it was a divider between the village and the rest of town — even the University of Southern Maine-Gorham campus that is only a few blocks away,” says Lynch, who also serves as vice president of the 230-member Gorham Business & Civic Exchange. “It was onerous to cross on foot at rush hour. About ten years ago, the town eliminated the on-street parking on Main Street to create a turning lane, and that contributed to a lot of turnover in businesses. The traffic had become too much of a good thing.”
His neighbors would readily agree. At the Gorham House of Pizza on the opposite corner, owner Angelo Sotiropoulos says he’d stopped counting the number of times Turnpike-bound tank trucks clipped his building as they turned from Main Street (Route 25) onto South Street (Route 114). Down the street, PineCrest Inn owner Matt Mattingly tells of sitting in his driveway as long as ten minutes before finding an opening in the line of cars allowing him to scoot out and pick up his daughters at an after-school dance class. “I almost could have walked it just as fast,” he says. Likewise, artist Deborah Loughlin recalls the frustration of dinner guests arriving late to her home and private galleries at Dragonfly Farm, which abuts the USM campus. “They’d come in yelling, ‘I had to wait in traffic an hour to get here!’ ” she says.
Today, though, the crossroads has a new rhythm. A year and a half since the opening of the long-awaited Gorham bypass on the western side of town, traffic has been reduced overall by 12,000 vehicles a day and truck traffic is down 80 percent. There are subtle, hopeful signs that Gorham is reclaiming its village. A few months ago, restaurateur Glenn Creel opened the creative School Street Diner (School Street also is Route 114, just north of the intersection) in the former parish hall of a church the Methodists abandoned for lack of parking. The historic church sanctuary, meanwhile, is being renovated into a restaurant and reception hall, and Mattingly is pursuing plans to convert PineCrest Inn’s popular private dinner club into a restaurant.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Transportation and Maine Turnpike Authority are leading a major land-use and transportation study into the feasibility of a turnpike spur that could bring Gorham’s roads even more relief. “The bypass has been nothing but good for all of us downtown,” Lynch says. “It’s gotten us past our image problem. It’s very similar to what happened to Westbrook when the Rand Road bypass was built. Downtown came back. We’re starting to see that, too.”
As a young man, Burleigh Loveitt entered veterinary school intent on practicing large animal medicine in Gorham, his hometown. “And I did do that for twenty-five years,” says Loveitt, now semi-retired with a practice focused largely on domestic pets. “Gorham was a very pronounced agricultural community right through the end of the 1980s.” Declining milk prices and a rising demand for house lots combined to transform his career and his town.
Evidence of Gorham’s agricultural past lies just outside the village and Little Falls, another small commercial crossroad whose roots are in the nineteenth-century saw and grist mills that drew power from the Presumpscot River, Gorham’s eastern border. Most of the town’s fifty-one square miles is a mix of meadows and forest. The big, old farmhouses are still there, but contemporary homes have sprouted in the fields. “We’re heading toward a larger residential community with limited commercial and industrial activity,” says Loveitt, a longtime town councilor and member of the steering committee of the Gorham East-West Corridor Feasibility Study, which is investigating the turnpike spur. That connector, he believes, will be essential to resolving the conflict between local traffic and long distance commuters as Gorham grows. “Before the bypass was built, traffic made it impossible to get around,” he says. “Doing business or living downtown became undesirable to many people. A person would have to have a confirmed death wish to cross those streets. Even now it’s difficult, but it can be done. The village has suffered over the years, but, in due time, it will come back.”
Like many Greater Portland communities, Gorham (population: 14,141) has had its growing pains. The housing boom in the early 2000s was felt dramatically here, and it spawned squabbles with developers over roads, sidewalks, and impact fees. Nevertheless, Gorham’s identity as a bedroom community serving Portland has been embraced by residents and is reflected in the seventeen-year-old comprehensive town plan, which encourages dense residential and commercial growth around the villages and large-lot residential development elsewhere.
“The word that comes to mind when describing Gorham is moderation,” says Maynard Charron, a founder of the all-volunteer Gorham Times and owner of a paper industry recruitment business on Main Street. “We’re not the poorest town in the area and we’re not the richest. We have a good base of agriculture and rural residential development, but we also have quite a few new developments. There is a college here, but it is not strongly felt the way it is in Durham (New Hampshire) or Farmington. We have a moderately sized industrial park. Our school committee members are good advocates for education, but there are no extreme left or right views. We have our ups and downs, but Gorham kind of rolls along as a steady community with a good mix of people.”
With the exception of Fort Hill, which offers stupendous views of Mount Washington, and the fascinating remains of the Cumberland and Oxford Canal and Gambo gunpowder mills, Gorham’s scenery is pastorally pleasant but absent the drama of the Sebago Lake towns a few miles north. Nevertheless, Matt Mattingly’s seven-room PineCrest Inn hosts 2,500 to 3,000 guests a year, an occupancy rate that is on par with B-and-Bs in destination areas. Surprisingly, USM accounts for only a handful of his guests. Most come for the central location. “Gorham is convenient,” says Mattingly, who is serving his first term on the Gorham Town Council. “It’s close to Sebago Lake, only fifteen minutes from Portland, ten minutes from the turnpike, and twenty minutes to ocean beaches. The state’s biggest economic impact area is in the triangle from Freeport to the Kennebunks to the lakes. Gorham is in the dead center of that triangle. What I’ve tried to help people understand is that there is a lot of economic activity around this town that we could be participating in.”
USM’s subtle impact on the town’s appearance and services is a puzzle, even to Gorhamites who work there. Founded as Gorham Academy in 1803, the institution became Western Maine Normal School, then Gorham State Teachers College, before it was merged with the University of Maine at Portland to create the two-campus USM in 1970. Occasional rowdy parties at off-campus fraternities notwithstanding, students don’t have an appreciable presence in town even though 1,600 undergraduates live in the dormitories. “I don’t think the town identifies with the institution the way it might have in the past,” says Mary Snell, a north Gorham resident who recently retired from her position as the campus’ music promotions director. “Downtown doesn’t reflect the college the way other college towns’ villages would. The Gorham Grind is one of the few businesses that has a student feel.”
College hockey and basketball are popular with Gorham residents; arts events are less well attended. “The School of Music and the theater department have struggled to get people from town and surrounding communities to come,” Snell says. “The School of Music alone offers more than one hundred concerts a year. We are Gorham’s only arts presenter. I’m surprised we’re not overwhelmed.” The reinstatement of a September outdoor band concert and the annual Gorham Marketplace, a spring showcase for local businesses organized by the Gorham Business and Civic Exchange and held on campus, are reintroducing residents to USM. “The distance is closing,” Snell believes. “There are ways we connect more and more.”
Deborah and Peter Loughlin’s Dragonfly Farm is one place where the line between town and gown disappears. The former summer estate of nineteenth-century justice Issac Dyer, Dragonfly Farm comprises a twenty-seven room Greek Revival home whose upper floors are leased to art and music students and visiting arts faculty. It also features a garden ornamented with sculptures where the university’s painting classes frequently convene. The outreach coordinator for USM’s art department, Deborah also offers her own workshops on the grounds, and she hopes to revive “Retinal Delights,” a well-attended summer exhibit featuring work by area artists that USM dropped for lack of funding, in her three private galleries this July. “The university offers a huge opportunity to the community, but I’m not sure the community is aware it’s there,” she concedes. I don’t know why. It’s like people who live in Boston and have never visited the Museum of Fine Arts. They don’t even see it.”
Bedroom-community syndrome could be to blame for the listless town-gown relationship, yet there is plenty of community-building in Gorham. The Gorham Times brings together the town’s most engaged citizens who create a shared sense of belonging in its pages. “The paper is one hundred percent Gorham,” Maynard Charron says. “We cover the planning board, the school committee, the town council — stuff that a lot of people might find boring, but is important to some. We don’t editorialize, but we encourage people to write in and voice their opinions on the issues. We celebrate our children. We publicize honor rolls, athletic achievements, high-school plays. By the time you graduate from high school, your name will have been in the Gorham Times three or four times.”
Movers and shakers comprise a small percentage of the population, but they have an audience willing and ready to participate in the events they plan. “What makes it so much fun for me is that when I moved here twenty-five years ago, I didn’t know anybody,” says Ginny Cross, who is behind many Gorham institutions, including the newspaper and the Gorham Business and Civic Exchange. “This town invited me in. My husband and I left a lake house to live here. That’s how nifty this place is.”
Many of Cross’ inspirations are geared to Gorham’s growing reputation as a good place to raise a family. With Shaw Brothers Construction, one of the town’s leading employers, and the Gorham Recreation Department, Cross spearheaded the creation of Shaw Park, where kids play baseball and families paddle on the Prescumpscot River or explore trails at the former Gambo powder mills site. New Year Gorham, which drew a thousand people with music, dancing, a petting zoo, puppet show, and other entertainment last December 31, is another Cross idea that easily won supporters. “Where else can you go and throw out these ideas and not be knocked down?” Cross marvels. “Ideas are embraced here and nobody is left out.”
A well-defined town center bolsters Gorham’s identity. A mix of wood-frame and brick commercial buildings and handsome historic homes, the village is designed for foot traffic: town hall, the public library, the recreation center, the high school, middle school, and an elementary school are part of the neighborhood. Even Rite Aid and Hannaford supermarket are located here, which is good for drawing people to small locally owned businesses, despite their unfortunate strip mall design. Teenagers gather in the Gorham Grind and Gorham House of Pizza after school, giggling testaments to the fact that Gorham is more than its reputation as a confounding crossroads suggests.
“It’s a family town,” Carson Lynch says. “It’s a place that’s seen an increase in development in a good way — lots of new neighborhoods and homes, thoughtfully built. There is a big emphasis on investment in the schools and recreation. We’re seeing a vibrant, new generation discover Gorham, not just as a bedroom community for Portland, but as a place that’s close enough to commerce and far enough away to relax. As the town matures and the turnpike gets closer, my hope is that we’ll grow in a way that preserves what is good about a real New England village because that is what we have here.”