A Very Crafty Town
Spend a day in Bowdoinham, and you might think you've wandered into Maine's creative epicenter.
Even in the pre-dawn darkness, the dead have some of the best views of Bowdoinham, whether from the brow of the cemetery overlooking Merrymeeting Bay or the onion dome atop the old town hall. The distant bay is beautiful, but the town itself is not, at least not in a conventional sense.
As it slowly comes to life, Bowdoinham (population 2,612) is a sedimentary little village that seems to have washed up around the big horseshoe bend of the Cathance River. Fires have left broad gaps along the river where once stood boatyards and a fertilizer mill where sheep manure was dried, bagged, and shipped. A gravel parking lot, waterfront park, band shell, and marina now stand where schooners the size of poultry barns were once built. The old town hall and the old schoolhouse that serves as the new town hall stand high on a hill above the river, but the center of town is a bend in the road where Route 125 runs downhill into 24. There, hard by the roadway, stands the old post office, brought back to life as the Town Landing Place, the great little restaurant that is the true heart of Bowdoinham.
Just before dawn, Lynn Spiro comes downstairs from her apartment above the restaurant to begin baking muffins the size of softballs and to prepare the soup of the day, a hearty cream of chicken. Well before the posted 7 a.m. opening time, the regulars start filing in, gray and grizzled men who make their own coffee and Spiro’s as well. The Town Landing Place, a homey, wood-paneled hole in the wall decorated with pictures of old Bowdoinham, is closed only four days a year — Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and Easter — but on those days Spiro gives the regulars a key so they can let themselves in, make coffee, settle the affairs of the day, clean up after themselves, and lock up.
The Republicans come for breakfast; the Democrats for lunch. Eat here once, and Spiro knows your name. Eat here twice, and she knows your preference.
Local folks used to say there was a curse on the Town Landing Place because several couples who owned it in the past ended up divorced. But Spiro figures she broke the curse, because she was already divorced when she arrived. It wasn’t all that long ago that she was a single mother on welfare in Massachusetts. Now she is the toast of Bowdoinham, an indispensable part of the public life of the town, its hostess, its big sister, its aunt, a member of the board of the new arts center.
“I call Bowdoinham my little piece of heaven,” Spiro says after the morning rush. “You get the peace and tranquility to sit and feel. I just sit and sigh and take a moment to take it all in.”
When she first moved to town, Spiro used to bake forty pies a week for David Berry, one of her gray and grizzly regulars. Berry loaded them aboard his two-masted Long Island oyster boat, the Beth Alison, and sailed her pies along with his own Merrymeeting Farm vegetables in a kind of floating farmers’ market to summer colonies such as Christmas Cove and Squirrel Island.
This morning, like most fall mornings, David Berry is deep in the dank bowels of the old broiler barn on the Post Road where he operates Bowdoinham’s pioneering recycling center. Like a lot of folks in town, Berry does a little of this and a little of that. He used to raise oysters in the Damariscotta River. Now he raises tomatoes in a greenhouse attached to the chicken-barn recycling center.
The Berry family came to Bowdoinham in the 1920s to raise chickens. After Berry’s father went bankrupt, his mother peddled chickens to summerfolk as far away as Prouts Neck and Kennebunkport. Priscilla Berry was also the patron saint of the counterculture that flourished in Bowdoinham in the 1970s. A yurt colony, still sporadically occupied, sprouted in the woods across from her farm. The old chicken slaughterhouse eventually became the soulful studio lair of the estimable artist Charles Stanley, aka Carlo Pittore (“Charles the Painter.”)
For years of Wednesday evenings, Pittore hosted life-drawing sessions in his studio. The late artist Bryce Muir and his wife, Peggy, were among the dozen or so locals who assembled there to eat pasta and sketch the nudes. When Pittore passed away in 2005, Muir tape-recorded the proceedings at Pittore’s memorial service in the old town hall. Five months later, Muir, too, was gone, the victim of a freak ice skating accident on the Cathance River.
“Bryce and Carlo had a huge influence on the artistic development of the town. You can’t overestimate it,” says David Berry as he drives his old beater down to the bay to check on his boat. Beside him on the seat is a stray dog, a black and white pup he has named Pokey.
“I named him after Bryce. Bryce always used to say, ‘What if the hokey-pokey is what it’s all about?’ ”
Down by the bay is also where Franklin Burroughs is apt to be found on any given day in the fall. The Harrison King McCann Research Professor of the English Language Emeritus at Bowdoin College, in nearby Brunswick, Burroughs is an avid duck hunter, an eloquent naturalist, and a southern gentleman.
“David has a kind of genius for bringing people together in enterprises,” Burroughs says of David Berry in his soft Carolina burr. He is thinking of the recycling center and the popular contra dance series that Berry started. Burroughs has known Berry since he bought Berry’s old farm thirty-five years ago.
A self-described “closet extrovert,” at once gregarious and reclusive, Burroughs wrote the book on Merrymeeting Bay — Confluence.
“You’re on tidal water here,” Burroughs says. “It’s navigable all the way from Bowdoinham to Portugal.”
That makes Bowdoinham, as an inland coastal town, almost as unusual as Merrymeeting Bay, one of only four places in the world where two major rivers share a common mouth. The Kennebec and the Androscoggin both flow into Merrymeeting Bay, as do the Cathance, the Eastern, the Muddy, and the Abagadusset (or Abby). The confluence of these rivers creates conditions that are perfect for two things Frank Burroughs dearly loves — ducks and dirt.
At midday, Burroughs is driving the dirt roads around Brown’s Point, searching for ducks and admiring the soft, milk-chocolate alluvial soil that blesses Bowdoinham with some of Maine’s best farmland.
“So many of the things I like about Bowdoinham are things I like about Maine in general,” Burroughs says. “So many of the people here are self-respecting people because they are good at doing things. It’s un-self-conscious. There is nothing precious about Bowdoinham. You have a lot of people who are making things and who take pleasure in doing things for themselves.”
What Frank Burroughs does is write — personal essays about the human and natural histories of both his native South Carolina and his adopted hometown of Bowdoinham. “It’s a very happy circumstance if the sources of your imaginative life are very close to the setting of your daily life,” he says.
Frank Burroughs’ prize possession is his Merrymeeting Bay gunning float, a trim little duck boat built by Harry C. “Buster” Prout.
The early afternoon finds Buster Prout at home, a small house in the woods that were fields when he was a boy. Descendents of the Prouts of Prouts Neck, his family moved to Bowdoinham from Cape Elizabeth in the 1940s to farm the town’s loamy soil.
“We’re fortunate enough around the bay here that they haven’t broken up the farms and made developments,” says Prout. “My father’s lease money had something to do with that.”
Buster Prout, however, was always more interested in duck hunting than farming. He did some farming and smelting in his day, but he primarily supported himself as a painting contractor in order to be able to take time off in the fall to hunt and guide.
“Duck hunting back then was a big thing,” he says. There is a scale model of a gunning float on his kitchen table, duck decoys on shelves around the room, and a pair of waders by the door. “There were sporting camps and guides all over the bay. There were a lot more ducks back in the fifties. At low tide before the season, you’d see 25,000 to 30,000 birds. Now if you see a couple thousand birds you’ve seen a lot.”
In 1960, Prout built his first gunning float, a sixteen-foot duck boat designed to scull the waters and push back the grass of Merrymeeting Bay. He built twenty of the painstakingly lovely and utilitarian little watercraft and then stopped for twenty-five years. He has built about one a year since he resumed building a dozen years ago.
“Maine’s got a lot of different boat builders,” Prout says. “There are a lot of craftsmen in this state. I don’t know why they all congregated here in town.”
Indeed, Bowdoinham is a very crafty town. Expect everyone you meet to have dirt under their fingernails, paint on their hands, sawdust on their sleeves, flour in their hair, or mud on their boots.
Out behind the Town Landing Place, Paul Baines is covered in sawdust as he answers the door of his little cinderblock woodworking shop. A pair of old dogs sleep in the weeds outside the door. One of the stools that are Baines’ stock in trade stands unfinished just inside the door.
Paul Baines built timber frame buildings on Indian reservations in South Dakota and sailboats in Camden before setting up shop in Bowdoinham in 2005, just months before Bryce Muir fell through the ice and drowned. He recognized the magic of Bowdoinham right away.
“People now look around Bowdoinham for what they used to look around Maine for thirty years ago — real craft,” he says. “As a community, Bowdoinham is a rich tapestry of old Maine.”
Bowdoinham is also an unexpected nexus of woodworkers, furniture makers, fabric artists, potters, painters, photographers, musicians, and writers. In the authentically unlovely Cathance Landing building across the street from Baines are the studios of cabinetmakers Scott Libby and Greg Zoulamis and fiber artist Kathy Goddu, president of the thirteen-member Bowdoinham Guild of Artisans.
Cathance Landing also houses a florist, a flea market, and the galleries of the Merrymeeting Arts Center — the jewel in the crown of Bowdoinham’s creative economy.
“Creative economy” is the trendy notion that attracting artists and crafts-people can help foster economic development when all else fails, but Bowdoinham has managed to grow a grassroots creative economy of its own based largely on celebrating the creative community that already exists here. And it was the life and death of Bryce Muir that inspired the Merrymeeting Arts Center.
Bryce Muir was a wonderfully creative fellow, a maker of wooden toys, a sculptor of whimsical creatures, a writer of fables, a flutist in a blues band, an avid sailor, and a familiar figure around town. Muir always felt that Bowdoinham was a magical place, a community with spirit and soul, but he could not have foreseen how his own untimely death at age fifty-nine would inspire townsfolk to create a gathering place in his memory, in the process giving folks from away a chance to discover that magic for themselves.
When Peggy Muir, Bryce’s widow, told Tony Cox, a picture framer and Bowdoinham’s part-time economic development director, that she’d like to find a way to keep her husband’s life’s work in town, Cox took the ball and ran with it. Nine months later, in September 2007, in a space donated by a local businessman and with the volunteer efforts of more than fifty people, the Merrymeeting Arts Center attracted four hundred people to its grand opening. There is a small gift shop, a classroom, a gallery for group shows — and a gallery devoted to Bryce Muir’s own art.
As the sun sets over Merrymeeting Bay and the moon begins to rise above Bowdoinham, a raft of ducks, perhaps two hundred in number, dabble in the matted wild rice off Brown’s Point. They look as though they have been blown into this cove by the wind. Then someone approaches the shore, and they take flight, lifting off together with a whistling of wings into the gathering night.
Peggy Muir arrives home after dark from her job as a history teacher at Freeport High School. The little house is located in a section of Bowdoinham known locally as Brooklyn, both because it is across the Route 24 bridge from downtown and because the Brooklyn Bridge Company supposedly built the little green metal span.
The stern New England lines of the house are enlivened both by Bryce Muir’s colorful decorative trim and by some of his whimsical wooden cutouts — a trio of larger-than-life wild turkeys and a likeness of Andrew Wyeth’s iconic Christina as a mermaid.
As she fixes a cup of tea, Peggy Muir explains the Merrymeeting Arts Center motto — “Art for Everyone.”
“We’re trying to link community and art in a Bryce-ish way,” she says. “He was an egalitarian. He believed everyone could make art, everyone could appreciate art, and anyone could buy art. There’s a new kind of art energy here, and it is coming out of this community. It’s quite a magical town. Bryce was quite rooted in it because he worked at home and he was around during the day.”
And now, of course, he’s not. A bizarre stone sculpture by a Canadian artist memorializes his loss, depicting Bryce Muir as a flute-playing skater in the grip of Koodlapoodlalook, a monster who snatches people who get too close to the edge of the ice.
Muir’s own sculpture and drawings fill the house and the little arts center across the bridge. The arts center project has kept Peggy busy, and she is grateful for all the local support. Bryce’s art spirit will live on in Bowdoinham, but it will never be quite the same ever again.
“Bryce,” she says fondly, “was just too much fun.”
- By: Edgar Allen Beem