Median household income: $44,934
Percent of families below poverty level: 2.5%
Median home sale price: $180,000
Median age: 50
“I hear it all the time while showing real estate,” says John Nichols, a broker at western Maine’s Morton & Furbish Agency. “People want a slower pace. Our communities are safe, and we have a great school. Also, our outdoor recreational opportunities are the best in the state, if not New England — my wife and I came in 1977 for the fishing, hunting, and skiing. We raised our family here and have never looked back.”
Call it Rangeley’s unofficial slogan: Come for the outdoor rec, stay for the family-friendly locale. Outside of the real estate game, Nichols is also a Master Maine Guide. Rangeley and its surrounding townships are crawling with registered guides, a legacy dating back to Cornilia “Fly Rod” Crosby, who left a banking job to work in a Rangeley hotel in the 1870s. Crosby became a famous outdoor writer, an evangelist for western Maine’s trout streams, and, in 1897, the first licensed Maine Guide. Among those she lured to fish in Rangeley was President Herbert Hoover.
Since Hoover left, snowmobilers, paddlers, skiers, and mountain bikers have arrived. The six glassy Rangeley Lakes are a mecca for flatwater boating. The Appalachian Trail passes just south of town. And with beleaguered Saddleback Mountain having announced a new owner (still on track as of press time, in late January), there’s renewed, if cautious enthusiasm about Maine’s third-largest ski area and eighth-highest mountain (not to mention Franklin County’s third-largest employer).
Needless to say, hospitality and tourism make up a big part of Rangeley’s employment mix. Forest products jobs have dwindled, but plenty of Rangeley-ites still make all or a part of their living in the woods. Still others work in a scatter of service jobs or make the long-ish commute to Farmington or Rumford. No need to commute for food and drink, though — after long days of wholesome outdoor pursuits, Rangeley-ites tuck into venison sausage at 45th Parallel American BBQ or grab a cocktail with their truffle fries at cozy Forks in the Air Mountain Bistro.
And while Maine’s median age ticks upward, Census data shows Rangeley’s holding steady or decreasing of late, a trend Nichols sees in action.
“A lot of our young people who’ve graduated college or been out in the real world have returned intending to build a life here,” he says proudly. “They’re all about Rangeley.”
Top image: Pleasure boats on Rangeley Lake, which also graces this month’s cover. Photographed by Darylann Leonard.
Median household income: $43,341
Percent of families below poverty level: 12.2%
Median home sale price: $249,500
Median age: 50
Cross the river to find S. Fernald’s Country Store, where tasty deli sandwiches are served with a side of small talk amid shelves of penny-candy kitsch. Sumner Richards III opened Fernald’s (at a different Damariscotta location) in 1990. “I recognized that Damariscotta was the center of this area as far as commerce goes,” recalls the Portland transplant.
He was right — although it took a quarter century to confirm it. During that time, Sumner III had a son, Sumner Richards IV, and moved the store to Waldoboro. Like many a Lincoln County youth, Sumner IV grew up and left home, lured by the call of the city. But both Sumners and their family-run store have since returned to Damariscotta, drawn to a river town with all the midcoast perks (woods, beaches, terrific paddling, all the oysters you can eat) and only a fraction of the tourist traffic of, say, Wiscasset or Camden.
“Damariscotta has always been a working town, and it still is today,” says Sumner IV. “But the region itself is much more of a draw now. I’ve seen a lot more activity and a lot more younger people in the area.”
At 28, he’s delighted to be among them. Young entrepreneurs are injecting new vitality into Damariscotta, bringing with them everything from artisan bread at Head Tide Oven to ambitious farm-to-table dining at Van Lloyd’s Bistro to action figures and superhero garb at Smitten Collectibles & Nerdy Treasures.
As for Sumner IV, he plans to someday take over Fernald’s, a store named for his great-grandfather. He sees a big upside in Damariscotta’s tiny-village vibe. “Sometimes people from out of town do a double-take when they walk through the door, wondering if they’ve entered a time warp,” he says. “I traveled all over the place, and I came to realize how good we’ve got it here.”
Median household income: $60,179
Percent of families below poverty level: 9.2%
Median age: 61
It’s also a resourceful one. Services in the town of Chebeague Island (which consists of Great Chebeague and several smaller islands) range from a library to an assisted-living facility to its own Internet provider (chebeague.net), all to support fewer than 400 year-round residents (though the summer population swells to about 2,000). And not only does the island have its own elementary school, that school was the catalyst of the successful secession movement nearly a decade ago — a cost-cutting proposal from the Cumberland–North Yarmouth school district would have sent Chebeague’s fourth- and fifth-graders to the mainland. It’s a testament to Chebeague’s community spirit that, despite an aging population, islanders value the importance of local kids getting a local education.
Commercial fishing and marine construction are big business on the island (the Chebeague Island Boat Yard is as much a community hub as the school), and so is summer tourism — the Chebeague Island Inn and Great Chebeague Golf Club are the biggest draws. Locals are a tight-knit bunch, but they appreciate all the same quiet beaches and rocky coves that attract the summer folks.
“There’s just something about island life that is appealing to me,” says town administrator Marjorie Stratton, a former town manager on Vinalhaven. “It’s like one huge family. They may argue and gossip among one another, but at the end of the day, you are a Chebeaguer, and they will take care of you.”
Median household income: $49,120
Percent of families below poverty level: 5.4%
Median home sale price: $185,000
Median age: 45
Sunday River also attracts a whole satellite economy of hotels, lodges, upscale eateries, and services that local marketing consultant and Ski Museum of Maine president Wende Gray calls “unusual for a rural town.” Just how unusual? Let Gray count the ways: “We have local access to a health center with two doctors, a lab, and an x-ray suite; a veterinary facility with three vets; a pharmacy; a supermarket with everything from a deli counter to fresh lobster; a specialty food store with spices from around the world; a women’s dress shop you might expect to find on Newbury Street in Boston; a historical society with exhibits and a period house; and a choice of at least six different pizza joints.
“As my husband says,” continues Gray, “ ‘If you can’t find it in Bethel, you don’t need it.’ ”
Median household income: $43,864
Percent of families below poverty level: 15.8%
Median home sale price: $112,000
Median age: 42
“At the end of the season, the dealers take everything out,” says Lisa Fulginiti of the Cornish Trading Company, which houses several antique dealers under one roof. “And they all look for fresh merchandise for the next season.”
The antique biz complements a palpable sense of history along Cornish’s Main Street (the gable-roofed Cornish Trading Company, for instance, once housed a general store and a Masonic lodge). The town’s many fiber artisans and craftspeople contribute to the days-of-yore feel. But while Cornish reveres the past, its flourishing small business community doesn’t dwell there. Since 1990, the Cornish Association of Business has worked with town government on planning issues as Cornish’s population has swelled by more than 20 percent. Its members include spas, holistic healing practitioners, and digital marketing firms. “They’ve come together to build Cornish into a flourishing town,” says Fulginiti.
Cornish’s rural ambience is a draw, the foothills of the White Mountains rolling nearby like gentle waves. This is prime fall foliage territory, with easy day-tripping to Sebago Lake in summer and Maine’s ski country in winter. Still, it is antiques season that makes Cornish hum, and prospective new residents should be cool with a steady flow of out-of-towners come spring. Starting the first Friday in April, says Fulginiti, “There are always people waiting to come in to score on fresh findings.”
Median household income: $33,325
Percent of families below poverty level: 17.2%
Median home sale price: $192,500
Median age: 43
Flash forward 30ish years. Belfast’s harbor, long since degreased, is a thing of beauty. The Harbor Walk, completed in 2013, leads through the green idyll of Heritage Park, past the beer-geek den of Three Tides bar and restaurant, and alongside Front Street Shipyard, which specializes in building and repairing large yachts. The yard, once an abandoned sardine plant, now anchors a revitalized waterfront.
If any town in Maine throws more civic festivals than Belfast, we have yet to discover it. The thriving dining, drinking, and retail scene that is Belfast’s downtown hosts art fairs, a Celtic fest, a Harbor Fest, a ukulele fest, a peace fest, the SXSW-ish All Roads Music Festival, and many more revelatory community functions. Many reflect the free-spirited, slightly crunchy vibe that permeates Belfast — a legacy of the back-to-the-landers who flocked here in the 1970s. Their exploits (and progeny) earned Belfast the nickname “Moonbat Kingdom” and help account for the success of institutions like The Green Store, the Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage, and the 3,900-member Belfast Co-op.
But today, Belfast’s identity is a rare gumbo of blue-collar, tie-dye, and white-collar. Bank of America and athenahealth are among the town’s largest employers. BOA’s corporate predecessor, credit card giant MBNA, invested heavily in civic improvement when it was the top-dog employer in the ’90s and early 2000s. One such project was the grassy Belfast Common, which supplanted derelict poultry plants and opened up a sterling view of the Passagassawakeag River.
See? Chicken salad out of you-know-what. Except in today’s Belfast, the chicken salad is made with free-range birds.
Median household income: $31,111
Percent of families below poverty level: 17.7%
Median home sale price: $117,500
Median age: 54
The payoff for what can be a hard living? Some of the most spectacular scenery on the Maine coast — and some of its most affordable real estate.
“Lubec is a town that brings to life the image many conjure when thinking of Maine,” says Tammy Fairchild, who first visited in the dead of winter several years back and immediately fell in love. “It can leave you feeling as though you have discovered untouched places.”
Fairchild’s homegrown business, Love at First Light, offers “gifts, photographic art, and a vacation home rental.” That’s typical of Lubec. Many residents have more than one job; many businesses offer more than one product or service. (Consider the Save Our Strays Cat Shelter, Gift and Thrift Shop. Or Wags and Wool, a yarn store and pet supply shop.) Having seen an entire sardine industry come and go, this is a community that now specializes in not specializing.
But even as Lubec has weathered some blows (the town’s high school closed in 2010, and the local assisted-living facility recently shut its doors), the town’s service and hospitality sector has made strides. Nobody would mistake Lubec for cosmopolitan (nor, one imagines, would its residents care to be so mistaken), but a new brewer in town is serving craft IPA and organic sourdough pizza at the Lubec Brewing Company, and just down the road, the new chef at Water Street Tavern is a L’Academie de Cuisine grad whose plates are winning over locals. Both, like Fairchild, are folks from away who fell in love with Lubec and decided to make a go of it. Transplants like these are increasingly transforming Maine’s rugged easternmost outpost.
Median household income: $98,145
Percent of families below poverty level: 2.0%
Median home sale price: $375,000
Median age: 48
Cape Elizabeth checks all boxes. Organic development? Heck, the town arguably predates Portland, making it weird even to call it a suburb. Scenic attractions? Find three gorgeous lighthouses (Cape Elizabeth Light, Ram Island Ledge Light, and Portland Head Light); three oceanfront parks (Crescent Beach and Two Lights state parks and Cape’s own Fort Williams); a pretty tidal river (the Spurwink); a Great Pond, a Little Pond, and a scatter of even littler ponds; a few lovely islands; and miles of rocky coastline. Social centers? A once-quiet Route 77 has lately seen a spate of new hangouts, like rustic-mod neighborhood bistro Rudy’s, while Kettle Cove Creamery & Cafe has been a flip-flop–friendly hub for decades.
As for those top-of-the-line schools, Cape Elizabeth High perennially finishes within the top three in US News & World Report’s ranking of Maine’s public high schools. Talya Edlund, who instructs third-graders at Pond Cove Elementary School, was recently named Maine’s 2016 Teacher of the Year. Accepting the award, she told her class, “You make my job an adventure every day.” Cape Elizabeth’s rocky shores and still-bucolic feel add a little daily adventure to life in the suburbs.
Median household income: $37,528
Percent of families below poverty level: 9.2%
Median home sale price: $145,000
Median age: 22
It’s a two-way street that provides many shared services, including the Black Bear Orono Express, a bus service that’s free for all riders thanks to joint funding from the town, the university, and other entities. UMaine students also contribute to municipal projects, like working with the Orono Village Association to prep a marketing plan for the downtown area. Best of all, UMaine provides Orono with a hedge against one of the state’s most pressing problems: a graying population and the associated stresses. Orono’s median age, 22, is the lowest of any town on this list by 17 years, but you don’t need to be a twenty-something to appreciate Orono’s college-town amenities (the great burritos at Verve, Orono’s three separate craft breweries, world-class performances at the Collins Center). What’s more, UMaine now allows students from other northeastern states to pay the same tuition they’d pay at their home state’s flagship institution, so Orono gets what few other Maine towns do: an annual influx of outsiders, and the fresh energy and perspectives they bring.
Median household income: $37,641
Percent of families below poverty level: 12.3%
Median home sale price: $117,250
Median age: 43
The St. John Valley is as Acadian as its every been, while its traditional agrarian economy is evolving as the web opens new frontiers and the old monocrop model falls away. Thirty years ago, the Bouchard Family Farm grew only potatoes. These days, patriarch Joe Bouchard says he “dabbles in potatoes,” but the farm also raises cattle, oats, and buckwheat. The Bouchards then process the buckwheat and package it as mix to make the Acadian pancakes called ployes, which they sell throughout New England and online. “We diversified to save the family farm,” says Bouchard. “And when you have a [distinct] culture like we have up here, it’s important to keep it.”
Median household income: $79,172
Percent of families below poverty level: 5.0%
Median home sale price: $220,100
Median age: 39
Berwickians put a premium on their history (check out the 1787 Hamilton House next to Vaughan Woods State Park, along the Salmon Falls River) and on education, so it’s fitting that the town is home to Maine’s oldest school — Berwick Academy, a college prep school, founded in 1791. (South Berwick also has a public high school, Marshwood, that it shares with neighboring Eliot.)
“Berwick Academy prepares kids very well for a higher education,” says Bill Evans, who attended in 1965. Evans, whose father was in the military, had a nomadic childhood. He grew up in South Berwick but started high school in South Carolina. When his parents decided he needed a little more seasoning before college, they immediately thought of Berwick Academy. Years later, when Evans graduated from the University of Wisconsin, he was drawn back to South Berwick. He took a job at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard (South Berwick’s close enough to the seacoast that many residents commute), and he’s lived there ever since.
“Even when my father was in the service and we were moving around a lot,” says Evans, “South Berwick was always home.”
Median household income: $61,305
Percent of families below poverty level: 9.7%
Median home sale price: $150,950
Median age: 42
This isn’t a town that rolls up the sidewalks after Labor Day. Even its “summer stock” plays are available year round, and the Theater at Monmouth is a source of significant civic pride. Since 1970, the Theater’s given performers from around the state and beyond a chance to workshop new approaches to classic plays at historic Cumston Hall (the state legislature declared it “The Shakespearean Theater of Maine” in 1975).
The town is “suburban, with a country feel,” says Curt Lunt, Monmouth’s town manager since 2007.
“Real estate is still affordable,” he says, “and we have very good schools with a staff passionate about the children. Add five beautiful lakes, and it is truly a great place to live.”
The small-town feel (and great fishing) comes with an easy commute to central Maine’s employment hubs (such as they are). Augusta is 15 miles northeast and Lewiston/Auburn 15 miles southwest. Rural Monmouth also attracts those who want to work the land. The Monmouth Grows organization supports “a network of farmers, agricultural advocates, and stewards of the land,” stressing crop diversity and promoting locally grown food and organic fabric. You might run into some land stewards at Yarn in a Yurt, the fiber-arts retail store at Monmouth’s Friends’ Folly Farm. Monmouth’s TexTech Industries, one of Kennebec County’s largest employers, is also in the fabric biz, but on the high-tech end of the spectrum.
It all adds up to a close-knit community. “It may be old-fashioned,” says Lunt, “but in Monmouth, it seems everyone knows your name.”
Median household income: $52,839
Percent of families below poverty level: 10.1%
Median home sale price: $205,000
Median age: 40
And yes, when you do need to make a run to the mall, it’s a quick trip.
Median household income: $60,862
Percent of families below poverty level: 3.0%
Median home sale price: $261,000
Median age: 46
That may be because the gargantuan Portsmouth Naval Shipyard has spawned a number of satellite high-tech firms. But it’s also because Kittery is simply worth staying home for. The town has long lured visitors with outlet stores, pilgrimage restaurants like Bob’s Clam Hut or Chauncey Creek Lobster Pier, and the Kittery Trading Post, a mandatory stop for visiting outdoor enthusiasts. But it’s also increasingly a bastion for foodie culture and artisan endeavors. With its cool galleries, buzzy restaurants, and one great performance venue (The Dance Hall), Kittery’s Foreside neighborhood is as good a date night as any three square blocks you’ll find in Portland.
Still, no one will ever mistake Kittery for some contrived “development.” Maine’s oldest town (incorporated in 1647) oozes historical cred, with Fort Foster and Fort McClary still standing at Kittery Point and a church (First Congregational) that’s seen continuous use since 1730. Sea Point and Crescent Beaches beckon in summer, and atop Mount Agamenticus, 15 miles away, is a panoramic view from the Gulf of Maine to Mount Washington. Kittery’s not just Maine’s point of entry, it’s a grab bag of everything the state has to offer.
Median household income: $47,212
Percent of families below poverty level: 6.4%
Median home sale price: $165,450
Median age: 45
Elsewhere on the site is this item, buried in the minutes of a Transfer Station Committee meeting: “Ann explained that a printer which cost $79 is missing. Do we inquire as to where the printer went or just call it water under the bridge? The board decided to just leave it alone and move on.”
Quiet coves and dirt roads, wooded hills and blueberry barrens: Surry’s varied landscapes and unbroken quiet are as big a draw as the community’s laid-back vibe. It’s a quick drive to work and amenities in Ellsworth and Blue Hill, and town tuitioning sends high school students to the private George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill (or the school of their choice). Compared to Blue Hill, though, home prices are nearly twice as affordable.
Median household income: $61,226
Percent of families below poverty level: 6.3%
Median home sale price: $320,000
Median age: 58
Each village offers prospective settlers something different. Somesville was Mount Desert Island’s original settlement. It’s where you’ll find the bank, the library, and other pedestrian amenities, along with the famed pedestrian bridge, one of the most photographed places on this famously photogenic island.
Over the years, however, Mount Desert’s town center has effectively shifted to Northeast Harbor, now the heart of most commercial activity and home of both the local fishing fleet and an array of summer sailors. There’s a boatyard in Hall Quarry (not to mention a view of the only natural fjord on the East Coast). Pretty Marsh is more than just a pretty marsh — there’s also a dock for local lobstermen. Otter Creek affords quick access to the more visited portions of Acadia National Park. And Seal Harbor, with its carriage trails (a Rockefeller legacy) and outsized “cottages” is redolent of old money and popovers from Acadia’s nearby Jordan Pond House.
So the town’s a little on the sprawling side, and at summer’s peak, Mount Desert locals put up with oppressive Acadia auto traffic on the roads between villages. But the villages themselves see a fraction of the tourist traffic of, say, nearby Bar Harbor or Southwest Harbor — though they’re equally surrounded by Maine’s only national park and some of the country’s most beloved seaside scenery.