Like Stephen King, the famous author it raised, Durham is quiet and a little weird, with some strange stuff going on upstairs.
By Sara Anne Donnelly
Photographed by Douglas Merriam
From our October 2016 issue
The town of Durham is a web of winding country roads, rolling fields, and haunted farmhouses. You can lose your bearings. You may drive for an hour and still be in Durham. It’s like an episode of The Twilight Zone — the town that never ends.
Tia Howe, the youngest member of the Durham Historical Society by a few decades, takes me around in her little black Kia with “Ghost Hunter” and “Gone Sasquatchin’” stickers on the back bumper. A classic-rock station jams along on the radio. The day is bright and warm, but the woods are so thick on some of these roads that they turn morning light to dusk. “At one point we had a band in town,” Howe says, as we pass through the sleepy crossroads that suffices as the town center. “They’d perform at the bandstand. There was a hotel, stores. It was a bustling town. We were like Portland.” She shakes her head and laughs. “I mean, it’s pretty ridiculous when you think about it.”
That it is. Because if Durham were a person, you’d say she was very quiet. Maybe a little weird quiet, the way many here describe Durham’s most famous former resident, Stephen King.
Stand outside Durham’s Eureka Community Center at midday and all you’ll hear is the swoosh of cars passing on Route 136 and the occasional squeals of children playing at the nearby school. If there’s one thing this town wants to preserve, it’s this quiet. Don’t move forward. Don’t go back. Just stand still and enjoy the silence.
I hear about Bill Brock at the Congregational Church spaghetti luncheon, from a willowy retiree with elegantly coiffed gray hair who complains that her husband has dragged her out to socialize. She’d have rather stayed home, kept to herself. Home is a few roads away, she says, right near the bigfoot hunter.
Sorry — what’s that?
“There’s a guy who lives across from us who’s going for bigfoot,” she says. She shrugs. He won’t find it in Durham, she assures me. “There’s too many people.”
Brock lives at the crest of a hill in a rustic single-level house with rainbow Christmas lights strung along the roofline. When I get there, it looks like the bigfoot hunter has been kidnapped during a frenzy of multitasking. There’s a black Jeep on the front lawn, hood up, engine exposed, tools on the grass nearby. A piece of animal fur lies crumpled at the base of a tree next to a bottle of tanning formula and a couple squashed Get & Go coffee cups. A half-dozen empty six-packs crowd the back steps. Otherwise, silence.
I call his name a few times, keenly aware that this is exactly how horror movies start.
“Bill? . . . Mr. Brock?”
I take a few slow steps toward the house. Suddenly, I hear a low, menacing growl from behind one of the dark window screens.
“Hey!” a voice calls from behind the shed. “Shhh!”
“Bill?” I repeat.
Brock emerges from behind the back shed carrying a can of pesticide spray. He’s young, short, and stocky, dressed in camouflage shorts, a scruffy Inland Fisheries & Wildlife cap, a black t-shirt, and sandals revealing feet that are dirty and . . . bloody. The blood’s fake, he says. He just helped his buddy shoot a horror movie at Durham’s Runaround Pond. (Remember the leech scene in Stand By Me? Based on that pond. Related: don’t swim there.) Brock was in charge of testing the blood cannons, which exploded when a monster laid waste to several unfortunate souls. “We were just spraying blood, killing people,” he says.
We move to his back porch, closer to the enormous, still-growling shadow that paces inside the dim house. “I’d let you in,” he offers, “but I’ve got this really mean Great Dane.”
We settle onto his porch and talk monsters. “This area kind of seems to be the hot spot for bigfoot,” Brock says. “Mainly because of all the sightings that happened right here. One of the largest mass sightings on record.” He’s referring to a series of reports in 1973 of a black, apelike beast that came to be known as the Durham Gorilla. The event has become famous in cryptozoology circles as proof that bigfoot is real.
I point to an air rifle leaning against the house. For bigfoot? Brock nods. He doesn’t want to kill one, he says. That would be foolish. Bigfoot are probably one of the most endangered species on the planet. But he does want to plug one with a DNA dart gun. Collecting bigfoot DNA is Brock’s “mission in life.” So far, he’s seen a bigfoot twice — not in Maine, and never close enough to get it with a dart or anything else. But he’s in a prime position to one day make it happen. As the former host of the Discovery show Monsters Underground, he frequently travels to conferences lecturing about monsters. When I meet him, he’s recently returned from filming a UFO in West Virginia.
“I kind of like living on the outskirts, and I think Durham is great for that,” he says. Brock is originally from Ohio. “It’s a really good little town that isn’t going to grow much. That’s what drew me here and that’s what I like about it.”
Brock figures out that I don’t believe in bigfoot so he runs into his house and emerges with a 17-inch cast of a giant footprint from California. “This right here is called Cripple Foot,” he says. He points out how the toes curl over one another, suggesting that this particular bigfoot had “a spinal issue.”
“I think this is probably one of the best casts,” he says, turning it over. “Conclusive evidence would mean DNA, and we can’t have that until they send me out there with a whole team of people.”
I’m not convinced, but I appreciate the effort. Maybe he does have something paranormal here. He certainly seems to see it that way.
Before I get into my car to leave, Brock stops me. “Hey, who told you about me?” he asks.
I describe the lady from the church luncheon. Does he know her? He shakes his head. “So I’m being talked about in the basement of a church,” he says, and he reflects on this with a smirk. “Cool.”
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It was in the interest of quiet that the town of Durham decided to tell the railroad to take a hike. The story goes that when the Androscoggin-Kennebec Rail proposed a train through town to Cumberland County some 150 years ago, the farmers who ran things then didn’t want anything to do with it. They didn’t want the noise it would bring, the bustle, the change. So in 1860, the AKR expanded instead through Lisbon, the town on the other side of the Androscoggin River. Soon, Lisbon flourished, thanks to the railway connecting it to Lewiston, Freeport, Brunswick, and Portland. And Durham? Well, Durham was left out.
In the ensuing years, Durham watched its shops, shoemakers, mills, and restaurants close as commerce followed the train. By 1900, all that was left were farms, and soon those began to disappear too. The long quiet settled in.
Durham is now a bedroom community of about 4,000 people. Most of the young parents here commute to jobs in Portland, L/A, or Freeport. The only shop left is the Get & Go convenience store and gas station. You’ll find it just up the road from the town gazebo that Durham’s Boy Scouts troop recently repaired to its pristine, bright-white glory, American flag flapping in the wind.
The Get & Go is the only place in town you’re likely to run into anybody, regardless of their interests or social circle. Here is where locals with old Durham family names like Bowie and Stackpole cross paths with “new people” who’ve fled here from louder places. At 7:30 in the morning one Tuesday, I find Maynard Libby wrapping up his regular cup of coffee in one of the plastic booths. Libby’s a retired carpenter who has lived 56 of his 67 years in Durham. He has a gravelly Maine drawl and an exhausted demeanor, as if the taxes he complains about are literally sucking his blood. The new school’s too pretty, he says, the new Public Works building’s too big, and the new people moving to town just want to spend, spend, spend. “Some of the ideas that these newer folks have,” he says, trailing off and shaking his head. “They want to move to a more rural area. But they seem to want to have all the luxuries of the cities they just left. Well, the two don’t seem to go well together.”
In a town with few businesses, the cost of added amenities rests squarely on homeowners like Libby. Property taxes have gone up by about 25 percent since 2010. But a bigger budget is also evidence of growth, thanks in part to new folks moving in. Today, Durham residents are among Maine’s wealthiest, says the US Census. The median household income of about $67,000 is some 40 percent higher than the state median. Most people work elsewhere, in education, health care, or retail; farmers here are few. The median age is 44, and families make up nearly 80 percent of Durham’s residents. The Maynard Libbys of Durham have been overrun.
“I’d like to see some changes,” Libby grouses, “but to go backward.”
Stephen King lived in Durham from age 11 through high school and based some of his early works on the town. For a spooky weekend away, a few haunts to investigate:
For lodging, check out the historic Royalsborough Inn at the Bagley House. It’s not only Durham’s oldest house, it’s also rumored to be haunted. Rooms go for $140–$180/night, including breakfast. 207-353-6372
For more rustic digs, Survivor winner Bob Crowley and his wife Peggy rent sleek, eco-friendly yurts on their 100 acres of wilderness at Maine Forest Yurts. Rates start at $125/night. 207-400-5956
Take a spooky tour starting at Runaround Pond Road in a part of Durham known as Methodist Corner. Stephen King grew up here, in a small house not far from the West Durham Methodist Church. In 2013, Durham’s town administrator and other officials were mysteriously locked inside the church during an inspection. Ghosts? A strong breeze? Bigfoot? We may never know — the rickety old building is now closed to the public.
According to the book Stephen King from A to Z, an inspiration for the titular Carrie lived on Runaround Pond Road. The young “Carrie,” Stephen, and other kids from Durham allegedly rode to high school in Lisbon in a town-sponsored taxi. Incidentally, it was a converted hearse.
Before you leave, face away from the church and look across the field. The farmhouse less than a mile away is the former home of King’s aunt and uncle, Ethelyn Pillsbury and Oren Flaws, who helped raise the writer. As a boy, King once discovered a box full of spooky paperbacks in the Flaws’ attic, which he has credited with helping inspire him to pursue the horror genre.
Farther down Runaround Pond Road, you’ll find the boat launch for Runaround Pond. Stop in the small parking area for a closer look, but think twice about swimming. This is the pond where King set the leech scene in his novella The Body (later made into the movie Stand By Me). King has said the story is true, even the part about a leech down the pants. You’ve been warned.
On Davis Road, a five-minute drive from the pond, you’ll find Harmony Grove Cemetery, the inspiration for the Harmony Hill Cemetery in ‘Salem’s Lot, where King and his friend Chris Chesley reportedly would camp to scare each other.
For all kinds of relics of Durham’s past, and more stories about ghosts, check out the could-be-haunted old town hall on Route 136 near the Durham Congregational Church.
The building once housed the second-oldest Methodist Church in New England and is now occupied by the Durham Historical Society. Call ahead to schedule a tour at 207-720-0015.
Finally, if you’d like to explore the 26 cemeteries in town.
Back on tour, Tia Howe and I pass abandoned schoolhouses tangled in creepers, a crook in Route 9 so sharp that locals call it Dead Man’s Corner, and cemetery after cemetery. There are 26, to be exact. Many are old homestead plots with only a family or two, tucked in the woods along roads long abandoned. Among the least difficult to find is Harmony Grove Cemetery, where Stephen King reportedly camped as a boy and on which he based the vampire-infested Harmony Hill Cemetery in ‘Salem’s Lot. Howe spent the last year photographing every one of Durham’s thousand or so gravestones. She’s cataloged the tombstones online at findagrave.com so descendants can find the memorials of their relatives.
“Ever since I was a child, I’ve had an interest in cemeteries,” she says. “My grandmother used to take us to the cemetery. That was a big hobby for us when we were kids.”
Howe is petite and bubbly, with big blue eyes, thick auburn hair, and a huge tattoo of a haunted house and a cemetery covering half of her back. She’s seen a ghost in her farmhouse on Brickyard Hill. No big deal. They say the old town hall is haunted too. And a couple of years back, some town administrators got mysteriously locked inside the Methodist Church next to the house where Stephen King grew up. Can you imagine? Howe would love to get in there and investigate that one.
“I believe some are checking in,” she says, meaning spirits. “Saying basically, ‘Shhh — I’m watching.’ ”
Just the look of Shiloh Church inspires ghost stories. Stark white and looming 90 feet above one of the town’s high points, called Beulah Hill, Shiloh’s main tower is topped with a white and gold crown that’s visible for miles, the enduring symbol of The Holy Ghost and Us Bible School. Lead by farm-boy-cum-preacher Frank Sandford, Shiloh was its own community in the early 20th century, with more than 600 residents at its peak. There were once several buildings on this hill, including another tower, a children’s home, and a hospital. Followers gave up their worldly goods and relied on prayer for food, shelter, and healing. Most came from away, drawn — to the chagrin of townsfolk — to the cult known as “The Kingdom.”
The chair of the Durham town selectman committee and a lifelong member of Shiloh Church, Jeff Wakeman gives me a tour of the building. He’s soft-spoken, with a boyish face half-covered by a thick brown beard. By the time Wakeman was born, in 1973, Sandford had been dead for decades and the cult had all but disappeared. Today, Shiloh is home to a nondenominational congregation that hosts services and retreats. But the townies still tell stories about the church. Brock the bigfoot hunter, for example, warned me that the place is “super haunted, crazy haunted.” Teens play hide and seek here at night for a spook-out.
The Shiloh cult built the tower with donated tools — and quickly. Its cozy interior includes a Victorian sitting room and a large worship hall with a balcony. The clearest evidence of the rapid construction is in the crooked floors and uneven stair risers, which get more irregular the higher you climb. Wakeman leads me up seven stories to the cupola. Sun pours through the windows here all day, baking the empty room and its hundreds of trapped flies. The sills are dotted with black bug corpses. Below, the lush grass has been landscaped into a triangle, its point reaching out toward the hills of central Maine. Wakeman explains that Sandford called this the “arrowhead” to the “bow” that was the bible school. Its graduates were like arrows, to be shot across the land to bring people to Jesus.
Wakeman looks out over Durham. He worries that vitriol has replaced grace in America, he says. People need to remember that there are many sides to every story. It’s true of Durham, he says. It’s true of Shiloh. “You ask any four people about the same event up here and you’re going to get four different answers, like anywhere,” he muses. “Take some from here and some from there and kind of mix it together, you’ll come somewhere near the truth of what really went on here.”
We linger a bit longer, each enjoying our view of the mountains and the setting sun. Before he leaves, Wakeman agrees to show me the Shiloh cemetery. I drive behind him, down a rutted dirt road from the back of the church to a cool, shady area beside a ravine. Wakeman doesn’t stop, just points at the cemetery and pulls a U-turn. Soon, he’s zipped out of sight, leaving me alone deep in the Shiloh woods beside a collection of simple stone graves. I pull to the side of the road and shut off my engine. The cemetery is still and gray in the evening half-light. I get out of my car for a closer look at the ravine. It’s a steep drop to the bottom, where there are rotten blocks of wood that look like they were once part of something — a bridge? A house? A brick shack perched on the opposite side gapes doorless and dark.
I go looking for the grave of Frank Sandford’s wife. She was his muse, convincing him he was God’s messenger, supporting his aggrandizement, even when followers began dying of illness and starvation. “Little Helen Kinney,” her stone reads, “with her sweet and quiet ways.” Across town, a photo of this gravestone sits in Tia Howe’s file of Durham’s dead.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see a person walking toward me. Then, on second glance, there’s no one there. Just a restless American flag stuck in a grave near the forest edge.
Why am I jumpy? This place is as frozen as a photograph. The farmers long ago stopped the train. I look down the line of straight gray markers. Every town has its stories, its ghosts. In them, it stretches beyond its borders to eternity. In his 1899 history of Durham — a history that, though more than a century old, has yet to be updated — Everett Stackpole asked, “Can any good come out of Nazareth? Can anything of interest be said about a small country town?”
A twig cracks in a nearby thicket. I should go, I think.