THE MONSON EXPERIMENT

Over the past three years, the Libra Foundation has poured more than $10 million into rescuing a dying town. Will it be the spark that ignites a region-wide revival?
by AMY SUTHERLAND
photographed by MICHAEL SEAMANS

In 2006, Rebekah Anderson opened the Lakeshore House inn and pub in Monson, even though the town had clearly seen better days. Much of the small downtown that hugs state Route 15 was vacant, and the cluster of aging clapboard buildings looked tired at best. But the hamlet along pretty Lake Hebron is a crucial stopover for Appalachian Trail hikers, many of whom want a bed for the night, and Anderson found Monson offbeat and endearing — a mix of Mayberry, Northern Exposure, and the Twilight Zone, she says. She was warned the elementary school might close, and two years later it did. So did Moosehead Furniture Co., by far the town’s biggest employer, in 2010. More or less overnight, some 100 jobs vanished.

After that, the little downtown went from tired to shabby. As one local put it, Monson got a case of “the three Ds”: dilapidated, derelict, and depressing. Tourists en route to Moosehead Lake sped through without stopping. As young people moved away for better opportunities, the population dwindled and its median age climbed. Next to no one used the town’s basketball court. Still, although all signs pointed otherwise and few locals shared her optimism, Anderson believed Monson would reinvent itself.

Then, one afternoon, six years after the furniture mill shuttered, the door to her pub swung open and two men wearing business suits paused in the doorway. “Hey suits,” she yelled. “Come on in.”

Monson General Store

The MONSON EXPERIMENT

Over the past three years, the Libra Foundation has poured more than $10 million into rescuing a dying town. Will it be the spark that ignites a region-wide revival?
by AMY SUTHERLAND
photographed by MICHAEL SEAMANS

In 2006, Rebekah Anderson opened the Lakeshore House inn and pub in Monson, even though the town had clearly seen better days. Much of the small downtown that hugs state Route 15 was vacant, and the cluster of aging clapboard buildings looked tired at best. But the hamlet along pretty Lake Hebron is a crucial stopover for Appalachian Trail hikers, many of whom want a bed for the night, and Anderson found Monson offbeat and endearing — a mix of Mayberry, Northern Exposure, and the Twilight Zone, she says. She was warned the elementary school might close, and two years later it did. So did Moosehead Furniture Co., by far the town’s biggest employer, in 2010. More or less overnight, some 100 jobs vanished.

After that, the little downtown went from tired to shabby. As one local put it, Monson got a case of “the three Ds”: dilapidated, derelict, and depressing. Tourists en route to Moosehead Lake sped through without stopping. As young people moved away for better opportunities, the population dwindled and its median age climbed. Next to no one used the town’s basketball court. Still, although all signs pointed otherwise and few locals shared her optimism, Anderson believed Monson would reinvent itself.

Then, one afternoon, six years after the furniture mill shuttered, the door to her pub swung open and two men wearing business suits paused in the doorway. “Hey suits,” she yelled. “Come on in.”

Blue Goose, Monson

The Suits, as they have since become known around town, were Craig Denekas and Owen Wells of the Portland-based Libra Foundation. And since the two men first ate macaroni and cheese at the Lakeshore House, they have become a regular sight in Monson with their ties and dress shoes. So have cranes, cherry pickers, and backhoes. In the past three years, Libra has bought up a chunk of downtown, 30 properties in all, and poured more than $10 million into reviving it. It shows. Now, as visitors drive into Monson, they pass pristine white buildings, all renovated or rebuilt with the foundation’s money. Should they stop, they can do a few things that, not long ago, they couldn’t do here, like buy a box of Cheerios or a block of locally made goat’s-milk soap at the general store the foundation opened. They can eat a fancy dinner at The Quarry, which Libra helped get off the ground. They’ll have better luck getting online too, as Libra worked with a local broadband company to improve the region’s internet service.

Visitors can do a few things that, not long ago, they couldn’t do here, like buy a box of Cheerios or a block of locally made goat’s-milk soap at the general store.

Libra also started Piscataquis County’s first artist residency program here last year, partnering with Stuart Kestenbaum, the state’s poet laureate and former director of Deer Isle’s Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, to create Monson Arts. Kestenbaum worked his connections with art schools around the country, and soon artists were coming for month-long stays, even in the winter. Already, more than 100 artists have taken advantage of the studios, free housing and meals, and $1,000 stipend. Monson Arts also hosts exhibits, lectures, and film screenings open to the public and workshops for area high school students.

Suddenly, Monson looks like a place someone might like to stop, maybe even live. Anderson might be the person in town least surprised by Monson’s whirlwind transformation, if only because she always believed it was possible. In the early months of Libra’s presence, when the Suits began their work, they used her pub as a kind of office, making plans and meeting there with locals. Listening to them, she realized what was coming.

“This,” Anderson says, “is the reinvention.”

Downtown Monson

Monson, population around 660, is one of 20 small towns that make up Piscataquis County, home to the state’s crown jewels of Moosehead Lake and Katahdin. A mere 17,000 souls call this 4,378-square-mile, mostly wooded expanse home, making Maine’s second-largest county also its least populous. That’s not likely to change any time soon. Most of the state’s counties are losing population, but Piscataquis is losing it the fastest — the Maine State Economist’s office expects the county’s population will decline 11 percent by 2026. Piscataquis also has the state’s lowest median household income.

“Every town there has seen better days,” says Craig Denekas, Libra’s chief executive officer and chairman. “You can point to a mill or a business that has closed in each one. The infrastructure is going by the wayside. It’s hard to find causes and institutions to support there.”

Since the Libra Foundation was established in 1989, it has doled out over $200 million in grants to small and big nonprofits across Maine, including several it has helped to establish, with the broad goal of helping the state’s residents by helping the state’s economy. That was the philosophy of its founder, the late Betty Noyce, whose sizable fortune came from her divorce settlement with her ex-husband, Robert Noyce, co-inventor of the microchip and a founder of Intel Corp. That’s why Libra has such deep pockets — with some $200 million in assets, it’s one of the state’s biggest foundations.

It’s also by far the most hands-on, launching massive projects of its own. In 2000, Libra bought an abandoned state mental hospital and spent $110 million to create Pineland Farms, an agricultural and recreational complex crossed with an office park, 30 minutes north of Portland. From 2000 to 2014, Libra spent more than $30 million improving and constructing winter sports facilities around Aroostook County and in Rumford, including two world-class ski centers in Fort Kent and Presque Isle, which put the state on the international map for biathlon competition. The foundation also spent $9.4 million to open the Portland Public Market in 1998, looking to revitalize a dreary section of downtown, though that project never attained financial independence from Libra and closed shortly after the foundation sold the building in 2006. The space is now an office building.

AT hiker Cody Leiding at the Lakeshore House in Monson
Chef Marilou Ranta runs The Quarry restaurant in a space leased to her by Libra
Fishing in Lake Hebron

AT hiker Cody Leiding at the Lakeshore House; chef Marilou Ranta runs The Quarry restaurant in a space leased to her by Libra; fishing in Lake Hebron.

For each of these projects, Libra created nonprofit organizations to manage it, then donated money to those nonprofits. It’s taken a similar approach in Monson by setting up Monson Arts to run the residency program. The town’s general store is run by the nonprofit arm of Pineland Farms. In other cases, though, Libra is merely a landlord. It rents a storefront in one of its buildings to a barber and another to a local potter, Jemma Gascoine, who runs a shop, studio, and gallery.

Development types call what Libra does “entrepreneurial philanthropy” — using the tools of the business world to instigate social change. Owen Wells, Libra’s former chief executive officer and now a trustee and vice chairman, puts it more simply: “We do things that we see nobody else is doing.”

“I felt like we’d won the lottery,” says John Wentworth, the furniture mill’s last owner. “I didn’t know if I would live long enough to see the next rebirth, and I have.”

Wells and Denekas began looking for that “thing” in Piscataquis County in 2016. That summer, the four-member Libra staff piled into the foundation’s Jeep Cherokee and headed north on I-95, to what Denekas calls “the forgotten county.” Libra had donated to organizations in the county and was looking to do more. The group thought the foundation might invest in agriculture, so they explored the Dexter and Corinna area, then wound their way past Lake Wassookeag to Parkman and Sangerville, where some farms were for sale. On another trip, they went to Monson to check out some fields along the edge of town. They drove through the downtown on that trip, and like most people, they didn’t stop.

Monson may not have looked like it had ever had a heyday, but it did, thanks to a quirk of geology. Two thick veins of black slate run through town. A local farmer noticed the stone in a field in 1870, and not long after, quarries began to open. A large black-and-white photo of one, as beautiful as it is terrifying, hangs in the tidy offices of Monson Arts. The mine is a dark canyon, its depth only apparent when you realize the specks at the pit’s bottom are men. Another speck is a single miner balancing on one of the narrow ridges that line the quarry walls.

Tara Hall tends flowers outside the Monson General Store.

Tara Hall tends flowers outside the Monson General Store.

The black slate mines of Monson were as dangerous as they looked, but they made the town prosper and grow. The population doubled, to an all-time high of about 1,200 by 1910. Finnish immigrants arrived to work in the quarries, which supplied slate for gravestones, roofing, and electrical board around the world. Swedish immigrants became the town’s shopkeepers and business owners. Alan Bray, a 73-year-old painter who grew up in Monson, remembers community smorgasbords with Swedish meatballs, fermented cucumber, and pullas, the Finnish cardamom rolls that are still standards of any Monson bake sale. Downtown bustled in his youth. Monson was self-sufficient, with a hardware store, appliance store, and doctor’s office.

When the demand for slate collapsed and the last of the quarries closed in the 1940s, the population plummeted by a third. The town rallied and invested in what eventually became Moosehead Furniture. People again had jobs, but they also had better cars and better roads, and they started driving elsewhere, even to Bangor, 60 miles away, to shop. Monson’s downtown was withering, Bray says, even before the furniture mill closed.

“Little by little, the town had become more transient,” he says. “People didn’t take care of their houses. They began to look more and more decrepit.”

A version of Monson’s story played out in many small towns across rural Maine, but Monson was always unique. It was on a much-traveled highway. The Appalachian Trail brought a steady stream of hikers through town, which lent a touch of worldliness. The area drew some artists: the painter Carl Sprinchorn made several sojourns to Monson during the first half of the 20th century, and his friend Marsden Hartley spent part of the fall of 1939 in the area, sketching Katahdin. From the mid-1950s until her death in 1991, the famed American photographer Berenice Abbott lived in a roomy, clapboarded house along the Piscataquis River, just down the road in Blanchard. Lots of famous people visited her, including Jacqueline Onassis, who flew into Greenville on a private plane.

Wells, a longtime art collector, owned a few of Abbott’s photographs. The same summer the Libra crew was hunting for a Piscataquis project, Wells and his wife spent a weekend golfing near Greenville. On the drive home, Wells looked for Abbott’s house, with no luck. Back in Portland, he made some calls and learned that an artist who had printed Abbott’s photographs still lived in Blanchard, right next to her old house. Wells found a number for Todd Watts and dialed.

AT lodgers at the Lakeshore House
Rebekah Anderson, owner of the Lakeshore House
artist Anna Hepler, of Greenfield, Massachusetts, works on a sculpture at Monson Arts

AT lodgers at the Lakeshore House; Rebekah Anderson, owner of the Lakeshore House; artist Anna Hepler, of Greenfield, Massachusetts, works on a sculpture at Monson Arts.

“A very grumpy man answered,” Wells says. Still, the two men talked for over an hour, mostly about Abbott. Before they hung up, Wells told Watts he wanted to come up to discuss an idea he had.

“Three days later, this fancy car pulls up into my driveway unannounced,” Watts says, “and two guys who appear to have on handmade suits get out. It wasn’t hard to figure out it was Owen and Craig.”

What Wells had in mind was an artist residency program, maybe in Dover-Foxcroft or Greenville. Watts suggested they look at Monson instead. The town was a scale where they could easily do something big, he told them, and it had the Appalachian Trail, the lake, and a mildly artsy heritage. The duo was unconvinced, but when Wells and Denekas came back for a second meeting, Watts took them to the town’s abandoned elementary school, a sizable structure on Main Street that could easily house artist studios. The price tag was $80,000. And it was far from the only piece of real estate for sale in Monson.

“That’s the bigger vision for me,” Dan Bouthot says, “to see Monson exist as an ecosystem.”

So in late 2016, Libra bought building after building, several of them for less than $100,000, including one known locally as “the rat’s nest.” After the spring melt in 2017, the construction crews went to work.

“I felt like we’d won the lottery,” says Monson resident John Wentworth, the furniture mill’s last owner. “I didn’t know if I would live long enough to see the next rebirth, and I have.”

A few months ago, on the first truly fine summer day of the year, the Suits came north to check on Libra’s final wave of building. They stopped in Dover-Foxcroft, where they’ve erected an ice arena to restart a regional youth hockey program, which had shut down. Foxcroft Academy will manage the arena, which is designed for any ice event, from figure skating to curling. In Monson, as they waved blackflies from their faces, they toured a turn-of-the-20th-century storefront being reworked into roomy artists’ studios, some of which overlook the lake. The studios were originally in the old school, but that is now being converted into a health center. Libra has offered Northern Lights hospital network free rent to bring in resident doctors and dentists, as well as an optometrist on a rotating basis.

Randy Bickford, center, fishes with his daughter Eva, 5, left, and son Layne, 8, right, on Lake Hebron on Main Street

Fishing on Lake Hebron, right off Main Street.

“What happens when there is no dentist and people don’t have a car?” Denekas asks. “They pull their own teeth out.”

Denekas’s fine business attire might make him stand out in town, but there’s nothing formal about his demeanor. A Midwesterner by birth, he uses words like “skedaddle” and chomps with relish into his pulled pork sandwich at the town’s BBQ joint. Bray says that when the town held a meeting to decide whether to sell the school to Libra, one resident asked plainspoken Denekas if the town could still use the building. He said no, because Libra wasn’t sure yet how it would use it, and he didn’t want to make promises he couldn’t keep. The locals, Bray says, liked his honesty.

“That’s what you say to people in a town like this,” Bray says. “The vote was 70 to 4. Jesus couldn’t get 70 to 4 in this county.”

That same honesty unnerves some, though, to hear Rebekah Anderson tell it. As her neighbors have watched their town transform over the past two years, she says, they’ve often wanted Libra’s staff to explain their plans at town meetings, but the foundation’s staff doesn’t always know their plans — and says so. They have yet to decide, for instance, what to do with a wooded corner lot with a pond, along the north end of Main Street. Libra spent months prying trees and bushes out of an abandoned farm just outside of town, but staffers haven’t decided how they will use that either. They also don’t have a time frame for how long Libra will pour money into the town — for a long time, Denekas says, but “not forever.”

What Denekas does know is the organization’s goal: to keep residents from moving away and to attract new residents, ideally millennials, which in turn could create jobs. But what would make millennials, or anyone for that matter, move here? Denekas doesn’t pretend to know the answer, and he admits an artist residency is not a standard economic- development tool — that what Libra is doing in Monson is to some degree an experiment. The hope for the residency program is that the artists will not only give the downtown vitality, adding some year-round foot traffic, but that they’ll also become town ambassadors. When they return home, they’ll spread the word about the little town on the lake with inexpensive real estate. This summer, Monson Arts partnered with the Rhode Island School of Design to bring in furniture- and industrial-design students, with the idea that they might somehow reinvigorate the town’s furniture-making tradition on a small scale.

Traffic flows down Main Street in Monson, Maine

“The whole point was, what can we do today?” Denekas says. “Let’s buy some property and see what comes of it. Activity begets activity. We don’t know if it will work, but we hope it will.”

“I’m looking forward to the day someone decides to stay and open a business,” says Dan Bouthot, the residency’s program manager. “That’s the bigger vision for me, to see Monson exist as an ecosystem.”

Bouthot is, in fact, the first millennial to move to Monson because of Libra’s efforts. He and his wife, who is pregnant, moved to Monson in the spring of 2017 for his job, which came with one of Libra’s rent-free refurbished houses. The Deer Isle native had migrated to the West Coast for a graduate degree in fine arts with an emphasis on social activism. Now, he is living “his art,” so to speak, by helping revive a town.

Libra also kept one millennial from leaving. When the Suits came to town, 29-year-old Lucas Butler, the then-town manager, was planning to move. Then, Libra hired him to manage all the construction projects, so he and his wife stayed put. “I can’t wait for the next census,” he says.

That will be next year, far too soon to know whether Libra’s experiment in Monson is working — if this is the reinvention, if people will move here, if tourists will bother to stop. That will likely take years. For now, though, there’s reason to hope where there wasn’t before.