In the Shadow of Sugarloaf, A Ski Town Turned Summer Place

Kingfield no longer slumbers after the skiers have gone.

By Michael D. Burke
Photographs by Alan Lavallee
From our June 2013 issue

Dedicated skiers whose home mountain is Sugarloaf might be forgiven for thinking of Kingfield as merely the last place to pick up supplies or get gas, or a place to slow down for the gentle curve (but no stop light) through town as they make their way to the mountain. Indeed, on winter Sunday afternoons, traffic descending from Sugarloaf through Kingfield is, as one resident has described it, “wall to wall.”

But unlike other ski towns, Kingfield doesn’t close up in summer, doesn’t become a dusty ghost town of shuttered shops with “Think Snow” stickers peeling off the front doors. Or at least it doesn’t now, though it might have ten years ago. That’s because Kingfield seems to be blessed with a surprising number of active, enthusiastic residents who, even in the face of economic decline, refused to let the town slip into that hypnagogic state that many small towns succumb to: awake, but barely.

Over the last ten years, Kingfield, building on its obvious charms, has started to reinvent itself as a summer place, a place people come to rather than pass through, a place where things are beginning, rather than ending.

Once a vibrant farming and lumbering community with a half-dozen wood mills, Kingfield nurtured both William King, the first governor of Maine, after whom the town is named, and the Stanley family, icons of invention, including the steam automobile, improvements in photographic equipment, and even in violin making. In the mid-seventies, Sugarloaf became a destination ski area, and a ripple effect of retail businesses and condominium construction spread from the mountain south to Kingfield. By the late eighties there were several impressive restaurants and a few stately inns.

About twenty years ago the economic picture began to change. Lumbering slowed, farming was no longer an enterprise that could sustain a family, and Sugarloaf had to a large degree been developed, so there was less demand for construction work. Four wood mills closed, and the available occupations for young people steadily dwindled. Jobs were leaving, and residents weren’t far behind.

But Kingfield has always had one very important thing going for it: location, location, location. As you approach along Route 27 from the south, at a spot about a half mile out of town, you see not only the town ahead, but a wall of mountains behind, mountains that Kingfield is the gateway to. To the right is a broad, long field, a flood plain of the Carrabassett River, which flows past on the other side of the field.

As you enter town you sink into a narrow road bordered by classic, old Maine houses, by a river-stone wall on one side, a river-stone porch on the other, by lilacs and pines. Then you’re downtown, one of the few wooden-structure villages in Maine that hasn’t burnt and been rebuilt. You might notice the roofs, which are steep and of standing-seam metal to shed snow. It feels like, and is, an old downtown, a holdover from the century before, and even the century before that. The downtown spreads about a block in every direction from the Z-shaped intersection of Routes 27, 142, and 16; compact, in other words, but enough to sustain a community.

Kingfield has a collection of beautiful old homes (more than two hundred properties with historic value were recently catalogued for possible inclusion in a historic district), the mandatory small-town parade; a watering trough in the center of town on the edge of Route 27 that the town is resolute about not moving; a handful of places to get a meal, including Longfellow’s (no poetry, but solid fare); and not a single tattoo parlor.

More important is that Kingfield now is home to an annual and very popular outdoor concert series, a one-day arts festival in addition to a monthly art walk, a unique hut-to-hut trail organization, an innovative cultural organization, four art galleries (that’s one for every 275 residents), and two museums: the Ski Museum of Maine, and another devoted to the Stanley family.

Kingfield POPS, started in 2002, was the first step in the town’s reinvention. Another important stage occurred in early 2011, with the development of a Village Concept Enhancement Plan, which is now being implemented with the help of a part-time economic development director. With five goals and seven projects, the plan is ambitious, and one can see the seeds, if not the fruit, all around town. Yet the plan is only part of the story of Kingfield; changes and innovations are everywhere.

On an absurdly hot day in late June, I bring my visiting Iowa in-laws up the hill to Kingfield, a town they’ll like, I tell them. We have to park beside the road well outside of town to the north and walk back into the center. I have been coming to Kingfield for more than twenty-five years, and I have never seen so many people there. The little green space at the intersection of Depot Street and Routes 27/16 is filled with vendor tents and food stalls, and the town is alive with wanderers. We wander through town with the rest, stopping into the Stanley Museum, with its exhibit of beautiful old Stanley Steamers, and the First Baptist Church, which has a quilt display; past book sales and a petting yard. There are kids jumping off the bridge over the Carrabassett into a deep pool behind an old check-dam, like something from a Norman Rockwell painting.

This is the Festival of the Arts, an outgrowth of the Kingfield POPS concert, to which we are headed next. After a few successful POPS years, the downtown businesses noted that concertgoers weren’t stopping on the way to the concert, held slightly out of town, so another committee created the festival to give visitors a reason to dwell. This becomes a refrain in the song of Kingfield, as one committee after another takes charge of an idea and brings it to life.

Later, we find a spot at the back end of a carefully mowed, sloping field on the Kennedy Farm on Route 142, just outside Kingfield. Before the music starts we can admire Mount Abram and Spaulding Mountain, Black Nubble, a bit of Sugarloaf, Burnt Mountain and Vose Mountain in a west-to-east row. We watch the field fill with people, with coolers and blankets and picnic baskets and wine; watch kids run around and a line form at a food truck for lobster rolls and burgers. I see people from all over Franklin County, people I’ve known for decades, who tell me they come every year, that it’s one of the features of their summers. It’s like a mini-Tanglewood, without the parking problem.

When I first heard about the Kingfield POPS, when it was proposed eleven years ago, I thought it was a terrible idea: Kingfield, lovely though it may be, is up in the hills, and in summer those places are subject to rain, wind, and thunderstorms. The chances that they could get through a full afternoon and evening, in June, outdoors, without one of those pestilences, seemed extremely unlikely. As usual, I was wrong.

Gradually the sun begins to slide behind the hills, and we are rescued from the heat. The music begins with a high school fiddling group, then a folk duo, then fiddler Erica Brown, and finally Noel Paul Stookey, once of Peter, Paul and Mary, backed by the Bangor Symphony Orchestra. No wind, no rain, no thunderstorms. Like Tanglewood, only sweeter.

Vici Robinson, a vice president of the POPS organization, was involved with it from the beginning. The impetus? “Economic development,” she says. “We had all of this winter infrastructure — it seemed a shame not to find some use for it.”

“Economic development” is the answer to every question about why one thing or another came to be in town. It is number two on a list of five goals in the village plan. Yet number one is “to create a safe, pedestrian-centered village,” and number three is “to create gathering places for the community.” In short, enrichment in addition to economics. As Robinson says, “The mission of the POPS expanded from economic development to bringing the community together.”

She proudly points out that, despite budget cuts in public schools all over Maine, the local school district (MSAD 58) doubled its budget commitment to the music program recently, spurred on by the POPS effect.

Another recent creation for which Kingfield is becoming known is the Maine Huts & Trails system. Not long after the POPS concert, I was at the Poplar Falls Hut, north of Kingfield along Route 27. The hut is not a long hike (2.4 miles from the trailhead), but you feel pretty removed from everything, perched on a hill, crowded by trees, quiet.

The headquarters are in Kingfield, and the visionaries were Kingfield residents or from nearby. According to Cynthia Orcutt, one of the many movers and shakers in town (it sometimes seems as though everyone in Kingfield is a mover or a shaker), the idea was to “encourage people to come visit western Maine and let them see it in an environmentally sensitive way.” Supported by a host of Maine-based companies, the nonprofit organization set out to promote development for the region in this innovative manner. “Ten or fifteen years ago, when the mills began closing, and the restaurants (followed), we could see what was happening. We knew our future lay in outdoor recreation.”

There are four huts in the Maine Huts & Trails system now; Poplar was the first. Each of the huts is beautiful on its own, and the concept — a Maine version of the European tradition of hut-to-hut hiking and skiing — is a lovely one. The huts share a certain “mountain lodge-chalet-Maine camp” aesthetic, and each one has a main lodge with the dining area, showers, and library, and separate bunkhouses. They are not spartan, but they are not hotels, either. And in every case you have to walk or ski or snowshoe or maybe paddle to get there.

Orcutt and her husband, John, a nature photographer, moved to Kingfield in 2008 after being drawn to the area, as so many people are, by Sugarloaf. In 2010 they opened the Schoolhouse Gallery in an 1874 Italianate-style building that was the town’s first primary school, making it a space for both gorgeous fine art photographs of local scenes mounted on canvas and for Cynthia’s project selling locally assembled handbags.

Their gallery faces the small open space where the carts and tents for the arts festival were set up. Even this tiny patch is subject to the innovative attentions of the town. The goals of the village plan were converted into seven specific projects, ranging from “traffic calming” (as Orcutt puts it, Kingfield is currently “hostage to eighteen-wheelers”) to three parks, a walking loop, and developing a property that will house fitness, senior, community, and library activities. And the plan calls for converting this open space into a village green, complete with gazebo, all in time for Kingfield’s bicentennial in 2016.

“Kingfield sees the value in the creative economy. The town has a vested interest in arts and culture,” says Saskia Reinholt, an artist and graduate of the nearby University of Maine at Farmington, who came to Kingfield in 2008 after living in Hawaii for several years. Reinholt, one of fifteen members of the High Peaks Artisans Guild at Reinholt Gallery, finds “tons of collaboration among the different organizations in town. And in our shop, we’ve seen sales grow every year.”

Reinholt was a driving force behind the High Peaks Cultural Council’s recent successful effort seeking a $50,000 Maine Arts Commission grant to create a ninety-six-mile “art loop” in the High Peaks region (so called because it contains ten of Maine’s fourteen 4,000-foot peaks). The idea is to expand the area’s creative economy and combine it with outdoor recreation. So the artists and the gallery owners and librarians and shopkeepers are joining hands with the hikers and paddlers and fishermen.

Two months after the POPS concert, as my wife and I enjoy a post-dinner stroll through the sweet air and gathering dusk in the center of Kingfield, it seems as though the town is a model of how to do everything right when residents set out to save their town, and not just to save it, but make it a living, livable place. Later, I ask Orcutt how this came to be, whether it is a response to a crisis or the happy result of having creative people in town. “Neither, really,” she says. “It was because people want to live here. It’s a gorgeous place to live, and they do what they can to make it work. Everyone does what they know best — whether it’s outdoor recreation or music or art — to make it work.”

Michael Burke is a professor of English at Colby College and the author of The Same River Twice.