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Little Places in Maine
That Were Something
And Became Nothing

By Lawrence Biemiller

KINGFIELD, MAINE -- The whole point was to visit the Wire Bridge, but -- as Gwilym Roberts said at the afternoon's end -- "We never did get very far out of the southern end of the county, did we?" That's where his wife's people are from, the southern end of Franklin County, Maine, down around North Chesterville and Chesterville and Mount Vernon. Mr. Roberts knows that end of the county pretty well -- better, say, than he knows the territory up around New Portland, where the Wire Bridge carries a dirt road over the sparkling Carrabassett and into the empty woods.

"A lot of nice scenery and the remains of towns -- that's so much of what Franklin County is," Mr. Roberts had said soon after lunch, heading out of Farmington, the county seat, on Bailey Hill Road. "There were 23,000 people in the county when the Civil War broke out, and then in the years after it the population fell to 17,000. It took 100 years to get back up to 23,000."

Gwil Roberts himself is from over in Brownville, north and a little west of Bangor -- another part of Maine altogether. But his wife's people, they're Keiths. North Chesterville used to be called Keith's Mill, but it was pronounced "Keth's." Mr. Roberts's wife -- her name is Patricia -- used to come to North Chesterville to visit Grammy Lovejoy. His wife's aunt, she married Uncle Jimmy Walton. He had a place farther south, right on the Franklin County line, with a pasture that snuck down into Kennebec County. "Uncle Jimmy Walton sold eggs in Livermore Falls, and kept cattle, and a pig or two," Mr. Roberts said. "Never spent much, tucked a little away when they could. Waltons came to this farm in the 1790's and lived on it almost 200 years. Lincoln Walton -- he was an uncle of Jimmy Walton's -- Lincoln Walton lived to be over 100. Didn't believe in expending extra energy, so he never shoveled his path. He just put up sticks to mark where to trample the snow. When he died he left $300,000 to the Town of Mount Vernon to reduce the tax rate."

At 76, Mr. Roberts seems more storyteller than emeritus professor of history, and any tour of Franklin County that he can be talked into giving is a tour not to be missed, a real-life travelogue of towns so small that any three of them together muster fewer residents than a good-sized city apartment building. New Portland and the Wire Bridge, by the way, are in Somerset County, some 25 miles north of Uncle Jimmy Walton's place. What with riding past Grammy Lovejoy's, and looking for a blueberry field Mr. Roberts hadn't visited in a quarter-century, and stopping at Baptist churches and cemeteries and the general store in Mount Vernon -- well, the tour just never got any farther north than Weeks Mills all afternoon.

"Weeks Mills kind of fascinates me," Mr. Roberts said, turning down the dirt road that leads to it. "The county map for 1861 shows all these houses radiating out from the mill. My wife's grandfather used to run the mill, which sawed logs. It was right here," he said, stopping on a tiny bridge. No trace of the mill could be seen; up the road were two half-collapsed houses.

A few moments later Mr. Roberts got out of the car beside a small building with granite steps and lovely brick arches around its windows. On the other side of the glass, all was dust and peeling wallpaper. "This is the old Free Will Baptist Church," he said. "Two doors -- one for men, one for women." Mr. Roberts headed across the road to the leaf-strewn cemetery. "At one time all these people lived right around here," he said, looking out over the headstones. A few stood straight; most leaned this way or that. "The saying here," he added, affecting a Maine accent as thick as cold maple syrup, "is, `Tilts a little toward Sawyers, doesn't it?' I have no idea where `Sawyers' comes from. Or, as my father used to say, `That's a little more than plum, isn't it?'"

Back in the car, Mr. Roberts returned to county history. "Originally the people all around here were subsistence farmers. About the only things they bought were nails and salt." Then, in the 1850's, the arrival of the railroad linked Franklin County's economy with that of the rest of the country, and local farmers found themselves competing with farmers in regions that had longer growing seasons and rock-free soil. "They couldn't compete. The population of New Sharon dropped from 1,800 to 600. Salem lost six-sevenths of its population. We're always aware of all these little places that were something and became nothing."

Mr. Roberts came to Franklin County in 1934 to enroll in the Farmington Normal School, now the University of Maine at Farmington; tuition at Farmington Normal was half what it was at the state university over in Orono. Eventually he went on to the university for a B.A. in education, majoring in science and math even though history was his first love. Back then many Maine high schools had only three teachers -- a principal, who taught math and science; a basketball coach, who taught history; and a woman, who taught Latin and English. Mr. Roberts was sure he didn't want to coach and thought he might like to become a principal, so it made sense to major in science and math.

Mr. Roberts's own people were Welsh. His grandfather came over to quarry the slate that runs in a long vein across Maine and over into Vermont and New York, both of which had large Welsh populations. The doctoral thesis that Mr. Roberts started years ago -- 1949, in fact, after he had gone to Wales on a Fulbright -- is about the Welsh who came to Vermont and how they created a sense of community for themselves. Although he's been retired from the Farmington campus these past 12 years -- there's even a building there named for him -- for various reasons Mr. Roberts hasn't finished the dissertation yet. This hasn't proved a hindrance so far: The university used to let you become a full professor if you had completed 60 hours of graduate work beyond your master's degree, and Mr. Roberts had. He taught history, and sometimes sociology and occasionally economics, for 43 years. In those days, Mr. Roberts likes to say, "at a small college a professor didn't occupy a chair, he occupied a settee."

Mr. Roberts was dean of arts and humanities for 11 years, but his fondest memories are of teaching. "The first 24 years I was here, there were no more than 500 students enrolled, and every one of them had to take my U.S. history survey. I got to know three or four thousand students fairly well." After he retired he ran for the legislature and won, but he didn't enjoy public office as much as he had expected to. Now he's a volunteer for the alumni office, keeping track of people and running the alumni travel program. This past summer he led a tour to Russia.

In search of a particular schoolhouse he remembered, Mr. Roberts stopped to ask directions. "Yup -- couple of former students of mine," he said when he got back in the car. "This is Zion Hill. Deacon Sewell lived up here. He was a strict Calvinist, and once he came home from a preaching trip to find his 3-year-old daughter very sick. He went to the swamp for herbs, and he sent to Hallowell for the doctor, but soon he realized that the little girl wasn't going to make it. And he knew she would be eternally damned because she hadn't been saved. He woke up her brothers and sisters to watch her die, and he told them they had to realize that their God was a just God." The schoolhouse seemed to have vanished, so Mr. Roberts headed up Tower Road toward a cemetery whose tree-trunk-shaped headstones he particularly liked. "Ellis B. Cook," one said, "Cut Down Aug 10 1881 t 25."

However stern history's lessons, Mr. Roberts absorbs and imparts them cheerfully. "I've never gotten tired of researching," he said as he headed back into Farmington on U.S. 2. "Every time I read old newspapers for an hour or two, I find something interesting that I ought to know more about. I don't know that many people have had much more fun with a career than I've had." Back home, he pointed out the afternoon's route on an 1838 map of Chesterville, and then said goodbye at his kitchen door.

An hour later, outside New Portland, the Wire Bridge stood in elegant silhouette against day's fading light. It was built in 1866, a single-lane suspension bridge that linked New Vineyard and New Portland with the road to Kingfield. To people familiar with its progeny -- the Brooklyn Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge -- its shingle-covered wooden towers and plank roadbed seem picturesque, but in its day it represented the cutting edge of bridge design.

All the more reason to have puzzled for years over what it was doing joining two halves of a dirt road in Franklin County, Maine. No doubt the answer lies in being aware of places that, as Mr. Roberts said, "were something and became nothing." Dotted lines on the map mark roads beyond the bridge that have fallen out of use, faded from memory. The bridge itself, too well built to collapse and too beautiful to demolish, has outlived everything around it except the gurgling river it spans. It makes you think.

The Wire Bridge

The Wire Bridge, New Portland, Maine


Copyright (c) 1993, 1995 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc. http://chronicle.com Title: Little Places in Maine Published: 93/11/03

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