A week ago Saturday, I drove to Bowdoinham to gather information about the town for today’s Explore feature in the Sun-Journal’s b-section. Things went much better than I anticipated.
It’s not as if I thought that Bowdoinham wouldn’t offer up interesting things to write about. No, last Saturday, I was in a pissy (see definition #2) mood, running on fumes after a long week. Actually, when I walked out the door committed to spending a few hours dredging up details for my story, I was dreading leaving the warmth of the wood stove and going out into the bleak, dreary November cold. I also know that this type of writing about local communities demands (if done well) putting boots on the ground in order to connect with the sense of the place.
This is my seventh Explore feature. The town of Wilton was my first one back in May. Seven is a number that comes up in my writing and in my latest book of essays—it is the “perfect number,” after all.
Since beginning these monthly profiles on various Maine communities, I’ve posted bonus content from each of the towns I’ve written about. This additional content serves as a bookend to what is published in the Sunday b-section. I also get to add a few more thoughts in the first-person that the conventions of journalism don’t permit.
The context of these stories about Maine towns requires me to pigeonhole a handful of locals willing to tell me something about their town that someone like me, visiting their town for the very first time, should be sure not to miss. This might be a physical setting, some natural feature, a historical building, etc. While most of the time, local residents have been gracious and accommodating, there have been a few instances when locals offered little more than I was able to dig out myself, doing a little preliminary research. One of my recent visits presented a host of people that were happy to talk about their town, but not willing to be quoted in print. Sorry, that won’t work for me—I have to quote you in the article—that’s the point! That one particular story forced me to go way beyond the usual 2-3 hours in a place.
Perhaps my aversion to going to out to bet my story was colored by that experience. Not to worry—Bowdoinham might be the friendliest little town in Maine!
My very first act of reaching out to the town was by way of a phone call, driving up I-295 out of Topsham. I picked a name off the town’s website—the equivalent of throwing darts, really—and I hit a bulls-eye, or pretty darn close. David Whittlesey knew his town, was enthusiastic about it, and gave me multiple leads of other people to talk to and places to touch down, once I jumped off at interstate exit 37.
You can read my feature online, or even better, you should turn to the back page of the b-section and see the feature in the format where it looks best—in print. There’s a reason why I attempt to get a few photos for each one of these stories, mainly to add some visuals to my narrative. There’s more to that story too, mainly that I had to go back and re-shoot my photos, because my shots from the week before were so darn gray and bleak. I tweaked my camera settings and tried to find some color on my return visit on Tuesday, which was also overcast. No one balked at having me get a few more photos. They were just as accommodating on Tuesday as they had been on the previous Saturday
If you’ve read my writing before, you probably know of my passion for small towns and that people and place matter. Not all places are created equal, either.
As small towns go, Bowdoinham is a cut above. People care about their community, and it was apparent in talking with people like Kate Cutko, the town’s librarian, and Lynn Spiro, who settled in Bowdoinham more than a decade ago, and runs the Town Landing Restaurant.
Bowdoinham used to build ships, and harvest ice from the Kennebec, Cathance, and the other rivers emptying into Merrymeeting Bay. The railroad once had been a key factor in getting the town above the 2,000 mark for population (it now sits just below 3,000).
Today, the residents of the town have reinvented themselves. Farming, which has always been part of the town’s past, is key element for sustainability and being resilient. But so are the arts, and a host of other factors. Location is something that’s important, also.
Many small towns are struggling. In Maine, we have an aging population, fights over equitable taxation, and a host of other issues, making small town life tenuous in some places.
What I was particularly taken with in Bowdoinham is that it is a place that has a sense of where it’s been, and where it’s headed to. People are genuinely proud of their town and its heritage. Also, they seem to care about one another and have the ability to come together around a number of civic causes. Intentional friendships, mixed with substantial social capital shows that in Bowdoinham, the future looks bright.