BikeMaine 2017 begins in Skowhegan, a town settled along the Kennebec River in 1771, but inhabited for thousands of years before that by Native Americans. Situated halfway between the river’s headwaters at Moosehead Lake and the head of the tide below Augusta, the island located in the middle of the river served as an east/west crossroads during Native Americans’ annual migrations from northern hunting grounds in winter to coastal Maine in summer. The valley surrounding the river was a rich source of furs and fish, timber and cropland, and in 1691, was claimed as part of the Province of Massachusetts Bay by William and Mary, the joint monarchs of England, Scotland and Ireland. Pilgrims from the Massachusetts Colony began setting up trading posts with Native Americans in the region, providing the Pilgrims with an opportunity to secure a settlement and establish property rights.
The first English settlers of the region around Skowhegan were a small group of pioneers from southern Massachusetts, who arrived in 1771 and settled on the nine-acre island two miles south of the Great Eddy of the Kennebec. The island, cleared of trees by Native Americans over many centuries, proved to be fertile for growing crops, and the Weston and Heyward families quickly began expanding their settlement of the region.
On October 4, 1775, Colonel Benedict Arnold and 1200 troops of the Colonial Army arrived in Skowhegan on their way to capture the British fort in Quebec City and, if things went well, win the province from Britain for the colonial cause. Joseph Weston and his sons volunteered to help the army move upriver over the waterfalls. Following the crossing, Joseph Weston came down with a fever and died, making him one of the first American patriots to give his life for the new nation. Skowhegan offers many opportunities to explore history, and more information can be found at the Skowhegan History House, located at 66 Elm Street.
Skowhegan-born Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to serve in both houses of the United States Congress and to be placed in nomination for the presidency, is best remembered for standing up to the tactics of McCarthyism in 1950. The Margaret Chase Smith Library in Skowhegan houses the political papers, documents, honors, photographs and memorabilia stemming from Senator Smith’s 32-year congressional career.
Manufacturing has been the major economic driver for Skowhegan, with products including paper, wool, wood, and shoes. Today, the major employers in Skowhegan include Sappi Fine Paper, New Balance, Gifford’s Famous Ice Cream, Skowhegan Savings Bank, and Redington-Fairview General Hospital. Skowhegan also has become an agricultural hub and is home to a year-round farmers’ market, two craft breweries, an orchard, farms, a CSA, and restaurants that serve local harvest.
Fueling Skowhegan’s agricultural rebirth are locally sourced grains. Where Maine was once the breadbasket of New England and supplied the Union Army with all of the grain needed during the Civil War, by the start of the 21st century, Maine’s grain production had declined to less than 1% of its own population’s grain needs. A decade ago, a group of Skowhegan residents interested in the local food movement decided to reverse that trend. In 2007, they organized the first Annual Kneading Conference, a conference that brings together “the diverse stakeholders who collectively can rebuild lost infrastructure and create demand for local and regional grain systems – farmers, millers, bakers, chefs, wheat researchers…” The Kneading Conference was the impetus for start-ups amongst a growing cluster of grain-related businesses: including Maine Grains, Somerset Grist Mill, Bigelow Brewing, The Bankery, and The Maine Barkery. What started as a group of people talking about local grain production has morphed into the Maine Grain Alliance, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to preserve and promote grain traditions from earth to hearth. The Alliance runs the annual Kneading Conference and the Maine Artisan Bread Fair, a free fair dedicated solely to “Real Bread” that features 65 vendors and attracts more than 2500 attendees.
Skowhegan also has a burgeoning arts scene, with 20-plus artworks by renowned Maine artist Bernard Langlais, several additional pieces of public art, and an art gallery. Skowhegan is home to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, a nine-week intensive summer artists’ residency that was started in 1946 by New England portrait painter Willard C. Cummings on his family farm. Ten minutes away is Lakewood Theater, one of America’s oldest and most famous summer theaters.
September 10 – Day 1 – Skowhegan to Pittsfield
Elevation Gain: 2034
After saddling up and heading out of fairgrounds, we travel the back streets of Skowhegan and take a quick spin on busy Route 2, before settling into a steady cadence on quiet roads. Today’s route is the flattest of the week, giving us a chance to settle in and enjoy the scenery. We cross Wesserunsett Stream on a bridge, near a popular pull out for those traveling the stream by kayak or canoe from Athens, a town located 18 miles upstream. A right turn onto East River Road heads us south along the Kennebec River for the next 10 miles. The Kennebec River rises from Moosehead Lake and flows south 150 miles to the Atlantic Ocean. “Kennebec” is Algonquian for “long, quiet water” and describes the stretch of river below Augusta. Samuel de Champlain explored the river in 1604 and 1605.
At one time, the Kennebec River and Edwards Dam, built on the river in 1837, combined to furnish hydropower at Bingham, Skowhegan, Waterville, and Gardiner. The dam was demolished in 1999, reopening an upstream stretch of the river to spawning ground for Atlantic salmon and short-nosed sturgeon. The Kennebec River was once the major method of transporting wood to the mills. Because so many owners moved their lumber on the river, each owner branded his logs for identification.
The large paper plant across the river from us in Skowhegan is Somerset Mill, owned by Sappi North America. With its 750 employees, the Somerset Mill is an integrated pulp and papermaking operation that manufactures coated free sheet papers (made from pulp that is “cooked” and chemically treated to eliminate impurities), greaseproof packaging papers and bleached chemical pulp. Earlier this year, the company undertook a $165 million capital improvement to one of its 3 paper machines in order to increase the annual production capacity at this mill to one million tons of graphic paper. The project is to be completed in early 2018.
At approximately mile 10 on today’s route, we come to the village of Pishon’s Ferry in Clinton. The village was named for Charles Pishon, who came to Maine from France in the late 1700’s and established a ferry crossing at the spot where there now stands a bridge into Hinckley. In 1870, Pishon’s Ferry was the site of a massive log jam.
Clinton is the dairy capital of Maine, due to its 7 dairy farms that are responsible for producing about 15% of Maine’s milk. The first dairy farm we pass on River Road is the 1000-acre Caverly Farm. Started in the 1940s, Caverly Farm began as a small 4-H project for the family. They now have 400 milking cows and 550 young stock comprise primarily of Holstein and Ayrshires. The Caverlys grow their own corn and hay to feed the herd in their free stall barn. The family is very receptive to visitors, always willing to give a tour showing how the cows are milked.
As we turn onto Tardiff Road, we pass through the Flood Brothers’ 4600-acre farm. The Flood family has been farming these fields for more than 200 years. This is the largest dairy farm in the state, producing about a third of the milk coming out of Clinton. Milking 1,700 head of mostly Holstein (there’s a total of 3,900 cows on the farm), the farm sends out 15,000 gallons of milk daily. The farm has a milking parlor with a 100-cow milking rotary. Averaging 5 to 6 turns per hour, the rotary is able to milk the entire herd in three and a half hours. Cows on the farm are collared with ID tags that are read by scanners. The scanner tags allow workers to keep track of every cow. If a cow’s behavior is off, another scanner will locate her as she walks through the chutes back to the barn, a gate will close, and the cow will be separated from the herd so that she can be checked.
After passing under Maine’s major interstate highway, Route 95, we enter Clinton’s downtown. Clinton is home to approximately 3,500 people. The town was originally incorporated under the name of Maine in 1848. Because the address “Maine, Maine” was confusing, however, the name was changed the following year to Clinton, in honor of New York Governor DeWitt Clinton.
Leaving town, we encounter gentle climbs through farm country, then hook a right onto Johnson Flat Road. Although there is some intermittent broken pavement, most of this aptly named road is in good shape and slightly downhill. Passing under Route 95 and over the Sebasticook River, we enter Burnham.
Burnham was first settled in 1795, when the land was still a part of Massachusetts. Incorporated in 1824 as the 256th Maine town, it was named for Dr. Rufus Burnham, who lived in nearby Unity and was the local physician. In the early days, the town was divided into districts and each district had its own school, serving children in grades 1-8, with one teacher per school. At one time Burnham had 10 school districts. In the 1800s, agriculture and lumbering were the main source of income for residents in the area. The town had several factories to make a variety of products, including pants, butter, cheese, barrel hoops and medicines. Frank Mitchell built the Maine Chair Company in 1922. It employed twenty people. It had several different names throughout the years, last of all Ethan Allen Inc. It closed its doors in November 1990, leaving over one hundred people unemployed.
In 2001, Pride Manufacturing Company, the world’s largest manufacturer of wooden golf tees, purchased the chair factory building, and began making golf tees there. The company’s annual revenues top $115 million, and the Burnham plant now employs 120 people.
We cross Twenty-Five Mile Stream on our way into Unity. When originally settled by Quakers, the town was known as Twenty-Five Mile Pond Plantation, because it was adjacent to a pond located 25 miles from Fort Halifax in Winslow. The name was changed to Unity upon its incorporation in 1804. The town sits at the edge of Unity Pond, known originally as Lake Winnecook. Today, Unity is best known for being the home to Unity College and Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association who hold the annual Common Ground Fair. Unity also is home to one of Maine’s three Amish communities (the other two being in Smyrna and Fort Fairfield).
We ride along the southwest side of Unity Pond, stopping in town for lunch at Unity Community Center for a lunch prepared by the Unity Barn Raisers, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting downtown vitality, rural vitality, and community health and wellness.
After lunch, we immediately pass the Unity Historical Society, with its 3 fine examples of Forest Hart bronze sculptures in the yard. Forest Hart is a Maine native living in Monroe. From his earliest years, Forest was drawn to nature and wildlife. He trained with Howard Casey at the Carnegie Museum of Pennsylvania, learning advanced taxidermy, mold making, and sculpture. After an initial career as a taxidermist, Hart turned to making life-size sculptures from bronze. His works can be found throughout the country and around the world. Sculptures of moose, deer and bear were donated to the Unity Historical Society and can be seen on the right as we pass through the town. On the layover day, riders will have the opportunity to see two other Hart sculptures, Three Little Rascals and Deer Alert, located in front of the Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum in Oquossoc Village.
As we leave town, we pass “Field of Dreams,” a former hayfield developed in the 1990s by local philanthropists Bert and Coral Clifford for the local children and later gifted to Unity College to maintain. We continue with the circumnavigation of Unity Pond, then head northeast through Troy. We cross the Sebasticook River from Detroit into Pittsfield on the Peltoma Bridge, once the source of great controversy. According to records in the Pittsfield Historical Society, the bridge was constructed in 1888. After completion, the costs were to be shared proportionally by the two towns but then Detroit opposed its assessment:
The argument became very bitter and came to a head when an act of seizure was instigated by the town of Pittsfield in an effort to bring Detroit to terms. Certain pieces of property were taken from individuals in lieu of the assessment, including some cattle belonging to William Young, a well-to-do farmer of that village. The property was eventually returned, but only after threats and counter threats had been hotly made. When it was over, feelings still ran high and the town of Detroit held a special town meeting at which it was voted to never trade in Pittsfield again.
We traverse Big Meadow Bog, an extensive wetland complex that includes exemplary peatland communities, Atlantic salmon and waterfowl habitat, and bald eagle nests. The bog area also has Swamp White Oak, a rare plant species that is a member of the white oak subgenus, but with several distinguishing characteristics: ovate leaves, widest above the middle, with 6-10 pairs of low but fairly even lobes (like rounded teeth); hairless buds; and acorns on stalks that are more than 3 cm long.
We pass the Pittsfield Municipal Airport and Maine Central Institute, an independent high school for approximately 500 students, founded in 1866, before turning into Manson Park, where the BikeMaine Village awaits.