Freedom, Liberty, Hope + Union
By Sandy Lang
Photographs by Peter Frank Edwards
The clouds are puffed out like dandelion fuzz across a blue sky and the sun is shining. It’s a brilliant day for clear-headed thinking. That’s good, because at the hilltop intersection of Route 220 and Route 137 a choice must be made. Are you looking for Freedom or Liberty?
The ocean is only about 17 miles eastward, yet Freedom (population 719) feels far removed from the lobster pounds and Route 1 gift shops. Busyness is a relative idea here, but the spot with the most traffic in the old mill town is Freedom General Store, where customers pass a red-white-and-blue-painted patriot when they come through the front door. Inside, shop owner and former banker Paul Flynn happens to be making himself a hot dog and begins chuckling when I ask if anything’s going on around town. “You should have been here last week for the Goosepecker Ridge Invitational,” he says, and then goes on to describe the annual event that’s a pig roast and golf tournament at a town resident’s three-hole course on Goosepecker Ridge Road. I wonder if he’s kidding, but the story checks out, including street signs for the road and for the Goose Ridge Trail that’s part of a growing network of trails on the St. George River watershed. I find out later that Flynn’s good humor extends to his daily Facebook posts for the store, which include weather and “traffic” reports of turtle or raccoon sightings along Route 137 and High Street. In his online posts and in person, he champions the role that a store like his can play in connecting the people of a small town.
Beyond the store are Freedom’s historic houses, old mills, and active farms, including Village Farm and Chase’s Farm (the growing fields of Chase’s Daily in Belfast). Neighbors suggest stopping by to see the just-refurbished, circa-1834 gristmill that once used waterpower to grind grains into flour. The Mill at Freedom Falls is a marvel of restoration and architecture. A farm-inspired pop-up dinner was a recent candlelit hit there, in the shingled building perched on huge granite blocks that’s situated beside a dam on Sandy Stream. The dam is topped by a modern footbridge—and signage explains that the mill’s new 39kw electric turbine will generate enough electricity for its tenants, and to feed some power back into the grid. Nearby is more small-town ingenuity and creativity in action. Metal artist Paul Foisy is tinkering in his garage-shed next to one of the tidiest goat and chicken yards I’ve ever seen. His yard and workshop is arranged with a collection of sculptures that he’s made from scrap metal—mostly fanciful contraptions on wheels. I’m fascinated by the yard art, even more so when he tells me that nothing is for sale. That’s not why he creates them, he says. In two hands, he lifts up a motorcycle sculpture that’s about 18 inches tall. What inspired you to make it, I ask, noticing that the wheels rotate and the handlebars turn. He doesn’t know, he admits, except that “I felt like building a motorcycle.” Now, that’s freedom.
“You better hurry. I got the last blueberry,” advises a woman who’s making her way down Main Street. It’s a Saturday morning in Liberty (population 927) and the library is holding one of its pie sale fundraisers. I pick up the pace and feel lucky to grab a strawberry-rhubarb from the thinned-out tables of homemade pies.
The curved shores of Lake St. George can be seen easily from Route 3, but the historic village of Liberty—established in the early 19th century—is set about a mile’s drive from that thoroughfare, along the St. George River. At one end of the compact retail district is Frapoli’s Place, a shop of antiques and jewelry, along with the curiously octagonal former post office. Anchoring Main Street is the famous Liberty Tool Company, a hand-tool haven in a creaky, wooden building with portable toilets outside. Sure, you can go to a chain hardware store to buy a screwdriver. But here it’s as if you’ve gained access to the old garages, barns, and sheds you see around Maine—the ones filled with tools that manufacturers just don’t make anymore. At Liberty Tool, customers freely plunder one, two, three floors of clamps and crowbars, boxes of wrenches, and barrels of saws with carved wooden handles. The volume of inventory is fascinating, always changing (every Saturday, new finds are added), and encourages creative thinking about what each object is and how it could be used again. In the air hung with rust, dust, and whiffs of mothballs, I overhear one man ask another, “Have you found it?” He answers, “Not yet, but I’m sure I will.”
Across the street in another wooden building with a front porch is Liberty Graphics, a T-shirt printshop founded in the 1970s that uses water-based inks on organic cotton shirts. Here, bins of tees are printed with designs from local artists, nature, the night sky, and graphics inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. When I visited many shirts were on sale, and the serve-yourself coffee was only 47 cents a cup! On the floors above is the Davistown Museum of tools, history, and art. The collection was established by Liberty Tool owner H.G. “Skip” Brack, and is housed in several rooms. One room with a high ceiling feels like a sanctuary or a sacred place. Maybe it’s the recorded music that plays, a rhythmic chant—or the circular arrangement of chairs and objects. Everything is obviously wrought by hand, and signs let visitors know you’re allowed to touch the axes, hatchets, hammers, and even the whale harpoon. This part of Maine shows true reverence for the makers of the world.
Before I leave Liberty for the day, I’m reminded again of rhubarb. The tart, red stalks inspire the name of a hip antique shop opened this year by Darcie Lamont, an exuberant woman who explains that she’s earned her suntan lately while doing some haying each morning. Rhubarb is stocked with wood furniture and paintings, table linens, cookware, and one-offs like a pair of cowboy boots or a chrome mid-century juicer. Lamont says she’s thrilled to have bought the small, wooden Main Street building that she’s longed to own since she was a little girl pedaling past during summer parades in the village. A few minutes later, Gail Philippi from Frapoli’s Place is closing her shop for the day. She surveys the street of buildings set close to the road, and notes that she’s thankful that a plan to bring Route 3 directly through the downtown never came to be. Otherwise, her shop wouldn’t be here, she says; “none of this would be.”
A tree-lined, eight-mile drive on Route 105 from Camden that winds past the shores of Lake Megunticook is the easiest passage to pastoral Maine and the town of Hope (population 1,536). “Downtown” includes the barns of an apple orchard, town offices, and the studios of several craftspeople. On one side of the crossroads of Camden Road (Route 105) and Hatchet Mountain Road is a trio of studios where one or another of the Leavitt family is often at work.
In a former fire station, wood craftsman Josh Leavitt is completing a commissioned project for wooden display cases that will be used in a Manhattan showroom. He’s also been creating a series of oversized tools carved from wood, including a hammer, paintbrush, wrench, and hand-plane—some crafted from solid wood beams salvaged from a tannery in Camden. Josh says his interest in tools is fueled by places like Liberty Tool, and that he’s a fan of the quiet pace of Hope. “It’s low-key and you definitely get to know your neighbors.” The town is a fertile place for creativity, with space for people and animals. Hope is also home to horse farms, as well as two elephants (yes, elephants) that are being cared for in their post-circus retirement years at a nonprofit facility just down the road.
Adjoining Leavitt’s studio is the workshop for Kiss My Boots. The cobbler is Josh’s father, Carlton Leavitt. (I’m a believer in shoe repair and sent boots to this shop for new soles last winter, but I hadn’t yet met Mr. Leavitt himself.) When I walk in, he’s wearing an apron and work glasses, and he’s leaning toward one of his vintage Landis tools that’s loudly whirring. He takes a break and we start talking about his life as a craftsman. Since graduating from college and moving to Maine in 1972, it seems that every decade or two he reinvents his trade. He first worked in darkrooms printing photography portfolios. He was a cabinetmaker in Camden for more than 20 years. Now in his 60s, besides his one-man cobbler shop, he works as a goldsmith for a custom jeweler. His career has depended, he says, on simply “having good eyes and good hands.”
That must be the case for plenty of local residents. It’s a bright day in Hope, and you get the sense that everyone’s making
something. Carlton Leavitt’s son, Benjamin Leavitt, has an impressive metalwork shop within a few steps, and the studios of photographers and even a bagpipe maker are just down the street. Also in walking distance is the Hatchet Mountain Publick House, an antiques store and restaurant where it looks like reservations are a good idea. Under vaulted ceilings and surrounded by original art, the place fills fast on a Friday evening. I’ve heard that a specialty of the house is fish and chips, and I find a seat at the bar. The fried haddock is hot, crispy, and perfectly tender inside. Yet another small-town surprise. Same goes for Hope General Store, where store shelves are lined with gourmet foods. Fresh pastries are on the counter. I order a toasted sub made with meatballs from Micucci’s Grocery in Portland. It’s fine fare in a country store that doubles as a post office, beer vendor (a microbrew heaven), and gift shop, selling art pencils, wooden toys made in Germany, local honey, and maple syrup.
To drive to Union (population 2,259), you can follow Route 131—in season, it’s possible to stop for ice cream along the way at a stand next to a horse paddock—or choose the road along Appleton Ridge that gives sweeping views of the backside of the Camden Hills. The highest elevations of this route are unpaved, and the air smells like sweet hay. Sennebec Pond is below, and I see a pontoon boat glinting in the distance as it glides across the water.
In the heart of Union’s downtown, the grassy, tree-shaded Common is filled with farmers’ booths on Fridays. Wearing a tank top and her hair in a topknot, Jessica Shepard from the Uproot Pie Co. is turning and stretching a circle of pizza dough. Her “kitchen” is a portable, igloo-shaped, wood-burning oven, and she tops the made-to-order pies with ingredients from nearby farm stands. She’s from Cushing, and she lived away from Maine for culinary training and to work in bakeries and restaurants in Oregon and North Carolina, but returned to the midcoast to open her business.
Union is known by many for its week-long agricultural fair every August. The town also has a good foothold in Maine’s wine scene. Sweetgrass Farm is a winery and distillery—friends who are gin connoisseurs give it high marks—set on rolling farmland property with trails, picnic grounds, and lush gardens on Carroll Road. At Savage Oakes Vineyard and Winery, Holly Savage walks toward the hillside rows of well-established vines and recalls how she was once a contender for Blueberry Queen at the Union Fair. She earned runner-up, along with the affections of a seventh-generation Union man who would become her husband. The family produces wine and hosts tastings from a small red building next to a tall barn on Barrett Hill Road. Their stocky, black Labrador retriever is a friendly and unofficial greeter. One wine is “Come Spring,” named for the popular Ben Ames Williams novel based on eighteenth-century diary entries of Union’s first families. Savage says they sometimes get tour buses on the narrow road—difficult to imagine—and that the family has plans to build a larger tasting room.
By now, at Savage Oakes, the sunlight is low on the rows of vines. It’s a beautiful sight, and a great way to conclude, for now, this casual tour of small towns named for big ideas. Residents in each are growing and making things in ways that make craftsmanship, community, and sustainable lifestyles seem at once old-fashioned and the wave of Maine’s future. The pinpoint sizes of Freedom, Liberty, Hope, and Union on maps simply don’t do them justice. “Justice”? Sounds like a fine town name to me.