Remember the corner store and the sidewalk leading down to the old movie theater at the end of the street. As a child growing up in a small northeast town it, is possible those are the very same memories many of you have experienced. It wasn’t long ago that a majority of small rural towns had corner stores and drive-ins and five-and-dimes that were the lifeblood of their communities.
Remembering is about all anyone can do now. The corner store in no more and the theater has been torn down a few decades previous, and the five-and-dimes have been replaced by the big box stores in neighboring larger population centers..
In the pursuit of progress and modernization, the small town mentality has dissipated. Case in point is a small northern Maine town of Danforth.
Danforth has a population of around 589 persons, according to the 2010 US Census. This rural hamlet is approximately 100 mile northeast of Bangor at the crossroads of rural route 169 and US Route One in Washington County.
There were a few sources of revenue for the town. Among them was the Gillis Lumber Mill on Maple Street, which employed on average 15 to 20 people prior to closing its doors in 2002. Founded by Mancel Gillis. The Gillis’ did the best they could to hold onto a business during very difficult economic times.
The lumber and logging industry was the lifeblood, for communities similar to Danforth. Kinney, Hanscomb, Parker and Hannington Lumber and Logging operations would harvest trees for one of the paper and pulp mills in the region.
The residents of Danforth are some of the hardest working people in the country, bar none. For many generations, the men and women of Danforth would leave early in the morning to go several miles away and harvest trees from the abundant supply of forests that Northern Maine has to offer. It was a common site to see men and women walking down the road at the break of dawn with their dinner pail in hand, headed to the mill. Skidders parked alongside the roadways were a common site as well.
In the morning, workers would gather at Nadine’s for a hot cup of coffee and a quick bite before braving the elements. Local school children would walk up the hill on 169 from the town center to begin their day of learning at East Grand School. The school had students from kindergarten -12th grade.
During the winter months, it was a course in work hard, eat well, and then go to bed early to start it all over again the next day. They would then look forward to the weekend where these Mainers would participate in their favorite past-times. Some residents enjoyed fishing and hunting, while others would pursue more artistic endeavors.
When East Grand Lake was frozen over during the coldest months, little ice shacks would dot the landscape of that body of water. The fishermen would brave the cold to catch one of the several species of fish residing in the depths of the water.
Hunting for many was not only a recreational activity but, a way to provide meat for the long winter months for the entire family. Generations of hunters passed down the skills and techniques to family members that they learned from their ancestors.
Summertime in Danforth was a great experience also. If you were one of the lucky few, you had a camp on either the Baskehegan River or East Grand Lake. Many families would spend weekends fishing, boating, water-skiing and the like during the few warm months of the year.
If you weren’t fortunate enough to have a camp, chances are you had a friend who did.
The most important aspect of life in this rural community was family. Several generations of a family resided together in the town. From siblings to cousins you were never far from relatives.
Due to environmental and other difficulties, forest harvesting came to a crashing halt for a few years in the 90’s and is resuming at a painfully slow pace. Many in the small town have fled to larger population areas, or if they were able to remain in their homes some have let their abodes fall into disrepair.
Several of the small business owners were forced to close and refer former customers to the nearest population center; Houlton located 32 miles to the north or town.
Is there hope for this little community to survive in the new millennium? Some believe there is. As more and more people are losing jobs and prospects for their future, many citizens are looking for opportunities outside of their normal environs. Creativity is flourishing in the spirits of men and women of all walks of life. Ways, to earn a living, are springing up in the souls of these people.
A number of residents of Danforth are looking earnestly at ways to improve the town. Some in authority have taken steps to start revitalizing this sleepy little burg.
One of the town’s selectmen Barry Gillis has begun to renovate and recapture some of the mystique of Danforth by demolishing some of the most dilapidated buildings including the corner store known as Bragdon’s General Store. Gillis has been a resident of Danforth all of his life as well as one of the business owners in the town. Gillis Lumber started by his grandfather Mancel Gillis is just one of the concerns that Gillis operated or has owned. To say Barry cares is a big understatement. There was a time when Gillis was a state legislator, not unlike another past town father; Horace Bragdon. Not bad for a town that barely registers on the map.
Access to the internet has vastly improved in rural America in that last few years as to allow greater access to more and more people even in the remotest of locales. Should a person require, remote access the availability is there. Education remotely is no longer a fantasy. Almost anything, a person could need, can be ordered online. What is amazing with the advent of all this new technology, is if a person wants to remain in a rural location they have that option.
Danforth was never a large town even from its inception; However if residents don’t support change and patronize local establishments they could risk losing their identity and small town flavor. The employment would increase, and more people would return from other locations if townspeople would work together. Return of the small town feelings of pride and contentment are possible.
Dialog between residents and local officials is an essential element, in helping Danforth survive and thrive. There is hope for this and many other communities throughout US. All, it is going to take, is being creative and taking pride in the appearance of the entire town. According to Gillis, in Danforth there currently remain a few businesses that are surviving for the moment. Among them Knight’s Thriftway and Kinney’s garage.
Knight’s is a family run business operated by a resident who grew up in Danforth. The owner learned his trade in a larger town, then moved back to create his future for the betterment of the community.
Kinney’s Garage has been the place where you would go to get just about any problem with your car, bus, tractor, truck, and possibly even plane fixed to face the harsh northern Maine conditions. Skilled friendly mechanics, work hard to get the customer on his way. Also serving as a gas station, Kinney’s garage started by Harry Kinney has been a mainstay in the community for years.
On the spiritual side, there are several denominations of churches in the town. Whatever the belief more than likely there will be a place to worship within the town border.
Gillis said, “Limited opportunity means our graduates have to move to where the jobs are.” Not unlike other small towns throughout the country, Danforth needs a viable and sustainable source of revenue.
We have a habit in this country of rising from adversity. In that same spirit, it is possible to revitalize small town America. Hard work and creativity are prerequisites, but it can and should be done.