A Spark on Water Street in Augusta

Once upon a time, towns and small cities in Maine were thriving, busy places. Maine is a state with many rivers, and along those rivers were factories that made shoes, spun wool, and produced paper. There was a downside: Those factories polluted the water and the air. But they also provided good jobs. Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, the factories left, one by one, to go to places where there was cheaper labor, first in the southern part of the United States and then out of the country all together.

The devastating effect of this on Maine, a small, rural state with only a million people, cannot be overstated. No big tech companies rushed in to fill the void, the way they have in more populous states in southern New England. Therefore, young people left—Maine has the largest percentage of senior citizens in the country.  Many of those who stayed behind pieced together a patchwork life of part-time work.  Or, full-time jobs that barely pay enough to raise a family, buy a house, and pay for a college education. (Hannaford Supermarkets is one of the largest employers in Maine, along with Wal-Mart.)

Not surprisingly, when the great factories fell silent, once flourishing downtowns went into a tailspin. Business after business closed, and all over Maine there were so many empty store fronts that Tim Sample, a Maine humorist, joked about the “Vacant Building Festival” in Eastport, Maine, where the locals supposedly quip that “If you could buy a Greyhound bus ticket with a food stamp, we’d all be outta here.”

Funny, but ouch, and this applies to much of Maine, not just to Eastport.  It certainly applies to central Maine, to Augusta, the state capital, whose downtown on Water Street has been moribund for so long that only an old timer like me remembers when it was thriving.

However, lately there have been sparks of life on Water Street, and those sparks have burst into a little flame. Appropriately enough, Cushnoc Brewing Co., a brewery that also serves pizza baked in a wood-fired oven, seems to have been one of the first to light the spark in Augusta. (My son-in-law Michael maintains that breweries have done a lot to revive communities. Perhaps he is right.)

Along with Cushnoc came other businesses—Otto’s, Circa 1885, and most recently Huiskamer Coffee House, where we went on Saturday to hear our friend Claire Hersom read poetry along with Jay Franzel and Bob MacLaughlin.

Huiskamer Coffee House is a delight. There are couches, comfortable chairs, tables, and Vermeer and Mondrian prints. (What a contrast between the two artists!)  Wonder of wonders, there was good tea—Harney & Sons—as well as good coffee. Grace Fecteau, one of the owners, let us use our own mugs for tea and coffee, but there are ceramic mugs and plates.

Here is a view of the coffee house from our table.

And here is a picture of the delightful Claire.

As the poets read, subjects ranged from the Red Sox to back country roads to being poor in Maine. To having a father with Alzheimer. Some of the poetry was intense, some of it was funny, and all of it was close to the bone.

How nice that the coffee house was full of people listening to poetry. Tea and coffee were drunk, scones and soup eaten.

When Clif and I left, it was still light out, and on Water Street, there were cars parked on both sides of the road. People walked on the sidewalk.

Even five years ago, Water Street was deserted on nights and weekends. Not anymore.

May this spark continue to grow.


44 thoughts on “A Spark on Water Street in Augusta”

  1. That’s good news, Laurie. When we lived in ME were dismayed at the small towns that had all but died. But a few cafes can change a street quickly. We saw how the mid-coast towns – Rockland, Camden, Belfast – have been transformed in the past 10-20 years. Now eg. Camden is overcrowded in summer!

    1. You bet! A serious problem. Without good-paying jobs, young people leave and don’t come back. Who can blame them? My daughters have done exactly that, and unless something changes in a big way, I don’t anticipate them returning to Maine.

  2. What good news! Many of our country towns have suffered in a similar way to the downturn in our economy and now dreadful Brexit! It is difficult to know how to cope with an ageing population and no jobs to entice young people back. However, a little innovation and an offering of a few interesting places to eat and drink and who knows what might happen!

    1. Just before reading your comment, I was thinking of country towns in England and the resulting Brexit. What happened in Maine has happened many places. Sigh. But there is a spark of hope. May it continue to grow.

  3. Thanks for the interesting and poignant description of Maine. We too had thriving country towns that have now lost many of their young people as a result of drought & changing farming markets.. It is very sad when the younger people in the town have to leave for work. Glad you have such a warm and welcoming place to have a pizza & or a beer & are able to sit in nice comfy sofas and listen to some poetry readings. Long may it continue.!

    1. Interesting to read why your towns lost young people. Different from Maine, but the results are the same. Hope some of your small towns are able to find their way. And as for Augusta…long may it continue is right!

  4. NH has similar age issues, and I guess I’m contributing to that statistic. 🙂 In NH, we have mills all along the riverways that produced fabric, shoes, and other items but that came to a halt years ago for the same reasons you mentioned. Today, many of those mills have been converted into lofts and commercial space and are thriving and helping to keep small downtowns vibrant. Here’s hoping what you’re seeing is just the beginning. I could go for some wood-fired pizza and a good craft beer. 🙂

  5. Vermeer and Mondrian? An odd couple, indeed! But the news is good for Augusta, it seems. So many small towns in upstate New York have struggled in similar ways and it’s always encouraging to see life and energy where once there was none. And we have to be very conscious and deliberate about supporting these small businesses, if we want them to survive!

    1. A very odd couple! Yes, all around the northeast the story is the same as factories closed. You are absolutely right about supporting these small businesses.

  6. What an inspiring story – and a delightful evening out too from the sounds of it 🙂 I do hope this encouraging trend continues.

  7. There are similar stories all over. The small town near where I live here in France was once, long ago, a centre of the textile industry but now there’s only one factory left which makes car seat covers and exports them. There’s a lot of unemployment and stagnation. The scenery is beautiful though – being in the foothills of the French Pyrénées – and we have a ski station nearby so there are signs of trying to beautify the rather depressed looking town centre and encouraging tourism. Fingers crossed.

    1. Yes, similar stories all over. Sigh. Which is one of the reasons why there is so much unrest. Hope your area of France can find ways to start the spark.

  8. Good to hear that there are signs of life. Though I have to wonder about the people who patronize the brew pubs – where do they work? I’ve seen the same phenomenon in old factory towns in the Midwest.

    1. Good question! In our area, the state and the hospital provide many of the jobs, and perhaps they are just shifting where they go. However, another thing can happen as a town or city improves—other businesses are attracted to the area. Don’t think this has happened yet with Augusta, but it does seem to be happening to Waterville, a small city about 15 miles from Augusta. But that’s a story for another time.

  9. One of my favorite bloggers, Greg Sullivan from Rumford, Maine, has disappeared from the internet, although his blog, Sippican Cottage, still is up. He once wrote a series of articles titled “Maine Family Robinson” about him, his wife, and their two boys — the “heir and the spare,” as he put it. It was hilarious, as is his blog.

    Greg not only wrote wonderfully well, he was a fabulous wood worker, and he and his family were trying to make a go of it there in Rumford. Eventually, he just couldn’t make it as a furniture maker, and I’m not sure what happened with them. I need to check that out.

    However: he once produced something he called his Evangeline Table, and for reasons too complex to go into here, I fell in love with it, and bought one. I had to have it. He made one for me, and shipped it to Texas, and it’s sitting in my living room. Every time I look at it, I smile. This is what it looks like.

    So, yes, Support your local woodworker, and potter, and cafe owner, and dog walker. And support other people’s local craftsmen, too, as I did with Greg. He has a book available online titled The Devil’s In The Cows. All of his readers bought copies of that, too. On the back cover, it says, “Sippican Cottage lives in western Maine, where he makes too much furniture to be called a writer, and writes too much to be mistaken for a businessman.”

    The Heir and the Spare got their start in music thanks to contributions from readers, too. I’ll leave you a link to their story in another comment, so I don’t end up in spam.

    May his tribe increase!

    1. Wonderful story. And what a table! Not hard to see why you fell in love with it. And, yes, yes! Support all things local. They add zest and spark to any community. I will look up “The Devil’s in the Cows.”

  10. what a delightful post! I love small towns with a spark-May yours continue to provide such beautiful gatherings. The exact same thing happened in the town I grew up in. . .and on a river.

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