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Dispatches From the Road: Monson, Maine

September 29, 2017

In his latest dispatch, Courthouse News' western bureau chief returns to his home state of Maine and finds a once-fading town in the throes of a rebirth.

Chris Marshall

By Chris Marshall

Western Bureau Chief for Courthouse News Service since 2014. San Francisco Federal Reporter and Northern California Bureau Chief from 2006 to 2014. Passionate about photography, camping and history.


"Do you want to stop at Ketchawink or keep going back to the house?"

The tension released from my father's shoulders when I suggested we stop. A family member met us at the dock.

"I'm sitting in the camp and wondering who the two crazy people are pulling up to my dock in the rain," he yelled while helping to pull the boat out of the water.

Though the town had in recent decades fallen into an economic slump like many others in rural Maine, Monson benefitted a bit from its location near the beginning of the Hundred Mile Wilderness, the last stretch of the Appalachian Trial before it ends (if you're heading north) at the top of Mt. Katahdin.

During the short summers, scraggly hikers wander the streets, wash their clothes, relax and eat the excellent breakfast after staying at Shaw's Hiker Hostel.

The few restaurants and a gas station also serve vacationers on their way to the camps in the Moosehead Lake Region, while small-scale manufacturing of slate products and some trade in scrap slate retained the vestiges of the industry that once brought workers to this woodsy outpost.

As a kid we made occasional visits to Monson, mostly for day hikes in the nearby mountains. We hadn't spent much time in town after my grandmother died, but I've been making annual trips for the past few years since my father moved back on a part-time basis.

Our spot near downtown on the edge of Lake Hebron is idyllic in the late summer. While there are a few businesses in the little downtown, some buildings have been long abandoned. Others aren't but look like they should have been, leaving the shell of the town ever more tattered as the years pass.

A few months back while on a trip together in Arizona my father asked if I knew what was happening in the town. Before I could answer his companion quipped, "Of course he doesn't. How could he?"

They told me the town had a new benefactor in the Libra Foundation, a nonprofit charitable trust that hoped to bank on Monson's reputation as a breeding ground for artists to turn the hamlet into an artist colony.

The ambitious plan included buying multiple properties, tearing down some and renovating others.

According to my father, a Libra official had asked an early proponent why they should choose Monson over the slightly bigger and busier Greenville, approximately 15 miles up the road on the edge of Moosehead Lake.

Monson was a dying town, after all.

"Exactly," the proponent reportedly replied.

The renovation was well underway by the time I arrived, but one could be forgiven for not being overwhelmed.

The most striking difference was the absence of a couple faded buildings, one replaced in part by the parking lot for the recently reopened general store, the other now a staging ground for renovations on the building next door. That building had been owned by my grandfather. The foundation decided it was worth saving after originally planning to tear it down. Having long despaired of the property's decrepitude, my father commented that his father could finally stop rolling over in his grave.


The year before my father had lamented the closure of the general store, leaving an overpriced and sterile chain gas station as the only place to buy any sort of groceries. While he hoped someone would re-open it he recognized that running a general store in such a small town meant long hours for little pay.

The new store, with a make-your-own sandwich deli, fresh meats and vegetables from Pineland Farms – another Libra Foundation venture – and an impressive array of beer, wine and other drinks, was more than he could have desired.

A few patrons poked around 30 minutes before closing on that Sunday evening at the tail end of the busy summer season. I wondered what business would be like during the long winter months.

I also wondered about some of the prices. Most hikers and vacationers don't stop in places like Monson to splurge, and many locals live on tight budgets. Who beyond a beer nut like me would be willing to pay $15 for a four-pack of Maine beer? (For the record, the coffee stout was delicious, but not $15 delicious.)

The store struck me as a symbol of what the Libra Foundation wants Monson to become.

My other mission while in town was to take the canoe out on the lake. Though it had rained earlier the forecast called for scattered showers before the skies cleared.

When I announced my intentions my father said the lake was too rough for the canoe but we could take a motorboat he was considering buying that was tied to his dock.

He mentioned he hadn't started it himself before we lumbered on board and pushed off from the dock. I rowed with our one kayak paddle to keep the boat away from the dock and shore while he tried to get the two-stroke engine started. The engine caught.

I said, "You got it. That wasn't too hard."

The engine went out. He tried in vain for the next 10 minutes while I rowed, increasingly concerned that a strong wind was going to overpower my feeble attempts and toss us against the rocks.

We opted for the canoe. After getting us back to the dock I hopped out and ran to the house for the canoe paddles, and grabbed a couple beers. You never know.

We made for Ketchawink, cruising along with the wind at our backs.

"This is my kind of boating," I said as we reached the middle of the lake, the old slate mine in view to our right and camps peeking out of the woods on the shore to the left. The rhythmic rowing of the boat and the quiet of the lake was just what I'd been seeking, and I was lost in my revelry when my father, apparently unhappy with my rowing yelled, "On the right, Chris!"

Some things never change.

We sped past the camp and approached an island. We considered going past it but figured – correctly, it turned out – that someone might be wondering what had become of us.

After turning around, we talked briefly about a camp owned by members of the family that we were passing when it started to rain. Then the wind – now coming at us – picked up. We rowed. After some hard rowing, I looked to the right. The camp that had been directly next to us was now only a few feet behind. The rain fell harder. The water soaked through my jeans.

"On the left, Chris. On the left!"

Then, "If we can get close to the shore it won't be so bad. It will be better beyond the point."


The going got slower still. We trudged on.

Then my father asked if we should stop at Ketchawink.

As we entered the smoky camp our host said we could split the one beer he had left. They were just about to head into town to buy more, and he offered us a lift.

I pulled out my two beers and handed one to my father.

We fairly chugged our frothy beverages and decided we'd pick up the canoe later before hitching a ride back to the house.

The weather had improved by the next morning, and the slight wind was pushing the water in our direction, but my father said he didn't feel like getting the canoe that day. I wasn't about to insist otherwise.

Though the future looks bright for Monson, there is still some heavy paddling ahead. Hopefully by my next visit the artists will have arrived, the store will have refined its selections and prices, the canoe will be back in its rightful place, and maybe, just maybe, my father will have bought the motor boat and figured out how to start it.

Courthouse News Service has provided daily coverage of the U.S. District Court for Maine for more than a decade and provides regular coverage of state courts in every Maine county.

Cumberland County Facts

County Seat: Portland, also the state’s largest city

Population: 289,000

Named After: William, Duke of Cumberland and son of King George II

Interesting tidbits:

Cumberland County is home to the Portland International Jetport, Maine’s largest airport, the Maine Mall and the Portland Sea Dogs, minor-league affiliate of the beloved Boston Red Sox.

The great fire of 1866 burned 1,800 buildings and left 10,000 Portland residents homeless. The great fire was just one of four devastating fires that inspired the phoenix rising from the ashes on the city seal.

The Greater Portland Metropolitan Area is home half a million people, more than one third of the population of Maine.

Portland was home to Neal Dow, known as the “Napoleon of Temperance” and the “Father of Prohibition.” Dow was instrumental in the passage of the Maine Law, one of the first prohibition laws to hit the books, which might come as a surprise to the drunken revelers that spill from Old Port bars most weekends.

Portland was named after the English Isle of Portland. Portland, Oregon, was in turn named after Portland, Maine.

York County Facts

County Seat: Alfred

Population: 201,000

Named After: York, England, by explorer and member of the Plymouth Council for New England Christopher Levett, who had to abandon plans to found a settlement in present-day Portland

Interesting Tidbits:

Home to many of the oldest colonial settlements in Maine, York County is the oldest county in Maine and one of the oldest in the nation.

York County used to be much bigger. Cumberland and Lincoln counties were carved out of the original York County in 1760, and a northern part of the county was stripped away to become part of the new Oxford County in 1805.

The oldest court records in the United States still in existence are held at the historic York County Courthouse in Alfred. The records go back to 1636 and include a patent conveying land between the Piscataqua and Kennebec rivers from King Charles I of England to Sir Ferdinand Gorges.

Though he helped found what would become the state of Maine and set up its first court system, Gorges, a naval and military commander and governor of the port of Plymouth in England, never set foot in the New World.

York County is the only Maine county that borders both New Hampshire and the Atlantic Ocean.

Penobscot County Facts

County Seat: Bangor

Population: 152,000

Named After: The Penobscot Native American Tribe

Interesting Tidbits:

Penobscot County is home to the flagship campus of the University of Maine in Orono, located approximately 10 miles northeast of Bangor.

Penobscot County was split off from Hancock County in 1816, four years before Maine became a state as part of the Missouri Compromise, which allowed Missouri to enter the union as a slave state and Maine as a free state.

Penobscot is the most populous county in Maine’s northern second congressional district. The county’s support for Donald Trump in the 2016 election was instrumental in Maine splitting its electoral college votes for the first time since 1828.

There are more than 20 communities around the world named Bangor. Fifteen are in the United States and named after Bangor, Maine – which is named after either Bangor in Wales or Northern Ireland.

Bangor has been the port of entry for more than a million members of the military returning from foreign wars.

Kennebec County Facts

County Seat: Augusta, also the state capital

Population: 119,000

Named After: Eastern Abenaki word for large body of still water or still bay. The endangered language is spoken by many Native American tribes, including the Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot.

Interesting Tidbits:

Augusta is home to Fort Western, a former British colonial outpost built in 1754 during the French and Indian War. The original main building was restored in 1920 and depicts its use as a trading post. This bureau chief fondly remembers school field trips to the fort.

Kennebec County is home to Colby College and Thomas College, both in Waterville, as well as the University of Maine at Augusta.

Kennebec County was established in 1799 from portions of Cumberland and Lincoln counties.

A large amount of paper and textiles were produced in earlier years at mostly now-shuttered mills along the Kennebec River, some of which have been redeveloped as housing.

Augusta is home to approximately 19,000 people, making it the third least-populous state capital behind Montpellier, Vermont, with approximately 7,800 people and Pierre, South Dakota, with a population of approximately 13,000.

Read more coverage of Maine news

Maine Governor Calls for Guillotine After Beating Impeachment Attempt

Maine Splits Electoral College Votes

This Bureau Chief Writes What He Hopes Will Be His Only Overtly Political Column

‘North Pond Hermit’ Doesn’t Owe Police

Maine High Court Nixes Instant-Runoff Voting

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