TOWNSHIP 39, Maine — According to one local legend, a couple ventured into Riceville shortly after the turn of the 20th century after not hearing from anyone in the small Hancock County town for some time.
As the two drew near, they came upon a dead body in the street. Farther on, they found more bodies, some in the streets, some around the buildings, Bangor Ghost Hunters member Mike Marino noted in a post on a Web site found at www.ghosttowns.com.
Another legend has it that a trader who had visited Riceville before returned to find that everyone was gone, which he thought odd because when he was there a month earlier there was no mention of abandoning the town, Marino wrote. “One day a bustling community, the next nothing.”
Those were some of the stories that members of the Bangor Ghost Hunters had heard when the group launched an investigation into the Hancock County ghost town in 2000. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, there actually was a town called Riceville, and it suffered a strange fate.
Signs of the past
Located due east of Greenfield, what remains of
Riceville can be reached by way of an old dirt road that runs off the Stud Mill Road. After the narrow one-lane dirt road dead-ends, visitors must hike or ride an all-terrain vehicle to reach the part of the township that once was inhabited.
The former village now is largely overgrown. The buildings that once stood there were torn down decades ago. The few signs that Riceville ever existed include only a few foundations and debris, including parts of old wood stoves.
Murray said the town center is not easily accessible for much of the year, because of the boggy, swampy terrain, and the beaver dams that have been built there over the years.
“Actually it was the first case for Bangor Ghost Hunters,” Harold “Bubba” Murray, the group’s director and lead investigator, said in an interview earlier this month.
“We were told about a cholera epidemic, a plague that went through Riceville, but we were never able to confirm anything,” he said. “So we found Riceville. We found small bits and pieces, you know, some debris, foundations. We found the cemetery to Riceville.”
A major breakthrough in the group’s Riceville case came 8½ years ago, when a team member uncovered newspaper accounts of a major tannery fire that occurred on Dec. 30, 1906, including the following excerpts from an article in the Bangor Daily Commercial:
“The extensive plant at Riceville, consisting of a large tannery, sawmill, engine and boiler house and several outbuildings, owned and operated by the Hancock Leather Co., composed of James Rice, Francis X. and John Rice of Bangor, was entirely destroyed by fire Saturday forenoon, the result of the explosion of a lantern in the roll house,” the article stated.
“Riceville is in Hancock county, Plantation 39. It received its name in 1898 when the Hancock Leather Co. began to operate the tannery there.
“The Riceville plant was an extensive one, consisting of the tannery, roll house, saw mill, engine and boiler house, large bark yards and a general store and boarding house. The two latter were not burned. … The company is now considering the matter of rebuilding the plant but has reached no conclusion as yet. About 25 men were employed at the time of the fire, which gained such headway that with the apparatus at hand nothing could be done to save the buildings.”
The tannery never was rebuilt. Murray speculates that this is because of fears that chemicals from the tannery seeped into the water supply. The inhabitants of Riceville eventually moved on.
Though Murray believes most of the town’s records burned in the fire, the Bangor Ghost Hunters group has turned up a 1900 souvenir program from the Riceville School listing the names of 21 pupils with the surnames Priest, Peaterson, Willette, Buck and Cole.
They also found census records from the same year, showing a total population of 75 people, including 11 families with a total of 35 children as well as 18 boarders.
Through a confidential source, the group also acquired copies of photographs of the Brown Farm, including shots of a large, rambling white farmhouse and barn, a water tower and other buildings. Murray said the photographs probably date back to the 1920s or 1930s.
But just because the village’s demise turned out to have a somewhat mundane explanation doesn’t mean it isn’t haunted.
Murray is among those who say they’ve experienced some strange things in Riceville.
“It does mess with people. It has convinced me that there’s something out there,” Murray said. He said he and other team members experienced what he described as an optical illusion. They were following a narrow path through the woods leading to the Brown Farm site, located in the township’s southwest corner, when the path suddenly vanished from view. Murray said it was as though an empty corridor through the woods suddenly filled in with trees.
“It was like something was trying to keep us there,” he said.
Team member Felicia Woodbury, an 18-year-old psychic from Bucksport, agrees that something supernatural is lurking there. She encountered it on her first visit to the site in June.
“I sensed there was an accident there,” Woodbury said.
“I kept getting this feeling that this little girl wanted me to follow her,” Woodbury said. She said she followed her a short way. “She was friendly. She actually kind of wanted us to play with her.”
Murray believes the girl was the Browns’ 11-year-old niece and that the girl died as the result of an accident.
“She was run over by a team of oxen,” Murray said. “Her uncle was out there plowing.”
Murray said that the presence of the girl’s spirit has been corroborated by others with psychic ability who have been to the old farmstead.
Three months ago, an ATV rider who is not psychic heard a woman’s voice calling, “Time to come in!” while riding through Riceville, Murray said.
“He said this voice was so close it was just like he rode by and almost ran her over,” Murray said. The ATV rider wished to remain anonymous, Murray said.
Murray said other members of the Bangor Ghost Hunters have encountered the voice and that some have seen the ghost of a man plowing a field — a field now overgrown with trees.
Murray called the phenomenon a “residual haunting.” He said the woman’s voice likely was the last thing the girl heard before her death.
According to Murray, members of the Brown family last lived in Riceville around 1910 or 1912.
“In 1914, loggers came in to talk to the last family in town and no one was around,” he said. “The town was found abandoned.”
The group also is investigating the possibility of a second ghost, believed to be that of an adult male, Murray said. He declined to comment on the male entity until the team can learn more about him and his connection to the site.
This month’s visit
During a visit to the site of the Brown Farm, earlier this month, Murray, Woodbury and another team member, Mike Marino, experienced more unexplained activity.
Few traces of the farm remain. Part of the foundation of a handyman’s shack and parts of on old cast-iron wood stove are still visible. Trees and brush have overtaken much of what once were farm fields.
Armed with such tools as an electromagnetic field meter, a Gauss meter, a pendulum and dowsing rods, the ghost hunters picked up some readings they said defied explanation.
“Mostly I picked up on a magnetic field that was self-generating with no apparent easy explanation,” said Marino, who considers himself one the team’s most skeptical members. “Also we picked up on a very slight electrical reading, again with no apparent cause. Nothing to be able to analyze because it was so slight and it didn’t last long enough to get an accurate reading on it.”
Murray agreed: “We got some activity. We chased a magnetic field that is moving.”
Jim Hall, a middle school science teacher and director of Haunted North Carolina, is a frequent presenter at Duke University’s Rhine Research Center in Durham, N.C. He also is vice president of the Paranormal Research Alliance and is regularly sought by the media for his expertise regarding the paranormal.
Asked Friday about the tools that Bangor Ghost Hunters and similar groups use in paranormal investigations, Hall said, “The devices work, and the concept is technically sound, but most investigators misuse them.
Essentially, we measure environmental factors to see what changes when a paranormal event happens. They are not meant to be taken as evidence in and of themselves, as EMF fields can have many sources.”
A former arson investigator, Marino also believes most fields have a logical explanation, though he and group members could not detect a source for the readings they picked up in Riceville this month.