CHERRYFIELD, Maine — In a crooked store on a winding road in one of Maine’s most historic towns, Royal Montana is waging a little war — a war against capitalism and time.
Think back, this bearded, tattooed man in the wool cap says. Think back to when this building was constructed — 1865.
The Civil War was coming to a long and bloody end, lumber was the area’s king industry, and neighbors relied on one another for supplies, strength and kindness. On the corner of what would become Routes 182 and 1, Frank W. Patten was building a single-story, Gothic-style building.
Originally a village shop, Patten’s Store has, at one time or another over the past 146 years, been a shoe and boot factory, a dance hall, a telegraph office, a jewelry store, the home of the local historical society and a dry goods supply shop.
Today, Montana has returned the store — now three stories tall — to its original purpose. The Cherryfield General Store sells eggs from a farmer across town, blueberry pies — some still steaming — from a baker down the road, antiques, handmade blankets, vintage items and local art.
“Coming here is like stepping back in time,” Kathy Gordeuk said while visiting last week from Cranford, N.J. “It is an oasis.”
Montana says the store is more like stepping into his living room, experiencing the true sense of Cherryfield and being truly welcomed.
“I wanted to have a store where craftspeople, artists, farmers and others from this place could find support,” he said. When he opened the front door in June 2010, two local artists were represented. Today, there are 40. “In my own small way, I can support the local economy,” he said.
He also helps train disabled workers for retail positions.
“I’m just touching the surface,” he said. “This simple, back-to-the-basics way of living is what everyone is seeking. People come in the door and say, ‘Ahhhhh.’ And that is exactly the type of interaction I want. I want the visitor to feel like he or she has stepped into my home.”
Montana’s “home away from home” was almost lost completely, however, when town officials made a plan to tear it down. The first floor, which is plain to the eye, tips to the east. Not a little bit of a lean, mind you, but a full-blown list.
“They built the building on a swamp that they had filled with sticks and debris. It sank,” Montana explained. But when the next generation came along and added the second and third stories, they were built plumb and level. Stand across the street and the leaning is clear.
“I love old buildings and I wanted to save it,” Montana said. “This fits perfectly with my dream.” The building is perfectly sound, he said, just a little crooked.
Montana’s mother, who was originally from Cherryfield, married an Amish man and raised Montana as an Amish boy. He traveled the world, trying to do his part to make others’ lives easier or better. For the past 37 years he has taught children in India. He was paid $20 a month and slept on the floor of a temple.
“I’ve been very poor at times in my life,” Montana said. “I know what it is like to suffer and live in a highly capitalistic world.”
He moved two years ago to Cherryfield and continued living a simple life. It is a life rooted in the truth and with one goal: Serve others.
“I think that makes me a bad businessman,” he said with a laugh. “I forget to take my commission from the artists. I tend to give away the eggs if I think they are needed.” The old-fashioned treats in his row of penny-candy jars are free for a donation to the local historical society.
From “The Chicken Health Handbook” on one shelf to the felted hats and fresh turkey eggs to antique rocking chairs and exotic carvings and art, Montana’s general store offers something for everyone — at Washington County prices. “I don’t mark things up to what we call around here ‘tourist prices,’” he said.
“We may be a crooked store, but we offer straight deals,” he joked, adding, “You know what Margery Brown, the late president of the Cherryfield Historical Society, said? ‘It’s not leaning. It was a bad paint job.’”
Montana said he has invited local farmers or gardeners with extra produce to set up sales tables in the shade next to the general store. “The space is there, just waiting,” he said.
From his easy chair behind the store counter, Montana reached down and petted his dog, who was sleeping on a vintage quilt at Montana’s feet. “I love sitting here,” he said softly.