CONVERSATIONS WITH MAINE

Service with a smile, and flowers

Posted June 16, 2011, at 4:57 p.m.

Shortly after moving to Maine, I called Bangor International Airport to check on an arriving flight. I braced myself for the inevitable black hole of automated phone recordings. Instead, I heard a voice say, “Hello?” It wasn’t a wrong number, just someone near a phone, happy to help me out. That kind of personal touch is one of the things I love most about Maine.

It is that personal touch that inspired me to write about Mike Farrington, who runs a local service station. There aren’t many full-service stations around these days, but Mike offers much more than washing windows and checking the oil. He makes your day.

Mike asks about your kids, shares local news, lets you know when your registration and inspection stickers have run out (more times than I care to mention), gently reminds you that your tires are getting bald, and best of all, he fills the lot with flowers every spring.

Mike is an avid gardener, and his customers reap the benefits of his talents, thanks to the station’s owner, Jeff Rawcliffe, who invests in Mike’s beautification skills every year. Mike’s home gardens were featured in Hampden’s Garden Club tour a few years ago.

“All the people said it was the nicest one,” he told me. “Maybe they said that to everyone, but I think it was the nicest.”

I asked if I could come take a look. Mike’s home gardens are beautiful, and they’re also a window into history.

Mike was 4 when he moved to Hampden in 1955. For $6,500, his family bought a quaint little place right at the corner of the Town Farm — an old caretaker’s house that had no indoor plumbing.

“The garage was extra-big, and in the back was a little two-seater.”

Plumbing was one of the first improvements they made on the house.

Today, “Town Farm Road” is a housing development, but back then, it really was the Town Farm.

“Mom would send us to get eggs,” Mike recalled. “The farmer would ask, ‘How many does she need?’ and we’d say a dozen. Then he’d say, ‘Well, I only have six now. If you come back a little later I’ll have six more after they get laying.’”

The Town Farm eventually closed, and the buildings were burned by the Fire Department for practice. Before the burn, however, Mike and his siblings raided the farm and rescued a bunch of seedlings, whose botanical descendants still grow in Mike’s gardens today. Other plants came from his aunts and grandmother. So Mike’s garden history goes back for decades.

But Mike himself hasn’t been planted here in Hampden during all that time. He spent a lot of time “going wherever fate led me,” he said.

After graduating from Hampden Academy in 1969, Mike went to work for the Calais branch of the railroad, doing track maintenance. Along the way he took a bunch of classes in physics and math at the University of Maine at Presque Isle.

When the railroad closed down, an engineering company gave him work in Florida, where he lived for about 15 years. Mike worked on the construction of launch pads for the space program in Cape Canaveral, Fla., then built entire communities.

“We’d go into a 10,000-acre empty lot and build a whole town — hospitals, municipal offices, housing, schools — where there had been nothing before.”

For five years, Mike’s Florida home was “the nicest house in the whole town of Cape Canaveral, right on the ocean.” The owner of the house rented an inland apartment to Mike. After a bad storm, she became fearful on the coast, so she traded homes with Mike, and he moved into the oceanfront property.

Mike also purchased cars at Florida auctions for Hampden Auto Center, hired to do so by high school friend Rawcliffe. Sometimes, 10,000 cars would sell in a day, so it was a fast-paced, intense job to be a buyer.

When Mike’s father died in the mid-’90s, Mike returned to his family home, where he has been ever since, working at Rawcliffe’s garage and cultivating his gardens.

“I look like a poor gas attendant, but I’m actually the manager here, and I get paid pretty well. This is such a relaxing, easy job. Two minutes to work, two minutes back home. I enjoy it.”

I guess that’s why so many of us enjoy stopping by the service station. A little personal touch from someone who enjoys his work is enough to turn your day around. Once you know some of the story behind the man and his flowers, it’s even better.

 

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