There are a lot of stories of Mainers leaving the state to find opportunity. This is a story of a Mainer returning to create opportunity back home.
Pete Connelly and his wife, Cheryl, are the owners of a rambling commercial building on the banks of the West Branch of the Mattawamkeag River in Island Falls. A couple of years ago, the neglected old building was a sad reminder of more thriving days gone by. Today it is has become a community hub of activity. The River Cafe is in full operation at one end of the building, with windows facing the recently cleared view of the falls. But that’s only the beginning. Island Falls is abuzz with plans, activity and community spirit, which is exactly what Pete and Cheryl were hoping for.
Cheryl is a member of the Sewall family that founded Island Falls in the 1800s. Her great-great-grandfather was a longtime friend and guide to Teddy Roosevelt, who visited the area often to fish and hunt. Her father, Sam Sewall, was devoted to the town for all 93 years of his life. Although Cheryl spent most of her 44 years of marriage out of state, she and Pete and their two sons returned every year to spend time with family in Island Falls. When she and Pete retired a couple of years ago they came home to stay.
“Family roots are important to us, and Cheryl’s family has some pretty amazing roots here,” said Pete.
My husband and I were eating breakfast at the River Cafe when Pete arrived for our meeting, wearing a Bass Pro Shops cap and a T-shirt that read “Literary Volunteers Road Race.” He pulled up a chair and launched into conversation. With great animation and vociferous praise of the entire community, he gave us an account of Island Falls’ recent history and all the improvements that have only just begun.
After Cheryl’s dad died in 2011, Pete and Cheryl wondered how they could honor his memory. They concluded that he would like nothing more than to see Island Falls revived. The big empty building by the falls seemed like a promising start. But the Connellys knew that they’d need full community support to make the positive changes they hoped for, because their vision was a lot more than just town renewal. Pete and Cheryl share a deep Christian faith. They wanted to join with their community in a project that would touch lives with love and hope.
They consulted with all three churches in town about their ideas and got together with three other local families — the Dunphys, the Tarrs and the Kings. Together, they moved forward with the process of transforming that building for the sake of the town.
“Isn’t this great?” Pete asked us repeatedly, indicating the cafe space, the view, the people. His enthusiasm was infectious.
“Going out to dinner used to mean a 20-mile trip,” he said. “Now there is a community gathering place right here in town.
“See that group over there? That’s the waitress’s grandmother, and that’s her daughter. We’ve got four generations of townspeople right here.”
He pointed out the window towards the small island in the falls that gave the town its name, “My wife used to walk out there to bring her dad lunch when she was a little girl. He worked in the carpentry shop in the old power house.”
All that’s left of the power house is an old stone foundation, but historic photos around the room tell the story of the formerly thriving town: a busy mill, Teddy Roosevelt with Cheryl’s great-grandfather, the cafe building when it was a mechanic’s shop, and photos of a great flood.
With the River Cafe as its starting point, the town has the feel of a place that is coming back to life.
Volunteers came with tools and helping hands, and they transformed the old building into a community hub. The volunteer pool grew, and the visionary project for Island Falls grew with it.
“This project has created 25 jobs,” said Pete. “Four offshoot businesses have started because of this one. High school kids and other locals used to have to drive a long way; now they can walk to work. It’s so nice to see people back on Main Street.”
Pete toured us through the rest of the rambling building so we could see the other results of the town’s team efforts — an ice cream shop, a recreational canoe and kayak operation, and storage space for a local plumber and a potato farmer. Upstairs there is visible progress toward creating a bed and breakfast. Some of that work was done by local students.
“It’s really everybody’s project,” Pete insisted, “everybody builds on everybody’s strengths.”
Before we went on our way, I had a chance to meet Cheryl. Though more gently understated than her husband, Cheryl’s determination glows with equal fire. I asked what the two of them hoped to see in Island Falls in the future.
“Some kind of manufacturing, use of local products, more industries in this building, a couple of B and B’s, farmers markets, more community activities…” They were full of ideas. Then Cheryl summed it up.
“A rebirth of this town — that’s what we want to see.”
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.