ORLAND, Maine — February can be a hard month to travel down Maine’s rural roads, as winter’s long slog pocks them with potholes and renders them treacherous and slick because of snow and ice.
The Happytown Road, which meanders through a quiet corner of Hancock County, looks no different than other rural Maine routes this time of year. But it is different, according to the people who live on it or near it and who have built a strong, resilient community centered on their road. The road passes through Ellsworth and Orland, but some people from Dedham and Bucksport also feel they belong to the Happytown community.
“We came up here to find an old house and turn it into a farm,” Kristin Beauchamp of Lone Spruce Farm in Dedham said of her family’s move to Maine from New Jersey nearly two years ago. “We were beyond blessed by the area, by the people surrounding us and the open arms. It’s not something that I’ve experienced anywhere else.”
Maine is a special place, according to lots of folks who were born here or who moved here. Plenty of Mainers know they live in unique places where they share their geography with neighbors brought together by chance or by choice. For Happytown Road residents, their home is special because even though they may live far apart from neighbors — the community spreads for miles and includes folks who live in four different towns — they come together often to collaborate on projects, to hold monthly potlucks and open mic nights and to do work parties. They’ve even transformed an old grange hall into a community center that is serving as the hub of the community.
Happytown Road is home to farmers, homesteaders, teachers, homeschoolers, musicians, carpenters and even a librarian. For these folks, living in rural Maine is not synonymous with living in seclusion or isolation.
“It can be lonely, being that far out there, especially if you have young kids,” Brook Ewing Minner, who moved to Happytown Road in 2003, said. “The community here feels sort of rare. It’s really that old-fashioned feel of what a neighbor is. If you need something, we’ll help you. We’ve asked, and we’ve helped. It can be hard to get to know people in New England, where people are just reserved. Having a community that feels accessible and easy has been really life-changing.”
Minner, originally from Arizona, is a librarian by trade. When she and her husband, Mark Eastman, were building their home on the Ellsworth end of the Happytown Road, she got curious about the history of the area and delved into research. She learned that Happytown Road originally was settled in the mid-19th century by a group of families that came from Mount Desert Island.
“They were a religious sect that was different,” she said. “The ‘Happy’ was around finding God.”
The community grew until the 1930s or thereabouts, she said. At that time, there were many families who lived along the road. Happytown had a school, a church and a separate grange hall. But by the 1930s, residents had started to leave for cities, where they took jobs in factories, Minner learned.
“That more agrarian way of life was less attractive,” she said. “I think that happened to a lot of tiny places.”
Houses were abandoned, farmland became overgrown and overtaken by the forest, and by the 1950s, no one remained. Then one Happytown Road native returned after years of living away and working at a mill.
“He was quite literally the only person for decades,” Minner said. “When the back-to-the-landers showed up in the 1970s, there was this one guy there. He was kind of a resource for the people who came.”
And come they did, reclaiming fields from the forest and building homes where old farms used to be. By the time Minner and Eastman got there in the summer of 2003 to camp on their land while they built their house, their neighbors met them with open arms, offers of showers, extension cords for their camper and more. It was hospitality that Minner said her family was glad to reciprocate.
“In a way, if people choose to live so far out, away from towns, it generally draws the same kind of people,” she said. “There’s some shared values that I think made it easy to connect.”
One of the best places to connect with their neighbors has been the Bald Mountain Community Center, an old white building that formerly was known as the Victory Grange. Members of the grange, which long served as a focal point for the farming community, decided in 2013 to disband their 90-plus-year-old organization. The building ended up being put on the market and was bought by Gaylord Wood Jr., a summer resident who saw that the structure still had value to the community. He turned it into the nonprofit community center, which neighbors describe as an amazing resource that is continuing to evolve.
“It’s a collaborative process,” Molly Mercer of the Nancy Place Homestead in Orland said. “There’s not established meetings. But it’s a hub where people of different philosophies can come together to break bread, which is huge.”
Since it began, the community center also hosted yoga classes, kids activities, a monthly open mic night and a wedding, and the goal is to make it a self-sustaining resource. Neighbors have organized several work parties, bringing food, tools and energy enough to get some big projects done. Last fall, for a Thanksgiving gathering, 70 people came to the simple, wood-heated building and filled it with food and conversation. As was the case at dinner tables around America, nobody talked politics, but instead stuck to topics that were less divisive and closer to home.
“It was full, and it was happy,” Beauchamp said. “Full of food and laughter.”
Farms and homesteads on or near the Happytown Road also are continuing to evolve, just like the community center. Last summer, Mercer, Beauchamp and two other farmers joined forces to fill a stall at the Bucksport Farmers’ Market, calling it the Four Friends Farm. They sold vegetables, flowers and crafts and had “the prettiest booth there,” according to Mercer. Last fall, several families began doing a work exchange, where each family benefited from the labor of the others for one full day. Projects done during the work exchange days include harvesting gardens, building perennial garden beds, moving manure piles, pressing apple cider, even putting in a road.
For Beauchamp, who used to live on a 1-acre parcel in New Jersey, living in rural Maine just feels right. Back in New Jersey, it took her seven years to meet her next-door neighbor, but that certainly hasn’t been the case in the Happytown Road community.
“Now I feel at home. Now I feel at ease,” she said.
For Mercer, being part of the Happytown Road community means having a sense of belonging and cooperation. And that’s not something she ever wants to take for granted.
“Community doesn’t just happen,” she said. “We really value it, so we nurture it.”