Along the Kennebec River lies Hallowell, Maine, a town where the cafés, the people, and the music create what locals call their “New Orleans of the North.”
By Annie Graves
Feb 05 2018
Hallowell’s main thoroughfares rise up in ever-higher layers, paralleling the Kennebec River.Photo Credit : Sara Gray
On a quiet, early-winter afternoon down by the Kennebec River in Hallowell, Maine, you can hear the ice creak like an old ship, as it begins to smother the open water. Here, just inland from Midcoast Maine, only a couple of miles from the capital city of Augusta and 46 miles from the Atlantic, the river can ice up so fast that ships in the 1800s would flee the port when the weather turned cold, or risk freezing in place.
Hallowell’s downtown leans into this broad stretch of river, huddling against its banks. “Eight months of the year Hallowell, Maine, was a seaport,” writes Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in A Midwife’s Tale, her Pulitzer Prize-winning book based on Martha Ballard’s diary from 1785 to 1812. Few towns can boast such a detailed record of daily life, riveting in its authentic ordinariness. Ballard delivered 816 babies in 27 years, in and around Hallowell, repeatedly crossing the Kennebec, tending illness of every kind. For all its remoteness, the port bustled. Gristmills ground and pounded grain; sawmills buzzed out lumber. If the ice really could talk, it would spill out tales of tall ships, ice harvests, and fierce floods, mixing with good times along the waterfront.
Hallowell’s story is entwined with the river like a vine wrapped around a branch. The smell of history is in its air, and maybe that explains why for many years it was the antiquing capital of Maine. There’s still a respectable sprinkling of antiques shops along Water Street, but what grabs the casual eye today is the string of restaurants, lining both sides of the street. Stuffed like happy little sausages into every squat, warm, brick nook, this is a sit-up-and-take-notice number of eating options for such a small city (among the vey smallest cities in the state, population 2,381).
But there’s an added twist to this culinary development–one you can tap your toes to. As streetlamps turn on up and down Water Street, their glow sends a signal into the cold night, and a few random notes spill into the street. There’s a folksinger at Slates–Katie Daggett–with a throaty warble that warms you like a sip of Calvados. Freewheelers are kicking up their heels at The Liberal Cup. Below street level, the bar at Easy Street Lounge is trimmed with Christmas lights twinkling off gray-haired patrons and twentysomethings alike, and the Cowboy Angels are getting ready to jam. Live music on tap, up and down the street.
“The New Orleans of the North” is a phrase that’s tossed around on this chilly night. As winter begins to settle in, there’s a warm camaraderie that seeps into your bones. “Everybody knows everybody,” says Sara Dix, who’s lived in town for 40 years and co-owns Second Street B&B with King Parcells. “It’s a town of huggers.”
Downtown Hallowell follows the contours of the Kennebec, with streets running parallel to the water. Front Street edges the river, with the shops, cafes, bookstores, and music concentrated one notch above, on Water Street. Maine’s capital, Augusta, is less than three miles away, heading north. Going south, it’s a dog walker’s dream at Vaughan Woods, also known as Hobbit Land. Laced with streams and stone bridges, this dreamy 197-acre woodland is privately owned but crisscrossed with trails that are open to the public. Jamies Pond is another natural treasure–a 107-acre pond amid 800 acres of wilderness just waiting for walkers.
Hallowell is sociable. If it were a person, it would be the one telling jokes at the bar. But this isn’t a bar town–it’s a music town that happens to have cool bars and restaurants. To get into the swing, “go downtown and see what’s going on,” says King Parcells, co-owner of Second Street B&B. “Have coffee and a bite to eat,” his partner, Sara Dix, chimes in. “Talk to the bartenders–they’re a wealth of information. Bruce Mayo [owner of Easy Street] initiates a lot of what happens in Hallowell.” Like what, for instance? “Old Hallowell Days [in July] is a big deal, but besides that, we have parades for everything. Christmas–we’ll have a parade. We have a parade in February for Mardi Gras. We’re freezing and we’re looking for fun, so we make an event!”
In its heyday, Hallowell had 28 antiques shops, and some quirky gems still remain. Nothing prepares me for the cobwebby Brass & Friends. Can the gorgeous and the tattered coexist? They do here. Huge, ornately carved windows are covered with spidery hoar frost; inside, it’s barn-cold. Overhead, hanging down like bats, are hundreds of chandeliers. Robert Dale’s shop has been here for decades, a Miss Havisham setting, Dickensian and eerie, and all the more intriguing for its Twilight Zone vibe. But these are serious lamps; the white, leafy confection dangling overhead is hand-blown Murano glass and costs $4,500. The atmosphere, unimpeachably strange, is free.
A few doors away, upstairs at Merrill’s Bookshop, John Merrill has been barricaded behind towering walls of used books for more than two decades. “The older and more obscure the book, the better your chance of finding it here,” he says. Friends drop by to chat, and the zingers start to fly. “Everyone talks politics in here,” he grins. “This is the ultimate free-speech zone.” It’s easy to pass hours here, fingers rustling the pages of a Hardy Boys mystery or a first-edition East of Eden. “I’m going to be the last old-fashioned bookstore,” John declares. “No Internet. I refuse. It takes all the fun out of it.”
Here’s the thing about true community: People root for each other. So here’s the lowdown on Hallowell’s restaurants: There are many, and, of course, music at quite a few. Just how community-minded is this community? In 2007, Slates suffered a devastating fire, and the town organized a relief fund. Chef/owner Wendy Larson served dinners outside, recalls King Parcells, “between the restaurant and the bakery. It was BYOB. We just tried to keep them going through the summer.” The fund raised more than $100,000 to help employees survive the closing, and Slates reopened a year later.
Take dead history (antiques), live music, good restaurants–and inject an unpredictable arts scene (lively exhibits like The 46 Million Turkeys Project at Harlow Gallery)–and Hallowell becomes impossible to sum up without a run-on sentence. Its backbone bristles with places that have stuck around. Rehabbed old buildings house the new, the irreverent, and the artistic. Quirks seem to be encouraged. The “Museum in the Streets” project takes you on a merry walking tour, via street placards, of Historic Hallowell, so history is never far away. And the music serves as soundtrack to the river’s freeze and thaw.
Finally … Don’t miss the Hubbard Free Library on Second Street. Its tiny Victorian Gothic charm is open to all, including well-behaved dogs.
Lots of in-town properties that are an easy walk to the downtown and the river are available, in the $90,000 to $200,000 range. A cute 656-square-foot cottage on Gows Lane is currently listed at $79,900, while the Eliphalet Gilman House, a circa-1793 fixer-upper that’s on the National Register of Historic Places, is listed at $74,250. On the higher end, on Middle Street, a spacious three-bedroom 1869 Cape in a pretty neighborhood lists at $234,900.
This feature was first published in the November/December 2014 issue of Yankee Magazine.