All photos/art by Loyall Sewall
In the foothills of the White Mountains, some 20 miles east of North Conway, New Hampshire, lies the remote village of Brownfield, Maine, the unlikely music center of New England.
A terrible forest fire destroyed the town back in 1947; flames ravaged the school, the churches, the fine homes, the tall pines. Many families moved away.
Those who stayed and those who eventually came to canoe the Saco River or to snowmobile the rolling mountains hung tough at population 1,300. Main Street grew back hardscrabble, with no real restaurants, with just a smattering of simple houses, a post office, a corner store, a steepled white church, and a depressed economy.
It’s only when you turn off Main and climb the winding roads to where the fire stopped that you see old homesteads, like Irving Potter’s place — horses grazing in fields, distant mountains through tall pines. You see how rustic and right the Blake neighborhood, settled in the 1800s, still remains.
Carol Noonan first felt the pull of this land 15 years ago, when she and her husband, Jeff Flagg, settled into their 200-year-old farmhouse on Dugway Road. Jeff had downscaled his commercial fishing net business in Portland when Maine’s cod and haddock industry tanked, so moving 45 miles northwest wasn’t a problem.
What he needed, though, was space to spread his nets. He hired a master timber framer to build a 75×35-foot barn with no center posts — only wood-pegged, hand-hewn ceiling beams for support. It was so grand that on the days Jeff delivered nets, Carol stole inside. With her long auburn hair swinging, she sang to the rafters. The barn was her backwoods Carnegie Hall. “What acoustics!” she thought. “We should be making music in here, not fishing nets.”
For more than two decades Carol had traveled the country to find fans. After studying voice at the New England Conservatory of Music, she’d worked as a singing waitress and a manager at a music-themed resort in northern Maine. Then, in the 1980s, she’d earned acclaim first as the lead singer and songwriter for the folk-rock band Knots and Crosses, then later as a solo singer-songwriter for Rounder Records, and most recently on her own label. Now, at 47, she was road-weary.
One gig took Carol six hours to Dexter, Maine. “There was just this grange hall and flat fields,” she remembers. Her guitarist, a city guy, doubted anyone would come. “But it was like ‘Field of Dreams,’ ” Carol says. “The cars started coming out of nowhere, and the room filled up in five minutes. Kids in their 20s, old people, hippies, tree-huggers, chainsaw guys, snowmobile people, everybody.” Seeing that outpouring sparked anew her long-held belief that rural people create their own worlds out of whatever they have around them.
It was time she created her own world in Brownfield. Her idea was to bring national acts to her own backyard, some 136 miles north of Boston. Jeff’s barn would be perfect, but it sat too close to the road, away from the view. “No problem,” said Jeff. “We’ll just pick it up and move it.”
They laid a foundation behind the farmhouse, built knee walls, inserted I-beams, hired a crane, and wrote their neighbors to get their okay. Half the town showed up for the barn moving in October 2005.
It wasn’t until the crane had the timber frame dangling just clear of the farmhouse roof that Carol thought, “Who do we think we are to do this? We’ve got some nerve.” But then, like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float, her neighbors grabbed the ropes and guided the barn, unbelievably, into place.
Before they could open a dinner theater hosting national acts and serving gourmet pizzas, fancy salads, fine wines, and imported beers, however, Carol and Jeff faced endless obstacles. If they didn’t pick an opening date, they’d miss the summer tourists. The first show would be August 5, 2006. But not even Jeff, the hardest-working man in Maine, could do it all.
With only a month to go, he still had to Sheetrock the walls and lay the hardwood floors. Rain poured into the building. The couple who’d booked the center for their mid-August wedding expressed concern. “You’re the least of my problems,” said Carol. “I’ve got Ralph Stanley coming!”
Jeff hired another local guy to work day and night. They lined the balcony with old barn wood and installed 50 refurbished 1930s seats salvaged from the Boston Opera House. They lit the rafters with tall ironwork lights salvaged from a church. The dressing room wasn’t ready for Stanley, but everything else was.
The grand opening packed out. The wedding went beautifully. The stars lined up: Mary Chapin Carpenter, the Indigo Girls, Mavis Staples, Bela Fleck, the Capitol Steps, Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. There was music for everyone — folk, Celtic, blues, Cajun, bluegrass, country, classical — and from all over New England, people came.
Carol’s efforts rippled out to her neighbors, who came to work the shows; to local artists like Becca Van Fleet, who made mugs for the center; to area B&Bs, such as The Inn at Crystal Lake, which offered a Stone Mountain getaway complete with tickets and a shuttle to the show.
The scenic drive, however, proved challenging for musicians maneuvering tour buses and towing trailers. Marty Stuart’s vehicle got stopped by a tree felled in a snowstorm at 4 in the morning and had to back half a mile down Dugway Road. Kathy Mattea’s bus missed the turn, jackknifed in the snow, and had to be rescued by a neighbor with a backhoe. Carol figured that’d be the last of those musicians, but they loved it, and rebooked.
The audiences loved it, too, especially the monthly Stone Mountain Live shows — Maine’s version of “A Prairie Home Companion”. Today, Carol not only writes and produces them but also works the kitchen shift with Jeff and their neighbors. Just before 8, she whips off her apron, lets down her hair, and makes her way through the crowded tables.
Stepping onstage, with the barn’s tall windows glowing dusk blue behind her, with tree limbs twinkling on either side and Oriental rugs at her feet, Carol stands in the intimacy of what could be her living room — but what just may be New England’s finest listening room.
The bar closes; food service stops. She takes up her guitar, and the musicians join in. Gradually, she lets the details of work ease away and the music fill in. At some point, she catches Jeff’s smile and knows he’s thinking the same thing she is: “We created this, but now it’s gone beyond us.” The applause thunders, and the audience belts out the closing refrain:
Well, we’ve come to the end of our little show.
Please drive safe and please drive slow.
As you drive down the hill, please check out your brakes.
We don’t want you to run into Irving Potter’s place.
It’s Brownfield, after all — a lovely, unlikely place.
Stone Mountain Arts Center
695 Dugway Road, Brownfield, ME.
Performances are year-round. For a calendar of upcoming events, contact: 866-227-6523; stonemountainartscenter.com