LIBERTY TOOL CO. – LIBERTY, MAINE

There are many ways to get to Liberty, Maine, and that is why it takes so long. The 30-mile journey from coastal Rockland should take about 45 minutes, but when you leave the coastline and head inland, the bounty of the countryside and the infinite side roads are simply a temptation. It is too easy to forgo the direct route that your navigation system recommends and choose one of the more enticing side roads. And once you’ve made that first welcome detour it is like peeling an onion. It may be a bit more roundabout this way, but the scenery is worth it. In late winter you’ll also need to factor in the ubiquitous potholes and frost heaves that are incredibly unforgiving and require driving below the speed limit for intermittent stretches.

Along the way you may pass through the towns of Union, Freedom and Hope. Or countless others that are quiet and desolate and draw so little attention to themselves that you may not realize you’re passing through a town at all. It is typically a tall, steepled church or a small nondescript post office that betrays the town center.

Liberty, Maine is just such a town, only there are a couple things that set it apart. One is The Old Octagonal Post Office from 1870, which is hard to miss (and now on the national historical register - open on Saturdays in summer). The other is Liberty Tool Company, a large three-story building in the center of town.

Even on an empty Main Street in the middle of March it is clear this is the heart of the place. With a population of less than 1,000 and just a few commercial buildings, there is almost nothing else in Liberty to distract you from it. And once you’re inside, it is difficult to tear yourself away.

From the Liberty Tool website:

The Liberty Tool Company consists of a four-story balloon framed building built circa 1885. Until the Liberty Village General Store was constructed across the street in 1891 (it is six inches higher than the Liberty Tool Company), this building was the largest wooden structure between Belfast and Augusta. In the old days, Liberty was a main overnight stagecoach stop with a number of hotels, canneries, foundries and other enterprises. The Liberty Tool Co. building was a general store with a rooming house on the second floor and a dance hall on the third floor.

Today it is known for tools, specifically hand tools, and it is the largest second-hand tool store in New England. The first floor is simply overflowing with tools and hardware. Apparently they also likes to poke some fun: on a large wooden cabinet with 50-plus drawers, among the ordinary labeled drawers such as “Allen Wrenches” and “Door Hardware,” you’ll also find ones labeled “Left Handed Kanuter Pins,” “Peyote Buttons,” “Fig Newtons” and “Nuclear Waste.”

The second floor is more tools, but also books and more books. On the third floor—“Grandma’s Attic”—in addition to more tools you’ll also find antiques and curios, as well as a lending library. On a sunny day in July perhaps you’d be tempted to sit awhile and flip through one of the numerous titles available to you, but in mid-March with the outside temperature hovering at freezing, there is no incentive to stay too long in Grandma’s Attic as the inside temperature is also hovering at freezing. Despite the old adage that “heat rises,” that would not be the case at Liberty Tool. The oversized wood stove on the first floor does a wonderful job cranking out heat to about arm’s length, but from there the heat simply disappears like it does in all old buildings. Also, as the shopkeeper told me, all the metal tools do a great job of sucking up the heat so it can’t find its way upstairs.

There are few actual destinations among all these small towns in this interior piece of mid-coast Maine, but Liberty Tool is one worth finding, and if you’re anywhere remotely close the journey is absolutely worth making.

Guide note: Liberty Tool is located at 57 Main Street in Liberty, ME. Hours - Wednesday through Sunday, 9:00am-5:00pm; open at 7:30am on Saturdays; open by request on extreme cold weather days (call ahead).

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Guide to the Northeast Brett Klein lives in Connecticut and works in New York, but prefers small town life and his home state of Maine. Any chance to get rural is a mental vacation. Follow Klein on Tumblr at The Coast is Clear. His curatorial collection of Americana, rural life, other artists and ephemera can be seen on Tumblr at Tons of Land.

DOWN IN THE VALLEY – NAUGATUCK RIVER, CONNECTICUT

The lower Naugatuck River Valley, also known simply as “The Valley,” was once the state’s most prosperous region. In the 19th and 20th centuries industry ran swiftly through The Valley, just like the river that made it possible. These quintessential mill towns led the way in the manufacturing of brass and rubber as well as shipbuilding. The borough of Naugatuck gave us the modern wonder of artificial leather known as Naugahyde. These communities were key in helping change the perception of “Made in the USA” from one of inferior workmanship to the world standard of high quality that it is today.

As towns grew and industry increased in The Valley so did the amount of sewage and pollution that poured into the river. After enduring centuries of abuse the river could take no more — and in came The Great Depression as punishment. It brought economic downturn, a shrinking population and urban decay. The Valley was Connecticut’s localized version of the nation’s larger Rustbelt — with its empty storefronts and abandoned buildings. 

In 1955 Hurricane Diane came calling to finish the job, washing away any fortune still remaining and decimating entire neighborhoods. These are now commuter towns for some, with pockets of luxury homes serving as a bedroom community to New York City and lower Fairfield County. However, no one would mistake this area for anything other than the working-class towns they have always been.

You can travel quickly through this region on Route 8 as it snakes north and south like The Valley’s namesake river. The highway offers distant glimpses of some towns while it slices straight through others. To get off the highway and onto the local streets is a reminder that these are river towns as there is a constant slope to navigate as you make your way either down to the Naugatuck River or up and away from it.

Away from the town centers, the old neighborhoods and brick buildings start to thin as they give way to farmland. Barns and farmhouses dot the countryside and where the road rises you can catch sight of the indigo hue of the Litchfield Hills in winter. Out here you can forget about hydropower and all that talk about industry and manufacturing and remember there was once a simpler life along the river that didn’t belch smoke and dust. It belonged to the Algonquian peoples who originally spoke the word “Naugatuck” to mean “lone tree by the fishing place”. The river is cleaner now, and the fish have returned, but more than one way of life is gone forever in The Valley.

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Guide to the Northeast Brett Klein lives in Connecticut and works in New York, but prefers small town life and his home state of Maine. Any chance to get rural is a mental vacation. Follow Klein on Tumblr at The Coast is Clear. His curatorial collection of Americana, rural life, other artists and ephemera can be seen on Tumblr at Tons of Land.

ALL THE WAY IN - HILLSDALE, NEW YORK

Nestled between the Berkshire Mountains to the east and the Catskill Mountains to the west, Hillsdale exists in a world of its own. Far away from most things, it is a rural escape for many and home to few. Wikipedia accurately describes the area as “rolling hills, open farmland and wooded tracts,” and that’s exactly what you see when you set out in any direction from the intersection of Routes 22 & 23 in the center of this hamlet.

Or you can stay awhile and discover the real beauty that is off the beaten path on the dirt roads that seem to outnumber the paved streets. They criss-cross the landscape for miles and miles, daring you to press your luck with a guess to turn right or left at the numerous forks in the road, leading you to the next hidden gem that could be an abandoned house or a fallen down barn. You’re purposefully lost and don’t care while the GPS taunts you to continue further in the direction you intended, but the road ahead turns muddy and seems suitable only for farm vehicles. And the odd, handwritten sign tacked to the tree like a warning instructs to “Leave the road open to the back, we are all the way in.” You realize your luck has been pressed sufficiently for today while you head back the way you came and wonder what that life would be like… all the way in.

There are numerous places to pull your car over to take in the view for a few minutes, only to realize five minutes later that not a single other car has come along. So you sit awhile longer and another 10 minutes pass before one does. The next time it happens you sit almost 25 minutes before you see another soul. You could sell this silence. You’re tempted to just sit and try it again in the exact same spot—make a game of it, but there’s so much more to see and little time left to see it.

The sun in the sky is low and blinding most of the day—it has trouble rising over that mountain just like you do, but when it goes it’s gone, and then the night is black when you step outside and ease your car down the mountainside through this year’s first snow to join the locals at the Hillsdale House Inn and Tavern—one of the few common gathering places available. Everyone knows each other and when they don’t there are introductions made. A few sit alone on stools frittering dollars on the lotto, making small talk, but mostly it’s a lively bunch on Thanksgiving Eve and more than one patron confesses that the amount of libation consumed is in direct correlation to the fact that no work is required tomorrow—the rare day off in a town where second homes are common but the locals don’t know much leisure. Some of these folks have been at it awhile, and just like the scenery on the empty roads you are tempted to sit and see how long it can last.

You finish your dinner at the bar and drive again through the ink black, making sure to accumulate enough speed to maintain momentum up the snow-felled mountain. Finally the crunch of snow is under your feet again and that’s when you realize there is a life outside the city, where you can see the stars for the first time since you don’t remember. You step inside to the warmth of the woodstove and hope it’s still burning. You’re all the way in.

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Guide to the Northeast Brett Klein lives in Connecticut and works in New York, but prefers small town life and his home state of Maine. Any chance to get rural is a mental vacation. Follow Klein on Tumblr at The Coast is Clear. His curatorial collection of Americana, rural life, other artists and ephemera can be seen on Tumblr at Tons of Land.

THE TWIN CITIES – LEWISTON-AUBURN, MAINE

The general traffic bridges and two railroad bridges join Lewiston, on the east bank, with Auburn on the west. Strong as the bridges have been in binding Lewiston and Auburn together, there have been occasions when they have, in a sense, separated rather than joined the two cities. Many residents of one city work in the other, and during the strike of 1937, the bridges became barriers guarded by militia and police who sought to prevent strikers of one city from entering the other. Again, the bridges have often been the scene of pitched battles, usually induced by high-school rivalry, between the youth of the two cities.

Maine: A Guide ‘Down East’ (WPA, 1937)

The cities of the Androscoggin River, Lewiston and Auburn, sit facing each other across this lengthy waterway that runs from northern New Hampshire to the Gulf of Maine. Once the textile heart of the state, this joint community still has the bones and the buildings to prove it. The brick mill buildings mostly sit vacant along the river as they have almost my entire life. A few new occupants here and there, but it remains nearly unchanged for several decades now.

The two cities are not terribly distinct from each other and have always been spoken about in the same breath. So much so that they’ve discussed merging into one to save on town resources. Lewiston by itself is Maine’s second largest city, but it feels less like a city and more like numerous hard working towns across the country. You wonder how it still survives after industry closed its doors on it. Clothing and shoe factories all gone save one.

Despite being the second largest community in the state, in less than five minutes you’ve traveled from the center to the outskirts—where asphalt crumbles and side roads turn to dirt. Hay fields and corn stalks are plenty, now desiccated and pale, waiting for the weight of winter to pull them down. Next to you is the river which you can watch as it leaves town like everyone else did.

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Guide to the Northeast Brett Klein lives in Connecticut and works in New York, but prefers small town life and his home state of Maine. Any chance to get rural is a mental vacation. Follow Klein on Tumblr at The Coast is Clear. His curatorial collection of Americana, rural life, other artists and ephemera can be seen on Tumblr at Tons of Land.

LAKE WARAMAUG - NEW PRESTON, CONNECTICUT

North from New Preston Village on State 45 is Lake Waramaug (L), 0.6 m., one of the most beautiful natural bodies of water in the State. Bordered by many summer residences, hotels of the better type, a private country club, and, agh the head of the lake on the west shore, a State Park of 75 acres offering camping, bathing, fishing, and picnic facilities, this pure lake is a favorite vacation spot for New York and Connecticut people.

Connecticut, A Guide To Its Roads, Lore, and People (WPA, 1938)

Chief Waramaug summered in this area and used it as his winter hunting grounds. While he supposedly had a 20,000 square foot longhouse, your weekend accommodations are no less noble, and involve refrigeration. Currently an 8-mile drive takes you around the 680-acre lake. While you make that loop you’ll pass through the Connecticut towns of Kent, Washington and Warren. You’ll pass new homes and old, some teardowns and renovations, some 1900 Adirondack classics still relevant, some artistic and beautiful studios built on the grandfathered foundations of old boathouse footprints. Not a longhouse in sight, but you can camp at the state park on the lakeshore.

You can make a day trip, just a half hour off the I-84 east-west corridor northeast of Danbury, to a place that feels a bit like somewhere else—someplace not so close. Or you can celebrate your parents’ 50th Anniversary in style, only do it two plus years later because of hurricanes and the erratic schedules of all involved.

This would be true for probably any lake, that when you go there you don’t want anything to take you away. You just want to be on the lake. Or on the porch staring at the lake. Although if an emergency room visit for stitches and a tetanus shot is required because someone manhandled that metal canoe a bit too roughly, then you’ll make that trip, too.

On that last day (not so ironically it is Labor Day), when you see your 12-year-old niece snapping early morning pictures of the lake with her new iPhone, you know you’re not the only one that could chuck it all for a simpler life.

But you leave it all behind for someone else and their security deposit.

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Guide to the Northeast Brett Klein lives in Connecticut and works in New York, but prefers small town life and his home state of Maine. Any chance to get rural is a mental vacation. Follow Klein on Tumblr at The Coast is Clear. His curatorial collection of Americana, rural life, other artists and ephemera can be seen on Tumblr at Tons of Land.

PRIVACY PLEASE - CUSHING, MAINE

This coastal town has a population of 1500, but it can feel more like 15, which I imagine is the draw for the people that live here. It’s a quiet setting far from the tourist and daily commuter traffic of Route One, where a few roads run across open fields, through dense pines and along the water of the St. George River where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. The asphalt roads ultimately turn to dirt and they all end at the shoreline.

It’s a private place and the private people live in homes set off from the road on top of a hill overlooking the bay, or down a long dirt path that disappears in the woods to a camp on the cove’s edge. They’re afforded sweeping views across the wide, salty river on a clear day, or just as easily it could be 20 yards of visibility into a wall of fog that sits for days straight and puts one more layer between neighbors.

They didn’t settle here for the nightlife. They meet each other at the one general store where they fill their cars with gas and collect diesel for their boats, or buy fresh halibut for dinner if they didn’t already catch some themselves. The young girl behind the counter tells you she’s going to the city for school this fall just in case you assumed she’d spend her life here, and when you ask which city she replies Springfield, Mass.

They congregate with their trucks down at the cove’s end where the coming tide can’t come anymore. And when it goes out they walk out with it and I imagine they make small talk while the mud sucks at their boots as they bend over with a clam rake, slowly working their way further out towards the sea, moving slowly away from each other until there’s no more talk but just the steady sound of metal moving through wet mud and stone.

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Guide to the Northeast Brett Klein lives in Connecticut and works in New York, but prefers small town life and his home state of Maine. Any chance to get rural is a mental vacation. Follow Klein on Tumblr at The Coast is Clear. His curatorial collection of Americana, rural life, other artists and ephemera can be seen on Tumblr at Tons of Land.

NOTHING TO SEE HERE - CENTRALIA, PENNSYLVANIA

CENTRALIA, 31.2 m. (1,484 alt., 2,446 pop.), was founded in 1826 and named for its then strategic commercial situation. Wooden buildings occupy the bottom of a hollow that has been invaded by stripping operations; some miners’ shacks are almost surrounded by pits. Many houses have settled because of mining operations under the town itself. 

Pennsylvania, A Guide To the Keystone State (WPA, 1940)

Imagine a town as you see it here in this first picture, with more than 1000 residents and over 500 homes and businesses. Now imagine it gone—literally wiped off the map. Families relocated. Structures razed and removed. Street signs dismantled and discarded. Zip code revoked. That’s the story of Centralia, Pennsylvania, a former coal town that literally burned itself out.

In 1962, as it had in years past, the town hired volunteer firefighters to clean up the town dump, located in a former strip mine. This entailed setting the landfill on fire and allowing it to burn. Unfortunately, the fire wasn’t fully extinguished and it ultimately found its way into the abandoned coal mines beneath the town.

It wasn’t until 1979 that the town became aware of the enormity of the fire burning beneath them. Eventually sinkholes were opening up, noxious levels of carbon monoxide were escaping and Pennsylvania officials were warning people to leave. In 1984 Congress allocated $42 million in relocation funds and in 1992, Pennsylvania took all properties in the town by eminent domain. A few folks have stood their ground; the population now stands at 10 with six houses remaining.

There is literally not much to see here as almost everything has been removed. Overgrown empty streets allow your imagination to run wild like the landscape itself. The only signs of the fire are the metal gas monitoring pipes installed by the DEP and the occasional wisps of smoke escaping from some cracks in the earth. Route 61 leading into town was closed off in 1992 because of the severe damage the fire caused. That portion is now referred to as Graffiti Highway and the new 61 jogs right onto what used to be an old logging road—now made modern with asphalt.

The only evidence that life still exists in Centralia are the few remaining homes with their tidy lawns and the cemeteries that are still well maintained. If you knew nothing of Centralia, you could almost drive through it without realizing the town had ever existed—it would be just a couple odd bends in the road. But if you know the story of Centralia it’s hard not to stop and take notice of what isn’t there anymore and imagine what it used to be.

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Guide to the Northeast Brett Klein lives in Connecticut and works in New York, but prefers small town life and his homestate of Maine. Any chance to get rural is a mental vacation. Follow Klein on Tumblr at The Coast is Clear. His curatorial collection of Americana, rural life, other artists and ephemera can be seen on Tumblr at Tons of Land.

THE SPACES BETWEEN THE PLACES – UPSTATE & SOUTHERN TIER, NEW YORK

There have been numerous references throughout history to “the journey, not the destination”; the idea that one should savor the road being traveled, it being the actual reward above and beyond the destination itself. For me, the journey that consistently offers up its bounty is the vast expanse of upstate New York and its Southern Tier.

To travel this region is a great reminder not only of the current state of things in rural America, but also of what used to be. The forests and watersheds allowed much of this area to thrive in the late 1800s, which made way for the prosperity of farms and small factory towns in the first half of the 20th century. You’ll see many stores, farms and factories, some still thriving, some barely hanging on and some in a state of disrepair, now only a remnant of what was and likely will never be again.

It’s the ruralness of this area that can take you by surprise; the fact that these folks make do much by themselves so far from any greater metropolitan area. You can imagine that everyone must know their neighbor’s business. For the traveler passing through it seems that so little must have changed over the years, except that the vacant store fronts must once have been open for business, and the barns that are now collapsing in on themselves must have strongly stood upright in the afternoon sun. 

For the rare small town that somehow shrugged off decay and demise and manages to carry on despite it all, it offers a glimpse of how it used to be better. It can genuinely give you a sense of stepping back in time, of driving into a town from decades past. And then you blink your eyes and you’re through it, back into the farmland until the next small town appears.

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Guide to the Northeast Brett Klein lives in Connecticut and works in New York, but prefers small town life and his homestate of Maine. Any chance to get rural is a mental vacation. Follow Klein on Tumblr at The Coast is Clear. His curatorial collection of Americana, rural life, other artists and ephemera can be seen on Tumblr at Tons of Land.

LITCHFIELD COUNTY, CONNECTICUT

Connecticut’s largest county, Litchfield, is also its least populous. Tucked in the northwest corner of the state, bordering both New York and Massachusetts, Litchfield is fairly rural with lots of farmland and small town centers that look and feel like they were plucked from a Norman Rockwell painting—which they certainly could have been, as Rockwell’s home was not far away in Stockbridge, Mass. 

Connecticut has over 500 miles of dirt roads and you’ll find the majority of them here in Litchfield. In the summer this is an area that city people retreat to, to breathe the fresh air of the outdoors that the county offers with its camping and hiking; taking advantage of the Berkshire Mountains, the Housatonic River, the antique stores and the farmers markets. 

In the winter, Litchfield seems more isolated and it becomes apparent why private schools like Kent and Hotchkiss are situated in an area that is so quiet, removed from anything that might distract from their studies. It’s a quiet time of year; the farmers’ fields seem larger and the woods seem deeper without their foliage, and the deer have fewer places to hide.

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Guide to the Northeast Brett Klein lives in Connecticut and works in New York, but prefers small town life and his homestate of Maine. Any chance to get rural is a mental vacation. Follow Klein on Tumblr at The Coast is Clear. His curatorial collection of Americana, rural life, other artists and ephemera can be seen on Tumblr at Tons of Land.

OYSTERTOWN - CONNECTICUT

NORWALK (Ind.: Norwaake, or Naramake) is an industrial city, spreading across both sides of the island-fringed harbor of the Norwalk River.

— Connecticut, A Guide To Its Roads, Lore, and People (WPA, 1938)

Norwalk, once nicknamed Oystertown, is part of Connecticut’s Fairfield County, also referred to as “The Gold Coast” because of the immense wealth of its residents who live in the various storybook towns and houses dotting the Atlantic coastline. Norwalk, however, doesn’t quite share the same qualities as most of these towns. It still very much reflects its blue-collar history, the opposite of the town’s white-collared neighbors Westport, Darien, New Canaan, and Wilton. 

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Guide to the Northeast Brett Klein lives in Connecticut and works in New York, but prefers small town life and his homestate of Maine. Any chance to get rural is a mental vacation. Follow Klein on Tumblr at The Coast is Clear. His curatorial collection of Americana, rural life, other artists and ephemera can be seen on Tumblr at Tons of Land.