Explore: Topsham

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Its recreation, closeness and iconic summer fair add to its well-known retail identity.

Topsham has many faces depending on the road you take in this town that borders beautiful Merrymeeting Bay.

The major thoroughfares through town show a very retail side. Whether you’re traveling along busy Route 196 (driving east toward the coast from Lisbon and the Lewiston-Auburn area, for instance) or you’re one of the many travelers on I-295 who take exit 31 in town, you can’t miss the large retail complex near the I-295 interchange, where farms and fields stood not too many years ago.

The area is a melange of convenience stores, gas stations, scattered local small businesses, strip malls and the Topsham Fair Mall, a mega shopping complex with big-box stores, chain eateries and chain retail establishments, and some local businesses, including iconic Reny’s. The area is a shopping magnet for a host of Topsham’s neighbors, as well as for its own residents.

And given that popular Route 1 runs just south of there through Brunswick, and that Route 201 runs nearby heading north, the many travelers through this crossroads town could be excused for thinking Topsham is all about retail.

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But that distinction ignores the vastly different nature of the other areas of Topsham. 

A five-minute drive from the Topsham Fair Mall entrance will deliver you to the town’s recreation complex bordering both sides of Foreside Road. Not only are there several fields for baseball, softball and soccer, but the large recreation area also has a network of trails that meanders alongside the lower fields (on the south side of the road) and then drifts into the wooded region bordering a pristine section of the Androscoggin River.

These trails loop around for a couple of miles and are ideal for anyone looking for a quiet place to walk or run in a wooded setting, away from the hustle and bustle. Topsham’s recreation department maintains a kiosk with a map of the area in the central parking lot, near the playground.

David Hammond moved to Topsham back in 1992 from western Massachusetts. He arrived to teach in Topsham’s school system, first at Williams-Cone Elementary and later at Mt. Ararat High School. Hammond is now retired, but stays involved as a volunteer with the recreation department.

“Topsham has a terrific school system,” said Hammond. “There is an active contingent of parents and engaged school communities.”

One of the things that might be missed if you are merely passing through Topsham, but becomes apparent when you begin scouting around the town away from its busy corridors, is how diverse yet how walkable the town is in layout.

The town has sidewalks along even the busiest sections of Route 196, along Main Street passing the town’s municipal complex, as well as most of its major side streets, including Elm Street and out to the public library on Foreside Road.

“Topsham is the kind of place we were looking for when we were deciding where to move,” said Aja Darak, who recently moved to Topsham from Durham with her husband and 1-year-old daughter.

“We love how central everything is,” said Darak. “We liked Durham, but we were always jumping in the car to go everywhere. Here in Topsham, I can put Willa (her daughter) on the bike and cycle up to the library five minutes away. We can walk down to Blueberries Food and Drink for breakfast or lunch, which is just five minutes in the other direction,” she added.

The centrality of Topsham to everything else was a draw for Gloria Woods, who located to the town 11 years ago. Woods is the owner of Gloria’s Flea Market, located at 433 Lewiston Road (Route 196), a locally owned contrast to the large retailers a mile away from her quaint little shop.

“Topsham seems to be a short distance from everything,” said Woods.

Topsham also has a historic district bordering Elm Street, which runs east of the town’s Main Street (Route 201), alongside the town’s fairgrounds area, home to the annual summertime Topsham Fair. Many of the historic residences lining Elm, Pleasant and Green streets were built in the early 1800s. The federal mansion at 16 Green St. was constructed in 1802. There are a host of similar properties in this section of town.

Elm Street eventually becomes Route 24 (Middlesex Road, curving north toward Bowdoinham) and passes just to the west of Topsham’s unique natural asset, Merrymeeting Bay, which is the largest freshwater estuary system north of Chesapeake Bay.

Merrymeeting Bay drains 38 percent of Maine’s freshwater rivers and tributaries, including the Androscoggin and Kennebec rivers and a host of others. Biologically, it is classified a freshwater tidal river, geologically it’s an inland delta. And all within 10 minutes of one of Maine’s busiest intersections.

If you only know Topsham from its ample retail sector, then you likely think of the town as just another example of large-scale retail development. But if you spend some time exploring other areas of Topsham, you’ll discover an altogether different place — a rich and diverse community that’s not apparent when merely passing through.

Five good reasons to visit

“The Topsham Fair Mall. It has something for everyone, including Reny’s Department Store.”

— Gloria Woods, Owner of Gloria’s Flea Market

“There are great ‘secret’ walking/running trails near the lower recreation fields on the river side. You get to see a part of the river that’s really beautiful.”

— Cyndi Burne, assistant director of the Topsham Public Library

“There are so many things to do that don’t involve a car. When family comes, we like to take them along the river and over the walking bridge from Topsham Heights.”

— Aja Darak, Topsham resident

“The old mill (the Bowdoin Mill) where the Sea Dog (Brewing Company) is.”

— Jimmy Michaud, owner of Michaud’s Market

“I’m fairly new to the town, but we love the Topsham Fair. It’s one of the first fairs of the year and it’s a great one.”

— Jeanine Santiago, Topsham resident

Topsham: The drive-by

Incorporated: Jan. 31, 1764 (250 years old this year)

Origin of the name: Topsham was settled by English immigrants, many of whom came from the town of Topsham, England. They named the town in memory of their former home.

Population: 8,784 (2010 census)

Historical significance: Topsham, more so than its neighbor across the river, Brunswick, was much more reliant on farming as a major industry after it was settled in the late 1600s. That agricultural tradition can be experienced every summer when Topsham hosts the Topsham Fair (originally the Sagadahoc Agricultural Society Fair), something it has done for 160 years. Like Brunswick, Topsham later expanded into manufacturing, with mills for paper, feldspar, grist, lumber and even shingles.

Key events: The Topsham Fair, one of Maine’s largest agricultural fairs, takes place every summer on the first week in August. The Midcoast Symphony Orchestra begins its 25th season today, Oct. 26, with a performance at the Orion Performing Arts Center, 66 Republic Ave., in Topsham.

FMI:

* Topsham Fair link: http://www.topshamfair.net/

* Midcoast Symphony Orchestra link: http://www.midcoastsymphony.org/

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