Old mills dot the Maine landscape, especially along the state’s waterways. Those mills remaining are often historical treasure troves, filled with tales from the past. One of them, the former Bass Shoe factory, now called the Bass-Wilson Building, sits like a sentry over Wilton’s downtown.

Like many communities once boasting a signature industry or two, Wilton’s economic focus has shifted since the heyday of shoemaking and textiles. Once the home of the G.H. Bass & Company and the Wilton Woolen Mill, Wilton now serves mainly as a bedroom community, with most of its residents working somewhere else.

The vestiges of Wilton’s former manufacturing glory are evident as you drive down the hill from Wilton Academy and see the intriguing architecture of the Goodspeed Memorial Library, home to the Wilton Free Public Library, on the left, with two and three-story buildings lining both sides of Main Street. The former Bass Mill is just ahead on your right beyond the business district.

For 122 years, Bass was the premiere shoe on the American scene. Charles Lindbergh was wearing a pair of Bass shoes when he made his historic flight across the Atlantic. Hollywood legend James Dean made Bass footwear a fashion statement with his rolled-up jeans, white T-shirt and Bass Weejuns — the original penny loafer — made in Wilton. But this all came to an end when American shoemaking was offshored to other countries.

Instead of shoes, Wilton now offers recreation. When asked what someone new to Wilton should be sure to see before leaving town, the most common recommendation by local residents was beautiful Wilson Lake.

The body of water is located just west of Wilton village. Its main inlet and outlet, Wilson Stream, enters the north end of the pond and exits at the southeast end, passing alongside the former Bass Mill. The lake has three public parks on its shores: Bass Park, Kineowatha Park and Foothills Land Conservancy.

Sue Atwood, and her husband, Tom Whalen, run the Wilson Lake Inn, nestled along the shore of the lake. “Wilson Lake defines the community,” said Atwood. “The lake is beautiful, terrific for recreation and there’s a great sit-down restaurant (Calzolaio Pasta Company) within walking distance.”

Activities include boating, fishing and swimming. One place for easy access and swimming is across from Bass Park on Lake Road. The other is within the town-owned Kineowatha Park off High Street.

Vicki Gordon, owner of Sassy Scizzors, insisted that along with the lake, a visitor should be sure to visit the library before leaving town.

Gordon’s shop sits across the street from the library, endowed by Wilton industrialist Flavius J. Goodspeed, as was the custom at the turn of the 20th century.

“It’s the most popular library I’ve ever seen,” she said. “There are always programs for children and other events.”

Another place worth a stop is the Wilton Farm and Home Museum. A recent visit on a Thursday night happened to occur when the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce was hosting its monthly “business after hours” at the museum. This offered an opportunity to walk through the extensive three-story building and provided a crash course in the history of the town.

Al Kaplan, director of the museum, when asked what he’d tell someone not to miss before leaving Wilton was quick with an answer. “While it might seem self-serving; I’d say our museum.”

Pam Brown, the museum’s treasurer, offered a primer on some of Wilton’s history over the past 100-plus years, one of the highlights being the story of Sylvia Hardy, “The Maine Giantess.” The museum has a somewhat smaller than life-sized replica of Hardy, along with information about her life in Wilton and beyond. And what a life it was.

Hardy, a Wilton native born in 1823, grew to be 7 feet 10 1/2 inches tall and weighed 400 pounds.

Brown shared stories about Hardy, truly one of small town Maine’s most fascinating figures. Being a giant in 2014 would certainly get anyone noticed — being nearly 8 feet tall in the 1800s had to have been difficult, to say the least.

In some of the museum’s historical documents, a number of citations from Maine newspapers like the Portland Argus in 1855 and the Lewiston Journal in 1869 indicated that Hardy didn’t reach the end of her growth span until she was in her early 40s.

Hardy’s greatest claim to fame was her run with P.T. Barnum’s “Greatest Show on Earth,” resulting from her friendship with Barnum star Charles Stratton, better known as the dwarf General Tom Thumb. Thumb and his wife, Lavinia, born Lavinia Mercy Bump, came to Wilton often to visit her relative Leon Bump. This is likely how Hardy became friends with Tom and Lavinia.

This friendship landed Hardy in New York City working for Barnum. What was intended to be a 10-week run turned into a 12-year stint, with Hardy traveling all over the world, often billed along with Lavinia as the “tallest and shortest women in the world,” with Hardy, nearly 8 feet tall, towering over Lavinia, standing 31 inches.

The next time you have a few extra minutes, take a short, five-minute side journey, west from Route 4 into the heart of downtown Wilton. It’s definitely worth the time and minimal effort.

For another bit of unusual Wilton history involving a man and his jock strap, visit writer Jim Baumer’s blog at http://jimbaumerexperience.com/blog/. For recommendations on towns you would like Jim to profile, reach him on his blog.

Wilton: The drive-by

* Incorporated: 1803

* Origin of the name: Abraham Butterfield, a settler from Wilton, N.H., paid the cost of incorporation so the town could be named after his former hometown.

* Population: 4,116 (2010 census)

* Significant historical fact: Location of Maine’s first cotton mill.

* Upcoming events: Wilton Blueberry Festival, Aug. 1 & 2. FMI: www.wiltonbbf.com

* Three good reasons to visit, residents say:

— Beautiful Wilson Lake.

 — Wilson Lake Country Club. (Endorsed by Kathy Groder, who grew up on Wilson Lake.)

— Kineowatha Park. (Recommended by Pam Brown. “It’s a former camp for elite girls and overlooks the lake. It’s a great place to have a picnic or simply to relax.”)

* For more on Wilton: www.wiltonmaine.org


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