‘Eclectic’ community on Merrymeeting Bay and the Cathance River.

If you happen to stop in the center of Bowdoinham and, as you look out at the Cathance River, seem to smell the ocean and experience a sense of sea-faring adventure, you’re forgiven.

While this proud town is miles from the open ocean, it was once a thriving shipbuilding center with early 19th-century shipyards lining the Cathance, offering easy access to the Kennebec River, Merrymeeting Bay and the open sea.

In fact, the town turned out its first sailing ship, Merrymeeting, in 1768.

By the mid-1800s, the railroad had arrived and the town’s population pushed past 2,000 for the first time. Ice harvesting became another major industry for the town. At the peak, Bowdoinham had 24 companies harvesting Kennebec River ice and sending it — packed in sawdust — via rail and ship all over the world.

The influence of the town’s vibrant and colorful history, which included substantial agriculture, can be felt today.

David Whittlesey, a board member for the Bowdoinham Community Development Initiative, which, among a list of things, seeks to stimulate and grow healthy local enterprises, recently characterized the town as “a very eclectic community.”

“I’m not sure why that is,” said Whittlesey, “but Bowdoinham has a diverse mix of people — economically, socially and politically.”

That mix was imprinted by an influx of “back-to-landers” during the 1930s, Whittlesey said. They moved to Bowdoinham for its abundant and fertile land.

What’s quite apparent if you venture into town is how friendly Bowdoinham is to visitors willing to invest some time meandering around. Locals are obviously proud of their community — and for good reason.

In 2012, the town celebrated its 250th anniversary. To commemorate the celebration, residents commissioned the book “Bowdoinham 1762-2012: The Bay, The Land, The People.”

Writing about local history and gathering information is no easy task. To create a narrative that’s readable and captures the town’s abundant past in less than 150 pages — as this book does — is impressive.

Kate Cutko, who chaired the committee responsible for publishing the book, is the librarian at the Bowdoinham Public Library, located on the second floor of the Coombs Municipal Building on School Street.

The town has had a public library since 1910, when town leaders signed incorporation papers to “establish and maintain a public library and reading room” to be housed in what was the office of Alton C. Small, above his drugstore on Main Street.

Since then, the library was had numerous homes before settling in the former Kindergarten Room of the Coombs School building — in what had been the town’s high school — in 1984. A “book brigade” of elementary school children was organized to pass books “up the hill” from the old location to the new one on School Street.

Spending as little as 30 minutes at Bowdoinham Public Library will provide you with a sense of what’s what in the community. Cutko is the kind of librarian that information-seekers love. Outgoing and accommodating, she oversees a terrific small town library with considerable resources.

Several locals mentioned that a visit to Bowdoinham wouldn’t be complete without spending some time at The Town Landing Restaurant, located at the corner of Route 24 and Main Street, a few hundred yards from the Cathance River waterfront. In warmer weather, boaters can dock and walk up to the restaurant for a sit-down lunch at the counter or in the eatery’s dining area. Or, visitors can simply pick up sandwiches, pizza and other take-out items and have a picnic at Phillip Mailly Waterfront Park.

Lynn Spiro, owner of the Town Landing, is another local resource. Grab a cup of coffee — and breakfast, lunch or dinner — and Spiro will patiently answer your questions. . . when she’s not hustling to get meals out to her customers.

“Bowdoinham has a great sense of its history and remembers the past,” said Spiro. “They also aren’t just interested in the past for nostalgia’s sake,” she said. “This is a town where people band together and care about each other.”

Spiro, who moved to Bowdoinham from Massachusetts 11 years ago, saw Bowdoinham’s community spirit firsthand two summers ago. That’s when a truck travelling down Main Street in the direction of the restaurant lost its brakes, crossed Route 24 and plowed through the front of the building. It came to a stop with its nose resting in Spiro’s drink cooler.

“It was just luck that it didn’t happen during breakfast or lunch and no one was sitting at that counter,” said Spiro.

She mentioned how townspeople gathered immediately and began helping to clean up and secure the building for her.

“This was just another indication that Bowdoinham is the kind of place where neighbors help neighbors,” said Spiro.

Spiro also gives back to the community. She was a founding board member of the Merrymeeting Arts Center and hosts “Cruise ‘In on the Cathance,” a vintage and antique car gathering on lower Main Street near her restaurant. The summer staple happens monthly, and includes live music, door prizes and raffles, with funds going to benefit various Bowdoinham organizations.

If you follow the local food scene in Maine, and appreciate local farmers, then you probably know that Bowdoinham has become a place where agriculture is experiencing a revival of sorts. A host of younger farmers have moved to town and are farming on land tied to the town’s farming past.

People that know their farming history will likely mention the name Harry Prout. He owned Merrymeeting Farms at the edge of Merrymeeting Bay, where a confluence of five rivers come together, including the Kennebec. The soil was rich and perfect for farming. Prout grew a variety of crops, including peas, parsnips, sugar beets, lettuce, turnips and carrots. In fact, he was known as “the carrot king.” His farms also allowed people to come and pick their own vegetables.

According to Whittlesey, Cutko and others, the land in East Bowdoinham where Prout’s farm once sat has been preserved. While other places have seen similar parcels of land end up being turned into house lots for subdivisions, several people and organizations in Bowdoinham have come together to keep the land in cultivation.

Some young farmers are finding Bowdoinham through George Christopher’s Farm Incubator Program. Through an affiliation with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, farmers looking to launch their own farms can lease acreage from Christopher while receiving mentoring and technical support from MOFGA. So far, a number of first-time farmers or farming couples are now keeping farming viable in Bowdoinham.

So pick a day when you’re not harried and head to Bowdoinham for a visit. You’ll find a place with friendly people, a rich history and a surprising number of things to do that are, pleasantly, just a tad off the beaten path.

Jim Baumer is a freelance writer. He prefers small towns and roads less traveled. If you’d like him to profile your town, email him at [email protected]

5 good reasons to visit

“The Philip Mailly Waterfront Park, on the Cathance River.”

— David Whittlesey, resident and a member of the Bowdoinham Community Development Initiative

“I love the vistas down along Brown’s Point, and the view there of Merrymeeting Bay.”

— Kate Cutko, librarian at the Bowdoinham Public Library

“I think the young farmers that have moved here from away. They are keeping farming alive in Bowdoinham.”

— Rebecca Pease, Bowdoinham resident

“The Wildlife Management Area off Wildes Road. There are great walking trails that go down to the point along Merrymeeting Bay.”

— Kylie Patterson-Resident, who works at Bowdoinham General Store

“The people in Bowdoinham are the best — our recycling center is a destination for people in other towns looking for how to run a recycling center in their community.”

— Bryan Benson, resident who works at the Bowdoinham Recycling Barn

Bowdoinham: The drive-by

Incorporated: Sept. 18, 1762.

Origin of the name: Bowdoinham was named for Peter (William) Bowdoin, a religious refugee from France. He purchased a tract of land that included the area now called Bowdoinham.

Population: 2,889 (2010 census)

Significant historic fact: Shipbuilding was an important early industry for the town, fading over time. The first vessel was launched in 1768, and the last of any size in 1912. Bowdoinham was once the site of wharves, for shipping lumber and other goods. The location of those wharves, Cathance Landing, became the town’s business center, called Bowdoinham Village

FMI: http://www.bowdoinham.com/

Key events and things to do in Bowdoinham:

* Bowdoinham Holiday Festival, Friday and Saturday, Dec. 5 and 6. Among the festivities, the Bowdoinham Guild of Artisans will be selling jewelry, pottery, fiber art, photography, prints and paintings. FMI: http://www.bowdoinham.com/

* Cruise ‘In on the Cathance is held throughout the summer on the last Saturday of each month, beginning in June. FMI: Contact Lynn Spiro at the Town Landing Restaurant at 666-3872 or go to https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Town-Landing/49009108354.

* Ice fishing at Jim’s Smelt Camps on Route 24 (on the Cathance River) in Bowdoinham. FMI: Call 666-3049 or email [email protected]

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