A recent story in the Kennebec Journal saying that Water Street, Hallowell’s main drag, was long past due for an upgrade probably sent shivers through the spines of anyone who was around 40 years ago.
The plan itself may sound innocent — grade the road so the east side doesn’t dip dangerously toward the sidewalk. The state is on board to study “rebuilding” the road and the city is waiting to hear about $150,000 in federal money that will pay for the study, which will address safety, drainage and parking.
City Manager Michael Starn told Kennebec Journal reporter Susan McMillan that he was told it’s been more than a century since Water Street was rebuilt.
Sounds good, right?
Don’t tell that to anyone who was around in 1975.
In August that year, the state Department of Transportation was set to hold a public hearing on a plan that would expand Water Street — it is U.S. Route 201, after all — into four lanes. To do this, many of the buildings on the Kennebec River side of the street would be torn down.
The plan inflamed the city. More than 1,000 people, including Mayor Robert Stubbs, showed up on Front Street for a rally two days before the hearing, according to city historian Sam Webber. City residents, with a war cry of “Save Hallowell,” agreed to march up State Street in Augusta to the hearing two days later.
The state promptly canceled the hearing, transportation Commissioner Roger Mallar blaming the “carnival-like” atmosphere, according to Webber. Some 400 residents marched on the State House anyway, and at a rally there vowed to preserve historic Hallowell.
Even though downtown Hallowell had been named a national historic district a few years before and previous threats to historic buildings had started a preservation push, the Save Hallowell movement did something to the city — something good. The residents became downright militant about preserving their city’s history.
Maine is loaded with historic cities and towns, but Hallowell wears its history like a badge of honor.
Webber and longtime resident Katy Perry have taken that a step further. Their book, “Reflections & Recollections: Celebrating Hallowell’s 250th,” will be available at some local businesses beginning this week.
The book is a series of stories — some of which appeared earlier this year as columns in the Kennebec Journal — by Hallowell people. Some are about historic events or places in the city; some are simply about growing up there.
Perry, sitting in her Middle Street sunroom on a rainy day this week, said the book is the natural result of a special birthday for the city.
“It seemed just as important a part of the celebration of 250 years of life” as the rest of the city’s yearlong birthday party. “In 50 years, people will read this and they’ll get a picture of what things were like in 2012.”
Webber added that the book is an oral history that preserves stories that otherwise would have been lost.
Both stress that the purpose of the book was not to make money, but to capture history. Once printing costs are covered, most of the money from the book, which sells for $20, will go to the Hallowell Food Bank.
Perry, who has lived all over the world in her 92 years, said Hallowell is unique, and the most special place she’s ever lived. When the city stepped up to help create the book, it didn’t surprise her.
Almost everyone who was asked for a story contributed one. The writers range in age from high school students to people who have been around for almost a century.
The book itself was made possible through donations and volunteer help. When there was trouble with computer programs needed to make the book print-ready, friends at City Hall stepped in to help.
Webber and Perry wanted to get the book printed locally, and Quality Copy and Design gave them a good deal and printed fliers about the book for free.
Quality Copy and Boynton’s Market have agreed to sell it. It’s also for sale at City Hall.
They hope the 100 copies will sell out fast so the food bank can help fill some Thanksgiving and Christmas tables that otherwise wouldn’t have much on them this year.
They’re pretty sure Hallowell residents will step up, not only because they love their city, but because they’re a special breed.
Webber grew up in Hallowell but went away to college and spent some time in New York state.
“People couldn’t understand why I wanted to get back here,” he said. His father had been on the City Council, had been Planning Board chairman and was involved in the community. Because Hallowell is so special, “I felt I had to come back and continue that.”
Webber said one of the things that make Hallowell unique is that it’s full of all kinds of people and “everyone has a talent and something to contribute.”
That becomes a catch-22. People come to Hallowell because they want to be a part of it.
Perry pointed out that Hallowell is truly a community, “not just a town.”
“People want to work together and keep it the way it is,” she said.
They hope the book captures some of that spirit. In the book, Webber recounts those days in 1975 when the city was “haunted by a highway.”
“Is Hallowell still ‘haunted by a highway?'” he asks. “Only time will tell.”
But given the recent three-lane expansion of U.S. 201 in adjacent Farmingdale, “Hallowell citizens must remain vigilant.”
Here’s a bet that if anything hinky starts going on with Water Street, there will be plenty of Hallowell residents blocking the bulldozers.
Would anyone expect anything less?
Kennebec Tales appears the first and third Thursday of the month. Maureen Milliken is news editor for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. She grew up in Augusta. Email her at email@example.com.