RICHMOND — Five decades removed from the fact, it’s not clear what prompted William H. Williamson, then a reporter with the Maine Sunday Telegram, to venture north to this town on the Kennebec River and write what might be interpreted as its obituary.

Jay Robbins holds a 1969 Maine Sunday Telegram article Tuesday that so offended residents of Richmond they founded Richmond Days to celebrate the community. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

But without that story, it’s also not clear that Richmond residents would be getting ready to celebrate Richmond Days, the town’s annual summer celebration that turns 50 this year.

For months, town officials have been planning the events around this year’s theme: A Jungle Adventure, with themed games, rides and contests; a parade; a chicken barbecue; pontoon boat rides; tours of Swan Island; an outdoor showing Friday night of the movie “Jumanji”; and a fireworks show Saturday night.

People will come from around the region to hear live music by the Saltwater Hillbilly and the Maine Marimba Ensemble or take part in the Daniel Lamoreau Memorial Benefit Corn Hole Tournament, in either the professional or amateur divisions.

Two parades are scheduled — a children’s parade at 6:30 p.m. Friday and a second parade at 10 a.m. Saturday.

At midweek, Laurisa Loon, executive assistant for the town, had counted 24 signups for floats; that list doesn’t include the vintage cars or firetrucks that also will take part.

“It’s shaping up to be quite a good parade,” Loon said.

The Southard House is having a free open house from 10:30 a.m. to  2 p.m. Saturday so people can explore a Victorian home.

And on Sunday, the Swan Island 5K and 10K races will draw runners to the island, which is in the Kennebec River between Dresden and Richmond.

Making the trip 50 years ago was not as simple as it is today, Robbins said. Interstate 295 had not reached Richmond yet, so the main travel route was U.S.Route 201, which then was called the Canada Road.

The story, which appeared in June 1969, described Richmond as a town more inhabited by ghosts than by flesh-and-blood residents.

“The single word that most clearly typifies it is decay,” wrote Williamson, who died in 2002.

Williamson wrote about the town’s rich history in trade and shipping dating back to the mid-1800s, and noted its empty manufacturing spaces and lack of shops and restaurants.

Read Williamson’s full article

The Richmond Days of today looks a lot different from the first one, which consisted of a concert, an art exhibit and craft display that was put on by the newly formed Richmond Historical and Cultural Society.

Since then, different groups have taken over the running the event, said historian Jay Robbins, who found the Maine Sunday Telegram story in the society’s collection earlier this week.

And while Robbins could not immediately locate the pithy response by society president Polly Roberts, he found several early programs, one of which included this description of the response to the story and a number of letters to the editor in defense of Richmond:

“We think it is fitting and proper for the many friends, helpers and well-wishers of the Richmond Historical and Cultural Society to know something of what we have been doing these two years to earn your loyalty. Hence, this brief summary of our history and achievements.

“One Sunday in the summer of 1969 the Portland Sunday Telegram outdid itself in a two-page spread concerning the town of Richmond. It was completely condemnatory, expressing the belief that Richmond was a ‘ghost town’ and the inhabitants were just walking around awaiting the inevitable day of internment.

“This scurrilous article raised our cumulative anger, and our heartbeats quickened with rage. Someone with spirit and vision suggested that something should be done and proposed the formation of an historical society of some sort to portray the good points of our town.”

A sticker in the collection of the Richmond Historical Society. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

Williamson couldn’t know that in three years, the federal Clean Water Act would be passed, leading to the cleanup of the Kennebec River, and that businesses would relocate to or start up in town.

“Richmond has undergone a renaissance in the last 10 years,” said Darryl Sterling, Richmond’s community and economic development director.

There has been substantial investment by existing business, such as Main Street Fuel and K and G Auto, Sterling said, as well as commitment from niche businesses such as restaurants that opened up in town. Tax increment financing has led to improvements in the village area, pedestrian lights and building facade improvements.

“The reinvention piece is huge,” Sterling said. “Things really started turning around in the 1990s.”

 

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