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The Farwell Project

Once a center of commerce, an old store takes on a new role

By Greg Rössel

Farwell Brothers store in the late 19th century. Photo courtesy Penobscot Marine Museum

Like the coastal villages that saw their prosperity blossom when coast packets and schooners connected them by water to the outside world, small Maine inland towns had their day with the coming of steam rail service. Those ribbons of steel brought reliable year-round commerce that was unthinkable in times of horse-drawn wagon, coach, and muddy rutted rural road—bringing passenger service, mail, export of agricultural products, and import of manufactured goods. In Waldo County, it was the arrival of the Belfast and Moosehead Lake Railroad that linked the port of Belfast to the rest of the world via the junction with the Maine Central in Burnham. About halfway up the line, the town of Thorndike was a beneficiary. In its heyday, Thorndike sported a railroad station, department store, meat market, movie theater, confectionary store, dance hall, two car dealerships, grange, creamery, cobbler, woodworking shop, post office, and bakery. And, at the heart of it all was the Farwell General Store and grain mill.

But the mill and store closed in 1961. Soon afterward the trains stopped running and downtown Thorndike became very quiet. In recent years a committed group of volunteers has set out to revitalize the mill and store and, by extension, the community. Now part of the Thorndike Mill & Meeting Place, the Farwell Project is being run by the nonprofit Timelines Community, Inc.

Bill Farwell, left, and Dick Farwell, right, review fan mail from Germany. Word had gotten out about their community building in the 1950s and a reporter from Germany arrived to do a story about them. Photo courtesy Penobscot Marine Museum

Oscar Farwell purchased an existing Thorndike store in 1870 as rails were being laid north of Belfast. An informal wager was made with the railroad that a grain mill could be built at the store before the tracks made it to Thorndike. The store won and Farwell was soon in the grain mill business. Oscar Farwell (and later, his sons Bill and Dick) prospered, selling just about anything and everything that might be needed or wanted in Thorndike and beyond. 

Despite large signs in the business reading “Terms For Cash” and “Cash on the Barrelhead,” the Farwells were willing to offer credit. At times, the store acted as a bank of last resort, financing 19 young farmers in Waldo and Knox counties and enabling them start their businesses, according to an interview Bill Farwell gave to a local newspaper in the early 1960s.

In 1960, knowing the end was coming for both him and his store, Dick Farwell consulted with his banker in Belfast and was presented with the news that upon his death, his heirs would owe Uncle Sam $500,000. His response was simply to give it all away. His will left the store and grist mill to the town along with a $500,000 trust to purchase town equipment, make civic improvements, and reduce property taxes of town residents. Organs were purchased for nine local churches. A scholarship was established for local students, and those 19 farmers had their loans forgiven.

A view of the restored Farwell General Store on Gordon Hill Road in Thorndike Village. Photo by Greg Rössel

The town of Thorndike did not want the buildings and sold them off. And after the store closed, the town suffered a number of setbacks, including a department store fire, and the closure of the local creamery; a nearby mill that had served the poultry industry closed in 1989. Even the historic railroad station building left for greener pastures; it now is located at the Boothbay Railway Village Museum.

Downtown Thorndike seemed on track to suffer the fate of so many inland villages with abandoned commercial buildings. Then along came Knox resident Diana Prizio. In 1990 she purchased Thorndike’s former post office for use as a bake shop/cafe, and later added a little letterpress shop, and a gift shop. She got to know the neighboring buildings, their history, their robust construction, and their place in the community.

Then in 2015 the man who owned the old store and mill walked into Prizio’s shop with news that the family had to sell and were offering her first refusal.

There was a lot to like. While the granite foundation had collapsed, the bones of the store and mill were intact; and the store was still stocked as it had been when the closing key had turned in the lock in 1960s—back in the days when it still carried such diverse goods as horse collars, thread, groceries, fencing, bootblack, and snuff. Still piled on the shelves were ice skates and shoes, kerosene lamps and corn planters, scales, bowls, crocks, scythes, hardware and tobacco, cornflakes, animal feed, a wooden wheelchair and a pharmacopoeia of pre-FDA approved potions and elixirs.

The quirky 19th-century grain mill equipment built mainly of wood (and its belt driven winnower), driven by two, 10HP electric motors and reputed to grind up to 110 bushels of oats or corn in an hour, was still in place. Christi Mitchell, assistant director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, scrambled through the machine cupola on a freezing January day in 2016 and declared that the operation was likely the very last grain mill in New England of this vintage that still had all its working parts, which made it eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Diana Prizio, who has led the effort to revitalize the Farwell Store, stands behind the store’s old motto on the cash register. Photo by Greg Rössel

Prizio initially enlisted her friend and neighbor, artist and musician Doug Nye, to help develop a plan to fund the purchase and set a direction for the project. Several different options were explored, including the creation of a dog biscuit factory. While that seemed perhaps a biscuit too far, it led to discussion with a working board of directors about how best to use the historic space and still serve the community. Like a jigsaw puzzle, pieces slowly began to fall into place, and the non-profit Timelines Community, Inc. took on the project. Grant money slowly trickled in, including a federal grant to jack up the store and rebuild the collapsed cellar. Another grant and a private donation enabled hiring Amish folk from Palmyra to install a metal roof on the leaky mill cupola. 

Equally important to success was the need to find volunteer horsepower to do the work required for a boot-strap project with such a large physical plant (four large buildings and a grange hall)—especially in a region with a sparse rural population. 

Yet another neighbor, former county sheriff Jeff Trafton, alerted Prizio to the prisoner re-entry program where non-violent offenders have an opportunity to assist non-profits as part of the skill building and rehabilitation process. “They really like coming here,” she said “and they are a lifeline to our progress.” Groups of five to six inmates arrive with a deputy once a week to tackle projects such as insulation, carpentry, building floors and walls, and creating a theater space adaptable for plays, music, stories, and meetings. 

High school students arrive from the Ecology Learning Center in Unity once a month to tackle tasks ranging from painting and gardening to creating exhibits. 

The railroad remains an important feature of the complex, which now serves as the Thorndike depot for the Common Ground Fair. Additionally, the store is a departure site of B&ML RR human-powered vehicles, called the Railcycles.

Diana Prizio displaying merchandise in the women’s goods and fabric department at the general store museum. When the store closed decades ago, much of its stock remained in place. Photo by Greg Rössel

A 4,000-book library at the former mill will become an adjunct to the Unity Public Library with a period reading room and on-line access to the stacks, plus office/work spaces for community use. Plans call for apprenticeships to be offered in graphic design, letterpress print making and poster design. Long-term plans include workshops in local skills such as woodworking, paper making, leather work, canoe building, metal smithing, fiber arts, instrument building, music making, and pottery.

Prizio would like storytelling to be a focus, as Farwell’s was always the place for swapping news. She has courted local storytellers to weave tales of the region, and the Maine Community Foundation has awarded a grant for students participating in the Waldo County Game Loft to video long-term residents talking about their history.

In many ways, the Farwell Project is about recreating the vibrant gathering place in Thorndike once provided by the original small general store. The project has already inspired another business: a bookstore in a box car on the railroad siding adjacent to the store. It’s not just a building in a community, it’s about building a community. Chances are, Oscar Farwell would have approved.

Greg Rössel lives in Troy and is a boatbuilder, instructor at the WoodenBoat School and its “Mastering Skill’s” video series, author, and host of “A World Of Music” on WERU FM.

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