Since one of us grew up along Maine’s midcoast, we reflexively think of the state as one long stretch of rocky shore and green-blue sea. But Maine is the Pine Tree State, and once the spring runoff slackened enough to ease black fly season, we decided to sample some inland charms. Serendipity intervened when we encountered the “Gems of Route 26” brochure at a state information center.
The 25-mile stretch of western Maine blacktop between Maine Turnpike Exit 63 in Gray and the unfortunate strip mall in South Paris is largely rural, intensely green, and blessedly quiet. Proceeding north, the land rises from coastal uplands to gentle foothills. Sloping meadows of fallow farms line the roadside, and the countryside is dotted with spring-fed alpine lakes. To the northwest, peaks of the White Mountains seem to stand arm in arm against the horizon. In other words, it’s darn pretty country.
It’s also full of wildlife, although the critters at the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray were taken in because they were injured, orphaned, or had become human-dependent. This southernmost stop on the route is hugely popular with small fry. Where else are they likely to see up to 30 species of animals mostly native to the Maine woods in one afternoon? Probably not in the Maine woods, where most animals do their best not to be seen. Trails lead past enclosures where creatures roam in reasonable approximations of their natural habitats. Stars of the park include the big cats (bobcats, lynx, and cougar), roly-poly black bears, and moose that munch all manner of browse, unperturbed by squealing youngsters. The park paths are landscaped with shade-loving plants and picnic tables abound.
Just outside the wildlife park gates, the Dry Mills Schoolhouse Museum is the last of a dozen one-room schools built in Gray. It was active from 1857 to 1958 and now displays memorabilia of rural Maine education. Limited hours make it largely a structure to admire while passing by.
But the school is hardly the only historic building along the route. Less than a mile north, Barn on 26 Antiques occupies a circa-1870 barn that owner Alice Welch says was probably built by local Shaker carpenters. Its handhewn beams, broad pine planking, and rock-solid construction certainly suggest that provenance. While Route 26 has no shortage of antiques emporia, Barn on 26 has a consistency of style and period that evokes Maine from 1870 to 1920. The shop is particularly strong on Victorian wooden furniture that ranges from hall trees to dining tables to Stickley-style Morris armchairs.
The Shakers themselves lived just a few miles over the town line in New Gloucester. Both of them still do. Brother Arnold Hadd and Sister June Carpenter are the world’s last surviving Shakers. Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, founded in 1783, remains an active farm, thanks to the Friends of the Shakers, who help with the chores and operate tours of the property. The community still raises sheep and Scottish highlands cattle, grows vegetables and herbs, sells the seeds, and keeps bees and chickens. They also lease out their apple orchards and some of their farmland.
The tour enters a few of the buildings, including the sisters’ shop, where women would do laundry, knit, sew, and assemble the famous oval poplar boxes. It concludes at the 1794 meeting house with its separate entrances for men and women. No one knows how many of the roughly 10,000 Shaker hymns have echoed off these walls. Services are still held on Sundays and visitors are welcome to stay afterward for coffee and doughnuts. Open the other days of the week, the Shaker Store sells hanks of yarn, Shaker seeds, herbal teas, and Shaker brooms.
The best place for lunch nearby is the surprisingly sophisticated New Gloucester Village Store. This 21st-century descendant of a 19th-century country store turns out a few entrees and many pizzas from its wood-fired brick oven. The store also bakes bread for a broad line of sandwiches. The “Less Big” sandwiches are enough for modest eaters to split. The “Big” sandwiches are humongous.
For dessert, backtrack to the Bresca & the Honey Bee snack shop at Outlet Beach, a piney oasis at a private swimming hole on Sabbathday Lake. There’s a modest admission for the beach, but picnic tables under the pines are free for ice cream lovers to relish every spoonful of Bresca’s unusual flavors, such as crème fraiche key lime pie ice cream or Mexican Coke peanut sorbet. A second chance at frozen nirvana awaits near the end of the route. On the north side of Poland Spring, Ruby Rose Frozen Custard specializes in the old-fashioned treat made with heavy cream and eggs.
The 1845 discovery of Poland Spring spawned both the eponymous bottled water business as well as a spa hotel with the oldest resort golf course in America. Perched on a rolling hillside, Poland Spring Resort once attracted presidents, movie stars, sports figures, and urban swells to enjoy the purported benefits of the waters and to play the scenic course. Today, the resort focuses on offering a modest, good-value family getaway.
The founding Ricker family flourished thanks to Poland Spring water, which won a “Medal of Excellence” at the 1893 Columbian Exposition. When the world’s fair packed up shop that fall, the Rickers purchased the Maine State Building and moved the three-story octagonal Queen Anne structure by rail and ox cart from Chicago to their resort. The Poland Spring Preservation Society gives tours of the structure, which is replete with Poland Spring memorabilia.
The Preservation Society also oversees the elegant Spanish-style spring house from 1895 and the adjacent bottling plant from the early 1900s, both owned by Nestle Waters North America. The spring house crowns the original source of Poland Spring with a formal elegance. Panels at the adjacent bottling plant tell the tale of the growth of the water brand and the simultaneous blossoming of the resort. Surrounding Preservation Park is laced with wooded walking trails. As the signage on the entry gates suggests, this is a “stress free zone.”
Route 26 loses some of its rustic quality about 8 miles north of the resort when it passes the Oxford Casino — which, it must be admitted, is tastefully set back from the byway. Among the proliferating roadside enterprises between Oxford and South Paris, the egg-yolk yellow Maine Bookhouse stands out from the crowd. The used books inside range from paperback potboilers to local history tomes to field-and-stream essentials like “How to Cook Your Catch,” “LeRoy Hyatt’s Favorite Flies,” and “How to Train Your Bird Dog.” Co-owner Harry Reese is also an enthusiastic dealer of vintage vinyl LPs.
The McLaughlin Garden & Homestead in South Paris is a bucolic oasis in the midst of unrestrained roadside development. Bernard McLaughlin, the self-taught dean of Maine gardeners, often left his garden gate ajar for visitors. The nonprofit McLaughlin Foundation has continued the tradition. More than 2 acres of gardens include vast swathes of shade-loving plants like hostas and trilliums and a liberal sprinkling of flowering woody shrubs like lilacs and rhododendrons. Interpretive panels in the handsome old barn chronicle the history of the property and McLaughlin’s horticultural legacy. The gardens themselves exude an old-fashioned serenity, one last taste of Maine as it used to be.