The Robber Barons of Rumford

I worked on a volunteer project with a friend named Grace once. The project was called “The Poverty Resistance Project” and to be perfectly honest, I don’t remember its purpose. Maybe we planned a fundraiser or maybe we did some community outreach. Grace was passionate about eradicating poverty. One day, Grace and I were leaving a meeting and she told me of her frustration with the project’s bureaucracy and her doubts that our work would ever bear any fruit, least of all for the people who needed fruits and vegetables and jobs. She sighed and said “I just want to do something to help as many poor people as possible. I want to help them to get on their feet and restore their dignity so they can stand up and take care of themselves. I don’t see how any of these meetings help anyone.”

Someday Grace will have her own foundation and she’ll help people.

Andrew Carnegie had ideas about helping people, too. History has “mixed emotions” about him, some labeling him a robber baron and others citing him as a philanthropist and industrial statesman. He was a little of both. After selling Carnegie Steel to J.P. Morgan on March 2, 1901, he spent the rest of his life giving away his amassed fortune. One particular philanthropy project, the products of which are still evident today, was the “Carnegie library.” These libraries, dotted across the country, were built from money the industrialist gave as a grant to almost any town that asked.

Carnegie insisted that if a town were to receive his grant money, they had to agree to sustain the library independent of any further endowments from him. In this way, he helped many small towns help themselves. Carnegie said “A library outranks any one thing a community can do to benefit its people.”

I happened to be passing by a Carnegie library in Rumford, Maine on Saturday.

It was twenty-five minutes ‘til closing time, Lady Alone Traveler’s favorite time to arrive at libraries and antique shops. The library sits about halfway up a hill overlooking the Androscoggin River, Rumford’s downtown, and the paper mill. I took a couple of pictures and walked around the library. I asked the librarian if I could leave my car in the parking lot after closing time while I took a walk around town and she said it would be fine. She told me to “stay warm.”

I walked down the hill and across Rumford’s main thoroughfare, Congress Street. It was desolate except for a legless man on a motorized scooter. A large and historically interesting building on the other end, The Hotel Harris, was darkly inviting and I hurried down the street to this monument. The lobby was quiet and deserted; was I intruding on something? I didn’t stay long.

I crossed over the river again on the second of Rumford’s two downtown bridges and hiked back up the hill. A large stone pillar caught my eye and then an architecturally interesting brick house. I walked towards it. It was a whole neighborhood of fascinating brick houses, some modestly maintained and others falling into disrepair. The planned neighborhood was built by another industrialist around the same time Andrew Carnegie was beginning his library project. Residents probably moved into Strathglass Park around the same time the Rumford Library held its grand opening. It was a different time.

I e-mailed a few pictures to Reggie and he told me this duplex was for sale for $58,000, both sides. Look it up–5 Clachan Place and 35 Lochness Road. Most of Rumford is for sale for pennies on the dollar.

Once again, I didn’t plan out my Lady Alone Traveler trip thoroughly and I didn’t do enough research before I left. I have questions about Rumford, its economic decline, and the people who once lived there. It’s an enjoyably walkable town and if I lived at 5 Clachan Place, I could walk to the Post Office, the Library, and Brian’s Bistro. It needs a coffee shop and I don’t mean Dunkin’ Donuts.

I know, everyone thought the paper industry would last forever and building a big Wal-Mart in the next town over seemed like a good idea at the time. It’s also true that it was the paper mills, in part, that first brought urbanity and culture to the remote river valleys of Maine. But it was the automobile that eliminated the need for walkable downtowns. Stylish brick libraries and the knowledge housed in them have been overshadowed by the roads that transport us to more impersonal plastic places.

Restoring Rumford’s dignity? It sounds like a project for Grace’s foundation. We’ll have our meetings at the library.

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3 Responses to The Robber Barons of Rumford

  1. Loosehead Prop says:

    Such graceful buildings.

    But you found the poison pill, too. A “China-mart” one town over successfully chokes out any local business in Rumford. No business can keep up with the cheaper product made from indentured labor. Even more, so long as people have cars they will think the better deal is just a short drive away, rather than recognize that the older ways–stores in town that delivered, which is still the norm in England where semi-detached houses like Strathglass are also still the norm–make for a liveable, walkable town not dependent on a ten-thousand mile supply chain. People think that food prices are cheaper because they can drive to the store, but when they calculate the costs of the car, insurance, maintenance and fuel, it becomes clear that the big stores have pushed the costs onto their customers, and the customers don’t even realize it.

    The video on the Strathglass site discusses three conditions placed on the houses when they were first sold. The owners had to maintain a twelve-foot setback from the road, could not build garages or sheds, and could not keep pigs or chickens. Even then, the planners made certain assumptions about proper suburban life, such as that no one would have their own gardens or pick their own eggs, and that garbage services would always haul away what everyone, including townspeople, used to feed to their chickens and pigs.

    • Dear Reggie, your comments always synthesize clearly the conclusion I’m trying to reach. Launching the Monday blog post is tough, even if I start writing it on Saturday or Sunday. It’s that these topics are not necessarily uplifting, are they? Nothing is ever very pretty at the China*Mart.

      I wonder if chickens are allowed in Strathglass Park now?

  2. Loosehead Prop says:

    Resist poverty?

    It’s a temptation?

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