GOULDSBORO — For Nat Bradley, driving north from Boston to Maine is a bit like “moving back in time.” Cottages replace high-rises; the bustle of city life fades into quiet, rocky coastline; toll prices drop and become payable in cash.
When Bradley was a child, his family’s annual road trip along U.S. Route 1 to their West Gouldsboro farm took eight or nine hours; these days, he remarks that “people can leave at noon and have a cocktail at 5.”
The 74-year-old, who grew up in Southborough, Mass., and worked for years as a nurse for the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health, now lives in Maine year-round. He is a member of the West Gouldsboro Village Improvement Association (VIA), a group that is itself a remnant of a former time.
Founded in 1913, today the VIA is dedicated to maintaining what is left of West Gouldsboro. Its inhabitants, like those of the town’s many other neighborhoods, often refer to the village by name as their home.
A short minute from the main highway, Route 186 plunges into the heart of West Gouldsboro and a scenic fork, where Jones Cove and Jones Pond meet. Both bodies of water are named after one of the village’s first settlers — Col. Nathan Jones, who arrived in the 1760s.
The village’s one-room seasonal library and a union church are its remaining institutions farther up the road.
Preservation of these two structures is much on the mind of the 20 or so “active” VIA members, most of whom are over 60. It’s a tall task, an “attempt to keep ahead of time,” Bradley said. The price tag is likely over $100,000. But for him and many others, restoring these century-old buildings means not only maintaining two historic sites, but preserving the essence of a community.
So the VIA is forging ahead with a restoration plan this summer. Last year, the group landed a $30,000 grant from the Davis Family Foundation to begin work, an amount it has matched in private donations.
“The buildings have a story to tell,” said Mary Lou Hodge, a native of West Gouldsboro and VIA member who is now the curator of the Gouldsboro Historical Society. “About how the community came together to see the necessity for them in the first place.”
Preservation, explained longtime West Gouldsboro resident and VIA President Ann McCann, is “to honor all those who came before us. It’s honoring them by preserving what they created 100 years ago.”
West Gouldsboro, informally, stretches from Young’s Market on Route 1 to William’s Brook, which crosses Route 186 about two miles south of the main highway. It is the oldest of various villages amalgamated into the town of Gouldsboro, with Birch Harbor, Corea, Prospect Harbor and South Gouldsboro being the most prominent.
A century ago, automobiles had yet to dominate Downeast Maine, so each village serviced its own needs: a church, a library, a school, a post office and a general store. Today, the town of Gouldsboro has a population of roughly 1,700 but contains four U.S. post offices, persisting from the days when each neighborhood required its own.
Just above the picturesque causeway, where Route 186 and the Clinic Road converge, is the Village Green. The triangular lawn is notable for a flag and sundial, the latter of which was installed in 1918 and is the work of area artisan Eric Soderholtz. He also did stonework for the library.
The grass and flowers are maintained mostly by Trixie and Bob Kelleter, VIA members and West Gouldsboro residents. The upkeep is important for Trixie, whose great aunt and uncle once lived in the white clapboard home facing the Green. She grew up in Bar Harbor but visited them often as a child.
The current discussions about the church and library aren’t the first about historic preservation in West Gouldsboro. Several years ago, the Maine Department of Transportation considered eliminating the Village Green as part of a plan to improve the safety of the intersection. After pushback from local residents — “the biggest meetings I can remember,” Bob said — the Green was preserved with slight modifications.
On the other side of the intersection stands the building that once housed the village’s general store and post office. Since 1971, it has been occupied by Maine Kiln Works, a family-run ceramic studio. Below, a small brook runs into Jones Cove. It once was the site of several mills, but these days only a few foundations hint of the former industry.
The church, library and former schoolhouse are a short walk down the road.
“To think that the little town of West Gouldsboro had a little church, a library and a school all in 100 yards is very remarkable,” McCann said.
The school building has been converted into a private residence, but both the library and church are listed on the National Register of Historic Places — a program by the National Parks Service which recognizes sites deemed worthy of historical preservation.
The West Gouldsboro Village Library, which opened in 1907, operates during very limited hours: 1-3 p.m. on Wednesdays and 10 a.m.-noon on Saturdays during the months of July and August. It is staffed by VIA volunteers and maintains a small assortment of books, most of which are either about Maine or written by Maine authors. A subset of works, including a selection of limited edition Charles Dickens novels, are from the library’s original collection.
Nat is among the library volunteers. He says patrons rarely check out books, though it is allowed, but many visitors stop by, curious about the building’s appearance.
The Tudor Revival-style structure was designed by noted Northeast Harbor architect Fred Savage. Its stucco exterior walls and diamond-paned windows stand out in a landscape where most buildings are modest and wood-sided. Savage’s name — widely recognized on Mount Desert Island, where he built hundreds of summer cottages — is a particular source of pride for some village residents.
Mary Lou worked as the town librarian one summer when she was a teenager. She says the library always had a narrow readership.
“When I was growing up, there were five children in the village,” she said. “Four of them were boys, and then there was me.”
Mary Lou’s family is among those credited with the library’s construction. Her grandfather, Alfred Tracy, was the carpenter who headed the library building committee in the early 1900s.
Nat’s family likewise has deep connections to West Gouldsboro. His father’s saltwater farm shipped fresh produce and dairy products across Frenchman Bay to Mount Desert Island. Another relative donated the library’s fireplace mantels.
Nat liked West Gouldsboro enough that he moved to Maine for good in 1985.
“I’m here by choice,” he quipped.
The West Gouldsboro Union Church is next door to the library. Like its neighbor, the church is still active — occasionally. Rev. Don Ashmall leads services twice a year, once in July and once in August.
An Ellsworth American article from 1889 credits the church’s construction to the “ladies of the Union Church Society,” who “held a fair and plate supper” as fundraisers. Private donations aided the project, and the church was formally dedicated in 1891. As a Union Church, it was open to all Christian denominations.
This history, Mary Lou points out, shows that responsibility for the church has long been the work of the community as a whole.
The building is notable architecturally for its unusual detailing. Historic photos show that it once featured a dark brown trim. A weather vane crowns the singular tower. Inside, two circular stained-glass windows, one above the sanctuary and the other behind the nave, resemble ship wheels. The church’s designers are hypothesized to have been ship carpenters, but their exact identities are unknown.
“There were many shipbuilders in the area at the time,” Mary Lou said. “But we don’t have any record of the builders.”
The church originally held year-round services, but those didn’t last very long because the wood stove used to heat the building wasn’t strong enough to keep parishioners in the front pews warm. The congregation further dwindled in the 1950s, but has kept up two services a year.
While the library is relatively well-maintained — although it could use some paint work — the church needs renovation. One corner of the structure is slowly sinking into the ground, and a tarp and a bucket occupy the second row of pews to safeguard from a leaky roof. The original paint colors are long gone, as are some shingles on the front, and a few windows are cracked.
Mary Lou, who was married in the church in 1964, would like to see it renovated and used more frequently. To her, it is a reminder of the “community family” that once united West Gouldsboro — a family that became more distant as cottages multiplied on Jones Pond and attractions like a movie theater and bowling alley led residents to spend their time in Ellsworth instead.
“It’s difficult to get the new people who move in to take the time to appreciate the architecture of the building, or the history of the building,” Mary Lou said. “People are so busy now.”
Last fall, the VIA launched a fundraising campaign to restore both buildings. The group, which had previously relied on events like bake sales to fund projects like painting, has been soliciting donations from residents of Gouldsboro and the neighboring town of Winter Harbor. They are also seeking additional grants to supplement the $30,000 that they already won from the Davis Family Foundation.
Ann said that, between the grant and donations, the group has raised about $60,000 so far. It’s not the full $125,000, but it’s a start, and the VIA hopes to begin work later this summer.
“We’re just grateful for the community support we’ve received,” she said.
The renovation plan has multiple parts, which the group expects to carry out over multiple years. First, the church will need to be literally lifted off the ground so that the foundation can be repaired, preventing further sinkage. The current electric wiring is unsafe, so the group wants to install new circuits. Then, the building will need other structural repairs — windows replaced, structural repairs and eventually a paint job.
Church supporters hope that those are the only repairs necessary.
“With old buildings, you never know what you’re going to run into,” Nat said.
After the church is renovated, it could be used for other events, perhaps concerts, art shows, or another wedding. Right now, however, the VIA is simply focused on making sure both buildings stay standing as time moves forward.
“There’s a feeling of pride in where you live and the things your village has to offer,” said Mary Lou.