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Island On The Stream

Island On The Stream

Travel
By Nathaniel Reade
posted: 02/12/2004

Take away the asphalt and the gas pumps and Kingfield, 15 miles south of Sugarloaf/USA, looks almost as it did in 1918: a woodmill and farming town of about 1,100 that's surrounded by mountains and perched on the banks of the Carrabassett River. Main Street's old wooden buildings house a few restaurants, a few shops, the Herbert Hotel and Kingfield's weekly newspaper, The Original Irregular. Its offices are sparse and unadorned, save for a large, framed black-and-white photo of an old man in glasses and a wool cap with earflaps. "Amos Winter, the father of Sugarloaf," explains staff writer Kirsten Brown.

Winter believed that if you kept kids busy they'd stay out of trouble. But staying busy in Kingfield-110 miles from Portland, 105 from Bangor and 35 from Farmington-was tough in the Forties. Isolation breeds invention, however, and on Friday nights during the winter months, Winter would pack six to eight high-school students into his grocery delivery truck and head to Bigelow Mountain, a ridge about 20 miles northwest of Kingfield and now part of the Appalachian Trail. During the Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) had cut a trail up the ridge. Winter and his group would sleep in the old CCC cabin, climb on skins to the summit and get a few runs in each day. People started calling them "The Bigelow Boys."

In 1949, Central Maine Power flooded the Dead River Valley, cutting off access to the Bigelow trail. The Bigelow Boys turned their attention to the snowfields on top of the big, bare-topped Sugarloaf Mountain due south of Bigelow Range. It was a 2-mile hike from Route 27 to the base, so the Bigelow Boys and other locals built an access road and cut trails. The first trail they cut is still named Winter's Way, after Kingfield's inventive son.

Ski area experts in the early days pronounced Sugarloaf too far from the big cities to survive. In a sense, they were right. Despite its massive size, happy staff and homey atmosphere, many skiers south of Boston consider the 4 1/2-hour drive too long a trek and instead head for Sunday River, an hour closer. Which is exactly why so many Maine natives choose Sugarloaf.

Some ski resorts invade surrounding towns like gold-plated crabgrass, forcing out the old ways until the natives either move or resign themselves to service jobs. Sugarloaf's relative isolation has preserved a small-town feel and friendly relations in Kingfield. As a result, northern New England families have been returning here for three and four generations. The ski club claims 1,100 members, many of whom probably thank God the resort is too isolated for some folks.

Kingfield native Harvey Packard, now retired from the log-home business, says that Sugarloaf has brought new prosperity to Kingfield, and new blood. One settler "from away," Sue Davis, helped turn the old schoolhouse into the Stanley Museum in 1981 to celebrate the Kingfield family renowned for producing Stanley steam cars, once the fastest in the world.

And it's almost miraculous that such a small town should have two first-rate restaurants: The Herbert and One Stanley Avenue. The Hotel Herbert was built in 1917 by Herbert Wing, who seemed to own everything else in town as well: the bank, the power company, the water company, one of the mills. Once when the town threatened to raise his taxes he shut off the power until city officials changed their minds. Today the hotel has an Addams Family-meets-country-inn quality: oak woodwork, grand piano, potted palms, moose heads, fireplace, overstuffed chairs, three big dogs lolling on the carpet. Its small-town aesthetic draws people away from Sugarloaf's on-mountain condos.

Dan Davis, chef and owner of One Stanley Avenue, which he opened in 1971, describes the advantages of small-town life: When his son was young and accidentally wandered onto the Carrabassett's black ice, five neighbors called him in minutes. A resident since 1965, he says, "I go to the post office in the morningg and everyone waves-even the ones that don't like me."

Davis has invented his own "Maine Cuisine" for One Stanley, a beautifully restored Victorian with intimate rooms and period lighting. Using local ingredients, he creates dishes such as crisp-skinned duck in a fruity rhubarb sauce, sage rabbit and Alluvial chicken, made with juniper berries, hemlock and fiddleheads. He enjoys Kingfield because it's as unique and diverse as his menu, a satisfying mix of old, young, rich, poor, progressive, traditional, native-born and "from away." One night, for instance, he looked into the dining room and saw a local woodcutter enjoying the cosmopolitan cuisine just as much as the man at the next table, who happened to be the president of The New York Times. Remarks Davis, "Now, I think that's pretty interesting."

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