When I was a boy, my father told me a story about a ghost town. I come from northern Maine, Aroostook County, a place of endless trees and potato fields with more deer than people. It’s lonely country, a place of long, quiet, windswept vistas, of dark temples in the forest, of a world not yet destroyed by the endless march of human industry. Not yet. To be clear, I had heard my share of ghost stories – my sister had even seen the spirit of my grandmother standing at the foot of her bed, watching over her. I know because I awoke to her screaming. We lived with the idea of the Holy Ghost, the idea that life did not end with death, that life is but a walking shadow of the world and times to come. Once, when I was 17, I came face to face with a full body apparition. I’m still not sure what that was. But when my father told me of the ghost town, it was a horse of a different color. It wasn’t the remnant or memory of a person – no, it was an entire place, lost and forgotten, like a ghost but not a ghost. You can’t hang out and linger with a ghost, but a ghost town? Maybe it was the next, best thing.
“The clay there is red,” he told me. “That’s how you’ll know you’re there. It lies next to the river. It was a whole settlement, with a general store, homes, you know…A while back some folks dug there for clay to make ceramics with. Reddest clay you ever saw. Like blood. Not much left now, just a couple of old foundations and an old, broken down church from what I remember when I went there as a kid. It’s not far away,” he told me, “just over the hill and down by the river, a hidden place. No one goes there anymore. It used to be called Dow Siding. There’s a road, but it’s hard to find. Mostly grown over. More like a path” he told me, “but be careful. Don’t go there alone.” That was my old man, for you. Tell your boy about a ghost town, give him the rough coordinates, and then tell him not to go. So when there came a day when I didn’t have any real adult supervision, I hopped on my little Yamaha Mini-Enduro 60 and headed up through the field roads, over Buck Hill and down to the Aroostook River to search for a road that I hoped…man, I hoped for dear life that it existed.
It did. It took me half the day to find it, past people’s homes, down along fields even the farmers didn’t plow anymore, a patch of earth no one thought worthy of visiting. But there I was, going back and forth in a search pattern until…what was that? A pair of ruts in a tiny clearing? A pathway mostly overgrown with raspberry vines and thistle? Slowly, I drove the little bike through the thicket, dodging low hanging branches that cut at my face. Through squinting eyes, an opening appeared and then, a cleared area in the forest, something you only ever saw if it was a farmer’s field. This was not a field, but a half acre of land cleared years ago by forgotten hands and still, the woody root and red alder hadn’t been able to reclaim all of it. There were the remains of a building, very likely the church my father saw when he was a boy, all a pile of ruins. There were bits and pieces of metal, a wagon wheel, an ancient rusted hand pump resting at an angle in the ground. There were fieldstone foundations just peeking up through the undergrowth and, as I recall, a rosebush more full of blossoms than I had ever seen before. Someone had planted that rose, I thought. Someone had lived here, children had grown up here, men had risen early in the morning to keep the fires burning in the coldest winters imaginable. I got off my dirt bike and walked into the middle of the clearing. I could see where someone had dug into the side of a hill and, sure enough, the clay there was fine and as red as the dust of Mars. Someone had come back for it, as my father had told me, but even they eventually left this place alone. I stood there and listened for a long while. A silence fell, a kind of weight covering everything I could see. It was like I was all alone in the world – a totally empty planet, and this was all that was left. For a second, I was the ghost. And the absence of sound probably caused my own imagination to hear, on the edge of things, a cart rolling past, a horse’s measured clop as it passed me, a faint ringing of a bell far in the distance. For a moment, I realized the truth of things: a place, whether it be a room, a house, or even a town, doesn’t hold you and shelter you from the storm for the years of your life and then just let you go. It retains a memory of sorts, an echo of days long past and if you are receptive to such things, you can hear that echo and see those phantoms. They are not ghosts, they are only memories with weight, but on that lost afternoon of my youth nearly fifty years ago, I know one thing to be true – for a few moments, I was somewhere else. I never went back. It wouldn’t be the last time I stepped off the map.
Just like people, there are places that disappear. In the American West, there are many ghost towns. You can find them from Alaska to southern Texas, but there’s something about the climate in those places that keep the buildings standing and the roads open. In Maine, where the cold and the snow, the wind and rain rage and the green growth covers all, such places tend to quickly vanish from view. A road untraveled in this place will soon get lost in the thicket by the little maple saplings and the puckerbrush tangle of growth that are only kept at bay by constant travel.
There are many such places in Maine. This story is about one of them, a place known as Riceville. On a map made in 1894, it is noted as the F. Shaw and Brothers Bark Extract Works. An ancient way of tanning animal skins requires boiling down tree bark to make a dark tea-like liquid that is full of tannins, the substances that give tanning its name. The raw materials for bark extraction were plentiful there: water, trees, and wood for boiling it all down. On the edge of Buffalo Stream, east of Greenfield and west of Nickatous Lake in Hancock County, a little village arose to support the bark extraction works. By 1890, 130 or more people called the place home. Eventually, F. Shaw and brothers sold the works. Its name comes from the fellows who bought it from F. Shaw and Brothers, a company called Buzzell and Rice. They converted the works into a full-fledged tannery. At the time, shoe leather was desperately needed and buffalo skins were shipped all the way to Riceville so they could be processed and shipped back to the growing shoe industry in New England.
If you try to find Riceville now, you’ll have a hard time. It’s nearly lost to the forest. If you do find the tote road a few miles northeast of Old Town, you’ll be walking to Township 39, a place that has a number instead of a name. You’ll be lucky if you can get there on foot – it’s wet and overgrown and you might have to turn back. A couple of hours of trudging will get you to the first thing you encounter – the Riceville Cemetery.
There, in the middle of the thick undergrowth, it meets you with an old crooked white picket fence and a sign nailed to a tree growing in the middle of the little plot. Someone pays enough attention to this place to see that the fence remains and the little plot is kept fairly clear. Strangely enough, there are no markers at all in the cemetery. You wonder as you walk the little spot who lies below, forgotten. It’s quiet here, but the wind whispers through the trees. You listen, then you move a little further into the woods and after a few minutes of walking and dodging, you will come upon an opening, a cleared area, littered with scraps of metal here and there, a wagon axle, a pipe, and rusted barrel hoops. There’s a big open well that has been circled by faded yellow warning tape. If someone fell into that hole this far away from help, they might never emerge. There’s a stone foundation still standing strong after so many years of neglect. You look around a little more, wonder at the thought of it all and realize that you’ve got quite a hike to get out of there and really, there is nothing left. Nothing except the story of how this all came to be.
Today, hunters and ruin-seekers are about the only folks who make it to Riceville, but a little over a hundred years ago, this place had a mill, a school, a general store, boarding house and homes for the workers at the tannery. It was a thriving community. A vital trade in tanned buffalo hides made this place perfect. There was a stream with clean, pure water. It was far enough away from civilization that the foul odors of the tannery would not be bothersome. Set far from any major town or city, Riceville was a successful little community carved into the Maine forest. For years, it was a hub of activity. Families thrived there. Children grew up and went to a school, played on a the baseball team. Visitors stayed at the boarding house. Commerce thrived as product was made and shipped out for the larger markets of the world. The people who lived there, though, lived alone among themselves, especially in the winter. Places that are far from the main currents of the world of people and doings do not often have casual visitors. Long periods of time can occur when no one comes or goes from the town. Days might pass without a visitor, something that would never happen today. It was not unusual for no one to leave or visit for long periods. Riceville, situated where it was, was self-sustaining. It was also isolated. So what happened to the people of Riceville?
And this is where the story comes in. One day, it occurred to someone that they had not heard from anyone in Riceville for a while. We don’t know who asked, but someone did. Asking around in town, they discover that no one else has had any contact with Riceville for more than a week, maybe two. Someone decides it’s time to pay the good folks a visit. In other stories, it’s not a deputation from a town but a traveling merchant who eventually finds his way to Riceville on that fateful day. What was found is legend. As their horse slowly made its way up the road to the village, they noticed a strange stillness, an absence of movement. Actually, there was nothing moving. They cast their gaze around to find someone to speak with but to their shock and then their horror, they begin discovering the bodies. First one lying on the side of the road then others, lying in the grass, their bodies swollen by the heat. They’ve been there awhile. Further investigation of the little homes and boarding house prove an undeniable fact – everyone of them, over a hundred people, are dead. Officials are called in – investigations are made. Has cholera killed them all? Poison from the tannery? Those in charge determine that they need to bury these bodies quickly – a mass grave is dug and the bodies are placed together and covered. In time, the mystery deepens. No one can determine exactly how these people died and why at least one of them did not take a horse and seek help in the next settlement. No one knows what happened to the people of Riceville. And so, a legend is born. The buildings fall in, the road disappears, and the story is the only thing that remains.
Even if it isn’t quite true. As storytelling creatures, we tend to remember the most sensational tales, the ones that leave us wondering, the ones that make our world seem more mysterious. Everyone loves a good mystery, even if there is, after all, no mystery. I’ve heard of cholera as the cause of the large number of deaths or of mercury poisoning the water source. The large number of deaths, however, is not supported by the evidence. An entire town disappearing overnight? Didn’t happen.In fact, as far as we know, nobody died of anything.
But something did happen to the settlement and the people. Towns don’t usually disappear overnight and people need time to move on. According to a report in the Ellsworth American, sometime between December 30 and 31st, 1905, the tannery burned to the ground. The store and boarding house survived, but the rest of the tannery works was suddenly gone. Every single person in Riceville was in some way employed by the tannery, so the livelihood of all was contingent upon the mill being rebuilt. But it wasn’t. The tannery was insured. The owners of the Riceville Tannery also owned a tannery in Lowell, Massachusetts which had previously burned under similar circumstances. Neither was rebuilt. With no income, the people soon found no reason to stay in Riceville. They moved on, as people do, when the income suddenly stops. This is how ghost towns are born, after all. Within ten years, the post office closed and no one lived there anymore. For years, the surviving buildings remained there, alone, quiet, with echoes and shadows and nothing more.
In 2009, a group of ghost hunters from Bangor visited Riceville. Their visit was written up in the Bangor Daily News article entitled, Bangor Ghost Hunters probe site of former tannery town. The members of the team reported a few strange occurrences: a clear path through the trees suddenly filled in with nearly impassable growth, the sound in the wind of someone calling, “It’s time to go in now!” One of the members, a sensitive, was sure they were being followed by the ghost of a young girl. They did their best to document this place, but in the end, there is little to tell except the story of a mill owner who, for awhile, did well financially and whose benefits were shared among his workers. It’s not a ghost story, not really. It’s not even really a ghost town. It’s just a place that used to be, a place with a few reminders left lying in the undisturbed middle of nowhere that once, people thrived here, children ran the streets and went to school and a town prospered. And then it didn’t. Slowly, it ran out of steam and then, one day the last family left and no one ever lived there again. It’s a sad story and perhaps that’s why people keep going there, standing in the quiet, wandering around the few artifacts left to show Riceville even existed. Perhaps the sadness calls them and they answer the call. Perhaps the idea that once, something good existed there and now, there is nothing, is a reminder that we all live on very precarious ground ourselves. If Riceville could turn into nothing more than a legend, what of the towns and cities we live in now? What happened to Riceville? A single thing – a fire. From there, all the dominoes fell into place. That’s all it takes. A single thing.