Then & Now

Old River Town

With seven miles of shoreline and a historic downtown seemingly lifted from a Norman Rockwell painting, Winterport lives up to its nickname, “An Old River Town.”

Not a lot changes in the Waldo County community (population around 3,800), which hugs the Penobscot between Hampden, Frankfort and Monroe. But there is plenty to do here in January, such as dining, wine tasting, antiquing, ice fishing and cross-country skiing.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the town was Bangor’s winter port, the last river salty spot before the channel froze. Enterprising truckers who left town before dawn with lumber and flour delivered by ship could make a second run to Bangor markets before noon, if the roads were dry and their horses didn’t tire.

The town’s seafaring days are in the past, according to maritime historian Jon B. Johansen, who has lived in Winterport since 1997. He publishes the Maine Coastal News and is president of the town’s Historical Association, which maintains a Main Street museum where pictures and journals chronicle ship building’s heyday when local church steeples, mercantile blocks and fine homes ended up on the world map.

“I think that all ended in the 1930s, when the Boston boats and Bucksport ferry stopped service,” Johansen said. “We still have three boat yards, but the cargo port pulled out years ago. The port at Mack Point in Searsport is busy, since it is located more conveniently to the ocean.”

Today’s Winterport is a safe bedroom community at the junction of Routes 1A, 69 and 139. The Leroy H. Smith School and Samuel L. Wagner Middle School offer education up to grade 8. Weddings, concerts and a Christmas Nativity are held each year at the landmark 1833 Union Meeting House. Seasonally, two golf courses and Winterport Dragway draw crowds, and Ellingwood’s Corner United Methodist Church hosts bean suppers.

Winterport Open Stage produces top-notch plays, and every August, the Winterport Music Festival stages performances at Abbott Park.

Residents occasionally clash at town meetings, but even a spat over where to relocate the new town office and fire station—many wanted it downtown, others in “Back Winterport”—was settled with the decision to build on Main Street. A proposed Dollar General store near the historic district also divided the town, but not irreparably.

“A lot of businesses feed off everybody else,” said Ann Ronco, who, with her husband, Ray, owns Old Winterport Commercial House, built in 1833 as an inn and stage coach stop. “We have an antique shop, and upstairs is the area’s only bed and breakfast. Across the street are the Winterport House of Pizza, Amigos Taqueria and Tea Maineia. Down the road is The Bacon Tree restaurant, Winterport Winery and Penobscot Bay Brewery.”

Separation papers were signed in the Roncos’ building in 1860, setting Winterport off as its own town. Originally settled in 1766, it had been part of Frankfort, but parted ways when the communities differed over bridge maintenance costs. In addition to shipbuilding, crews manufactured vests, milled lumber and raised crops.

Along with Winterport Historical Association’s monthly meetings, Winterport Memorial Library welcomes historians. Theodora Weston’s “More River Town History,” published in 2011, is a good place to start exploring, along with Ada Douglas Littlefield’s classic 1907 history, “An Old River Town.” Revolutionary War, Civil War and World War II stories are also told there, and names like El Haj’s Market and respected firefighter Stan Bowden are never far away. Be sure to explore The Town Crier, a paper published by the Roncos and crammed with local news, history and advertising.

Winterport in January beckons visitors who photograph Main Street’s landmarks, along with Bald Hill Cove and the Marsh Bay panorama, including Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory, best viewed behind On the Run store. With a little imagination, you might spot your great-grandparents’ Boston Boat steaming toward the dock.

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