Which Cambridges are real Cambridges?

When I started this blog, I had a general (if vague) sense of what I was doing, but I’ve needed to refine my vision in many ways.  One regards the question of which Cambridges to focus on.  It turns out that some of the geographic locations called Cambridge would be more fairly categorized as administrative entities, rather than towns/cities/villages that residents feel part of.  As an example, when I went to New York, I focused on the Village of Cambridge, rather than the Town of Cambridge, which includes several other villages, but doesn’t even include the entire village of Cambridge.

I’m currently lining up my next Cambridge visit, and whichever I go to will be one of the Cambridges that has its own identity.  Figuring out which are which is the first challenge.

The publisher, Cambridge, NY

Today, I’m returning to Cambridge, NY, to add to the stories from the village.

In many towns (including Cambridge, MA), local news is covered by a weekly newspaper.  In Cambridge, NY, the paper is the Cambridge Eagle, whose publisher is Ashleigh Morris.  I chatted with Ashleigh toward the end of my visit, by which time I had figured out some of the village’s stories but also had new questions.

Ashleigh Morris photoTo start, Ashleigh helped me understand how such a small village ends up split between two administrative towns.  She said that the towns predate when the village was created in the 1880s by filling in a swamp that separated the east and west sides.  But she certainly didn’t fail to see some pitfalls in the arrangement.  For example, she said that the State of New York removes snow on the main roads (both Main Street and Park Street are state roads), while the village clears the sidewalk.  For some county roads, the county pays the town to plow.  Without that arrangement, town snowplow trucks would drive straight over snowy county roads on their way from town road to town road.

But then we moved on to discuss the Cambridge Eagle itself.  The Eagle focuses its coverage on the towns of Cambridge, White Creek, and Jackson, as well as the surrounding five towns of Hoosick Falls, Salem, Bennington, VT, and Greenwich.  And she described these towns as a network of services that residents of each village might call on.  For example, Cambridge has a bookstore, Greenwich has a Hannaford supermarket, and Salem has many small businesses, so folks get to know their neighboring communities.  “Because we don’t limit ourselves to what’s here, we get to know other villages.”

The EagleThe paper tries to cover all the local government meetings, as well as whatever is going on at the Cambridge Central School.  In addition, from its earliest days, the Eagle has offered church groups a way to get their news out.  In fact, the paper uses Biblical passages to fill extra space in each edition.  At its height, the paper averaged 48 pages per issue.  Now (in a trend facing most newspapers) it tends toward an average of 24.

Ashleigh describes the paper, which she recently bought from her father (who greeted me when I arrived) as a family affair.  There is one reporter, but much of the rest of the work (reporting, editing, printing) is done by family members.  Ashleigh said she has “worked for the paper since I was old enough to read and write.  All of the big stories of my life were news stories.”

These days, with the abundance of news sources out there, Ashleigh told me, “People buy the Eagle to see what their neighbors are doing, what their grandkids are doing, or how the football team has done.  There’s a lot of loyalty to our paper.”  The general area has several other weekly small-town papers, and Albany’s Times Union covers stories of regional interest.  She described some of the challenges of running a local newspaper, such as wanting to go deeper into stories, so that it isn’t always negative news that dominates.

Ashleigh and I also discussed several topics that had come up in other conversations.  She told me the sewer system that is needed to allow greater development would cost $18 million.  She sees infrastructure development as something the village requires “to survive.”

And inevitably our conversation circled around to the Cambridge Central School, which she called the “unifying factor” in the town — “the one single place in this area that draws everyone together.  And we’re really focused on our kids.”

Ashleigh had her years living outside of Cambridge, and she has visited her parents’ long-ago home in Staten Island, so she is clear about her affection for Cambridge.  “This is the community we built.  It doesn’t matter what’s going on outside.”  She sees her school classmates starting to move back with their own families and, with the newspaper to run, it sounds like she’ll be staying there for a while.

How would you describe Cambridge?
I would describe Cambridge as a big family.  I’m from a big family – I have ten brothers and sisters – and I think there are always disagreements and agreements and bad things that happen, but you come together at the end when you need something.

I think Cambridge is unique because there really is a very unique group of people here.  We have a lot of people who moved here, we have a lot of people who are from here.  I was born here, but my family will never be from here, because [my parents] moved in.  But I think no matter what, when push comes to shove and something bad happens, the community is always there.

When my parents moved here, they needed help.  They had no money and the community came together and helped them.  They got them a fridge and a stove.  And it’s those kind of things that make you stay.  And make you want to have your family here.

So like I said, we did move.  I moved away, my husband lived elsewhere for nine years, and we came back because this is where we wanted our kids to be, and because of the school.  There’s still teachers at the school that I’ve had and my kids now have.  And I think that is probably not easily found anywhere else, and I’m not really interested in looking.  That’s the best way I can describe it, that it’s a family–there’s grandparents and newborn babies and the whole span in between, but you always have a friend, and you always can find somebody who can help you, and you always know somebody.  I think it’s important to know the people on your street, the people teaching your kids, and the people running for office.  Those things are vitally important to the environment I want to raise my kids in.

The General Store, Cambridge, ME

General Store and DinerAs essentially the only private-sector business open to the public, the General Store occupies special territory in Cambridge, Maine.  Along with the post office, it’s the center of town, located right across from Cambridge Pond.

The store sells many of the basic products you’d expect from a general store, primarily staples, such as cereal or ketchup, that you would be happy to avoid driving 20 minutes for.  There’s a big case of cold drinks, including beer.  All of those are on one side of the space.

On the other is a diner that serves a mighty fine omelette and, I hear, delicious breakfast sandwiches.  General Store menuTwo young women staffed both the restaurant and the store, with one cooking in the back and the other taking orders and ringing up purchases in the front.

When I first arrived, the diner area was quiet, but the tables soon filled up.  It seemed that not only were some of the visitors regulars, but they were also consistent enough in their orders that little menu review was needed.  I enjoyed eavesdropping on all the interactions between the staff and the regular customers.

Sign in General StoreBetween my lunch and a trip back in for a cup of coffee, I had a chance to gather details from both Cheyenne, who runs the front of the shop, and Caitlin (pictured below at left), who was doing the cooking.  Cheyenne confirmed that not only does she know most of the customers, but she knows most of their orders, too.

Cheyenne is a Cambridge native, but she has come and gone several times.  CaitlinCaitlin moved to town about four months ago.  They both confirmed that they were satisfied to sacrifice the opportunity to live among a larger peer group for the quiet of the small town.

As for the General Store, a succession of owners have tried to make the store a success in recent years.  The current owner, who wasn’t in town when I visited, is from Connecticut but was familiar with Cambridge.  When the opportunity arose, I’m told, she bought the store.  Keeping it going in a town of only 500 is a challenge, but I’ll be hoping to grab a meal there when I’m in Cambridge next.

General Store sign outside

Deep roots in Cambridge, Maine

Mark BunkerDuring my visit to Cambridge, Maine, I wandered over to take a photo of Cambridge Pond.  There I picked up a conversation with Mark Bunker, a descendant of one of the first Cambridge families.  He said he has “deep deep roots” in the town.

Mark is a union construction worker and has worked on projects all over the northeast, including Cambridge, MA where he said he found “some beautiful homes, but nowhere I’d want to be.  Cambridge, Maine is much nicer.”  While we were talking, I was preventing him from completing his current project, a new garage.  We were on the site of an old garage he owned that was destroyed by fire, leading to a show of support from the community to help him rebuild.

Mark Bunker house1Mark lives in a special home of his own.  Just across the street from the post office and General Store, the house used to be the Island House Motel.  It’s hard now to see the setting as an island, but he said that brooks used to flow on either side of it.

Though I didn’t talk with all that many people in Cambridge, each conversation included far more sharing of information than I could possibly capture here.  I’m glad that Mark was willing to interrupt his work to chat.

How would you describe Cambridge?
Cambridge is a nice quiet town where everybody knows everybody.

The economy, Cambridge, ME

A thriving economy is a goal for any town or city, but is hard to achieve for a small town surrounded by other small towns.  Town selectmen Mike Watson and Ron Strouse described for me the challenges facing Cambridge, Maine.  Mike said, “The economy here is gone.  The big factories are out.”  He also said that at one time there were 35 dairy farms and two beef cattle farms.  Only one of each remain.

Most Cambridge residents commute to larger towns (including Bangor, an hour away), are engaged in businesses requiring regional travel, or work from home.  There are a couple of auto-maintenance garages, some woodworkers, and, Mike said, “a lot of retired people.”  He pointed out that Maine has one of the largest senior citizen populations among U.S. states.  “It’s old and getting older.”  But he said the town is “always looking” for development opportunities.

Future development may be linked to the arrival of broadband internet, expected in fall of 2019 with the help of a grant from the State of Maine.  The town had appointed a committee to study the issue and the options, and an announcement of the timeline appeared on the town website after my visit.  Lack of access to high-speed internet is an obstacle to development throughout rural Maine, and Mike looks forward to its arrival.  “I like this broadband coming in.  If you have good internet, you’re the center of the world, and you can do whatever you want to do.”  He continued, “The internet is going to make it possible to buy or sell anywhere in the world.”  People will be able to “live the country life” while continuing their work life.  “It’ll be a plus for us.”

Related to Cambridge’s short list of enterprises and limited internet is the town’s scarce presence online.  Aside from the town’s own website, there are few web pages to be found about Cambridge.

East Outlet BrewingAnother potential boost to the economy due this summer is a brewery.  East Outlet Brewing can be found on the road leading into town.  No one was around when I went by, but I’ll try to follow their story.

It’s possible to imagine a future, not too far out, when young tech workers who can be situated anywhere will be drawn to Cambridge, with the brewery as the center of evening life.  Mike has confidence that the town will carry on.  “People like the seclusion that a small town affords them.”

The Town Government, Cambridge, ME

The one appointment I had set before I started my drive to Cambridge, Maine was with the Chairman of the Board of Selectmen, Michael (Mike) Watson.  We had spoken very briefly by phone, and even that one-minute conversation allowed him to share that there is little to visit in the town.  Not that this information discouraged me.

Town OfficeI entered the Town Office and met Donna, the Town Clerk, who had answered the phone when I called.  Mike invited Second Selectman, Ronald (Ron) Strouse, to join us.  Donna was there for the start of the conversation, too.

First, we established the long lineage of Mike’s and Donna’s families in Cambridge.  Mike said he is the sixth generation to live there.  Donna said her great-great-grandparents were among those who founded the town in the 1800s.

(A side-note that Maine was part of Massachusetts from the 1650s to 1820, when it was finally established as a separate state.  As for Cambridge, there’s a tale that a group of folks gathered to discuss a name for the new town, which would break away from Ripley.  A young girl had been reading a book about England, and she suggested Cambridge as the name.  “And that’s how it come about,” Mike said.)

On the other side, in terms of Cambridge longevity, was Ron, who, like me, is from Long Island, NY.  He was looking for a lifestyle change — tired of the traffic (especially given that his work required a lot of driving) and he also felt that New York State made it difficult for him to do things he wanted to, such as hunting.  He found the environment he was looking for in Cambridge, where he already owned a camp (roughly translatable to vacation home).  Though he has been in Cambridge since 1993, he said that, having moved there as an adult, “I’ll never be a Mainer.  I’ll always be a flatlander.”

Cambridge ME town government
From left: Cambridge Tax Collector Kathryn Burdin; Second Selectman Ronald Strouse; Town Clerk Donna Sawyer; Chairman of the Board of Selectmen Michael R. Watson.

We talked a little about the remote location of Cambridge.  I had observed that the drive into town — quite relaxing on a sunny day — must be a challenge at night or after a snowfall.  Ron and Mike acknowledged that’s true, but pointed to destinations within half an hour that make it worth the drive.  Both Skowhegan and Newport have Walmart stores and Dexter has a Dunkin’ Donuts.  Some of those towns have a larger population base; for example, neighboring St. Albans has nearly 2,000 people, about the same as Cambridge, NY.

Cambridge receives some of its services from outside.  There’s no local police force, but the Somerset County Sheriff and the State Police supply law-enforcement support.  For schooling, children attend a regional school in Guilford (Piscataquis Community Elementary School and High School) as part of Maine School Administrative District #4.   The town has its own volunteer fire department.

Despite the limited official resources in Cambridge, Mike and Ron made clear that there’s an abundance of support from the townsfolk for each other.  Ron said, “People help each other.  If someone has a problem, everybody gets together to help them.”  Mike added, People here like to talk.  Sometimes it’s gossip, but sometimes it’s helpful.”  He was not impressed by a trip to New York City, where he observed that “people don’t talk to each other.”

Mike describes Cambridge as beyond rural.  “It’s country,” with about 100 households.  “In country, there are no secrets.”  And Ron pointed out that new housing construction needs to be placed on plots of at least four acres.

In our wide-ranging conversation, I asked Mike and Ron if the opioid crisis has touched Cambridge.  Ron confirmed that it’s a “serious issue” and Mike noted the town’s particular challenge that it doesn’t have the police or medical resources to deal with an overdose.  They have also been thinking about Maine’s legalization of recreational marijuana, which took effect in June.  While about 15 towns or cities quickly “opted in” to allow the sale of marijuana, Cambridge has already enacted an ordinance to opt out, even though there would be financial benefit through the sales tax to allowing a dispensary.  Ron said they would “let the other towns deal with it.”

I asked Ron and Mike what’s going well in Cambridge now.  Mike said that they’re holding property taxes low, getting some roads fixed, and keeping the fire department.  Ron mentioned that they’re bringing high-speed internet into town.  Lack of connectivity is a problem, just as it was in Cambridge, NY.  They’re also trying to maintain the population of the town, hoping people will move in and buy the properties that are available.  And then they hope the new residents will be involved citizens.  Ron said, “We need people to step up to the plate.”

Mike and Ron were extremely generous with their time, and I’ll be back soon with notes from the rest of our conversation.

Last: while Cambridge, MA residents call ourselves “Cantabridgians,” and Cambridge, NY refers to “villagers,” those in Cambridge, ME simply go by “Mainers.”

How would you describe Cambridge?
Ron: A very small private community that looks out for each other.  Quality of life is superior here, I think, and everybody gets along and, like I said, they look after each other.  Just a good good town to live in.

Mike: I think it’s a nice little community.  Been here a long time and it’s gonna be here for a long time afterwards.

The postmaster, Cambridge, ME

Post officeAs I’ve mentioned, the only two significant entities in Cambridge, ME are the General Store and the U.S. Post Office.  I didn’t realize until the night before my trip that they’re next door to each other.  Once I was in town, I learned that they’re in the same building, and the USPS rents the space from the owners of the General Store.  That sure made things easy for me.

As I studied up on Cambridge, I assumed that the post office would have a special place in town, which turns out to be true, for reasons beyond what I had imagined.  The postmaster, Phil Cleaves, has been in the position since April, but he has a long history in the area, having grown up in nearby Dexter.  He was able to give me some perspective on the day-to-day of postal business, as well as the importance of a rural post office.

I should note that it hasn’t been straightforward for Cambridge to retain its post office.   During a past wave of post office closures, the town needed to petition to retain it, calling on the congressional delegation to lend support.  In the end, the post office survived, but hours were cut to four per day, with a morning and afternoon shift on weekdays, and four hours on Saturday morning.  Besides the postmaster, there’s a rural delivery route driver, Julie, who covers Cambridge and most of neighboring Harmony.  She popped in toward the end of my visit.

As for the post office space, there’s a wall with a few dozen post boxes and a counter for filling out forms, alongside a bulletin board for community notices.  Phil said they use an old-school metering machine.  Everything that’s needed is there, probably much the same as in decades past.

Post office display
Community business cards on the post office wall.

Here’s what I expected to find:  that people would go to the post office more often than city folks because a visit is an opportunity to connect with friends from the town, or maybe only because there are no street-side mail collection boxes to toss an envelope in.  Maybe they’d stay and chat a little longer.  Both of those things seem to be true.  While I was in the office, a  customer came by for a money order.  Phil asked her how she’s doing and she responded, “I can’t complain.  I passed my physical.”  A few more minutes of conversation and a request for a bit of tape to hold her envelope shut, and she headed out.

Another customer came by for a book of stamps.  She said she and her husband had driven over to the General Store for lunch, a regular destination for them.   Phil said that there’s a lot of traffic back and forth between the store and the post office.  (Including me — I went from one to the other and back again.)

The first customer’s money order purchase reflects an aspect of post office activity that I hadn’t expected.  A lot of Cambridge residents rely on the post office when it’s time to pay bills.  Many of those don’t have bank accounts, or for others it may be that the bank is far away and the post office is nearby.  So money orders are a significant generator of post office business.  In addition, a number of Cambridge folks are earning their living with an online business — selling things on EBay, for example.  They frequently need to mail or receive packages, which they do at the post office.

Phil told me that he wished the post office could be open all day, that it’s a “vital service” for a lot of Cambridge residents.  He used to be a rural carrier, giving him the perspective from both sides of the office door.  “I like to help people,” he said.

Phil has noted changes in Cambridge, thinking back to when there were more businesses and people.  With those changes has come a different attitude, which he expressed as “There’s more me and not we.”  Nonetheless, he gets along well with his customers and said his approach is to “have a good attitude and hope I get that back.”  After our conversation, I came to think that what he misses are the connections that a vibrant town center can provide.  Now he and the post office offer one of the key sites for connecting the people of Cambridge, Maine.

How would you describe Cambridge?
People are friendly, very friendly, even if we disagree on some things.  Working with the public, you already know how that person feels, so you avoid that conversation and move on to what you’re dealing with.  So, in general, people of Cambridge are great.  I haven’t had problems with…maybe one person.  Maybe two – there was one when I was dating back in high school, so besides her, it’s all been good.  And I’m sure Cambridge, Mass. is the same way.

Take exit 150 and you’re there

MA to ME map1It turns out that the directions from Cambridge, MA to Cambridge, Maine are almost as straightforward as they were to Cambridge, NY.  It’s basically U.S. Route 95 all the way north to exit 150 for Maine State Route 152, which (with a few quick turns) takes you straight into town.  I’m still going to give the edge for ease to Cambridge, NY because of the abundance of rest stops on the Massachusetts Turnpike, but there was little opportunity to go off track on the way to Cambridge, ME.  It’s the farthest north I’ve gone into the center of the state, though I may have been further north on the coast.

My schedule was, to say the least, not over-booked for this trip.  I almost accepted that I wouldn’t have any appointments until I tried a new potential contact and succeeded in connecting.  So I left early Friday morning, aiming to be in the Town Office by 11:30.  More about my meeting with the town selectmen later this week.

Harmony CambridgeBeyond that, I wasn’t sure what I’d find, but my focus was on the General Store and the Post Office, which are the only two entities of consequence in the town.  I had good conversations all around.  Everyone was very friendly and generous with their time.  Plus, I have a special fondness for the Maine accent, which is increasingly difficult to find in the southern part of the state.  (There’s more detail here than you might want.  While the old (also increasingly rare) Boston accent similarly involves dropping final R’s, the two accents do not sound the same.)

Much to my own surprise, I learned a lot on this trip.  That is, I assumed I’d learn something (or why would I even do this?), but I left with a whole new framework for how to think about small towns.  I’m going to pull together my notes and share this week and next, even while I haven’t finished reporting on Cambridge, NY and I’ve written almost nothing about my own Cambridge, MA.

Cuing up the second trip

I have a chance to make a very quick trip up to Cambridge, Maine tomorrow, so that’s what I’m going to do.  Compared with Cambridge, NY, Cambridge, ME is a small place indeed.  With a population of only 462, it ranks among the lowest population of the Cambridges.  Here are some numbers for you.  (Thanks, again, to Wikipedia.)  I don’t have much of an itinerary this time, but with one trip behind me, I trust that I’ll figure it out.

Massachusetts New York Maine
City/town City Village Town
Zip code(s) 02138 to 02142 12816 04923
Year Founded 1630 1866 1834
2010 Census 105,162 1870 462
Area (square miles) 7.1 1.7 19.32
Population Density/square mile 16,355 1151 24
Median Age 31 40 48.3
Population breakdown (percent)
      Under 18 13.3 25.7 17.5
      18 to 24 21.2 7.1 5.4
      25 to 44 38.6 24.5 21.6
      45 to 64 17.8 23.0 37.8
      65 or older 9.2 19.8 17.5
Percent White 67 98 (2000) 97.4
Median Income $47,979 $31,164 $28,516
Elevation (feet) 40 496 338
Miles to an ocean (approximately, as bird flies) 3 124 45
Distance to Cambridge, MA (Shortest driving distance, in miles) 0 160 224

Cambridge, MA is a complex place

Though I still have stories from Cambridge, NY to share, I want to return to the blog’s mission to reflect on all the Cambridges and write today about my own Cambridge, MA.

Harvard GateMany people, to the extent that they know or think about Cambridge, MA, picture a scene like the photo on the right.  Leaf-covered brick buildings on a campus, be it Harvard or MIT or Lesley University.  There are plenty of spots from which you can catch a scene like this.  (The photo is of a relatively undertrafficked area where I happened to be walking one day.)

What may be less known is that, even in a small city like this Kendall Sq, 3one, there are corners with a completely different vibe.  In the photo to the left, we see what the Kendall Square area, with its IT and biotech research and manufacturing spaces, looks like from across the Charles River in Boston.  After decades of gentle change, Kendall has sprouted like mushrooms in recent years.

Cranes in Kendall

Every time I’m in the area, I see a building that wasn’t complete, or didn’t exist, the previous time.  It’s insane!  There are a zillion cranes in the area at any moment.

All that growth is also something of a mixed blessing.  The city undeniably benefits from the jobs and internships for young people that new and old companies bring.  And Cambridge is fortunate to have a broad tax base, meaning real estate taxes on residents remain low.  Plus, many companies participate in the city, beyond simply employing residents.  But that explosive growth has also resulted in dislocation.  All the new companies mean lots of people looking for housing.  Neighborhoods are changing more quickly than the residents can join forces to preserve the spaces they value.

Longfellow House

These contrasts go beyond the universities and technology sector that drive much of Cambridge public life.  While some neighborhoods feature houses like this one, many city residents lack stable housing.

When I consider how we think about U.S. Cambridges, then, I’m aware that perspectives will differ from Cambridge to Cambridge, but also from corner to corner of the particular Cambridge we live in.  There may be more opportunities for stark contrasts in a larger place, such as Cambridge, MA, but even the residents of a Cambridge, NY will hold distinct views.

(That house, by the way, is actually a National Historic Site (Washington slept here!), but some of its neighbors are almost as grand.)