Cambridges during coronavirus times

It has been an eternity since I last posted to this blog.  My fall ended up much busier than I had expected, but I was still thinking that time would open in the late winter and I’d plan a trip to the next Cambridge.  Maybe Maryland or Ohio — both are relatively easy trips, though both still involve either a short flight or a long drive.  Needless to say, my plans to visit new Cambridges are on hold.  But my connection to the towns I’ve already visited continues.

I pick up bits of information about Cambridges, New York, Maine, and Vermont through online resources, and I followed them through snowy winters and into the spring.  Recently I was wondering what it’s like to experience the pandemic in such small towns, with ample space for social distancing, but with limited resources for those who are ill.

Here in Cambridge, MA, the city is cleared of the students who would ordinarily have remained in town through May.  Most stores were required to close, while restaurants have the option to provide take-out or delivery.  The quickly hand-written or printed signs taped to restaurant windows tell us whether they are trying to stay open or have given up until it’s easier to do business.

TurkeysOn a cloudy or cold day, the sidewalks are nearly empty and the birds take over.  I’ve found it strangely comforting to see teddy bears in home windows, placed there for children, but an indication to people of all ages that we’re still here together.

The city just opened a shelter for individuals waiting for Covid-19 test results or who are homeless and need a safe place to stay while maintaining distance from others.  The site of the shelter is right next to the city’s high school, and not everyone has welcomed its arrival.  There are plans to use Harvard or MIT classrooms if school reconvenes while the shelter is still in operation.

There’s more I could note about the state of affairs in Cambridge, MA, but I’ll sum it up by saying that there’s a complex collection of responses, as would be expected for a complex city.

Reports say that Massachusetts is in the surge phase of the pandemic.  For reference, I checked the number of Covid-19 cases in each state on the CDC website.  As of April 14, the totals were:
Massachusetts: 28,163
New York:  201,834
Vermont: 750
Maine: 734

With such a dramatic difference among the state totals, I’d expect a variety of responses at the town level.  I’ve tried to get a sense of the changes occurring in those towns.

Cambridge, NY is many miles from the catastrophic outbreak in New York City and the surrounding area, but it still feels the impact of the crisis further south.  Anxiety in the area was clear when surrounding Washington County released a statement that tourists should not be encouraged to travel there.  (The prospect of New York City residents visiting their vacation homes led to quarantine orders from many of the northeast states, including Massachusetts and Vermont.)  Sadly (but not very surprisingly), the June 2020 Balloon Festival has been canceled.  I’ll need to wait until 2021 to see it.  If bookstores could be friends, Porter Square Books in Cambridge, MA and Battenkill Books in NY would be besties.  Like PSB, Battenkill hung on as long as it could, but finally it closed, leaving only Connie to fill online orders.

In Cambridge, Maine, East Outlet Brewing paused in March to consider how it could go on, and it seems to have settled on curbside pick-up.  The Cambridge General Store had already closed for the winter, and I assume the pandemic will delay its reopening.  The town office has remained open for basic services.  It appears there has been progress toward broadband internet for the community — I hope some folks have been able to connect and take advantage of faster internet speed at this time when we rely on it for contact outside our homes.

Finally, Cambridge, Vermont has activated a Covid-19 task force to support the community.  Smuggler’s Notch Ski Resort closed its operations at the end of March, but it’s thinking ahead and announced this week that they can take new reservations for stays or events on or after June 15. The Selectboard continued to meet through the end of March, two weeks later than public meetings were closed in Cambridge, MA.  With town meeting on the calendar for early March 2020, it took place as scheduled.  I’ve exchanged a few email messages with Selectboard member George Putnam and he’s mentioned that it’s an interesting time to be engaged in town governance, which (like so many activities) has turned to online meetings.  He has new blog posts that reference the pandemic.

All the Cambridges, then, are experiencing change.  Do the small Cambridges, which already had relatively few public places where residents gather, feel more or less normal than Cambridge, MA during times like these?  Do residents still feel that everyone knows everyone’s business, as I heard so many times during my visits, or do they feel more isolated?  I worry that many Cambridge, MA small businesses will have trouble coming back when we move to the next (more normal?) phase.  Will that be more or less of a concern for smaller communities?  Time will tell what change the Cambridges will display when the states open up again.

The Brewmaster, Cambridge, Maine

My admittedly brief visits to Cambridges in NY, Vermont, and Maine have, nonetheless, left me feeling very connected to these communities.  I’ve already written about how I was happy about the opening of East Outlet Brewing in Cambridge, Maine, so naturally I needed to speak with its founder.

East Outlet logoImagining that someone who just started a new enterprise would be busy, I wasn’t sure we’d find a good time to talk by phone.  But with relatively little fuss, on a recent afternoon, I was chatting with Nathan DiMeo, who started the brewery and restaurant, which he said is “Doing a really good business.  This will be the fifth weekend coming.  We’ve got the wood fired pizza, our own homemade beer, and live glass blowing.”

Nathan isn’t originally from Cambridge, but he said he’s lived there for about 13 years, after a move from New Hampshire (which I understand is also the path followed by the town’s founders in the 1800s).  “We just happened to be driving through, looking for houses in Maine.  We started looking at a house in Cambridge in the center of town, and we ended up liking it.”  What did he like about Cambridge?  “We were just looking for a smaller community, a little less craziness.  Cambridge is just a really laid-back town.” Moultonborough, New Hampshire, where Nathan started, would still be called a small town, but one with more summer tourism.

For most of the length of his residence in Cambridge, Nathan said he has worked from home.  He also blows glass, which explains the inclusion of that theme in the restaurant’s weekly offerings, though he told me, “I mostly have other glass blowers coming in.  I’m manning the oven at the moment.”

As for how he got into this business, Nathan said, “I had done home brewing for eight or nine years now.  I never worked in a commercial brewery.”  And East Outlet doesn’t yet reach the scale of a significant commercial brewery, given the size of the equipment he uses.  “I purchased the system two years ago.  It’s still a small system.  It’s a home brew/commercial version, so it was easy for me to convert over to use it.”  He said they’ll upgrade to a larger system soon, but, “We’re mostly going to be selling in this area of Maine.  We probably will never make it past Portland with this size system.”

The restaurant is open on Friday and Saturday and Nathan is able to rely on friends for staffing.  “We have a family friend doing the waitressing and we have one worker in the kitchen making pizza, and then there’s me doing the brewing and all that.”

East Outlet comedy nightRegarding his motivation for starting the restaurant and brewery, Nathan said, “Our whole goal was to bring a little bit of city vibe, Portland vibe, but keep it country.  We love artwork so we have spray painting around the walls, the glass blowing, the live music, a comedian coming on Saturday.  We’re trying to do something different, not the same thing that’s always here.”

I asked Nathan about his customers, and he answered, “I would say it’s a half-and-half mix.  We have an older crowd who comes and a younger crowd.  Not everyone is from Cambridge, some people travel to Cambridge.”  Is he seeing a lot of friends at the restaurant?  “Yes, a lot of them are people I’ve just kind of met as I opened the place, and I do have a good number of friends who are rooting me on in there.”  But even some folks who weren’t looking for a brewery are being supportive.  “There are people who have lived here for a long time, and they don’t want to change very much, but they have accepted this.  We do have them coming here.”

Not long before we spoke, I had been reading that there was an extended power outage in Cambridge, so it seemed worth asking about the challenges that Nathan was facing with a fledgling business.  In addition to the power outage — about which he didn’t say much more than “We have a generator now” — Nathan noted, “It’s not easy to become a brewery.  There’s a lot of licensing, a lot of figuring out if we can do this in this building, if the town will be okay with this.  We weren’t sure if people would be okay with it, but we’re not rowdy here, we’re not a bar.  There are no complaints yet, that we’ve heard of.”  And he noted that the the town selectmen have been there.

Looking ahead, aside from increasing the capacity of his brewing equipment, Nathan anticipates continuing with a busy restaurant.  “We’ll always have the live glassblowing and we’re going to try to have live music here each weekend.”

To me, it sounds like East Outlet Brewing will continue to provide a fun social setting for folks who want a weekend dinner without leaving Cambridge.

How would you describe Cambridge
I would definitely say it’s a quiet peaceful town that’s great for hunting, snowmobiling, getting away from the city life.


Mary and the Cambridge Village Market

When my conversation in the Cambridge, VT town offices with Marguerite and George had concluded, I asked them to point me toward the center of the Village of Cambridge.  The truth is, I was staying in the Village of Jeffersonville and, though both villages are part of the Town of Cambridge, I wanted to be sure that I had soaked up as much Cambridge-ness as possible.

Cambridge Village MarketWith that, my destination was set.  I was heading for the Cambridge Village Market.  I nosed around a bit, before deciding to buy a loaf of maple bread, which would give me the opportunity to chat with the woman staffing the cash register, Mary.

It would be hard to be more of a Cambridge native than Mary.  She was born in a one-doctor/one-nurse hospital that used to exist in town, and she has lived in Cambridge ever since.

Mary describes Cambridge as a “small community.  Everyone helps each other.”  She said that she used to feel that she knew everyone in town, though the town has grown.  Her perspective is that “most everyone who likes living in the town is friendly” but she expressed concern that some newer residents are coming from other regions and “can’t stand the smell of a farm.”  That said, nearly every customer and Mary knew each others’ names, and she frequently anticipated a request they would make for a product kept behind the counter.

Mary, Cambridge StoreMary told me that she has traveled all over, but “this has been home and always will be home.”  Her mother’s family also comes from the area, though her father’s family moved south from Newfoundland.

I mentioned I had visited Smuggler’s Notch the day before, and Mary told me she worked there for 14 years in the 1970s and 1980s, when she was one of many local employees.  She notes Cambridge’s ongoing connection to Smuggs and said that folks staying at the resort are often sent over for groceries.

I stood aside each time Mary needed to help a customer, and the market’s owner, Bruce, checked in to see if I needed anything.  I assured him I was fine, but it did make me feel a little guilty for taking Mary’s time and I thanked him on my way out.  My conversation with Mary came near the end of my visit to Cambridge, VT, but her deep knowledge of the area gave me context for my previous chats and a few landmarks to visit as I headed home.

Trunk or Treat

Trunk or TreatThe Cambridge (Maine) General Store and Restaurant, a community-builder for the town, will be hosting a “Trunk or Treat” event this Sunday afternoon.  A little research tells me that, though Trunk or Treat is a new concept for me, it’s a tried and true Halloween option for others.  Folks bring cars together and the kids do their trick-or-treating car-by-car, rather than house-by-house.  Basically tailgating — but with costumes and candy.  I can imagine that it’s a highly efficient candy gathering operation.  In true American fashion, it’s even a marketing opportunity for a particular subset of the Halloween market.

The event will be co-sponsored by the store and the Town of Cambridge, which (I hear) has hosted Trunk or Treating in the past.  Meanwhile, on Halloween in Cambridge, MA, I’ll be lighting up a carved pumpkin and hoping kids stop by during their old-style trick-or-treating.

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

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.

Cambridge, NY’s gem of a bookstore

Battenkill Books photoDuring my visit to Cambridge, NY, I had a chance to visit Battenkill Books, a great independent bookstore right on Main Street.  And there I chatted for quite a while with Connie Brooks, the owner, and Kate Reid, who was handling a large sale.

I asked my standard question and Connie and Kate discussed and answered.

How would you describe Cambridge?
Kate: It’s a place with big ideas and creative energy, surrounded by beautiful agricultural land.  There’s a community theater and education program, so there’s lots of arts and an educated population, along with diversity.

Connie: There’s diversity in education level, for example.  And it’s not a homogeneous community as far as politics.  It’s diverse in that sense.

If I had to describe Cambridge, I would say:  A very special and unique upstate New York village, because we are a village–it’s important to point out not everybody’s a village, but we are–and very community oriented.  I think Cambridge is perfect, but I’m so biased.

Connie and Kate
Connie (left) and Kate.

Me: Are you both from here?

Both: No, no. We’re not.

Kate: I grew up in New York City.

Connie: And I grew up in Massachusetts.  Not terribly far.

When I first moved here, I thought, “I have landed in a Norman Rockwell-esque town.”  There’s a Christmas parade and there are all these trappings of, I don’t know, this image of what a village used to be, but it’s real here.  It’s all really real.  Gosh, it’s beautiful.

Cambridge is really community oriented.  I think that’s why a bookstore can survive in such a small town.  We have a very supportive community.  And, like Kate said, very arts oriented.  It’s amazing how many shows you can go to, how many artists live here.  I think that’s something that continues to surprise newcomers.

At roughly this point a customer joined the conversation.  She noted that she lives in Greenwich (pronounced Green-witch) and comes to Cambridge for the bookstore.  She bought a nice pile of books to make it worth the trip.

Then followed a little further chatter about how lucky the town is to have had a bookstore continuously while so many other towns (including Cambridge, MA) have lost them.  Connie told me, “We took over the existing bookstore, so there’s been a bookstore here for 40 years.  I’ve owned it 10 years.  A decade of the many decades.”

And that, more or less, was our conversation.  Except for a digression while Kate took a call and I was challenged to consider the question offered by Connie’s young son:  How many people in the world are sneezing at any one time?  Now, whenever I sneeze, I think of him and his question.

Then I was off, glad to have met Connie and Kate, two relative newcomers who are meeting the book needs of the area.

Motel Cambridge

My gracious hosts during my visit to Cambridge, NY were Farrah and Dave Dobbins, who moved to the area only about a year ago, and were running the motel for only three weeks when I turned up. (In fact, they told me I was the first to reserve a room with their new online booking system.)

Farrah and Dave, motelFarrah and Dave sold two businesses in their home state of Colorado (Dave originally hailing from Missouri), packed up their belongings and daughters, and moved to a farm just over the border from Cambridge in Vermont. They had a vision of operating a Christmas tree farm, which they’re doing, but they needed a way to generate income while the tree business matures.  Just then, the motel called to them.  A roofer was at work while I was there — the first of the renovations Farrah and Dave are planning.

Farrah sat down with me to talk about their move and Cambridge.

How would you describe Cambridge?
I think if I had to describe Cambridge, I would say it is a quaint and friendly and rural upstate New York town. A lot of people I know grew up here, and a lot of them told me that, when they were in high school, they wanted to leave, but then, once they started their family, they wanted to come back. So I would say that it’s a great town to raise a family and to plant roots. I also think it’s a town that, once you’re an outsider, you’re maybe always kind of an outsider. I mean, I’ll never be from Cambridge. I think for a long time I’ll always be the new person. Not in a bad way. There are people who generations of their family have been here.  It’s a place that people come back to.

Farrah told me that their move from Colorado was prompted by wanting a lifestyle change.  The first seed of interest in a Christmas tree farm was planted more than five years ago when they read about one in Maine.  After a few zigs and zags as they figured out the right next step, they found Cambridge and loved it.  They also appreciated its proximity to Albany, from which they can fly back to Colorado to visit family.

The farm and the motel aren’t even their only occupations right now.  They’ve also been working on real estate photography (which is what first led them to the motel).  And then there’s the running of the household — their daughters were at the motel when I arrived, but soon were ferried off home having finished a morning at basketball camp.

I imagined that most of the motel business would come from seasonal activities — foliage in the fall, snow sports in the winter, etc.  Farrah said that wasn’t really the case (though someone called, while we were talking, to book a room for his fishing trip).  Instead, the motel keeps busy with regulars (folks originally from Cambridge who come back to the area to see family) and crews of laborers (road repair crews, tree pruning teams who maintain power lines, for example).  The motel also regularly sees guests attending local barn-based weddings, and it housed the pilots for the 2019 balloon festival.  Farrah hopes, ultimately, to draw more visitors from other cities.

Farrah, Dave, and I very briefly discussed the political environment in our respective Cambridges.  While I mentioned Cambridge, MA’s strong left-lean, they said they found Cambridge, NY to include a diversity of views, more so than Fort Collins, CO, their previous home.

My conversation with Farrah was perfect for framing my interactions with other folks during the rest of my short trip to Cambridge, NY.  I appreciated her perspective as an outsider who is now an insider.  And plus, both she and Dave were very generous in making time to chat with me and pose for a few photos.