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.
I 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.”
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.