Artists look to build community around building that 'was the town'

Farwell Project aims to reopen shuttered mill as homesteader hub
By Ethan Andrews | Feb 22, 2017
Photo by: Ethan Andrews The interior of what was once OJ Farwell and Sons general store in Thorndike Village. A local group hopes to convert the 150-year-old building and attached mill to a center for traditional skills with a museum and updated general store.

Thorndike — On the eve of the recent blizzard when temperatures were in the single digits, Diana Prizio stood in the old Farwell & Sons grain mill, an uninsulated wood building that she and a small group of volunteer visionaries inherited two years ago, and wondered how the workers did it.

"They were a hearty lot," she said. "But they also sat around a lot."

The sitting around happened in an adjoining building, once home to the Farwells' general store. Like the mill, the shotgun space, lined with long glass-front counters and shelves, is uninsulated. But there is a large woodstove at the center, and it's there that the community came together, or at least the men, who would spend hours hovering by the heat and shooting the breeze.

Prizio and others working under the banner of The Farwell Project are hoping to bring the community back together in another way, not around a cluster of bygone commercial enterprises but through using the skills and common interests of homesteaders who have moved to the area in recent years.

Thorndike's history as a railroad town is muted today. The railroad tracks bisect the village and make a sort of speed bump where they cross Route 220. Just south of the highway, large, weathered gray buildings huddle around the tracks. To envision the sleepy village as bustling hub — a town that once had a department store and two car dealerships — requires a feat of imagination.

At the center of it all was OJ Farwell & Sons store and mill. The complex was built in 1873 and operated until 1961. Grain arrived by rail from Aroostook County and was processed into animal feed.

Workers pulled shipments from rail cars and fed the grain into an early electric conveyor to the second level, where it started a gravity-fed descent through rudimentary wooden chutes to grinding and winnowing machines and eventually back to the ground floor. Much of the heavy work was automated and it was said the Farwells had enough clout that the mill got electricity to Thorndike decades before surrounding towns.

"This was a big deal," Prizio said. "This was it. This was the town."

After it closed in 1963, the mill was used for storage and the section in the rear was home to various small ventures, including a real estate office. Remarkably the equipment was left in place, along with many artifacts of the old businesses.

Historical records about the mill turned out to be spotty. Old timers in the community toured the mill with eyes glazed over, Prizio recalled, until they came to the one feature that would have concerned them as young visitors: the candy counter. "That's all they remember," Prizio said. "The candy counter. So we don't have a lot of concrete information."

Farwell Project operates under the umbrella of Timelines Community Inc., a nonprofit started by Rhoda Waller in the mid-1990s and adopted by Prizio and others to revive the mill and general store. The organization now owns a third building, the former Harvest Grange, which sits next to the mill.

Prizio is part of a nine-member board of directors, and there are another 12 people in advisory roles. In the summer, she said, there might be a dozen people working, and two or three in the winter. The group currently is seeking a volunteer to do light carpentry a few hours a week.

Plans for the space are numerous and evolving. The nonprofit bought 4,000 used books from a shop that had gone out of business with the idea of having a library. The open upper level of the general store, once used to store lumber, is earmarked for art studios, including a revolving space for residencies.

A boat builder, two stitchers, a potter and a basket maker all have expressed interest in having spaces to work. One member has offered to set up small mill behind the building to make wooden shingles and boxes that could be emblazoned with the original stencils used to mark Farwell's feedbags. Prizio plans to bring her letterpress to the store, while a portion of the mill building might be converted to a production kitchen with an area to sell food products made in the space. Members are developing a line of sturdy work clothing. Papermaking, leather work, canoe building, metal smithing, fiber arts and instrument building all have come up for discussion within the group.

The binding theme among these things is a circulation of skills and products. The store would sell supplies and "impart the skills," as the website says. At the same time, products would come back through the general store as merchandise to be sold in the community and to the wider public.

The volunteers jacked up the old mill building and have set their sights on doing the same to the general store, which is two feet lower than it should be, Prizio said, on account of sinking into the ground while the dirt road outside was built up to rural highway standards.

Prizio said the plan is to revive the general store as a combination store and museum. The store would not be a convenience store, so much as a supply store aimed at local homesteaders.

Kasey Gibb, a newer board member who moved to Thorndike with her husband last June to homestead, got involved with Farwell Project after stopping by Prizio's shop, Garden Variety.

"I was hoping there was something going on here," Gibb said. She was surprised to find that there was, and it was right next door at the old mill building. "I grew up on the West Coast," she said. "I'd never seen anything like this before."

Farwell Project members are hoping to make the old mill the centerpiece of a Thorndike historic district. The mill has attracted the attention of Maine Historic Preservation Commission, and while recognition would bring some benefits, rules for historic preservation might prohibit some types of improvements.

Timelines Community, parent organization to the Farwell Project, is in the running for a $5,000 Bangor Savings Bank Community Matters More grant that Prizio said would help pay for ongoing renovations. The grants are awarded based on votes cast by the public through Bangor Savings Bank. Other Waldo County organizations on the ballot are Belfast Maskers and The Game Loft. Voting is in February only.

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