Words by Susan Grisanti | Photos by Lauryn Hottinger
I hadn’t been to Hallowell in several years, the last time to check out Brass & Friends Antiques, a one-of-a-kind antique lighting shop that sits, now mostly unopened, on Water Street. Its irregular hours leave those of us who can see the cut-glass glimmer in a grime-covered chandelier to press our faces against the dusty windows and drool.
But Brass & Friends is still there, still owned by the eccentric Robert Dale, who unlocks the door when he’s good and ready. Inside, sleek 1960s globe lights straight out of Madmen, and a Victorian chandelier with delicate ruffled art-glass shades, stand out in a thicket of fixtures from most every era. Lights are piled and stacked on shelves and on the floor, leaving the narrowest path, or blocking you off completely from being able to approach that fixture … over there … that you just can’t get to.
I had been looking for lights while renovating my home. I remember that a friend and I parked in front of Slates, the Hallowell dining institution, and I felt it right away—saw the light, if you will: This old Kennebec River town was steeped in cool. But it wasn’t until recently that photographer Lauryn Hottinger and I went in search of that cool—heading 53 miles up from Portland to immerse ourselves in Hallowell. We arrived late on a Friday afternoon, which turned out to be good timing, because this is a town that loves happy hour, and on Friday it starts early.
Hallowell has nicknames, lots of them, and the locals drop them frequently into conversation: The Little Easy, The New Orleans of the North, A Drinking Town with an Antiques Problem, and even—according to the kind gentleman who gives us directions to our first stop, the trailhead at Vaughan Woods—a hiking destination known as Hobbit Land.
Lauryn and I trek off, following the sound of waterfalls over quaint arched bridges hewn from granite blocks, to Cascade Pond. This is indeed a fantasy forest, as if right out of Tolkien’s imagination. The 197-acre woodland is privately owned but crisscrossed with trails that are open to the public. Something happens under those tall trees, away from city traffic and the distractions of the digital world. For me, the woods are the easiest place to be completely present.
Hallowell has several other notable nature escapes, including Jamies Pond, a 107-acre lake amid 840 acres of wilderness with a network of easy to moderate hiking trails. Just down the road, there’s a 1.5-mile wooded path for a lovely jaunt on foot or on bikes around the Hallowell Reservoir. The Kennebec River Rail Trail runs 6.5 miles from Augusta through Hallowell and Farmingdale to Gardiner; it’s now part of the 2019 Trek Across Maine cycle route. Capitol Park in Augusta is less than two miles away along the trail that runs parallel to the inactive railroad tracks that once connected Portland to Augusta.
On Saturday mornings, the Hallowell Farmers Market at Stevens Commons takes place atop the rolling hills of the historic Stevens School campus grounds, now a mixed-use development on 54 acres about a mile from Water Street. The campus features a group of historic buildings, newly built structures, a beautiful mature landscape, and plans to permanently conserve open space.
For many years, Hallowell was considered the antiquing capital of Maine, but not so much these days—it’s become more noted as a music and bar town, an impressive distinction considering its population of barely 2,000.
It feels as though we meet all of them that afternoon. After our tramp through the woods, Lauryn and I are both feeling reset and ready for town. It isn’t long before we’re making new friends along Water Street and in the shops. Every single person we encounter here is so nice. Folks are more than willing to share their knowledge about the town but also curious to learn about us. This place has some serious positives vibes going, and I tell Lauryn (about every 10 minutes), “It feels so good here.” And so we give Hallowell a new nickname: Pleasantville.
A visit to Hallowell centers on a half-mile stretch of Water Street, defined by sturdy brick commercial buildings that once housed ship chandleries, cement traders, and icehouses. Today, the businesses along Water Street are geared more to culture and leisure pursuits. Setting the tone is Scrummy Afters, the candy shop of your dreams. If I had walked into that place as a kid, I would have keeled over from excitement. As a grown-up kid, I can barely contain myself among the glass jars of most any candy you can think up. It’s the brainchild of Hilary Davis, a former costume designer who worked in New York City for four years before she decided to come home to Hallowell and pour her creativity into a sweeter venture. I leave with some awe-inspiring homemade dark-chocolate turtles, just about the size of my palm, and an assortment of pixie sticks for the kid that’s still inside me.
Right down the street, Dom’s Barber Shop has been in business for 75 years, and just like the candy store, it feels straight out of a 1940s movie. Barber Patti, the foster daughter of Dom’s founder Dominic Blodgett, has been working at the shop for 40 years, 50 if you count sweeping the floor. Patti recalls her father’s response when she asked him the secret of his success: “He said there was no secret. ‘Being happy at whatever it is that you are doing—cutting hair, giving a shave, or listening to the customer’s stories … that is your success.’ ”
Beyond the handsome commercial blocks of Water Street, Hallowell is known for its impressive collection of historic buildings. The so-called Hillside of Hallowell is a National Register of Historic Places district with streets that run like terraces up from Front Street and the waterfront along the Kennebec River. The district includes more than 260 acres, with 446 buildings registered.
One standout is the Governor Joseph R. Bodwell House, a 19th-century residence considered one of the finest examples of Second Empire style in Maine. Originally believed to be built in the Greek Revival style, the house once had columns supporting a triangular pediment. Bodwell “victorianized” his mansion in 1875, adding a mansard roof with dormers and a grand three-story tower topped with a mansarded cupola.
From there, Lauryn and I check out the Hubbard Free Library (1879–80), a timbered Gothic gem designed by architect Alexander Currier to look like an old English country church. It’s the oldest library building in Maine; I am pleased to see that several late-19th-century additions, including a cross-axial transept, retain the original structure’s charm and style.
Back down on Water Street, The Harlow is a nonprofit membership-based exhibition space in operation since 1963. We visit with Executive Director Deborah Fahy, who is clearly passionate about artists sharing art. “The model works,” she says. “It’s worked since 1963. We currently have about 300 members.”
Fahy says the exhibition committee meets twice annually and selects shows from member submissions. Up while I was there: a solo exhibition of work by Joe Klofas, a member of the Harlow for almost 30 years and the director of the gallery’s weekly figure drawing group for more than 20 years.
Klofas’s delicate graphite-on-paper of local plants and weeds remind me of our walk through the fairytale Vaughan Woods. The Harlow Craft Shop inside the gallery sells a colorful selection of local artists’ pottery, jewelry, textiles, woodworking, and prints, all handmade in Maine.
The pixie sticks long gone, it’s time for some real food. Lauryn and I start at The Liberal Cup, which is packed at 3:30 with happy-hour locals swigging brews and devouring pub snacks. We might have been the only people in the place who didn’t know everyone, but after a beer we felt among old friends.
Next stop is Slates Restaurant and Bakery, where we sit upstairs at the bar and chat up bartender Adam Spillman. A lovely couple next to us insist that Adam makes the best martini in town; they disagree, however, on the best restaurant. (She prefers seared scallops at Slates, he likes the lasagna Bolognese at Joyce’s across the street.)
It’s hard to beat the atmosphere at Slates, with its open kitchen and walls covered in murals. The place feels so fresh, it’s hard to believe it’s in its 40th year—although it was rebuilt with help from the community after a 2007 fire.
We strike up a conversation with waitress Jane Shain, who does not hesitate to describe herself as “Jane Shain of Hallowell, Maine, who lives on Shady Lane.” Jane, who moved here in the 1970s, says Hallowell “feels like you’re living in the city even when you’re in the country.” She also runs her own flower shop, The Maine Accent, with a pick-your-own flower garden and wedding venue. And she makes a line of preservative-free rose and lavender waters for bathing.
Jane tells us that Hallowell has parades for everything. “Old Hallowell Days” in July. A Christmas parade, a Mardi Gras parade. They block off Water Street, which isn’t that long, since the parades last about 8–12 minutes.
Another Hallowell institution is Merrill’s Bookshop. There, up a flight of stairs, owner John Merrill shelters in place behind towers of used books. One of the very few “proudly old-fashioned” bookstores around, this is yet another place in Hallowell, like Vaughan Woods, Brass & Friends, and Scrummy Afters, to get gleefully lost.
The afternoon is turning to evening and fun crowds are quaffing the 38 beers on tap at The Quarry Tap Room or a specialty cocktail from a growing list of Maine craft distilleries at The Maine House Craft Cocktail Lounge. Our last stop is Easy Street Lounge, an eclectic mix of tiki bar and your dad’s basement “game room.” The party atmosphere is now up to full Friday night volume, and with its dimly lit, layered vintage design—I think it’s safe to say this is a place where memories are made, and told again later.
On any given night, you’re likely to find several live music acts vying for attention in the pubs along Water Street. The density of the commercial block and the variety of music, from folk to funk, give this riverfront pit stop the nighttime personality of a big city.
Locals chalk up the Hallowell scene to a combination of factors, including the nearby state capital and its educated workforce, the attractive historic housing, the terraced street grid above the river, and the renowned music department at the University of Maine at Augusta, which sets the pace for the music around town. I’d add the cool factor that I first experienced in Hallowell a few years ago—which is hard to define but nothing like the big-city “too cool to talk to you” variety. Says Jane Shain (she of Shady Lane), “It’s the only place I’ve ever lived where 18-year-olds hang out with 65-year-olds.”
Now that’s cool.