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O#30: Skowhegan, Maine
OMay 27, 2007


The town of Skowhegan is located in central Maine, in the Kennebec River Valley.



"Skowhegan" means "a place of watching and waiting" in the language of the Abnaki tribe. The local Indians have long since fled for Canada, but are honored on the town seal, and by a 65-foot tall outdoor sculpture in the center of the city.




The area was first settled by white men in pre-Revolutionary times. Early industry in the area was based on mills powered by the Kennebec River, which rushes through a gorge in the center of town.




Skowhegan is shiretown of Somerset county, which in Maine lingo means it's the county seat. It was the home of Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate.


Today, the New Balance shoe factory and a specialty paper manufacturing plant are among the largest local employers. The downtown area is on the National Register as an Historic District, but in early 2007 was full of dust and concrete construction barriers for a big street repair project.




The Empire Grill in downtown Skowhegan was created for the TV movie "Empire Falls" which was shot on location there. The film was based on the book by Richard Russo, once a resident of nearby Waterville, and concerns the misfortunes of people in a small Maine town.

Having the Hollywood version of a small Maine town diner in a real small Maine town blurs the line between life and art in an odd way, but local people seem to take it in stride. No one I spoke to liked the movie very much.


Skowhegan is several hours away from Maine's larger cities and as in the oft-told anecdote, it remains the kind of place where families living in the area for ten or fifteen years are still referred to dismissively as "the new people" by their longer-tenure neighbors. "Maine is like its own separate country," one local woman told me proudly.




In 2007 I was invited to fly at the Skowhegan Arts and Air Festival on Memorial Day weekend. The event is sponsored by the Skowhegan Area Chamber of Commerce, and features craft vendors and musical entertainment along with hot-air balloons. Cory King, Executive Director of the Chamber, made the arrangements for my flight at the event. My fellow hot-air balloonist David Tanzer flew in from Vermont to serve as my crew chief for the flight.


The event took place in the parking lot of a partially-tenanted strip mall on the outskirts of town. David and I were assisted with the helium tanks and other set-up by George, one of the Chamber volunteers, a self-described "disgruntled former postal worker" with a passion for guns. Happily, George proved to be an easygoing, fun-loving sort: a tireless worker and full of interesting anecdotes about life in Maine, many of which only peripherally involved firearms.





I was initially scheduled to fly on Saturday afternoon, but there was too much wind. Sunday afternoon was forecast to be rainy. However, between wind and rain there was supposed to be a brief calm and sunny period on Sunday morning, so Cory and I agreed that I should fly then.

We were scheduled to start inflating the balloons at 4 AM, but only about half of the volunteers who had promised to be there actually showed up at the scheduled time. We got started as best we could, while Cory got on his cell phone and began calling people. Luckily, we had help from Jim and Noel, some Canadian balloonist friends of David's; our volunteer George; and some local residents who had just read about my flight in the paper. Over the next half hour, the rest of the volunteers began to straggle into the darkened parking lot.