Monson & Greenville
The arts and the outdoors blend in neighboring towns on the edge of the wilderness
At the southern edge of Maine’s North Woods, the neighboring towns of Monson and Greenville have historically been outposts for outdoor recreation enthusiasts—the former as a waypoint and the latter as a launching point. Monson is the last town Appalachian Trail thru-hikers encounter before entering the 100-Mile Wilderness, considered the most challenging stretch of the 2,190-mile trail, which finishes at Mount Katahdin. Greenville is a hub for activities on and around Moosehead Lake—fishing, boating, and camping in the summer and snowmobiling and cross-country skiing in the winter.
“When I was a kid the hikers were real novelties. We would follow them on our bikes and pepper them with questions,” says painter and Monson native Alan Bray, explaining that the Appalachian Trail follows a section of road out of Monson before heading into the woods. Like many local residents in the 1950s, Bray’s father, who was raising three boys as a single dad, worked in the Moosehead Manufacturing furniture mill. Monson was a thriving community when Bray was growing up, with shops and other small businesses downtown owned by descendants of the Scandinavian immigrants who came to the area after slate was discovered here in the 1870s. The Sheldon Slate Products Company, head-quartered in Monson, still quarries high-quality stone, fashioning it into custom sinks, countertops, even shower walls, for fine homes around the country.
After Moosehead Manufacturing closed in 2007, Monson, like so many other Maine mill towns, went into decline. Ten years later, the Portland-based Libra Foundation came to its rescue and has since bought more than 20 buildings to create an art colony. Led by Stuart Kestenbaum, Maine’s poet laureate and former director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Monson Arts now offers four-week residencies for artists and writers, plus workshops and other programming for locals. Bray, who is on the board, led Monson Arts’ first workshop last July. Libra’s investment also includes the renovation of the Monson General Store and a new restaurant, The Quarry, run by Marilou Ranta, the former chef at the Blair Hill Inn in Greenville (now a Relais and Chateau property, thanks to a grant from Libra to help with the application and training process). Brought in to feed the artists, Ranta is “an incredible chef, and not just in a traditional sense,” says Bray. He calls Libra’s involvement “salvation and resurrection for a town that was five to six years from just falling into the ground,” adding that the foundation chose to invest in Monson because of the community’s relationship with the Appalachian Trail. “The hikers tend to be an interesting group of people of all colors and nationalities; it has created in Monson an openness to difference.”
Even with the success of Monson Arts, outdoor recreation remains a primary draw for visitors to the area. Among Bray’s favorite outdoor places is Borestone Mountain, a 1,600-acre wilderness paradise owned by Maine Audubon. “It should be a state jewel,” he says. Bray also mentions Upper and Lower Little Wilson Falls, accessible from the Appalachian Trail and a popular spot to cool off on a summer day. Spring Creek Bar-B-Q, known by smoked meat aficionados far and wide, is another attraction. Opened 17 years ago in a tiny shack by Mike and Kim Witham, the restaurant moved to a new, larger building due to demand. “Sometimes they’ve got cars parked up and down both sides of the road,” says Bray. “I tease my wife, ‘Look, it’s just like driving through Camden.’”
Fourteen miles northwest of Monson, Greenville bustles in the summer with outdoor adventurers. “There are few sights I love more than cresting the hill coming into Greenville on Route 6 and seeing the lake and mountains spread out in front of me,” says Sean McCarthy, bassist for the Portland-based band Ghost of Paul Revere. Since McCarthy started visiting Moosehead Lake 30 years ago, he considers spending a bit of time in Greenville a natural extension of going up to his family’s camp, located on the outskirts of town. “Whether it’s grabbing a coffee and a treat at the Farmhouse Cafe, taking the required stop at Indian Hill Trading Post—where you can find anything you need and some things you might not—to pick up supplies, or taking a break from the lake and woods to grab a drink and some grub with locals at Flatlanders Pub or the Stress Free Moose, Greenville has you covered,” he says. McCarthy’s partner, State 23 Media online editor Shelbi Wassick, notes that Greenville offers adventure in all seasons. In the summer, camping at Lily Bay State Park, moose watching, and hikes up Mount Kineo are on her bucket list. On autumn weekends, a cruise around the lake on the historic Katahdin steamboat is an ideal way to take in all the gorgeous foliage. “A visit during the winter, though not for the faint of heart, is the most rewarding,” Wassick says. “Snowmobiling allows you to explore the area in ways you can’t during the rest of the year,” she notes, and the frozen lake also becomes a playground for hard-water fishermen. Even just spending quiet time at McCarthy’s family camp is restorative: “For me, the Moosehead Lake region is a place of respite to reconnect with nature and appreciate the vastness of Maine’s great outdoors.”