With a name derived from the Abenaki tribal word for “a place to watch” (for fish), Skowhegan, Maine, (population 8,800), is a town full of history nestled on the Kennebec River. The Abenaki lived in the area from spring until fall, and the abundance of salmon and other species around the Skowhegan Falls (now replaced with a dam) gave the place its name. Their village was sacked and destroyed in 1724 during the conflict known as Dummer’s War or by one of six other names, including the Wabanaki-New England War of 1722-1725. As the first permanent European settlers arrived as early as 1772, they formed two separate communities, Bloomfield on the south side of the Kennebec, and Milburn on the north. Skowhegan Island, in the middle of the river between the two, was also settled. Both communities were originally meant to be part of the neighboring town of Canaan. Milburn was incorporated in 1823, but the name was changed to Skowhegan in 1836 by the residents, who preferred it; this was also when the spelling of the word “Skowhegan” was finalized. Bloomfield was annexed in 1861. Skowhegan was named the county seat, or shire town, of Somerset County in 1871.
The town’s economy was originally farm-based, but later the town grew into a major manufacturing community, once connected to the railway system. At its peak, the town supported three woolen mills and five shoe manufacturers, as well as numerous other mills placed on Skowhegan Island. New Balance still has a plant in the town, as well as a factory outlet store. Indeed, some of the original mill and factory buildings, even some dating to the 1800s, are still in use today. The Kennebec River provided power for many of these mills.
In the 1900s, the Kennebec River was also used to as a conduit for the timber coming from further north. At one time, Skowhegan held a yearly celebration of the last log drive in 1976. Discontinued in 2002, some aspects of the former “Log Days” festival, including the “Moonlight Madness” event, an evening of music, family-friendly entertainment and bed-races, were re-incorporated into the “Harvest Days” celebration, run by the Downtown Business Association, which was folded into the Main Street Skowhegan program. “Moonlight Madness” is now sponsored by the Skowhegan Chamber of Commerce.
Skowhegan holds the longest continuously-running annual state fair in the U.S., which has been held every year since 1819. Other events include a farmer’s market, an outdoor expo, and the recently begun “Last Rose of Summer Day,” in honor of Skowhegan-born Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to be elected to both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.
In tribute to the Abenaki who originally settled the area, and gave it its name, artist and Abenaki-descendant Bernard Langlais sculpted a 62-foot-tall wooden statue depicting a member of the tribe, which holds the title of the “World’s Tallest Wooden Indian.” Other items of cultural importance include a sculpted walking shoe on display at the Skowhegan Public Library, which is decorated with images of the town and depictions of famous people from the town; and the Skowhegan History House, an 1839 cottage with a 1936 addition, filled with historic documents and artifacts from the mid-19th century.
Besides powering the old mills (and currently providing energy through a hydro-electric dam), the Kennebec River is a popular spot for fishing, kayaking, and hiking. Skowhegan also provides brochures for a walking tour of the historic district, with short descriptions of a number of historic buildings.
Skowhegan’s middle school students have created an online historic repository, including papers written by the students on historic topics, as well as student-created oral history videos featuring local citizens who have lived through historic events. This Web resource also includes information about local artists and the local government. The students in both middle and high school also work on town revitalization projects.
Designated a Preserve America Community in May 2011.