By Paul Mills
With the advent of late spring in Maine, thoughts turn to vacation travel plans or those taken in the past.
One of the more intriguing vacations was pursued just three years ago this month by Farmington native Peter L. Hall now of Portland. Once a San Francisco-based guide who for 25 years had led tours both in California as well as some 20 different countries throughout the world, Hall returned a dozen years ago to Maine where he still occasionally leads guided tours. Though he had been exceedingly world traveled, Hall still had not accomplished a lead item on his bucket list of adventures.
Well, not at least until 2013, that is.
This was the goal of visiting all 26 communities in the nation which claimed the name of his childhood home, Farmington. Though Hall had not lived in this, the shire town of Maine’s Franklin County since his graduation here from high school in 1960, he had come to regard it as a place – with so much character and nostalgia that visiting all other communities with the same name in the country became a compelling aspiration.
This he did in a whirlwind solo automotive 12,000-mile tour that took him to or through 40 states in just 30 days in May of 2013. Now, for the first time, the semi-retired resident of Portland’s Bramhall West End neighborhood, has revealed in a recent interview with this columnist his keen observations. These are ones he made as likely the only living Maine person if not the only living American to have been to every Farmington in the U.S.
A sampling of what the one time international tour guide learned reveals a lot about how both Farmington and similar Maine communities compare with others throughout the nation.
The Biggest: With its 45,000 people, the Farmington in New Mexico wins this distinction. Located near the four corners monument where four states intersect at a single point, it’s one of the Farmingtons that Hall has visited more than once.
“When I first went there – 30 to 40 years ago – it was a very attractive community,” he recalled. The recent exponential growth caused by the development of nearby natural gas production has occasioned changes which Hall feels has fed “a lot of non-aesthetic expansion.” To Hall, this means “They’ve allowed, seemingly with no zoning, strip malls all around the old town, so at 5 p.m. it becomes desolation row, businesses close,” and that “people don’t even live in these downtowns anymore.”
Most Affluent: The second largest Farmington, at 25,000, is in Connecticut. It is also the most affluent. This upscale Hartford suburb of 25,000 and home to the school where Jackie Kennedy prepared for college, boasts the most highly regulated land use laws among the 26. With no fast food establishments and an abundance of ornate residential estates, “They still do not have an identity in terms of a downtown area,” recalled Hall. “There may be a service station, maybe a CVS store or something like that but I couldn’t even find a decent coffee shop.”
Most Tragic History: Farmington, West Virginia for the coal mine explosion that claimed 78 lives in 1968, a disaster that led Congress to enact the 1969 Coal Mine Safety Act. The 381 people who now live there still depend largely on coal mining jobs in nearby towns for their livelihood, though the mine that made its name so infamous has been closed. The book has still not been closed on what caused the disaster. A lawsuit filed in November 2014 alleging that recently discovered evidence of a company cover-up of the cause of the tragedy is still pending.
Also vying for the dubious distinction of most tragic is Farmington, Mississippi, a town on the Tennessee border that was destroyed in the 1862 Civil War Siege of Corinth. This left over 650 soldiers either killed, wounded or missing and wreaked havoc on a town that had just before then been by-passed in construction of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad. The 2,200 residents living there today are testament to its revived viability.
Most Common Characteristic: The most common assessment Hall gives to most of the other Farmingtons is a lack of identity. “There’s no essence,” he observed. This applies both to some of the suburban sprawl towns he encountered including Farmington, Utah, but also to those with hardly any residents at all. Among those with miniscule populations were Farmington, Delaware, population 112, and “very poverty stricken.” Others included Farmington, Washington – population 149, which despite its isolation Hall found very cordial. Among the others, Farmington, Georgia, though meagerly populated with just 45 inhabitants still had an old railroad station that was converted into a successful art gallery. Then there’s Farmington, Montana, a one time railroad spur line, that seemed to have no one living there at all.
Those That Were Named After Each Other: Hall found only three of these. Quakers from Farmington, New York, who migrated to Michigan were the first to do this. Those from Wisconsin appeared to be a spin-off from Minnesota’s. Further west, Oregon’s Farmington – like the state’s largest city – was named for a New England counterpart, Farmington, Connecticut.
Friendliest: The most hospitable to Hall were those in New Hampshire and California. In both places people he encountered were both responsive and were “really excited” about his project. The reception afforded him at California’s Farmington, a village of a mere 207 inhabitants, included a tour of its fire department, which, in typical small world fashion, had just sold its ambulance to South Thomaston, Maine.
Most Similar to Farmington, Maine: Farmington, Minnesota and Farmington, Michigan. Both have well preserved downtowns. The Minnesota Farmington has a “lot of old, nice brick buildings,” and despite being in the shadow of nearby Minneapolis has “not been swallowed up by strip malls,” and has large grain elevators. Like Hall’s Maine hometown it has an agricultural fair. Its Michigan counterpart, despite a downtown identity, is not as bustling. With half empty storefronts in a mall outside its downtown it bears the scars of its 25 mile proximity to the economically depressed Detroit.
What They All Have in Common: All 26 are inland communities. This, according to Hall, only stands to reason as coastal towns were more likely populated by those in fisheries rather than in farming. All have agricultural roots.
What He Likes About His Favorite, Farmington, Maine: “I’m encouraged by the fact that it’s still a viable economy, it’s grown though not too much in population, it remains the shire town, the university has grown plus it’s the distribution center for Franklin County, in terms of services such as health services, Wal-mart, supermarkets.” In theses respects, Hall notes that the only other county seat or shire town among the Farmingtons is Missouri and that the only other one with a college or university was at the New Mexico Farmington.
The decline of many of the other Farmingtons he attributes to their exclusive reliance on some form of manufacturing, something that has not ordinarily been a mainstay of his native community, though its lumber and saw mills, box shop and shoe manufacturing were once prominent here. Other Farmingtons he found “put their eggs in one basket and when that industry died so did the town along with it.”
To be sure, there are some community names a bit more common than Farmington. Among them are Springfield, Washington, and Franklin. But regardless of the name, comparing both the defects as well as virtues of so many communities that share the same name by a personal visit to all of them is a scintillating adventure few people will ever experience.
We can be grateful to Peter Hall for helping to share his odyssey with others.
Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public
affairs in Maine. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.