Last weekend, Bucksport civic leaders welcomed ghosts and other ghouls to their community with excitement and, perhaps, some relief, as the town’s streets filled up with happy, costumed attendees of the annual Ghostport Halloween festival.
The relief came because in Maine, people know all too well that former mill communities can soon look like a different kind of ghost town altogether, but not in Bucksport. As contestants raced with coffins down Main Street on Saturday afternoon and a stalwart crew of men launched pumpkins into the sparkling Penobscot River using a medieval trebuchet, bystanders paid little attention to the remains of the Verso paper mill that for decades loomed large on the waterfront and in the spirit of the community.
Racing coffins and flying pumpkins? For Leslie Wombacher, the executive director of the Bucksport Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, those events signify the silliness and fun that is integral to the town’s annual one-day “Ghostport” event. But even more than that, as she looked around at the people lined up on Main Street, she sees visible proof of a community that is thriving. Just three years after the closure of the paper mill, Bucksport’s largest employer by far, she knows that this outcome wasn’t guaranteed.
“The mill closed. And when the mill closed, all these citizens raised their hands,” she said. “It was brilliant. So neat. So inspiring. It’s amazing.”
Those citizens raised their hands to volunteer to keep events and celebrations like this one running. But they also raised them to show that they did not want their town to just dry up and blow away after the closure of the mill. That kind of community involvement has led to economic gains and development opportunities for Bucksport, Wombacher said. Even though events such as Ghostport are not likely to win federal block grants or be part of public-private partnerships, they do crowd the streets of the town with people who care about it. Those folks lined up to buy ice cream at Wahl’s Dairy Port, which had closed for the season but opened for the day, and wandered through the other downtown shops, wearing costumes and wreathed in smiles.
“These guys loved Bucksport before the mill closed, too,” she said. “But what could have happened was they lost their enthusiasm for it, and they didn’t.”
Nothing proves that enthusiasm more than the coffin race (official name: “Jonathan Buck’s Race to the Grave,” in a nod to the community’s 18th century founder, who has a famous, and famously spooky, graveyard monument). Teams compete for bragging rights and a trophy, and on Saturday members gathered around three wheeled coffins to wait for the start of the race and talk up their chances of winning it.
“We’re racing today,” said Jamie Dube of Orrington, who was competing with a group from the East Coast Ghost Trackers. “We have no idea what’s going to happen. Other than that we’re taking the trophy home.”
But Larry Wahl, owner of the Dairy Port, had a different idea. His employees have competed in a Dairy Port-sponsored coffin for all the years the event has taken place, and took home the trophy for four years running. They lost it last year, and want it back, he said.
“We’re in it to win it,” Wahl said. “It’s a fun time. You can’t take the race seriously.”
But when the race began, it was apparent that the runners didn’t take it too lightly, either. They pounded up the street under the unseasonably warm October sun, pulling the rumbling coffins along with them. Each coffin carried a “Jonathan,” or rider, and Caroline Foy, who rode in the coffin sponsored by Danny Murphy’s Pub in Castine, said after the first heat that it was a speedy ride up Main Street.
“It was pretty fun, and pretty nerve-wracking,” she said.
After the end of three heats, the Dairy Port coffin was declared the fastest of the three teams competing, and brought the trophy home with them again. For Wombacher, who would love to have more teams participate in the event, it was a success nonetheless. She did a quick race post-mortem with Bucksport resident Tara Law, who lives downtown.
“I love seeing the caskets racing up and down the street,” Law said. “It’s so fun. It just captures the vitality and spirit of the town.”