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Penobscot
Originally published in Castine Patriot, December 13, 2012
From farming to community service, Paul Bowen is at home
“If you live in paradise, you don’t have to go anywhere”

Paul Bowen at home on Mapleholm Farm

Paul Bowen at home on Mapleholm Farm.

Photo by Anne Berleant Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by Anne Berleant

“It’s always easy to do the same thing we’ve always done and call it good enough.”

Paul Bowen, retired farmer, town selectman, and a Penobscot resident for 40 years, spoke those words on how children are taught and schools are run, but the feeling behind the words, that you don’t have to settle for what’s comfortable or easily grasped, carries over into his own life.

Born in Bangor, raised in Hampden, and a resident of Orland, he moved with his wife and two children to Back Ridge Road in Penobscot and has stayed ever since.

“If you live in paradise, you don’t have to go anywhere,” he said.

Bowen bought Mapleholm Farm, an operating poultry farm, in 1972. “I had this thing I had to get out of my system—farming,” he said in a recent interview.

He raised 40,000 chickens a year as meat birds until 1981, “when poultry farming went south,” due mainly, he said, to rising energy prices.

And when poultry farming was no longer “good enough,” Bowen turned to dairy cows.

“I enjoyed milking cows,” he said. “I was criticized for being a monoculturist—most dairy farmers are.”

“The workload is astronomical,” he added.

Mapleholm Farm housed 25 milkers, Bowen said, which produced 300 to 500 gallons every other day, picked up by Hancock County Creamery, “a nice little cooperative in Ellsworth…It was an excellent milk market for me.”

His son and daughter, Steve and Jennifer, both helped out, “and then both went off to school. That helped precipitate things a little bit,” he said, along with the creamery being sold to Oakhurst Dairy in 1994, which didn’t pick up milk from “this side of the river.”

“The trucking of milk is a very complex thing,” Bowen said. “And the farmers paid for it.”

During this period in time, Penobscot, like other rural areas, saw a resurgence in farming, which continues today.

Some of the local farmers “had a different image of what agriculture was than I did, and they’re still here,” he said, mentioning nearby King Hill Farm as one example.

“We never thought much about that,” Bowen said. “I think more about it now. I think [young farmers] are on the right track.”

Nine years on the school committee

Bowen didn’t just milk cows in the 1980s; he was an active member of the Penobscot School Committee for nine years, “a kind of natural thing,” he said, while his children were in school.

Back then, stops on Back Ridge Road alone filled up a school bus, he said.

“I don’t think we ever thought about declining enrollment. We thought about what we were going to do with all those kids.”

No longer on the school committee, Bowen remains concerned, and attends meetings of the Penobscot School Discussion Group. He supported the fledgling pre-K program at the school, “simply to get warm bodies in the room.”

Bowen, whose son Steve is Commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, said he was interested in the recent talk held in Penobscot by Linda Laughlin, co-chairman of Maine Cohorts for Customized Learning, on the standards-based learning model.

The numbers of children in Penobscot and other Peninsula towns enrolled in private schools or home schooled is “a testament to the fact that people are looking for a different experience” for their children in education, he said.

“I’m concerned that we are stuck using an educational model and system that was designed 150 years ago,” he said. “Whomever is in this community in leadership, whether administration or school committee, has got to try something different [to] make Penobscot like a magnet that would attract students,” or school enrollment will continue to decline.

“Penobscot’s an easy town to manage”

Bowen was elected as one of three town selectmen in 1989, serving for three terms totaling nine years. He took four years off, and has since served in back to back terms.

“It’s been several years since I had an opponent. In Penobscot, if you can find someone to do this job, [the town’s people] are just tickled…Penobscot’s an easy town to manage.”

The biggest change he’s seen in Penobscot is the influx of new people, including himself.

“People came from other places. It was a new thing for Penobscot. People looked at us as coming from away to take over the town. I think that trend has continued.”

“We don’t have a lot of summer folks, but had a lot of folks coming and staying,” he said.

New residents bring “different ideas, different perspectives,” he said, “all of which are good things.”

As a selectman, he’s seen a greater demand from residents “used to more government services than we are used to providing,” he said. “They want the roads plowed better. We do the best we can with what we have to work with.”

“People come to the board of selectmen to ask us to do things we find strange,” he said, like boundary line disputes. “That seems to be more and more common.”

One job the selectmen recently took on, in conjunction with the Blue Hill selectmen, was challenging the legality of selling Penobscot Nursing Home bed licenses by the Department of Health and Human Services to First Atlantic, a company building a new elder care facility in Bucksport.

“One of the things we were able to do was short circuit the deal the state had with First Atlantic,” Bowen said, which cost the town “some money” in legal fees. “Everyone heard that loud and clear—we weren’t just willing to close the doors and move [PNH] to Bucksport.”

“It was a complete miscalculation on the part of DHHS,” he said. “They have since understood there’s a cultural issue.”

“I don’t know why that is. A lot of people here work or retired from the [Bucksport paper] mill, but the focus of the community is more linked to other municipalities on the Peninsula than Bucksport,” Bowen said.

And even though he’s lived in Penobscot for 40 years, “I’m still considered a newcomer,” Bowen said. “But that’s okay.”