March 15, 2010

Park preserves history of Poland Spring resort

BJ BANGS

— By

For The Maine Sunday Telegram

If you didn't know it was there, you'd just keep on driving on Route 26. That's the case with many of the so-named ''gems of 26,'' because while on a main thoroughfare, they are hidden just enough to be off the beaten path.

Two of those jewels are Poland Spring Preservation Society and Poland Spring Preservation Park, located behind another gem, the Poland Spring Resort, just over the hill from Poland Spring Water Bottling Plant.

Taking the turn off Route 26, you see the resort and the golf course, but then as you keep driving, the sight is awe-inspiring. The Preservation Society is home to the octagon-shaped Maine State Museum, the original Maine exhibition hall at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, and the stone All Souls Chapel, completed in 1921, with its stunning painted (not stained glass) windows.

Up the road, an arched sign welcomes you to Preservation Park. The park includes Spring House, where the original Poland Spring is located, and the Poland Spring Museum and Environmental Education Center, housed in one of three original bottling facilities. The park also includes more than five miles of walking and hiking trails.

Perhaps the mystical powers associated with the original Poland Spring water permeate the air. But you can't appreciate what the site offers without an understanding of its history. That history can be found in the Poland Spring Museum.

In 1793, Jabez Ricker of Alfred visited Poland Spring and was taken aback by its wonder. The Shakers wanted his property, complete with the saw and grist mill. Despite many requests, he refused. Word has it that in the last offer, the Shakers said, ''But God wants you to give it to us.''

Jabez worked out a deal to exchange his Alfred property for 300 acres from the Sabbathday Lake Shakers in New Gloucester. The stagecoach went by their humble abode, and they found more and more people started knocking on the door asking for a place to stay. This marked the beginning of what was first known as the Wentworth Ricker Inn, later known as the Poland Spring House and the Poland Spring Resort.

Many proclaimed the miracle powers of the spring water. After drinking it, they felt so much better. Jabez's son Hiram, who had an attack of dyspepsia, tried the spring waters. His health improved.

Doctors touted the water's healing properties, and became the water's best promoters, according to Jason Libby, executive director of the Poland Spring Preservation Society.

They'd make out prescriptions, and people would come to Poland Spring looking for water. Hiram, an astute businessman, decided to market the water. Commercial sales began in 1859 and grew to 5,000 barrels by 1870.

Libby says the Rickers were astute businessmen. They had to create reasons for people to come to an inn so far off the path. It wasn't like the Samoset, which they owned, on the ocean.

They creatively implemented ideas to attract more and more people, especially celebrities and politicians, to the inn, including baseball legend Babe Ruth and Joe and Rose Kennedy.

The Donald Ross golf course became the first golf course at a resort in America, something unheard of in its time. So was the addition of an art gallery.

The Poland Spring Museum, adjacent to the Spring House, has so much marble and glass, it shines.

Cleanliness was imperative to the bottling operation, and upstairs, one can visit the marble shower stalls powered by water from a 55-gallon copper drum overhead.

The nearby Spring House looks like something out of Roman history with its marble pillars and original spring, protected behind glass. The mannequin is there to serve you, just like it used to be.

Take time to enjoy this and many other gems along Route 26, places that can keep you close to home or your home away from home. Check out the weekly concert series, gift shop and lots more.

BJ Bangs of Phillips writes about places that are off the beaten path. She may be reached at

bjbangs@yahoo.com

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