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No need to go to Spain to roll through Madrid

By John Gould / December 3, 1999



You no doubt didn't hear that our Maine town of Madrid has voted to go out of business. The citizens just threw their hands in the air and gave up, and henceforth will revert to an unorganized wilderness township, its affairs handled by the state and, you may agree, the inhabitants are off the hook .

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Let me begin by telling you that's not the way to say it. Presumably starting with Madrid in Spain, our Maine Madrid is not muh-DRID. You must be Franklin- county-born to speak Madrid right, and folks from away betray their origins the instant they ask directions to muh-DRID. The deleted town is, naturally, MAD- dr'd. Try that again: Ma-a-d-dr'd.

The deleted town was settled in 1807, incorporated as Madrid in 1836, and its previous designation was 1R1 WBKP. That's a good neighborhood, and it means Madrid was the first township in the first surveyors' range west of Bingham's Kennebec Purchase.

Mr. Bingham was a Pennsylvania gentleman of means who supported the Revolution generously and invested wisely in Maine timberlands until he owned a good tenth part of the state. Some say Mr. Bingham never visited Maine, and if so he didn't know his theodolite neighbor was 1R1, Madrid. MAD-dr'd. From the top of Bray Hill in Madrid you may gaze in awe at the finest view of valley and hills available.

Madrid is rich in scenery. The town has, or did have, maybe 100 residents, all well versed in woodsmanship, one store that stocked everything, a faro casino, and a Saturday-night dance hall where river-drivers were required to muffle their spiked boots by tying on a burlap grain bag. (I was told about this; river-driving preceded me.)

The faro parlor (I was told) was operated by Bena Savage, who as a young woman prospected Out West with her engineer father and learned to deal in a Leadville, Colo, poker-parlor/saloon of high quality and respectable reputation. Back in Maine, she dealt only in her own home, for friends and qualified neighbors. Bena was one of the best cooks in Maine, and to sit at her table was better than being a King Arthur knight. Beautiful Sandy River flowed right past Bena's front window.

The Madrid dance hall was operated by the owner of the Madrid store, who was also the town game inspector. The Saturday-night dance was attended by everybody in the 56 adjacent and unnumbered townships and was often described as a ringer-dinger-doo.

In the days of the Sandy River & Rangeley Lakes narrow-gauge railroad, the station for Madrid was at East Madrid, a few miles in that direction. In the down-river town of Phillips, there was a railroad junction known as Madrid Junction, where up-country trains were switched up country.

Madrid is on Highway 4, which runs from the New Hampshire line into Rangeley Village. Route 4 is a most scenic drive, as Sandy River flows in gentle serenity seeking the sea. Seven miles above Madrid is a place called Piazza Rock. It's a granite shelf over a scenic situation and in summer usually has somebody on a hiking picnic.

From the vicinity of Piazza Rock to lovely downtown Madrid, seven miles downgrade, there was a descent where motorists used to put their vehicles in neutral and coast. Self-shift motors have spoiled this fun, but in an old Hudson or Reo you'd get a real thrill. Coasting at high speed over Masonic Hill made Niagara in a barrel mere kid stuff.

As you can imagine, this made all south-bound traffic go through Madrid at some 125 m.p.h. Veterans claimed they had coasted from Piazza Rock all 30 miles into Farmington and saved seven gallons of gas. This was a threat to longevity in Madrid. People didn't go across to the store without cupping a hand to ear and giving a good listen.

When that region depended on the narrow-gauge railroad, a lady got on the train at Farmington and said to the conductor, "Will you be sure to tell me when we come to East Madrid?"

"Certainly, madam!"

For the next few miles she reminded him about East Madrid. But when the train came to East Madrid the conductor forgot all about the lady until they'd gone well beyond and were almost to Reddington Pond. Suddenly he remembered, and pulled the emergency cord. The train stopped, and the conductor walked up to confer with the engineer. "Got a lady for East Madrid aboard, and I forgot to put her off."

So the engineer nodded, and backed up the whole midget consist until it was back at East Madrid depot. The conductor reached down the lady's satchel and said, "East Mad-dr'd, madam, East M-a-a-d-r'd!"

The lady roused from a nap and said, "Oh, thank you so much! My daughter put me up a lunch, and she said I was to eat it at East Madrid. How long before we get to Rangeley?"

Maine has many wildland townships like Madrid that govern themselves well. The townships are owned mostly by nonresident timber companies that can't vote. Each year the citizens who can vote gather in somebody's front room for town meeting. It's like this: "All right, Abner, it's your turn to be on the school committee, and mine to be tax collector." Everybody holds office. Then they vote a salary to each office holder just equal to his town taxes.

In this way, only nonresidents pay taxes, which isn't a bad idea. Is it possible that too many newcomers moved into Madrid?

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society