Rolling down Maine’s Route 26, and raving about the finds

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Looking for a day trip that won’t break the bank and merges history, shopping, and wildlife? Mosey along Route 26 in western Maine, between Gray and South Paris. Along the way, you’ll find farmstands with fresh ice cream, low-key family restaurants, and down the cross roads, a state park and town beaches for lake swimming. Note: This drive is lovely anytime, but it would be spectacular during peak foliage.

Meet the Natives at the Maine Wildlife Park

Want to know where the wild things are? Deer, moose, black bear, bald eagle, even mountain lion are among the 30 or so native species usually on view at this mega-kid-friendly state-operated refuge and education facility. This isn’t a zoo: All the residents are either being rehabilitated or are unable to return to the wild. New this year is a free cell-hone tour of the park. Interactive displays and exhibits, special programs, and nature trails round out the offerings, and there are special events almost every weekend (usually on Saturday).

Glimpse an endangered lifestyle at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community

One of the happy byproducts of Route 26’s rebuilding was that it no longer passes directly through the middle of the world’s last inhabited Shaker community. The few remaining members of the United Society of Shakers, an 18th-century religious sect, keep a relatively high profile with a living-history museum, craft workshops, herbal gardens, and a small shop filled with Shaker herb and wool products, publications, music, some Maine-made crafts, and unfortunately too many made-in China kids’ doo-dads. Seventy-five-minute tours are offered Monday through Saturday; on Sundays, visitors are welcome to attend the 10 a.m. service (note: men and women enter through separate doors and sit separately). Check the special events calendar for workshops and demonstrations. While you won’t be able to get see as much if you simply visit without taking the tour ($6.50 adult, $2 kids), you can absorb the peacefulness of the setting and the lifestyle.

Soak up history in Poland Spring

Take a tour through the history of one of the world’s most famous waters. It was Poland Spring Water that built Hiram Ricker’s family empire, and a visit to Poland Spring should include Poland Spring Preservation Park home to the Poland Spring Museum and Spring House, to learn about the legendary healing power of the water as well as to the Maine State Building and All Souls Chapel, both maintained by the Poland Spring Preservation Society.

Begin at the free Preservation Park museum, where exhibits detail the history of the famed water and explain its origins. The water won the Medal of Excellence at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and the Grand Prize at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. After touring the exhibits, be sure to visit the Spring House. Nature trails lace the grounds and connect to the other sites.

Maine State Building exhibits take it from there ($3 donation suggested). It was the water’s fame that helped the Ricker family grow their small hotel into the Poland Spring House, a 300-room hotel that was an architectural and technological marvel on a 5,000-acre property that included the world’s first resort golf course and one of the first courses designed by Donald Ross. During its heyday in the early 20th century, the richest and most powerful people in the country gathered here to play golf and discuss world policy. Almost every American president from Ulysses S. Grant to Theodore Roosevelt stayed here. Other guests and visitors of note include Babe Ruth, Alexander Graham Bell, Mae West, Betty Grable, Judy Garland; Charles Lindberg flew over the hotel on July 25, 1927, but he was unable to land because of the crowds. The Poland Spring House was destroyed by fire in 1975, but the Maine State Building and the All Souls Chapel remain.

The three-story, octagonal Maine State Building was built as the state pavilion for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Afterward, Ricker bought it for $30,000 and moved it to Maine aboard a special freight train and then via horse-drawn wagon to Ricker Hill, where it was reassembled, piece by piece. One year later, it reopened as a library and art gallery as part of the Ricker family’s centennial celebration of their settlement at Poland Spring. Although it suffered years of neglect in the mid-20th century, it’s been restored and is now operated by the Poland Spring Preservation Society as a museum and art gallery.

The adjacent All Souls Chapel was built in 1912 by the Ricker Family with donations from guests and staff of the Poland Spring House. The 1926 Skinner pipe organ and a set of Westminster chimes are still in working order. The chapel is home to a summer concert series on Monday nights.

Downtown oasis: McLaughlin Garden

In 1997, a little miracle happened in South Paris. For more than 60 years, Bernard McLaughlin had lovingly tended his two-acre perennial garden alongside Route 26, eventually surrounded by commercial development, and he’d always welcomed the public into his floral oasis. In 1995, at the age of 98, McLaughlin died, stipulating in his will that the property be sold. Eager developers eyed it, but loyal flower fans dug in their heels, captured media attention, created a nonprofit foundation, and managed to buy the property—the beginning of the little miracle. The free McLaughlin Garden not only lives on, but also continues to grow. Also here are a pleasant little cafe, and a shop with gardening items and gifts.