Vassalboro American Legion recognizes volunteer, donates to FD

The Vassalboro American Legion presents a recognition plaque to Don Breton for his work placing flags on the graves of local veterans. From left to right, Tom Richards, Don Breton and James Kilbride. (Contributed photo)

The American Legion Post #126, Vassalboro, donated $1,000 to the Vassalboro Volunteer Fire Department for the mobile communication at their meeting July 15, 2019. From left to right, Tom Richards, Don Breton, accepting check for Vassalboro Volunteer Fire Department, and James Kilbride. (Contributed photo)

Local residents receive degrees at WPI

Two local students received degrees from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in Worcester, Massachusetts, in their recent commencement.

Madison Michaud, of Vassalboro, was awarded a bachelor of science degree in biomedical engineering with distinction.

Brady Snowden, of Sidney, was awarded a bachelor of science degree in computer science with distinction.

Lake Association Annual Meetings 2019

Image Credit:

2019 Lake Association Annual Meetings

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Saturday, July 13 • 10 a.m.
Windsor Town Halle

Saturday, July 20 • 8:30 – 11:30 a.m.
China Primary School

Thursday, July 25 • 7 p.m.
Gibbs Library

Saturday, August 17, 9 a.m.
Vassalboro Community School

Saturday, August 17, 8:30 a.m.
Augusta West Kampground
off Holmes Road

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To be included in this list, contact The Town Line at

Local production to benefit The Town Line

The play, Senator Mitchell’s Sidney Farmer Comes to Washington, will be performed on Saturday, July 13, at 7 p.m., at the Vassalboro Grange Hall. Paul Cates wrote the play in the late ‘80s – early ‘90s, and would be so proud.

All proceeds will benefit The Town Line newspaper!

This production stars Steve Assante, Dr. Alan Ross, Dot Cates, Margaret Cates, Bernie Welch, John Reuthe, Holly Weidner, Helen Cates Devoe, Jody Welch, and Ethan Cates with musical accompaniment by Helen LeFleur. Stage direction is by Kala Wistar and Matthew Freytag. It is being directed by Linda Titus, and coordinated by Elisabeth Cates. Truly a community creation. We hope you will enjoy it as much as we have enjoyed preparing it!

Refreshments will follow the performance downstairs in the dining hall.

Please call and let us know how many are coming! We would so much love to have a full house.

We think you will really enjoy the play!

Play in Vassalboro to benefit The Town Line newspaper

On Saturday, July 13, at 7 p.m., the Vassalboro Grange is proud to present the play, “Senator Mitchell’s Sidney Farmer Comes to Washington.” The play was written by Paul Cates and is being performed by local actors. It is loosely based on the truth, with some fun thrown in! Refreshments will follow downstairs at the Grange Hall. The proceeds will benefit The Town Line newspaper. Tickets are$10/adult or $8/child under 12 and may be reserved by calling 631-3303. Limited seating so call now!

An inside look at local volunteer fire departments

Firefighters participate in a “live burn” training exercise in Albion. (photo courtesy of Albion Fire & Rescue)

by Eric W. Austin

In the decades since, 1947 has become known as “the year Maine burned.” More than 200 fires raged across the state in the fall of that year, destroying over a thousand homes and seasonal cabins, burning a quarter of a million acres, and utterly devastating nine Maine towns. Thousands of Mainers went homeless. Sixteen people were killed. Maine’s governor, Horace Hildreth, called for a state of emergency. President Harry Truman mobilized the U.S. Army and Navy to help fight the fires and evacuate citizens.

Portents of the coming catastrophe came as early as March of that year. After a long and weary winter, the citizens of Maine were greeted by spring rains that, once they arrived, refused to let up until well into June. This was followed by one of the driest summers on record. Autumn arrived and still the rains held off. By October, all of Maine was a tinderbox just waiting for the spark.

This “cottage,” owned by James G. Blaine, was one of those located along Millionaire’s Row in Bar Harbor, and destroyed in the 1947 fires. (photo courtesy Library of Congress)

Worst hit were York County and Mount Desert Island. The fires swept through Bar Harbor and obliterated the famous Millionaires’ Row, leveled half of Acadia National Park, and forced the evacuation of the island’s residents by sea.

Finally, on October 29, 1947, the rains came, and the fires across the state were at last brought under control. In the wreckage of gutted homes and flattened forests, the people of Maine began to think about how to prepare for the next fiery holocaust.

At the time of the ’47 fires, many of the smaller towns in Maine had no formally organized fire departments, and for those that did exist, there was no system in place for communication and cooperation in case of statewide fire emergencies. That all changed in 1947. Many of our local departments were established at this time, including South China and Albion, both in 1947, and two years later, Windsor, in 1949. China Village and Vassalboro boast a slightly earlier history, in 1942 and 1935 respectively.

This article about the current state of our local volunteer fire departments is based on interviews with seven area fire chiefs, from Albion, China, South China, Weeks Mills, Palermo, Vassalboro and Windsor. Research was also conducted using the internet, newspaper archives, and the exhaustively researched book by Joyce Butler, Wildfire Loose: The Week Maine Burned, available from the Albert Church Brown Memorial Library, in China Village.

Much has changed since the ’47 fires, and our local volunteer fire departments are facing some of the biggest challenges in their 70-plus year histories. With Climate Change bringing warmer weather, drier conditions and more extreme weather events, our volunteer fire departments are more important than ever before.

Tim Theriault, China Village Fire Chief

The number one issue on the minds of local fire chiefs is volunteer recruitment and retention. “It’s a national crisis,” says China Village Fire Chief Tim Theriault. “I’ve been on the fire commission for the State of Maine for five years, and this has been the number one topic. [Statewide], we had 12,000 volunteer firefighters a few years ago. We have 7,000 now. How do we fix this? There’s no silver bullet.”

The struggle to recruit and retain members of our local volunteer fire departments is part of a broader issue involving a lack of civic engagement affecting many organizations, including the Lions Club, the Masons and the American Legion. Volunteer groups like Fire and Rescue have been especially hard-hit by the drop in civic engagement, although it’s also apparent in other areas, such as the number of people running for local office.

“We had an opening [for selectman] last election, in March, and just one person ran,” Albion Fire and Rescue Chief Andy Clark says. “I think people are less likely to volunteer for their community than they used to.”

This decline in the enthusiasm of people to engage in their communities seems to be the result of a number of factors. One frequent complaint is that people are so busy today, often with both parents working just to make ends meet, and this leaves less time for involvement in community organizations.

The internet too has contributed to a drop in community engagement. People are finding their sense of community in online groups, which are usually based on common interests or ideologies, rather than common geography, and local organizations are suffering as a result.

Over the years, our communities have also shifted from rural towns, where people often worked near their homes, on farms or in local factories, to bedroom communities where people work quite a distance from their places of residence. This has had a significant impact on our volunteer fire departments’ ability to respond to daytime fires, especially during the week.

Windsor Fire Chief Arthur Strout, 79, receiving a recognition award for 60 years of service in April 2019. (photo by Eric Austin)

“Our daytime coverage isn’t getting any better,” says Albion’s chief, Andy Clark.

Windsor fire chief, Arthur Strout, relies heavily on several retired members of the department to deal with daytime fires. “There’s about four of us,” he says. “We call it the ‘senior group.’” Chief Strout, at 79, is one of them.

Training is another area that often serves as a barrier to those who might volunteer. Over the decades, training requirements have sharply increased, demanding a level of commitment that often surprises new recruits. Achieving Fireman 1 and 2 certifications can take upwards of 100 hours of classroom time, in addition to practical training involving live burns.

“The problem is,” says Vassalboro Deputy Chief Walker Thompson, “when you tell them they’ve got to go up to the fire school every other weekend, both Saturday and Sunday, [for four months], they might start it, but then they’ll drop out. They don’t realize how much bookwork is behind it.”

“The actual requirements from the Department of Labor haven’t really increased much over the last few years,” comments Albion’s Andy Clark, “but they’ve been more strict about making sure you do it.” However, he adds, “The training that you really need to obtain to do the job is increased, because there’s a lot more to it now.”

Many of our volunteer fire departments offer classroom training at the local station to make it easier for recruits to attend. “Every Monday night,” says Weeks Mills fire chief, Bill Van Wickler, who offers the training to new recruits from China and Palermo. “[We] started in October. We’ll finish sometime in June.” The study book they use is over a thousand pages and as thick as a brick. “All of what’s required is a lot of paperwork,” he says. “There’s just a lot to it to stay compliant. We all work hard at it. It’s time consuming.”

Like training, safety regulations have become more stringent over time. This can be a heavy burden for small departments staffed by volunteers, especially since state and federal agencies hold volunteer departments to the same standards as the bigger, fulltime fire departments. “That just strangles us out here,” says Palermo’s fire chief, Joshua Webb, who is also a fulltime firefighter for Gardiner.

A firefighter in full fire gear. (photo courtesy of Vassalboro Volunteer Fire Department)

As safety requirements pile on, the cost of equipment also increases. “If it says ‘rescue’ on it, you can double the price,” Webb says. To outfit a new recruit, including coat, hat, pants, gloves and boots, it can set a department back more than $6,000.

“I remember when I first joined the department, we didn’t have any coats,” says Windsor’s chief, Arthur Strout. “The only thing we had was boots. We had to buy our boots, and back then they were fifty bucks.” Today, those boots cost $400.

Air masks, commonly referred to as SCBAs (self-contained breathing apparatus), are another bit of equipment – and expense – that departments didn’t have to worry about 50 years ago. They sell for about $1,500 apiece. It’s another expense, requires additional training, and are mandatory for any firefighter attempting to enter a structure on fire. Further, state law insists that at least four SCBA-certified firefighters must be available before anyone can head into a burning building: two to go into the blaze, while two others stand by as backup in case something goes wrong. For a small department, like Palermo with six active members but only two SCBA-certified firefighters, that’s a high bar. Luckily, strong mutual aid agreements between communities mean these gaps are often filled by firefighters from other departments who respond to the call.

“You can depend on it more than you could back 20 years ago,” says Windsor fire chief, Arthur Strout. “Twenty years ago you were more or less on your own.”

This spirit of cooperation, first sparked in the aftermath of the ’47 fires between the affected New England states and the federal government, has blossomed on the local level in recent years as a response to staffing challenges. “These towns would be hurting if we didn’t have mutual aid,” Strout says. “Other towns depend on us like we depend on them.”

It’s these agreements that have allowed departments to maintain the same reliable coverage even as they struggle to retain volunteers and the towns they serve continue to grow in population.

Windsor firefighters testing water hoses for leaks and weak spots, as required by state regulations for safety. (photo courtesy of Windsor Volunteer Fire Department.)

Perhaps the biggest – but least obvious – danger to local departments is volunteer morale. Firefighting is a major commitment. Not only are firefighters risking life and limb to keep their communities safe, they are also sacrificing time with family and friends to spend many boring hours training in order to stay compliant with increasingly stringent state and federal regulations. It’s a lot to ask from anybody, but even more so from unpaid volunteers.

Disagreements between departments and the municipalities in which they operate can be disastrous. Earlier this year, such a disagreement in the town of Thorndike led to the resignation of 28 members of the department.

As Dick Morse, fire chief for South China, says, leading an organization of volunteers is different than being the manager of paid employees. People don’t volunteer to be firefighters for the money. They do it because they want to be part of something bigger than themselves. Destroy that fragile foundation, and the whole structure collapses.

“The only way you’re going to get people to continue to volunteer,” says Weeks Mills Chief Bill Van Wickler, “is if they feel good about it – if it makes them feel good – for their contribution.”

Fortunately, in most cases, fire departments enjoy warm support from their municipal governments, although that relationship is unique for each town. While Albion and Palermo maintain a separate firemen’s association, they think of themselves as essentially a part of their municipalities. Other departments, however, remain fiercely independent.

In recent years, to encourage participation and attract new recruits, most departments have instituted a policy of paying volunteers stipends. Palermo is the lone exception to this, although Chief Webb says a stipend policy has been approved by the town select board and will be implemented soon.

Stipends tend to run in the range of $10-$15 per call for rank and file volunteers, with some departments paying a per hour amount specifically for structure fires. “You’re [basically] paying for gas,” says Dennis Strout, a member of the Windsor fire department.

Officers and chiefs receive more, on account of the administrative overhead they have to deal with, but that hardly covers the amount of work the job requires. Bill Van Wickler, in his second year as chief for the Weeks Mills fire department, admits, “There’s an awful lot more to this than I realized when I thought it would be a good thing to do. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have done it; I’m just saying it was an eye-opener. I had no idea how much work being the chief would be.”

The challenge to find new recruits for local volunteer fire departments is also being addressed on the state level. A measure, the Length of Service Award Program (LOSAP), which would set up a pension fund for Maine’s volunteer firefighters, was passed by the Maine legislature and signed into law by Gov. Paul LePage several years ago, but has since failed to be appropriated any funding. A new bill to fund the program, called “An Act to Attract and Retain Firefighters,” co-sponsored by State Representative and China Village Fire Chief Tim Theriault, was recently passed unanimously out of committee. Although it was set to be voted on by the full legislature during budget negotiations in June, it has now been delayed until next year. Despite these setbacks, Theriault remains optimistic the measure will be funded in the next legislative session.

The fires firefighters are fighting have changed as well, becoming more dangerous to the men and women on the frontlines. Fifty years ago, homes were made primarily of natural materials: wood, steel, and organic products like horse hair for stuffing and insulation. Today, those materials have been replaced with vinyl siding, petroleum-based foam or plastic, and fiberglass. “They burn faster and give off more toxic fumes,” says Vassalboro Fire Chief Eric Rowe. Ironically, the fire retardant used on many products produces deadly smoke when it does burn, making air masks a necessity for anyone venturing into a burning building. “You get it on your coat and your gear,” Rowe says. “That’s how firefighters get cancer.”

“Building construction is a lot more dangerous today,” confirms Albion fire chief, Andy Clark. “You have hazardous materials, you know, and meth labs. There’s just a lot more [to worry about] than there ever was when I started [in 1993].”

Members of Albion Volunteer Fire & Rescue. (photo courtesy of Albion Fire & Rescue)

Further, the toxic, dangerous nature of today’s house fires requires departments to maintain two sets of gear for each firefighter. One set needs to be ready to go while the other is being cleaned of poisonous chemicals. This requirement doubles the cost of outfitting new recruits, and because most of this gear needs to be custom-fitted for each volunteer, if a recruit quits, there’s no guarantee the gear you just purchased will fit the next one.

Yet, despite all these challenges facing our volunteer fire departments, the news is not all bad. This past year, China, Windsor, and Albion departments have all seen the highest number of new recruits in years, and Palermo is rebuilding its department after half a decade of decline. Fundraising efforts are up for almost everyone, and inter-town departmental ties are stronger than at any time in the past.

But what’s most important to local volunteer fire departments is having the support of the communities they protect, and recognition for the vital role they serve.

“On the worst day of the year, [when] there’s a storm, and everybody’s hunkered down in their homes, and a house catches on fire, or the wires go down, trees go down across the roads – they call me. They call my guys,” says China Village Fire Chief Tim Theriault. “If it’s ten below zero, we’re gonna be there, fighting that fire.”

Eric W. Austin writes about technology and community issues. He can be reached by email at

Vassalboro board puzzles over lunch program finances

by Mary Grow

Vassalboro School Board members puzzled over lunch program finances at their June 18 meeting, after Superintendent Alan Pfeiffer recommended they reallocate $30,000 to start covering the program’s debt even though it doesn’t owe any money to anybody.

Pfeiffer explained that the “debt,” about $130,000, is on the books because the program spends more than the state reimbursement. Having red ink on the books displeases the auditor, and the board should deal with it.

However, in the real world the school department pays what it owes from other accounts and grants.

The main reason for the debt, Curriculum Coordinator Mary Boyle said, is that students who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals do not apply to use the program. Therefore the state does not reimburse the school department.

Re-elected Board Chairman Kevin Levasseur said less than $2,000 of the debt is due to families who owe lunch money to the school – “a drop in the bucket.” He said 53 percent of Vassalboro Community School (VCS) students don’t eat school meals, bringing their own.

Board members talked about making the meal program more inviting and about the need for more information about the free and reduced-price program. Pfeiffer said parents can apply at any time, not just when the application form comes home as school opens in the fall. Board member Jessica Clark suggested putting the application form on the website.

No decisions were made; the meal program will be on a future agenda.

The decision that was made, after continued discussion from the May meeting (see The Town Line, May 30), was to expand the VCS Title I program from a small group of students identified as falling behind academically to the entire school.

Boyle said the current program, staffed by three educational technicians and a literacy specialist, targets students with difficulty in English. A school-wide program would continue to assist these students; add students on the borderline of falling behind the rest of their class, who get no service under the targeted Title I; let Title I staff work in the regular classrooms; and perhaps allow adding help in math.

Board members unanimously approved the change. Levasseur commented that he expects it will “benefit more kids and not have to jump through so many [bureaucratic] hoops.”

Pfeiffer and Levasseur expect two new buses to arrive later in the year. Transportation coordinator Lisa Gadway explained that she will analyze needs, talk with drivers about their preferences, consider quality and longevity and seek price quotes before ordering buses tailored for Vassalboro.

“It’s not just, ‘Hey, send me a bus.’” You have to know what you want,” she said. Boyle and Gadway work out of the former office of AOS (Alternative Organizational Structure) #92 in Waterville, serving one or more of the three ex-AOS member towns (Vassalboro, Waterville and Winslow) under contract.

In other business June 18, board members unanimously hired Tabitha Sagner as full-time social worker at VCS. She previously was a half-time contract worker at the school; Pfeiffer said she had a good record and both she and personnel with whom she has worked are pleased to have her as a full-time staff member.

Board members accepted the resignations of special education teacher Deborah Spiller and third-grade teacher Lynn Wells, both of whom have moved to other jobs, Pfeiffer said. The positions are being advertised.

Board members gave preliminary approval to a minor change in the 2019-2020 school calendar: changing the name of the October 14 holiday from Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, following new state legislation.

They discussed scheduling a strategic planning workshop, probably in August, to look ahead for the next five years. Continuing their policy of taking a July break, they scheduled the next regular board meeting for Tuesday evening, Aug. 20.

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR: Doing “business” in E. Vassalboro

To the editor:

As an avid cyclist, I get to see a lot of this part of Maine, and from time to time, I need to take a break to “take care of business” in a biological sense. Whenever possible, I try and use a facility designed for that purpose and several times over the past few years, that has meant entering the “outhouse” at the boat landing in East Vassalboro.

This is certainly the most disgusting example of such a place that I have ever seen. I truly believe that to sit down in this stink hole would be life threatening. And yet, this is a very popular spot for putting boats into China Lake, and, in fact, the dock and ramp area was re-built just last year.

I brought up this issue to the folks at the Vassalboro Town Office a couple of years ago and even suggested that someone from there should go down and check out the place; nothing seems to have changed. It seems even more disconcerting when one considers the close proximity to a major public water supply. Now, I don’t know if any of the waste gets into the lake, but the smell alone is almost overwhelming. It seems like the investment in a portable toilet, like the one at the head of the lake in China, would be a prudent solution. Just a suggestion.

Bob Bennett
South China

Vassalboro planners approve two applications

by Mary Grow

Vassalboro Planning Board members quickly and unanimously approved both shoreland zoning applications on their June 6 agenda.

Mary Rider has approval to rearrange and enlarge the deck on her family camp on Tilton Lane, on the east shore of Webber Pond. Builder Ray Breton, representing the applicant, said the planned increase in size meets ordinance requirements, and there will be no expansion toward the water.

Wendy Pietraszweski has approval to build a second house on a lot at 405 Taber Hill Road. The lot is bisected by a very small stream, which Codes Officer Richard Dolby said puts most of the land in the shoreland zone, according to state maps.

Surveyor David Wendell said the proposed house and a new septic system are located so as to meet legally-required setbacks from the water and the property lines.

Vassalboro Business Association announces scholarship recipients

The Vassalboro Business Association has announced that the following students will each receive a $500 scholarship from money that was raised by Freddie’s Cruise-In, a Vassalboro Day’s Event, sponsored by Bill and Roxanne Pullen for the last three years, with 39 local sponsors and by sales of advertisements for the Vassalboro Welcomes You booklets. These booklets are given out in mid-summer at the town office, the community school, and the library.

Gwinna Remillard

Gwinna Remillard is a Waterville High School graduate and will attend the College of St. Scholastica, in Duluth, Minnesota. She will be competing as an athlete on both the cross country running team and the Nordic ski team. She will focus on the health science programs and the opportunities that lie in Duluth, Minnesota. She is excited to further her studies and move on to new and exciting adventures!

Abby Watson

Abby Watson is a graduate of Messalonskee High School , in Oakland, and will attend Belmont University, in Nashville, Tennessee. She will major is songwriting and minor in music business. At Belmont, she hopes to develop a better understanding for this art and better her skills. She is not exactly sure what she wants to do in life, but hopes to discover life-changing opportunities and find out just who she is supposed to be!

Caitlin Labbe

Caitlin Labbe is an Erskine Academy graduate, in South China, and will attend Thomas College, in Waterville. She will major in business administration. She plans to play soccer and lacrosse at Thomas!

Molly Wasilewski

Molly Wasilewski is a Water­ville High School graduate and will attend the University of Maine at Farmington. She will study actuarial science. She loves working with numbers and figuring out equations. She is excited to learn how to assess risk!

Seth Reed

Seth Reed is an Erskine Academy graduate, in South China, and will attend the Univer­sity of New Hamp­shire, in Durham, New Hampshire. He will ma­jor in mech­anical engineering. With the skills and experiences he learns, he aspires to return to Maine and pursue a career in engineering.