Prison Stripe(r)s

At the Maine State Prison Showroom in Thomaston you can purchase for your kitchen a sturdy butcher-block cutting board, but not a knife. 

The store sells bookcases, dressers, tables, toys, games, birdhouses, gadgets, gizmos and works of art, all handcrafted, all of wood.  Your salesman is a prison inmate but you give your money to a guard, who rings up the purchase. The store has been in business since 1824, the same year the Maine State Prison opened for the business of housing criminals when down the hill, on the Georges River, Thomaston shipwrights were hammering together the early models of the more than one-thousand wooden sailing vessels to be built there whose trade routes stitched the globe together and made many men rich. The Census of 1840 listed seven millionaires in the United States; three of them lived in Thomaston, Maine. The business was so lucrative that at least seventeen shipyards operated there between 1855 and 1875, and the stately homes that still line Main and Knox streets were populated with seafarers and stuffed with the treasures from the Orient.

I know. This space is for “ruminations on angling.” I’ll get to that in a bit.

In 2002 the old state pen was shut down after 178 years of continuous use and the inmates were shuffled off to a new facility in Warren. The old prison was demolished, save for a corner fragment of the wall, and the ground where it stood is now a park.

The Fragment

If you live in a town with a prison you say that you don’t think about it much but of course you do. The prison was not escape-proof — a convicted killer named Albert Paul slipped over the wall twice and nearly tunneled out another time, an attempt that may or may not have been Stephen King’s inspiration for the escape scene in “The Shawshank Redemption.” I grew up in Thomaston; the fathers of schoolmates worked in the prison as guards or in administration. A couple of times I went inside the walls, not for illegal fishing but as a third baseman. Maybe once a summer the Thomaston town team would challenge the inmates to a baseball game. They were the home team, not by choice. The prison yard was spacious enough to hold a baseball diamond. Center field was deep, but the right-field wall loomed not far behind the second baseman; a good left-handed hitter had no problem poking one over the wall, to shouts of “I’ll get it!” from the inmates. A baseball hit over the wall might possibly have rolled down the steep hill behind the prison, bounced over the railroad tracks and splashed into the Georges River.

Now comes the rumination on angling.

Behind the hill where the prison was and for several more miles, up to Warren Village, the river is tidal. Just behind the prison site the banks squeeze the Georges into what we called Prison Narrows.

Upriver Toward the Narrows

In a few weeks striped bass will charge up the river as they have since who knows when, and the Narrows is as good a place as any to fish for them as it concentrates the fish, usually schoolies. Arthur Ifemy, who played shortstop, had a 14-foot skiff powered by an old outboard motor and one afternoon Arthur and I trolled through the Narrows on a rising tide and in the shadow of the prison caught probably two dozen stripers. I do not recall giving a thought to our Tom Sawyer-ish freedom, or to the lack of it for the incarcerated souls up the hill. A few days ago after a visit to the prison showroom I walked around the site of the old prison. There were no high gray walls to cast doleful shadows, no looming guard towers. I looked down to the Georges, running at full tide, and thought only of fishing.


Nick Mills

About Nick Mills

Full disclosure: I was not born in Maine, alas! I was born in Massachusetts, but the family moved to Maine when I was eleven, and I grew up in Thomaston. My dad was skipper of one of the draggers that sailed out of Rockland, in the days when it was a rough-tough working fishing port. When he came in from the sea his favorite activity was freshwater fishing with me and my brother, Peter. We learned together to flyfish for trout in the Alder Stream in Eustis. Once hooked on the sport, pun intended, I fished at every opportunity in every place I could -- in the rivers, streams and ponds of Maine; in the mountain ponds of Utah, where I was stationed for a year in the Army; in high Andean lakes in Colombia, where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer; even in a lagoon that surrounded one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Baghdad. I tried once to go trout fishing in northern Afghanistan, when the U.S.S.R. occupied that country; a landslide blocked my path, but that led to a more interesting adventure, which I will tell you about in a future post.