The Daily Me
Feature 29 - Thursday, November 20, 2003

Brigadoon or Brink-of-doom?
By Dave Pearson
Dexter, like all of Maine, experienced exciting growth right up until the railroads opened up the agricultural areas of the Midwest and plains states. Following the economic high point in the 1880s the Town suffered a rude shock that it was barely getting over 100 years ago. When I was doing research for the 1995 centennial of the Abbott Library, I was amazed at the weird parallels I was finding in the old town records between that era and the present. At the end of the 1800s Dexter was in an era of flux and uncertainty as the agricultural economy dwindled and new manufacturing ventures sputtered uncertainly. The population was about the same as today and it was almost uncanny how the incomes and values showed the same relation as today. If I added two zeroes to most average statistics, I would be at the modern value. Thus, an average wage of $3.50 per week in Dexter 100 years ago became the average $350/week of today, the average house value of $480 became the average house value of $48,000 today, the average property tax bill of $9.50 became the average tax bill of $950 of today. Also, the town value of $1,250,000 in 1896, with two more zeroes becomes $125,000,000 which is pretty much the value of Dexter today. With a couple more zeroes, even the town budget kept the same ratio.
The issues that bothered the town officers then were eerily similar: the State was pushing too much work on to the Towns and not paying for it, and the State valuation and county taxes were too high. Fortunately, a big change was about to occur, and the problem of open sewers in town and deaths from typhus and dysentery were about to be ended, but discussions of what to do about the poor people displaced by the changing economy and discussions of teacher salaries seem to go on right until today.

I took some statistics to the budget meeting to console the Town Council (who get a lot of heat about taxes and expenditures) and it might be fun to share them with you. These are from 1916 and the ten to one ratio is not quite as reliable but still not far off, but the argument that we've really gone overboard in taxes from the good old days is blown completely to hell. Last year our mil rate was 20.5. In 1916, it was 26.5. The outstanding town debt was equivalent to about half of the budget, now it is less than a quarter. In addition to the value of a person's real estate, property taxes were levied on livestock, furniture, musical instruments, stocks and bonds, savings accounts with values in excess of $500, and store inventory. Significantly, there was also a poll tax in the amount of $3. levied on each voter (with $3 being probably the modern equivalent of about $150).

The town was taxed by the State (instead of the income tax) so that about a fifth of the money raised by the property tax had to be turned over to the State. Today we collect excise taxes and a multitude of fees for the state, but at least the Town gets to keep that fifth of the tax revenues for the community. However, since the State mandates how we have to spend much of our budget, it is likely that not much has really changed.

Although it is obvious that a lot has changed since 1900, Dexter has shown an interesting ability to retain a lot of its 1900 character. It is noteworthy that, in many areas, there is change in the cast of characters, but the backdrop stays close to the same.

1900 2000
2 dentists 2 dentists
8 churches 9 churches
3 lumber outlets 2 lumber outlets
3 insurance agencies 3 insurance agencies
2 hotels 1 hotel and 1 motel
2 grocery stores 2 grocery stores
1 furniture store 1 furniture store
2 law offices 2 law offices
3 apothecaries 2 drug stores

From the 1916 statistics, Frank Spizuoco noticed that, with a population about the same as today, library circulation was 27,983. Last year it was 26,935.

Dexter, from a distance, looks very much like a heavily wooded version of the 1900 Dexter. Some area towns have declined considerably. I'm thinking of towns like Parkman - once a candidate for the county seat of Piscataquis County and more populous than Dexter. Other towns have changed their character greatly, like Newport, and retain little of the old New England feel.

Why is it that Dexter has avoided fast food restaurants, big-box retailers like Wal-Mart, and condominiums? Why are we bereft of shopping malls on the edge of town or sprawling tract housing projects-those things that almost define the changes in rural America this past century? I know some who would call this stagnation, but I prefer to celebrate our great fortune, and I would love to see the tricentennial celebrated in a Dexter free of golden arches and ten acre parking lots. We are constantly reminded by travelers that this town retains a beauty that the commercialized towns have lost, and retains a liveable, affordable, and democratic lifestyle that the gentrified towns have lost. I have no explanation for our good fortune except that the trendy tides have swept around us but not over us, and the town seems to have an underlying and occasionally frustrating commitment to Resistance as a reaction to good ideas, bad ideas, ANY ideas. It is not always explicit, but Dexter's first reaction to anything new seems to be to resist, 'resist stubbornly, and even blindly. And, amazingly, somehow this has served us well. Go figure.

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