A lifelong Buxton resident reflects on the town’s long history
Buxton celebrates its 250th birthday on July 14 and Richard ‘Sandy’ Atkinson has been in town for 85 of them.
Atkinson has lived his entire life less than a mile from his birthplace, the old Buxton-Hollis Community Hospital. He recently sat down with the American Journal to reminisce about the changes and events he has witnessed from the Great Depression until today.
His father worked at Rogers Fiber Company, which made fiberboard. Operation ceased in the late 1970s.
“The mill was the hub of Bar Mills,” Atkinson said.
Atkinson saw the disappearance of log drives down the Saco River to a downstream sawmill, and the 1961 closure of the rail line from Westbrook to Rochester, New Hampshire, with a stop at Buxton.
In 1938 his family moved to Towle Street after residing in Bar Mills Village, a bustling community with shops. His grandfather owned the Atkinson store there, but his uncle ran it. “Grumpiest guy in town,” he said.
He recalled crank phones and said the second floor above the store housed the telephone company owned by Sam Shepard.
Everyone had a garden and worked. He mowed the lawns with his grandfather’s electric mower, Buxton’s first. He filled sandbags during a flood.
Her first adult job paid $1.05 an hour. He bought a 1939 Ford for $100 in 1954 that had no shocks, he said, and the lights were flashing.
Growing up, some farmers in Buxton, like Ray Dunnell, still worked with horses and a neighbor used oxen.
Comics were called “fun books” that children traded. They listened to radio shows like the chilling “Inner Sanctum”.
“I had five friends; we were always together,” Atkinson said.
They ice skated, built bonfires, fished, canoed and played baseball in a hay field. They had a ball wrapped in duct tape and their bat was a wooden handle from a log rolling tool.
“Everything was our playground,” he said.
His wife, Beverly, compared her friends’ antics to those of “Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn”.
One night in 1947, he scaled a water tower in Bar Mills to see a distant wildfire, one of hundreds ravaging the state at the time. “You could smell the smoke,” he said.
In a swimming hole near a local island, Beverly said he saved a drowning girl in the early 1950s and was recognized as governor.
One day in 1953, he was at the fire station when news broke of a body in the river at Salmon Falls. He arrived on the scene to learn it was his best friend, Buddy Roberts. “The saddest part of my life,” he said.
Atkinson’s education began at Bar Mills Grammar School, now home to the Buxton-Hollis Historical Society. He and his buddies concocted a plan to skip school. The school informed the sheriff, who found their hiding place and loaded them into a police car, threatening to put them in jail.
Atkinson recalled a boy blurting out, “Stop that car!”
“He pulled out a cap gun and fired a shot,” he said.
He walked to high school, but the students boarded a bus at the Atkinson store to go to high school. He and 12 classmates graduated in 1953.
A garage that made hotrods fascinated Atkinson, and Phil Libby of Buxton, the top rider from Beech Ridge to Scarborough, was his hero.
Atkinson acquired a race car and took a young Beverly on a track date to watch him perform. He overturned the car and was hospitalized with gasoline in his eyes. He didn’t get her home to Gorham until 2 a.m., he recalled, and his father was upset.
“I was 15, his only daughter,” she said.
Atkinson knew he was in trouble.
The films were “big” and the Atkinsons met at Gorham Playhouse and were married two years later in 1955. She said Buxton’s population then was 1,800.
“When I got to Buxton I thought I was dead and gone to heaven,” she said.
Today, the Atkinsons’ barn in Tory Hill houses artifacts including the Rogers Fiber Company whistle, a clock and period photos of Buxton. You can see them on August 6 during the city’s 250th anniversary celebration.
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