Howe, Dodge and Crosby.
Those are some of the lichen-encrusted names on the granite and marble headstones in the Cooper graveyard bound by a rusty wire fence. But few members of those old families remain in this tiny town set high up on a ridge in the Sunrise County.
More than a century ago, Cooper boasted more than 600 year-round residents. The town had a store, church, post office, three active schoolhouses and a sawmill or two. The Grange Hall was filled with people for baked bean suppers Saturday nights.
Today, Cooper has 141 year-round inhabitants. The church, post office and sawmills are gone. Only one of the schoolhouses still stands, and it ceased to function years ago. The town’s 17 elementary and 11 secondary students are sent to schools in Calais, Woodland, Machias, East Machias and Alexander.
In recent years, Cooper residents, especially the owners of homes on Cathance Lake, have seen their tax bills double, triple, guadruple — even quintuple. The increases have prompted them to consider ceasing to exist as a town altogether, as several other Maine communities have in the past few years.
At a special town meeting last fall, residents voted to explore the option of becoming another unorganized territory in Washington County. Next month, they will vote whether to take the next step and submit a “deorganization” plan — drafted by the town’s deorganization committee and state education officials — to the Legislature. If the bill wins passage, townspeople will have the final say over whether to deorganize in a referendum vote next November.
One of those residents in favor of the plan is Justin Day, a blueberry grower. Day wears many hats in Cooper. He took over as first selectman more than 20 years ago. His father and grandfather served before him. He is also the fire warden, a member of the board of assessors, and attends just about every planning board meeting.
Sitting in the “town office,” a room in the Day family’s farmhouse on Route 191, the 61-year-old first selectman said he favored deorganizing.
“I don’t feel there’s going to be enough people to take an active part in town government,” he reckoned last week. “It also doesn’t appear as though we are going to be able to keep taxes down. As an unorganized territory, we would be paying half of what we pay now.”
Maine’s unorganized territories take up more than half the state. People living in them enjoy far lower tax rates — one third of what their neighbors in organized towns pay — because paper companies own the bulk of land and pick up the lion’s share of taxes. For instance, last year, Cooper’s tax rate rose to nearly $27 per $1,000 of valuation compared to only $9 next door in the unorganized territory of Township 14.
Shrinking populations, state funding cuts and other factors have prompted six Maine towns — from Benedicta in Aroostook County to Blanchard in Piscataquis County — to deorganize in just over a decade.
More may follow suit. State officials say they are hearing “rumblings” from the Washington County town of Dennysville and some other small rural communities.
“For these small towns, school funding is usually the real issue,” Michael Starn, editor of the Maine Municipal Association’s magazine, said last week. “I think rumblings have gone on, but often when these communities get down to the choice, they choose to remain a town or plantation. Becoming an unorganized territory, there is some financial gain, but you give up an identity.”
That identity, Starn said, is precious, especially in New England.
“It’s a New England phenomenon to have organized units of government as small as we have,” he said. “In other parts of the country, you’ll find communities of several thousand people that are not incorporated. The counties perform most of the government functions.”
Who will serve?
For generations, the Days have been identified with Cooper. Willis, Philip and now Justin are among the Days who have pretty much run the town since it was incorporated back in 1822. The family’s homestead sits on Grove Ridge on Route 191. Old, gnarled apple trees stand out starkly in a field sloping down from the green-shingled farmhouse and barns.
Save for a stint in the U.S. Army, Justin Day has spent most of his life in Cooper. As a child, he learned to read by a kerosene lamp. He attended the one-room schoolhouse, now a summer home, on the East Ridge Road.
Unlike his contemporaries, Day opted to stay in town after completing high school.
“People who grew up here, they just moved away. There wasn’t any work here. They didn’t stay with their folks,” he related. “My father was a lumberman all his life. For many years, I worked in the woods with him. So when I got out of the service, I came back to help out on the old home place.”
As the woodstove hummed and hissed in the kitchen, Day noted Cooper’s tax rate has leapt from $21.40 per $1,000 of valuation to almost $27 in only two years. He blamed the surge largely on education costs. He said the town allows parents to send children to the school of choice regardless of the tuition rate.
In Day’s mind, there’s another issue. The time will come when he’ll want to retire from some of his town duties. More than a quarter century of service is a long time.
Surrounded by files, sheaves of papers and cloth- and leather-bound ledgers, the longtime selectman wondered out loud who is going to be willing to serve should he step down.
“It’s taking more and more time. I think it’s going to be hard to get people to run for office. I have been sounding people out the last few years,” he said. “I can only do so much. I’d like to relax and take a vacation once in a while.”
Pros and cons
Currently, Cooper residents send their children to six different schools. On the east side of town, they go to school in Woodland, Calais and Alexander. On the west side of town, they attend classes in Machias or East Machias.
Per-pupil tuition rates range widely from $4,891 at Woodland Elementary School to $5,170 at the private secondary school, Washington Academy.
Of all the elementary schools, Woodland Elementary has the highest tuition. Because most of Cooper’s elementary-age pupils go there, and continue on to Woodland High School, the town foots the bill for school bus service.
Were Cooper to deorganize, the board of selectmen, school board, planning board and other offices would be dissolved. The Maine Department of Education would take charge of the children’s education and set limits on where they can attend elementary school.
State officials and Washington County commissioners would take over Cooper’s day-to-day operation. County commissioners would contract for services such as snow removal and road maintenance. The jobs of town clerk, treasurer and tax collector would be eliminated and those functions assumed by the Bureau of Taxation.
Also, the state would dispose of any town property. Cooper doesn’t have too many assets. Before deorganizing, selectmen say steps would be taken to retain some.
For example, they say public access to the town-owned sand beach would be preserved by deeding the property to the Cathance Lake Association. The Cooper Volunteer Fire Department and the Cooper Free Public Library are already separate entities from the town.
Loss of choice
Many Cooper residents have been hit hard by rising taxes. But the news that deorganizing would mean a loss of unlimited school choice has upset many parents.
Richard Moreau, the state education administrator for the unorganized territories, has told Cooper residents they can’t have it both ways. They can’t expect to enjoy lower taxes and still send their children wherever they want regardless of the cost.
Last month, Moreau told Cooper residents the most cost-efficient option would be to bus all of the town’s elementary-age children to a state-run school in the unorganized township of Edmunds 32 miles away.
“Cooper’s problem is the town is giving everyone the free option to go anywhere. I have been very frank with them and said they are taxing themselves to death,” Moreau said last week. “The response I got was they want to continue operating the way they are. You can’t have it both ways.”
Families like the Hattons are caught in the middle of the debate.
A child’s playhouse with a weathervane marks the end of a 1 1/2-mile dirt drive leading to Malcolm and Carolyn Hatton’s year-round home on the eastern shore of Cathance Lake. She is a former insurance agent. He is a semiretired, long-haul truck driver. The couple is raising an 8-year-old granddaughter who attends school six miles away in Alexander.
As the wind whistled, and the lake’s shifting ice emitted an occasional boom, Carolyn Hatton said she has seen the taxes on her shorefront houselot increase fivefold — from $278 to $1,238.75 — since 1978. She was among the people who petitioned for the town to consider deorganizing.
“I don’t think any little town wants to deorganize. I don’t want to see Cooper give up its charter,” she said. “But there are a lot of people who are retired and living on fixed incomes. And, all they get for their taxes are educational services.”
Hatton, though, is having second thoughts about deorganizing if it’s going to mean losing her say over her granddaughter’s education. She chose the Alexander school because of its proximity and has been pleased with the quality of education. She transports the child to and from classes.
“Whether this town deorganizes or not, something has to be done about the school budget,” Hatton said. “If it means we have to build our own schoolhouse, I’ll donate the land to the town.”
Five miles from the Hattons, Terri Lynn Crowe sat waiting for her 7- and 9-year-old daughters Sierra and Tiffany to return home from Woodland Elementary School. The children are dropped off by the school bus at her parents’ Route 191 home.
Crowe said it has been a family tradition to attend school in Woodland. She and her two sisters all went to elementary and high school there. Her father works as a steam-power engineer at Georgia Pacific’s paper mill in town.
“I’d just hate to pull them out and have them start all over again,” the young mother said, referring to her daughters. “I don’t want them changed at all and I’d probably vote against it when it came down to it.”
Originally from St. Stephen, New Brunswick, Crowe’s mother Judi Little is also leery about giving up her say over her grandchildren’s education and how the town is run.
Cradling the family’s Yorkshire terrier Trudy in her arms, Little said she has lived in Maine since 1955. Several years ago, she became an American citizen after months of study.
“Before, I would go to town meeting and I couldn’t say a word. I had to just sit there. I don’t want to give up my rights to voice an opinion,” she reflected. “When you do this , you don’t have a say about anything. Sure, I want the taxes to go down, but I don’t know if it’s worth that.”