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Celebrating sweet liberty down in Liberty. Quiet Maine town is far from New York hoopla

FOUR hundred miles to the south, New York City is hosting a once-in-a-lifetime television extravaganza to celebrate the centennial of the Statue of Liberty. Up here in the town of Liberty, Maine, the volunteer fire department is organizing a chicken barbecue -- ``with all the fixin's,'' says fire chief Charlie Libby. It will be held at the public landing down on Lake St. George, which he pronounces ``jawdge.''

That's what they do every Fourth of July in this township of nearly 1,000 people, which was founded and named 50 years before the Statue of Liberty was conceived. Despite the national ceremonies, the townsfolk here see no reason to do anything different this year.

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It's not that they're indifferent to the concept of liberty -- or, for that matter, to tourism, which forms a good part of the economy in this section of rural Maine. In fact, the economy could use a boost: The town's general-store-and-gas-station, across from the fire station on Main Street (Route 131), closed down several weeks ago and is up for sale.

But nobody's bothered to string up Statue of Liberty banners across the road. Nor did anyone think to decorate the new white Post Office (or the old octagonal one across the highway, which is now a museum and historical landmark) with posters of the copper-clad lady.

Glenn Robinson, a young man who set up his sign-carving business last fall in a ramshackle house next to the museum, actually did think of using the statue's design on a sign for the local tape-rental outfit, Liberty Video.

``But there was something about it I didn't like,'' he says. ``It just seemed too clich'ed.''

A lot of America's urban life, in fact, seems a bit clich'ed to the folks up here -- including the Statue of Liberty celebration. Mr. Robinson, a transplant from Massachusetts who came here to find ``a simple way of life'' with ``no worries, no frills, no false attitudes,'' says he might watch a bit of the ceremonies, though he says he rarely looks at television.

Instead, he'll probably spend the day doing carpentry work around the Liberty Tool Company -- ``the largest secondhand store in the state of Maine,'' he says, and the only operating business in the once-thriving town center. By virtue of the fact that he manages this vast assortment of used wrenches, calipers, lathes, gimlet bits, vee blocks, anvils, and reamers, he's also the village librarian: The town's substantial but aging book collection occupies three rooms of unpainted pine shelving on the floor above the tools.

Like the toolroom -- and not unlike the town itself -- the Liberty library is a pretty eclectic place. A 1979 paperback edition of Sissela Bok's ``Lying'' shares a shelf with volume one of ``Woman, First and Last, and What She Has Done,'' by a certain Mrs. E. J. Richmond (New York, 1887), whose book begins with a chapter on ``Eve, the World's First Woman.'' ``No Smoking,'' says a bluntly humorous sign on the stairs; ``violators will be beheaded and then eaten.''

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Even the library's local history section, however, offers few clues to the naming of this town. At the fire station next door, Mr. Libby scratches his head and recommends Catherine Worthing, an octogenarian who served as town clerk for 35 years and who ought to know where the name came from if anyone does. ``Tell her I sent you,'' says Libby.

On that endorsement alone, Mrs. Worthing welcomes an utter stranger into her trim, modest one-story home four houses past the Masonic Hall. Asked about the name, she unearths a tattered copy of the history of Liberty, published on the occasion of the town's centennial in 1927. It, too, is silent on the question of the choice of name. The best guess is that Liberty shares with other nearby towns -- including Freedom, Hope, and Union -- the tradition of taking its name from praiseworthy Yankee virtues.

Asked point-blank what the idea of small ``l'' liberty means to her -- how she might explain its meaning to the younger generation, for example -- Worthing has little to say. She is not (at least consciously) a philosopher. But half an hour's conversation reveals that this native-born daughter of Liberty feels its value through and through.

``My father owned the big store downtown at one time, and his father owned it, and there was a hotel there,'' she says. ``Right beside the store there was a bandstand. Saturday nights they used to have band concerts there, and my father was the head of the band.''

And on the Fourth of July, she recalls, ``they used to have marches'' with the town band taking to the streets. Now, whenever there's a parade, the band from Mt. View (the regional high school in nearby Thorndike) has to come down.

When she was growing up, the town had as many as a hundred small dairy farms, each with eight to 10 cows and a team of horses. The main employer was the corn-canning factory, which stood beside the community building where, every Saturday night, young couples gathered to watch a silent movie and then dance until 1 o'clock in the morning. Admission was 15 cents apiece. For that price you also got to hear the young woman who would someday be town clerk accompanying the movie on the piano.

What comes through the discussion, again and again, is Worthing's sense of community and neighborliness. The neighborly caring still persists: Partway through the conversation her sister, Minnie Peavey, arrives with a friend, Clarence Bartlett, bringing chicken for dinner.

But through the threads of the ensuing four-way conversation comes a feeling of a community no longer quite in command of its own destiny -- no longer making its own self-governing decisions, no longer resupplying its own traditional and ceremonial activities, and gradually surrendering its once-fierce autonomy to state authority, federal law, and televised culture.

``The town itself used to go and run itself more than now,'' Worthing says, adding that ``the state tells you what you can do now, [and] you can't do nothin' 'less the state tells you.''

As in most rural Maine communities, the state does indeed loom large, particularly in such once-local matters as roads and education. Many of this thinly populated township's roads are state highways. And even the proud old high school building now houses a grammar school: Older students are bused to Thorndike.

Yet for these natives, the virtues of that old-fashioned sense of liberty -- even if it coupled free education with unremittingly hard work -- persist.

``I used to walk 3 miles [to school],'' recalls Mr. Bartlett, a retired Pennsylvania Railroad worker who was born here and moved back from Philadelphia several years ago when he retired, ``and walk home at night, do chores, milk cows.''

Over the years he's watched the town fill up with outsiders moving in -- settling especially around the lake.

``That lake used to furnish all the farmers with their ice for all summer,'' he recalls in a voice that bears no rancor. ``Lyman Boynton used to cut over 4,000 cakes a season.'' Each cake, he recalls, was about 16 inches square.

``They used to start cutting it at 12 to 14 inches [thick],'' he says, ``and before they could get done it used to be two-three feet.''

Bartlett is not a poet. But as he speaks almost reverently of the older generations who established Liberty and of the changes that have since overtaken the town, he seems to be describing a narrowing of vision. What stands out to him is the way that, since his boyhood, the fields have all grown up. In those days, he says, ``the land was clear -- you could see off, see things better.''

``Nothin' but woods now,'' he says. ``When the old farms were going, it was a better life.''

But for Glenn Robinson, back at Liberty Tool, it still is a ``better life.'' He, too, is a diligent worker, breaking off his labors only reluctantly to talk with a stranger. Yet he knows why he stays here.

``I like the slow pace, myself,'' he says, standing at the cash register behind a counter piled with 1930s magazines, one of which bears the title Liberty. It's ``freer here'' than down in Massachusetts, he says. ``All I seek is a peaceful, unbothered existence,'' he adds -- the very goal that originally led him, like immigrants everywhere, to load everything he owned into his 1966 Chevy pickup and head northward.

What would happen to Liberty -- and to the concept of liberty -- if everyone else did just what he's done? Would the nation be the better for it?

He admits that he doesn't know. ``I'm sure everybody wants to do it, but not everybody can,'' he says.

So what made it possible for him to do it?

``Sacrifice,'' he answers promptly. ``You have to sacrifice something. I sacrificed a job, all my friends, my relatives -- I left everything behind, and said, `I'm going to go up north and find a piece of land, build a cabin, and not worry.' I feel great.''

And what exactly is it he's looking for? The words come slowly, with a lot of quiet thought between them.

``Freedom,'' he answers, ``peace . . . a whole lot of things, I guess.''

Robinson is no philosopher. But the immigrants arriving at New York Harbor couldn't have talked about liberty with any more feeling and simplicity.

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