LISBON – All around me are the booths, merchants, and crowds found at many summer festivals in Maine. But unlike any other event, we’ve all come to this small mill town, on a sunny Saturday in July, to watch a parade and celebrate a strange tasting soda, Moxie. According to the Moxie Congress (yes, there is a Moxie Congress), this caramel colored soft drink has the distinction of being the oldest continuously bottled carbonated beverage in the United States and it just happens to be the state’s official drink.
I station myself next to a vendor selling bright orange festival t-shirts, near the shady end of Main Street. I’m almost within spitting distance to Kennebec’s, a general store that opened in 1913. For the last 32 years, during the second weekend in July, this plain green and white storefront, and the town itself, swells with life as they once again become the center of the Moxie universe. It’s a three-day celebration of all things Moxie.
Frank Ancietti, the owner of the store until his death in 1997, is given credit for starting the festival and famously (at least in this part of the world) said this about the local beverage and former nerve tonic.
“You’re gonna want to spit out the first sip, but don’t. The second one won’t be much better, but that third one, that’s where the taste comes in.”
“C’mon it’ll be fun,” says Kimberly Rotter, standing just to my left. She has a cowboy hat on her head that looks like it was fashioned from white, blue, and orange cardboard Moxie boxes. There’s a young girl wearing a matching hat and white cotton dress tugging at her hand and pulling her toward a popcorn machine.
“C’mon Moxie – It’ll be fun,” she says again.
Rotter and her daughter Moxie (not named for the drink) have waited four years to come from their home in San Diego and take part in the weekend.
Without any warning, loud dance music begins playing on the other side of the street. I see a sign for Zumba classes on a brown clapboard building, and on the edge of the sidewalk there’s a large black speaker. Within minutes, a small, wiry woman with bright blonde hair and a tan, weathered face, steps out of the dark doorway and begins dancing.
Just to her left, where the local fire station is located, a man and woman wind wisps of blue cotton candy around small, white, paper cones and pay little attention to the dancer as the crowd around them becomes larger.
The music from the Zumba studio combines with the approaching sounds of a large marching band, and in a strange synchronized motion, the crowd seems to stretch its collective neck, straining to see the beginning of the parade.
The parade slows down as those who are marching turn the corner, and one of the first groups to pass in front of me includes Governor Paul LePage. He’s known for his blunt and bombastic ways and his occasional, outrageous choice of language. He’s short, round, and loud, and today he’s dressed in a bright red polo shirt that seems to be a couple of sizes too small. He’s also wearing a white baseball cap that’s equally too large. Shaking hands, waving, and grinning, he weaves his way along the street.
Perhaps the most amazing sight of the day comes minutes later when 99-year-old Dottie Brown and Rev. Bill Bailey (yes, like the old song) ride their tandem bicycle into view. Brown rides her bike once a year, at the festival parade, and this year, she and Rev. Bailey rode 16 miles together.
“I really wanted to come up here with my wife and children and see this,” says Tim Dutton, a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy who is studying engineering at MIT. The former submariner from Brunswick, Maine is dressed in an orange jumpsuit, a blue hard hat with two drink holders, and mirrored sunglasses. A clear plastic tube runs from the top of the aluminum Moxie cans on his head to his mouth.
In total, according to the Lisbon public safety officials, more than 40,000 people will descend on the town during the three-day event.
Sitting next to me in weathered lawn chairs, with long hair that nearly matches the color of their festival t-shirts, self-described retired hippies, Rudy Rudzinski and Peg Wheeler, wave at each float and group of people who pass in front of them.
“We came here from New Hampshire for the Moxie, for this” Rudzinski says and adds a laugh. “It’s different, and I guess so are we.”