Little Mountain Store reopens after fire

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

THEY’RE BACK — Serving up smiles, sandwiches and a sense of community, Little Mountain Store owners Bettye and Paul Ferland say they’ve overwhelmed by the support they’ve received since their store was badly damaged by fire last May. The couple has been inundated by well wishers since reopening the store on Feb. 1.

Bettye and Paul Ferland knew they’d walked into a close-knit community when they took over the Little Mountain Store in West Bridgton three years ago. Everyone was friendly and welcoming as the couple, newly transplanted from Michigan, learned the ropes of running a small country store.

But it wasn’t until a fire raced through the Little Mountain Store in the wee hours of an April morning a year ago that the Ferlands found out just how close their community was — and what an important role their little store, seven miles from any other store in either direction on Route 302, plays in the fabric of small-town life.

The first miracle

The Ferlands were asleep in their home next door on April 29, 2011, when a young man named Kevin, headed for home from his factory job, spotted flames coming out of the back of the store. He screeched to a halt and pounded on their door.

Paul, a volunteer on the Bridgton Fire Department, leaped into his clothes and called it in direct on his radio, bypassing dispatch. Then he raced off to the West Bridgton Fire Station, just up the road, and drove back with a fire engine to get water on it as soon as he could.

It took just minutes, but standing outside with Kevin and a neighbor, Bettye said it felt like forever, as she watched the flames devouring their livelihood. “I’m like, where is he? Where is he? And they were great, they said, ‘He just left, honey. He’ll be here.’”

The fire department arrived a few minutes after Paul, and put out the fire. If Kevin (they couldn’t remember his last name) hadn’t stopped when he did, things could’ve been a lot worse; as it was, three walls had to be replaced, and the inside — ceilings, walls, shelving, floors — all were heavily smoke damaged, and had to be completely gutted and redone.

“The house was built in the 1860s, and had that fire spread, it could have taken the house — and we could have lost it all. So we were very, very fortunate that he stopped — just a goo-ood, good Samaritan,” Bettye said, smiling with her characteristic cheerfulness.

Even after the fire was out, Paul’s fellow firefighters stayed behind for hours, helping to clean up the mess. “You saw the true brotherhood there. And sisterhood,” said Bettye. All of their stock, coolers and sandwich-making equipment were lost. The fire also destroyed most of the historical photos and Pleasant Mountain memorabilia on the walls, passed down from owner to owner since the store opened around 45 years ago.

A community comes together

It was a devastating setback for the young couple, who’d left their former careers (he, as a mason, she, as a retail manager) to open their first store together. It happened just before the summer tourist season, when business typically quadruples. One of the first questions people asked, as they stopped by to offer condolences, was whether they were insured. Thankfully, the answer was yes. Still, the couple never for a minute doubted that they’d rebuild.

Even within hours of the fire, as he watched his fellow firefighters mopping up the soggy mess, Paul knew they’d go on.

“It’s actions like that, that really, you know, you just don’t fold up and go. You rebuild and you pull up your sleeves and you go on,” said Paul.

How could they not rebuild, asked Bettye, when everyone had been so kind and accepting of them since they came?

The Ferlands had to look no further than their own customers for the help they needed in rebuilding. Men like Dennis McIver, of DM Electric, or Mike Collins, of Collins Plumbing, or Dean Douglas, of Bravo Heating & Cooling. Local people, who stopped in to get lunch when they were working in the area, or on their way home. When it came to rebuilding, these are the people they hired.

“It was important to us, because they’ve been very giving to us, very accepting, very kind. You can ask anyone and they don’t hesitate to give you an answer, or help you out if don’t know what you’re doing. That’s the community we walked into, and we felt it was important to give back to them when the time came,” she said. “And you know what? We wouldn’t change it for a million dollars. They did a phenomenal job.”

It wasn’t just contractors getting into the act. Customers, both local and summer residents, kept track of their progress on their Little Mountain Store Facebook page. As the Feb. 1 reopening date drew nearer, some stopped by to offer Maine-made products, like embroidered dishtowels and carved wooden lanterns, to sell. Bettye said it was important for them, with the rebuild, to try to reproduce the country-nostalgia charm of the former store.

They lengthened the counter in front of the sandwich area and added a walk-in cooler, but retained the wood-theme throughout, with handmade green wooden signs above the cooler and photos by Brad Bradstreet on the walls. Another customer gave them a large framed display of old advertising cards and an article about the former Bridgton Knitting Mills. Over the door are two of the only Pleasant Mountain items they were able to salvage — a T-bar and a pair of old skiis.

The Feb. 1 reopening was nothing short of a celebration by their former customers, who have all made a point of stopping by to express their gratitude, said the Ferlands, who have planned a grand reopening week from Feb. 20-24.

“It’s been fabulous. We’ve been inundated. We’ve seen so many of our local customers,” said Bettye. “Just these last three days, the fire department (members have) come out in droves. We’ve seen almost all of them.”

Added Paul, “We’ve had a lot of people come in and say, thank God. Thank God you’re back. You’re open.”

Charlie and Nancy Hawkins, who spent summers on Moose Pond, even planned a trip back to Maine around their reopening, having kept track of the store’s progress on Facebook. “He brought the whole family up, and had lunch, and brought us a little Lancaster County mug to put up on the wall,” said Bettye.

Running a country store, Paul knows, “isn’t rocket science.” It is, however, a seven-day-a-week commitment, which is made easier when you work well alongside your partner, and when that partner can step in to give you some time off.

“We’re not looking to get rich, we’re looking to make a living,” said Paul. “And if we can help the community out along the way, we will try to do that too.” The whole experience has taught him the meaning of the phrase, “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” He hated being idle after the fire. He wanted to get back to being an active part of his community. “It lights a fire under me.”

“We’ve become a part of the community, and it feels really good,” adds Bettye. Being able to offer a convenient stopping-place to grab milk or some last-minute supply might not seem like a high calling, but it really is, she insists.

“We have a motto here that says whether they come in with a smile or not, we want to make sure that they leave with one,” said Bettye. “We’re here. We’re home. This community is an extended part of our family.”

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