Ken Cooper has probably driven close to a million miles and never left Wiscasset. On May 4, he retired, ending a 44-year career with the highway department.
“Coop,” as he’s better known, can’t say for sure how many miles he’s driven for the town. He started working for his hometown in 1976, when Jimmy Carter was president, America was celebrating its bicentennial, the Apple Computer was debuting and a McDonald’s quarter pounder with cheese was 75 cents!
Wiscasset had three, not five, selectmen. There was an annual town meeting and no town manager, and residents elected a road commissioner to maintain the town’s roads and streets.
“My first job as a member of the town crew was as a laborer down on the Old Ferry Road. It was around the time they were starting the construction of Maine Yankee,” the now decommissioned and demolished nuclear power plant on Bailey Point.
Cooper said his first boss was the late Forrest E. Morris Jr. Cooper worked for a dozen road commissioners and public works directors since, Roy Barnes, Woody Freeman and Bob Blagden to name just a few.
“When I first started, there were about 22 roads here that were unpaved – just dirt and gravel. They required a great deal of maintenance. There was ditching, brush removal, culvert work and they needed grading every spring. Now there’s just two unpaved roads that are left in town.” There have been a number of new roads built since 1976, too.
Cooper couldn’t begin to guess how many hours he’s spent behind the wheel of a town truck or riding a lawnmower. He’s worked many all-nighters, plowing and sanding. At times, the snow started falling early and seemed like it was never going to end. There were wicked ice storms, too, long nights when the road surface was like a sheet of glass. He and the other members of the highway crew never quit working a storm until they are sure the roads are safe.
“For years I operated the Bobcat. I was responsible for clearing the snow from the sidewalks downtown. Later I started driving a plow truck. My route around town took two and a half hours.”
Something Cooper really liked about his job was how it changed from day to day. “There was always something new to do. In the morning I’d arrive at the town garage never knowing what to expect or what I’d be doing.” He and his co-workers might be patrolling the back roads, clearing them of downed trees or limbs caused by a wind storm, or at the waterfront repairing a town float or a section of the wooden pier.
Springtime meant trees and bushes to trim and lots of grass to mow on the town common and in the cemeteries. In the waning days of autumn, the town crew had the holiday lights to hang.
“People sometimes don’t appreciate or know about all the work we do. But during a bad snowstorm they’re pretty happy to see a plow truck. I only had one person ever throw a snowball at me,” he said, laughing. “The window was down, she thew it and got me right in the kisser.”
Cooper remembers people surprising the highway crew with treats: Ethel Stover delivering eclairs she’d made and Cora Bean making homemade donuts. Both women lived near the town garage off Hodge Street.
Cooper said he’s driven or operated just about all the town’s equipment including the grader. He’ll miss his co-workers but not the long hours or being called to work a weekend snowstorm. Over the years, he’s been active in his community, being a former member of the Wiscasset fire and ambulance departments, a member of the Waterfront Committee and as a past commodore of Wiscasset Yacht Club.
“It was the right time for me to retire. I’m not getting any younger and there’s lots of things I want to do.” They include spending more time upcountry at his camp. “It’s on Brassua Lake near Rockwood. That’s in the Moosehead Lake Region.” He’ll also be busy helping care for his mother Ginny, who is 92.
Cooper is proud to call himself a Wiscasset native. He grew up on Federal Street, one of five siblings and the only son of Virginia and the Doug Cooper. Doug died in 2000. Coop’s sisters include Ida, Laura and Olivia. Another sister, Jocelyn, died two years ago.
The Cooper home was built in 1811 and is one of the original Stacy Houses.