The story of Poland Spring begins in the late eighteenth century when Jabez Ricker moved his family from Alfred, Maine to Bakerstown, present day Poland. Jabez had owned land adjacent to the Shaker community in Alfred and when they pressed him to acquire his land, he relented and made the land swap. Shortly after the Ricker’s arrival in Bakerstown, some travelers knocked on the door looking for a place to stay. In 1794, the family began operating an inn on the property and by 1797 opened a brand new building – the Wentworth Ricker Inn. Thus the beginning of a tradition of operating an inn on the grounds that continues today.
In 1844, Hiram Ricker, after suffering from dyspepsia for many years, went to the fields to oversee the men on the farm. For several days he drank only water from the spring on the edge of the property and after consuming the water for ten days, he became cured of his illness. While this is not the first time members of the Ricker family drank from the spring when they were ill, this was the first time that water was perceived as having medicinal properties. In 1845, the Rickers began sharing water and by 1859 made their first commercial sale of the water. In marketing the resort as a country getaway with recreational activities and having water with health benefits, the Rickers slowly grew their enterprise.
In 1876, the family opened the Poland Spring House which shortly became a popular attraction for the country’s social and political elite. The hotel, eventually comprised of over 350 guest rooms, a barber shop, dance and photography studios, pool room, music hall, bowling alley, dining facilities, fire sprinkler system and elevators, served as the crown jewel of the resort grounds. Its design and amenities were used to develop several other Hiram Ricker & Sons operated hotels, including the Samoset and the Mt. Kineo House.
The resort also took an unprecedented step in 1894 when it purchased the Maine State Building from the state. The building, constructed of granite, hardwoods, and slate from Maine, was originally constructed as the state entry for the Columbian Exposition or Chicago Worlds Fair of 1893. Designed by Lewiston native Charles Sumner Frost, the building was purchased by the Rickers, disassembled, transported to Poland Spring, reassembled and dedicated for use as a library and art gallery for the resort guests. It remains as one of only a handful of buildings left from the almost 200 that comprised the grand and historic fair.
In 1895, the family opened a nine-hole golf course, one of the first in the state, after commissioning Arthur Fenn, as its designer. Fenn was the first American born professional golfer and course designer. He stayed on for many years as the golf pro at the resort. By the early twentieth century, the resort desired a modernization of the course and contracted with Donald Ross to redesign the course and expand it to eighteen holes. Ross is recognized as one of the most celebrated golf architects of all times and designed, re-designed, or expanded eleven courses in the state, the one at Poland Spring being the oldest.
In 1907, Hiram Ricker and Sons Co. opened a new bottling plant and springhouse on their property. This was perhaps the most modern bottling facility of its time, installed with glass and silver piping, non-porous Cararra glass for easy cleaning, and even showers for the workers to use prior to beginning their shift. The company was able to churn out over 450 cases of water per shift and continued their dominance in the water business.
The 1930s were not kind years for anyone, including the Ricker family. Eventually losing control over their empire, the resort and water company was owned by several iterations of business consortium. In 1962, Saul Feldman purchased the resort and built a new inn (the Maine Inn) on the grounds. He tried to attract a new clientele and offered modern amenities. He hosted the “Route 66” TV filming crew with Joan Crawford. Sonny Liston trained for his famous fight with Cassius Clay. Jack Parr was frequent guest also.
In 1966, Saul leased the Poland Spring House and other buildings on the grounds to the US government for use by the Job Corps program. When the program opened in 1966, Poland Spring was the site of the largest women’s training center in the country. With several thousand individuals coming and going, the wear and tear took its toll and then the Job Corps left the grounds in 1969. The Maharishi of India leased it the following year, and then the Poland Spring House was closed and not used as a hotel again.
The Robbins Years
1971, Cyndi’s parents had moved three times in 5 years… from Michigan, tp Chicago, to Tupelo Mississippi, and then to Lewiston Maine. Her parents had also bought a cottage on Middle Range Pond, and insisted Cyndi get a job. At 16, she became waitress at the Inn at Poland Spring. At that time, only the Lodge and Maine Inn were available for hotel guests, since US Job Corps and the Maharishi had destroyed the other buildings to the point they were inhabitable. The famous Poland Spring Water company now only had one part time employee. The golf course with few members was in rough shape. And the property was for sale again.
Mel Robbins came to Poland Spring in 1972, to tear down the hotels, and build a new development but instead saw great potential for the historic property. He leased the Maine Inn with an option buy the property. Mel ran the Inn as it had always been run in the past and lost most of his money that summer. But, his dreams didn’t die there. He reexamined where all the money went and threw out the “hotel bible”. He lowered the rates drastically, asked people to carry their own luggage, got rid of telephones in every room and asked people to bring their own soap. Unheard of in 1973, but it saved Poland Spring from the wrecking ball.
Determined to save Poland Spring, Mel worked very hard. His days were full, doing the advertising, buying the food from local grocery stores, and round the clock it seemed, entertaining the guests as a disc jockey, playing bingo and trivia and telling his amusing tales. Guests, past employees and neighbors began sharing their stories about “the Hill.” Mel became even more enthralled and in 1975, he wrote the “Poland Spring An Informal History.”
In 1975, business was booming, he had fallen madly in love with Cyndi Sievert from Lewiston and on May 4th, his birthday they married. Mel and Cyndi dreamed of reopening the Poland Spring House. Mel had begun negotiating with banks to borrow enough money to fix up the enormous building, when tragedy struck. The Poland Spring House burnt to the ground on July 3rd. Mel had to rethink his dream.
In 1976, they took over the golf course and built the clubhouse.
Poland Spring Preservation Society was founded in 1976. In 1977, Saul Feldman, the owner of the Poland Spring Resort, and Mel Robbins owner of the option on the buildings gave the Preservation Society ownership of the Maine State Building and All Souls Chapel.
In 1978, Perrier, which eventually was bought out by Nestle Water, bought the Poland Spring Water Company, built new bottling facility, and grew from one part time employee to over 900 employees in the state of Maine. In 2001, Nestle spent 3 million to restore the abandoned Poland Spring Historic Bottling Plant and turned into a museum.
From the beginning, Mel and Cyndi began the daunting task of saving enough money for the down payment on the property, and in 1982, the dream came did come true. Mel and Cyndi began the task of restoration. The property had been neglected for years. The cottages, golf course, and the hotels all needed enormous work and funds were very limited. But day by day, year by year the property has flourished.
They had many troubles too… the biggest gambling raid in Maine in 1972, The Poland Spring House fire in 1975 (the largest Fire in Maine’s history), the salmonella outbreak 1976, The Mansion House Fire in 1979, the Stable Fire in 1983, hurricane Gloria and Bob, the Golf Course Barn in 2001 fire (we lost all our grounds maintenance equipment the day before the course opened for the season), and 9/11 when occupancy dropped below 50% .
And in 1997, Mel was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but his hospitality nature never left him and he greeted guests to almost to the end of his life. The last three years, he was cared for by Cyndi and private nurses. Mel passed in 2007 and is buried on the property. Cyndi will be buried next to Mel.
in 2008, Cyndi purchased the Flying Lobster and renamed it, “Cyndi’s Dockside”. It was originally the site of the Ice house of the Poland Spring Hotels.
Other additions and improvements, to the property, since Mel’s death include the driving range, mini golf, disc golf, playground, Campbell Cottage, all new hotel furniture, additional fire protection… and much more!
None of this would have been possible with out the devotion of the Poland Spring Family “with their minds, and hands, and hearts who helped rebuild Poland Spring,” thus assisting Mel and Cyndi to make Poland Spring what it is today and will continue to be — “where real people can enjoy real food, real clean air and water, and heartfelt hospitality.”