View from Glen Hill: Andover, past and present

In our peaceful summer town of Andover, Maine, (pop. 800), the casual observer might think that nothing much had ever happened or would happen other than the usual forest and agricultural work that has sustained its economy for over two centuries.  However, the reality is very different.   

For example, a half-century ago Andover was at the center of advances foundational to modern global telecommunications as the American hub of the first trans-Atlantic satellite communications system, called Telstar. Telstar was a public-private joint venture between the Bell System that controlled all of America’s private telecom — and especially its Bell Labs subsidiary, the then-equivalent of Apple, Google and Microsoft combined in innovative firepower — and our federal government through NASA (for the satellite’s rocketry, NASA’s first privately sponsored launch) and the FCC.

Andover was chosen both for its remoteness and for the range of mountains that completely encircles its verdant valley-land and provided a natural barrier to radio-wave interference. The construction project was a massive one for the 177-foot horn antenna (needed given the low power available on the satellite) rising to the height of a 14-story building and covered by a huge inflated dome visible for miles. Foundations went down to bedrock to provide a base as stable as possible to assure accurate focus on the Telstar satellite as it made its transit from horizon to horizon. A comparable antenna complex was established in France and then in England.

The first satellite transmission was a telephone call in 1962 made by then Vice President Lyndon Johnson from a Washington, D.C. auditorium filled with U.S. senators and congressmen and other senior federal officials. The communications channel went by landline to Andover, then to the satellite, and finally to comparable French governmental officials who had a live telephone conversation with Johnson to the delighted applause of those present on both ends and the great relief of Bell System personnel for whom this had been a rush project accomplished in under two years.  Shortly thereafter, black-and-white television transmissions began, and many of us old enough to have seen those live broadcasts from Europe can remember the bottom-of-the-television-screen legend, “live by Telstar satellite from Andover, Me.” beamed into our homes across the country. A half-century later, those pioneering advances seem quite primitive, and that huge antenna has long since been replaced by much more powerful yet compact systems.  

While Andover is no longer that central transmission-reception point for global telecom, it remains a vibrant community nonetheless. The return to a more local focus post-Telstar has not dimmed the community’s innovative edge that Telstar promoted, and Andover encourages small businesses that don’t need a specific geographic locus and want to offer their workers a beautiful environment in which to live and raise their families. Such businesses already exist in Andover specializing in everything from advanced ski equipment to large-scale kiln-drying of wood products in one of the few facilities of its kind in the Northeast.

So too, one of the state’s largest construction companies (doing bridge-building as well as road-building and structural work) is headquartered in Andover, and its new gravel plant at the southern end of town blasts rock from a small mountain and uses massive equipment to grind that rock into a variety of road-building and construction materials including coarse aggregate and finer gravel.         .                           

Business advances are not the only local growth factor in recent years. On the cultural front, for example, Andover offers summer art shows and Saturday evening concerts on the Green featuring, among others, local artists and performers like Andover’s own Pete Coolidge, who is an accomplished composer and vocalist/guitarist who sings lyrically of the beauty of the region, of local characters, and of loves won and lost. Like narrative poets and balladeers stretching back to Homer, he memorializes the past as well as the present, and human foibles as well as heroics.

And if you venture a half-hour’s drive from Andover to the campus of Gould Academy, you can hear throughout the month of July outstanding young pianists from around the world performing in the Music without Borders Piano Program, now in its 11th season under the direction of Prof. Tamara Poddubnaya of the Long Island Conservatory.  These young virtuosos, like an 11-year-old from Bursa, Turkey, a 22-year-old from Russia, and a 12-year-old from New Hampshire, offer stellar performances of everything from Chopin and Rachmaninoff to Mozart and Scriabin.  

And so, on multiple fronts Andover and this whole beautiful lake, river and mountain region march forward.