In my last diary about Maine, I made some observations about Portland--Maine's largest city--and the people who live in it when all the tourists and summer folk are long gone and the deepest winter befalls us. You can find that diary HERE.
In today's diary, I'm going to talk about a different part of Maine, one with very different problems. Follow me over the fold for more...
This part of Maine is often called "Midcoast", an area roughly between [reference]. In this region lies a little village at the tip of the St.George Peninsula which juts out into Muscongus Bay called Port Clyde. It possesses one of the safest harbors on the coast and is also one of the prettiest. In addition, it is one of the last small, working deep-sea and coastal fishing villages left in its region of its kind with a deep commitment to sustainable lobstering and co-operative wholesaling and retailing.
This way of life has become increasingly imperiled by the arrival of two powerful outside forces: the vast increase in summer people of enormous wealth (heretofore it has been mostly working and middle-class folks and artists who summered there and on the many islands nearby) and the arrival of one very, very wealthy woman who has decided she doesn't just want to own the town: she wants to brand it.
The wharf and Port Clyde General Store. The PCGS also serves as a community center, something which has been curtailed in recent years in the off season to maximize the new owner's profits with little regard for impact on the year-round community's lifestyle and culture. In earlier years, they would raise an orange onion bag on a flagpole to signal for a boat from the island across the harbor to pick up a passenger. My father remembers those days.
The area around Port Clyde was settled very early by Englishmen. The town of Thomaston, just up the St. George River, was settled in 1609--well before Plymouth or Boston--and has been continuously settled since. The region was once prosperous with shipbuilding, whaling, fishing, and exported ice from Maine's many rivers and lakes as far away as India and the Far East on ships made right there. As the 19th Century came to a close and steamships replaced sailing vessels; as the demand for whale oil faded and the use of kerosene became commonplace; as the demand for bird guano (yep, that's right: harvesting bird shit was a major industry) dried up; as the granite and lime quarries began to exhaust themselves, the region began to slide into a slow but inevitable decline. A decline from which it has never recovered. Today the peninsula is populated mainly by fishermen, lobstermen, farmers, artists and artisans, small family businesses and retirees. Many of the residents supplement their fishing with boatbuilding, seasonal carpentry, sailmaking and other crafts. Like the Brahmins of Boston, many of them can trace their families' presence in the area back to the 17th century. Unlike the Brahmins, few if any of them enjoy any appreciable wealth. "Cabots with calluses" one friend of mine says.
Our Friendship half-dory, measuring 16" along the hull, in yearly dry-dock for repair and painting. My father and I have learned to do this ourselves. This is only the second one of its kind we have had in over 50 years, and was built by a Port Clyde local and family friend in 1990. The style of this boat is peculiar to the area from Friendship Long Island (which can be seen from the Rock on a clear day) to Owl's Head. Very stable, it can take rough seas and heavy loads. Every piece of lumber, equipment, appliance, everything in our island house came over on a boat like this one.
My family's involvement with Port Clyde began in the very early 50's. My great-grandfather and great-grandmother retired to Massachusetts with their eldest son after the war work was done. Great-Granddad was the superintendent of a conveyor factory in New Jersey, and his son, my grandfather, was his foreman. The industry was considered vital to the war effort and the hours were long. Both decided to return to Massachusetts after the war, buy a few dairy cows, and live quietly on the land for a while. Just a few years later, Great-Granddad suffered a sudden heart attack and died on the spot. It left my great-grandmother, whom everyone called Nan, devastated.
"Nan", about 1910, three years before she married Great-Granddad.
That summer, to try to lift her out of her funk, my grandparents decided to take a road trip up the coast of Maine. Some neighbors--best friends of Nan's--suggested they drive up to a place called Port Clyde. They recently built a place on an island there, they said.
Up route 1 the family went, packed into an old DeSoto, and when they arrived my Nan immediately fell in love. On their next trip, they met a man who was parceling out lots on the island across the harbor, the one where our neighbors had a place. He invited them out to stay. To make a long story short, they decided to buy a parcel of land (I believe it cost 3,000 dollars in 1953). The next year, the modest "camp" as we call them, was built without benefit of power tools or electricity. Water was hauled from a nearby spring. Nan loved it, and spent entire summers there with her sister and my father and my uncle and their friends. An artesian well came in about 1959. Electricity came in 1966. Telephone in 1983, both by undersea cable. Running water (cold only) came in 1993. We continue to resist putting in a water closet.
Commonmass' Grandfather about 1942. He and his friends built our little place on "The Rock" with hand tools, hauling everything over on a small boat. They lived on sandwiches, beer, and cigarettes.
Since that time several members of my family, including myself, have lived there nearly year-round (roughly March-December) at various times. I became a permanent resident of Port Clyde just one year ago. Everyone in the family has the same feeling of awe my Nan had upon first seeing it every time we're there. To us, it's the most beautiful spot on earth.
Year round residents have experienced some improvement in the last forty years in standard of living. Cleaning up the harbor and Muscongus and Penobscot bays, which it lies between, as well as more sensible, sustainable fishing and lobstering practieces have improved yields in recent years. In about the mid 80's, the area was "discovered" by day-trippers and kayakers and this increased opportunities for seasonal work and an increase in art and craft galleries, restaurants, etc. The replacement of a WPA-era sewer line (which drained into the bay--no more) and other projects have contributed to better infrastructure and cleaner water. Some famous old inns, such as the Ocean House have continued to prosper, and it has always been helpful to local merchants (of which there are not many) that Port Clyde is the terminus of the mail boat and ferry to Monhegan Island, long a summer destination for artists, birders and seasonal tourists. Things were looking up a bit for Port Clyde, compared to where it was in say 1960.
Port Clyde was, however "discovered" all right. By the mid-80's, the reserved parking for the Islanders--both year-round and seasonal--was sold and a business was built on it. The old A&P was torn down for parking for the Monhegan Boat Line. Public docks became hopelessly overcrowded, and local fishermen competed with day cruisers and other pleasure craft for passage and mooring space in the harbor. First-time kayakers (we call them "speed bumps"), unsure of their right of way (they have it) created real danger to working boats either by hesitation or inattention, a problem which persists. (I will add that seasoned kayakers can always be singled out because they know what they're doing and respect the fact that they are pleasure boating in a working waterfront).
Sunset on Port Clyde's working waterfront. The Rock is to your left. This is very similar to the view I have from our place. Grandfather Commonmass was smart to by a lot on the west end!
Then, in the 90's, the real demographic shift began, especially on the islands, including ours. Here's an example of some of the professions of the folks who owned places on The Rock in 1980. All of these people are "original owners", including my own family.
--Carpenter and Master Stonemason
Looks pretty middle-class, right? Pretty much, it was. In fact, a very interesting demographic indeed.
Today, there are only a handful of "original owners" left. Let's have a look at some of the folks who have bought, built and added-on since about 1990:
--Former PBS television host
--US Supreme Court Justice
--Washington Lawyer and Lobbyist
Notice the difference? Now I have nothing against people's professions. However, we all know what this does to a community when it is "up-scaled", not to mention to the taxes. Enormous, grotesque and thoroughly tasteless additions have been added onto formerly modest dwellings and with this has come lavish landscaping and sprawling lawns--often landscaped with bushes and plants and grasses which are not indigenous to the region. All of this, of course, has to be watered, so sophisticated sprinkling and irrigation systems have been introduced. In one case, the grounds are kept tended and watered from spring until fall. This house is used for only two weeks a year by its owner, his family, and his personal chef.
You can see the problem here: there is serious environmental impact from this rapid development, not the least of which is water. This is an island. Fresh water from deep artesian wells is available, but it is not limitless. Our well went dry one drought season. It did not stop some of our neighbors from continuing to water their lawns until theirs, too, stopped. It was several days before the water returned.
Our modest dwelling on The Rock. The landscaping is done by Mother Nature, with a little help from my pruning shears and my Grandmother's stone walls.
This kind of thing happens all the time in cities. It's called "gentrification", which is a very offensive term: it suggests feudalism, and a feudalistic relationship between owners and renters. In a seasonal community, this can be just as devastating. Many old-time summer owners have been forced to sell their property because they could not afford the taxes PLUS the upkeep. If my brother and I had the sole responsibility for the taxes, we would have to sell immediately. While on the one hand, one has a right to do what they please--within reason--on one's own property. Which is precisely what the original owner of the island understood when he parceled out the lots. There was a very restrictive covenant in the deeds meant to avoid the exact problem the community now faces: over-development, multiple dwellings per lot, any commercial enterprise, and remodeling which would adversely affect the property taxes of residents to the point that someone would have to sell because of the actions of another.
Unfortunately, in the mid-80's, shortly before the original developer died, he brought a lawsuit against a new owner for violating the deed covenant by building a clearly separate--and significantly larger--dwelling on his one lot. It was a long and very bitter suit. The original developer lost, and many of the provisions of the covenant were struck down. Some say that's what killed him, as he died shortly thereafter. The loss of that suit opened up the development that has resulted in a quiet, modest community becoming a socially stratified one, the endangerment of indigenous plants and wildlife, and serious environmental concerns, especially in waste disposal and water conservation.
One crusty old-timer on The Rock told me just this past fall while observing one of the super-rich residents ferrying over some "beautiful people" for the weekend: "The goddamned rich always find a way to spoil everything for the rest of us". I'm afraid I had to agree.
Coming in Part 2:
Greed and the Village Part 2: The Martha Stewart of Herring Gut
In part 2 I will explore the second major shift in the life of my village: the arrival of a businesswoman who would do more than any other person in recent memory to disrupt the community balance of Port Clyde. In an attempt to brand Port Clyde™, she has bought up everything she can in an attempt to "Do for lobster what Purdue did for chicken". Love her or hate her, she has divided the village and spurred grassroots, co-operative competition from local fisherfolk in an attempt to preserve a disappearing way of life.
NOTE: Some readers know who I mean by the "Martha Stewart of Herring Gut". I would ask you please not to identify this person by name in the comments in this diary. Part 2 is going to be pretty hard-hitting and she googles herself constantly. Appreciated. --CM