Updated: Apr 25, 2022
"We did not come to Maine to escape anything, but to find something."
By Roy Barrette
A hundred and twenty-five years ago a man whose name I do not know built a house on the crest of a small hill overlooking the lower reaches of Blue Hill Bay. He sited it so that in midsummer he could see the sun rise over the mountains of Mount Desert Island and in the winter, when it is farther south, watch it crimson the spruces on the smaller offshore islands.
While I have nothing with which to document my surmise but internal evidence (the layout of the barn, the stone walls, old foundations, field wells, and scraps of information gleaned here and there over a score of years), I believe he was more of a farmer than were most of the town’s residents. When I bought the place, the then-current owner Roy Bowden and his wife were storekeepers in a small way. The real estate agent told me I could make “half a living” out of the store and gas pump in front of the barn. About all the farming then being done was when a crop of hay (if a scant growth of poverty grass and weeds could be dignified by that name) was taken off the back field. The owners were old and the last of their line and, after we had agreed on a figure for the place, were happy to accept, as a gift, the part of the building they were living in. They moved it to a new foundation a half-mile down the road and occupied it for fifteen more years, until they died.
When the man who built the house lived here I am sure that he, like most of his contemporaries in the village, took part of his living from the sea. It would have been especially easy for him because the land runs down to the bay. In 1852 he could have filled a pail with flounders on any incoming tide. Clams were on his shoreline for the digging (a few still are), and lobsters were so plentiful they were selling for $12 a ton. The bay was floored with scallops, and schools of mackerel fretted the water in summer. If he owned a boat—as almost everyone did and most still do today—he could have gone a little off shore into deeper water and loaded it with cod and hake and haddock whenever the weather was fitting.
The population was larger in his time than it is in mine. The town was self-contained and self-supporting. Roads were from poor to bad and almost impassable in “mud time.” There were no inland towns in this part of Maine because travel was by water, and without access to it there was no convenient means of communication. Today the population is between 500 and 600; in 1850 it was 1,200, and all found employment in the town or nearby. There was work for everyone who wanted it, and as there was no unemployment insurance or other governmental inducement to remain idle, everyone who could work did. There were several boatyards (there are still two) where skilled craftsmen built anything from peapods to 300-ton schooners engaged in foreign trade. For the most part these vessels were owned by local people who, frequently, also sailed them. In 1876 there were 95 men out of a total of 260 voters who were masters of vessels of some kind. If you add to this figure the number who would have made up the crews, you arrive at a substantial portion of the town’s male population.
Most of those who did not actually go to sea worked in related industries: the shipyards, the canneries, and the fish factories. It is recorded that in one year the town exported 30,000 gallons of fish oil, 25,000 boxes of smoked herring, and 500 tons of fish scrap, plus 350 tons of lobsters. Fish scrap brought $9 a ton—almost as much as lobsters.
The town covers 8,000 acres, but most of it is and always has been swamps, ledges, glacial moraine, and woods. The eight-acre field behind my house is one of the largest open fields in town. I suppose, at one time, it might have made a crop of potatoes (for I grow good ones now in my garden), and there are records of oats and barley being cultivated. In the big year before the potato blight of 1845, the town exported 10,000 bushels of potatoes, but that never happened again. While most people had a garden, grew their own vegetables, and kept a cow or a pig or two, there was little or no commercial farming. The size of the fields and barns on this place suggests that the first owner probably sold some produce locally, but he, like the rest of the villagers, would have been principally a subsistence farmer.
Most Maine coastal towns depended upon the sea for a living, and this one was no exception. When the Eastern Steamship Company hauled down its flag in 1935, it signaled the end of the town’s Golden Age, though it had been going downhill for years. The internal combustion engine finally killed it, as it has so many other things. The automobile put the small steamboat companies out of business and then—aided by the airplane—the railroads. The only public transportation the town ever had was by water, so when the steamboats stopped running, the town gradually and quietly stopped breathing.
When my wife and I came here more than twenty years ago and bought the unknown builder’s house and began to make it habitable (the part we kept had not been lived in for years and boasted neither heat, plumbing, water, nor electricity), the young wife of the man we employed to do the work told us it was the biggest thing that had happened in town since she was born. Though we were old enough to be her parents, it was also the biggest that had happened to us since we were born.
We did not come here to escape anything, but to find something. Our family was grown and married, we were healthy and reasonably well off, and I had skills that could be employed here as well as anywhere else, so we were free to do as we wished. What we desired was what a great many people seek in these latter days of the twentieth century—an opportunity to rediscover some of the virtues of a more stable, simpler society. While everything has not developed as we expected, enough has so that we are more than glad we came here and enormously grateful for our good fortune. We found that the twentieth century intrudes no matter where one lives, but there are good as well as disturbing aspects to that fact. We have learned that while there are some who envy us our life here, there are more who, although they think it wonderful to visit for a few months in summer, view the idea of year-round “isolation” with feelings ranging from apprehension to astonishment that we would deliberately elect it. As for us, whether the day dawns blue and brittle cold, or damp and foggy with a smoky southwester, we sing our morning hymn of gratitude.
The essays in this book, written and published week after week over a period of more than twelve years, are a picture of our lives and an expression of our philosophy, a philosophy that has matured and confirmed itself as the months and years have continued in their unhurried and inevitable course. We feel most fortunate to live in tranquility, but even more to associate daily with neighbors who are thoughtful and helpful, and who have no great interest in whether a man is rich or poor so long as he tends to his business and pulls his weight. It is refreshing to live where people have pride in themselves and their heritage, where the children wave to you unafraid, and the drivers of passing cars salute you on the theory that if they don’t recognize you, they should.
To explain why, in this book, I use the terms “town” and “village” interchangeably, I should
point out that the word “town” is merely a political definition in Maine and carries no suggestion of an urban area. We dwell, in a very true sense, in a village. Except for the church, school, post office, cemetery, firehouse, library, store, and Town office, all roughly localized near the harbor, our houses are scattered haphazardly along about fifteen miles of winding road.
Although lobstering, clamming, and scalloping are still important occupations, they are but a shadow of what they were 100 years ago. The price of lobsters is variable, but a lobster dinner now will cost you as much as a ton of lobster did in the town’s early days. The canneries and fish factories are gone, and the boatyards build nothing larger than pleasure craft and an occasional lobster boat. There are several house builders who, collectively, are the town’s largest employers. Most of their work involves the building and maintenance of summer homes.
A measure of the numbers of our summer visitors is indicated by the doubling of the town’s population in July and August. Increasingly, people “from away” are taking up permanent residence, but not in sufficient numbers to affect the character of the town. The old names, descendants of the families who settled here in the eighteenth century, still dominate the town rolls and fill the phone book—and everyone hopes it will remain that way.
Our weather is what saves us from being overwhelmed. Those who contemplate coming here to live year-round hesitate when press and television report we are snow- and icebound and isolated from civilization. Therein lies our safety. Actually, we feel as the English did during one particularly horrendous storm when their newspapers headlined: CONTINENT ISOLATED. The weather never surprises us. If I awake in the night and hear the soft rasp of snow on the windows, I know that in a little while I shall see a blinking red light reflected on the ceiling and hear the rattle and grind of the snowplow, assuring me access to the outer world come the morning.
This essay serves as the Introduction to the Islandport Press 2022 reissue of A Countryman's Journal (originally published in 1981), a collection of essays offering personal glimpses into the joys of small-town Maine life. Roy Barrette, a neighbor and friend of E.B. White, wrote a weekly column for the local newspaper and published three books.