Betsy James Wyeth

Betsy James Wyeth, 1921-2020

The late wife of Maine’s famous painter helped put the Island Institute on firm footing

Story and photos by Peter Ralston 

The publication you are reading was inspired by Betsy Wyeth.

When Betsy, whom I first met when I was eight years old, bought 450-acre Allen Island, six miles off Port Clyde, she asked me to help her figure out what to do with it; within a month or so Philip Conkling and I met and together we worked with Betsy to implement her sweeping vision for Allen.

We all put a lot of time and hard work into that early island world of Betsy’s and in the process Philip conceived what became the Island Institute.

Allen Island was the anvil upon which we forged a lot of our earliest ideas, and in the spring of 1983 we shared the nascent business plan for launching the Island Institute with Betsy. She liked what she saw, but really honed-in on our intention to publish something for what would be our membership base.

“Look, if you are going to publish something, just don’t make it a self-congratulatory, mimeographed newsletter like all the other organizations. Make it exceptional! If you do, I’ll give you ten of Andy’s prints to sell.”

We did, she did, and the Institute was off and running. We published the first Island Journal in 1984 and it was instrumental in our getting established in both the summer and year-round communities.

Even as we were expanding the size and scope of the Institute’s services, we kept an oar in with Betsy on Allen, and subsequently also Benner Island, as she continued to refine and expand upon her earliest ideas for the properties. Like Andy working on a major painting, Betsy started with an unerring vision and painstakingly built upon that. Instead of working with pencils, brushes, paint, paper, and panels, her tools included work crews, boats, skidders, barges, fire, intensity, unwavering conviction and, always, that truly extraordinary vision of hers driving it all.

Betsy was not content just to preserve the land she owned out there. She was always all about the people who also worked on the islands. She built infrastructure so some of the lobstermen of Port Clyde, Cushing, and Friendship would always have a base out in their traditional grounds.

To my knowledge, not another wealthy summer person has come remotely close to so genuinely accommodating those working people who preceded—and would follow—her here. I will never forget one of them, a friend, a tough man with a big heart, coming to tears as he spoke to me of his gratitude to her in encouraging him to have a berth out where his grandfather used to fish.

The other working man she took care of was, of course, Andy. It is impossible to fully quantify her impact on his lifetime’s work, but as their son Jamie put it, “She should have also signed his paintings.” Andy acknowledged to me and others that he simply never would have become Andrew Wyeth without her.

Years ago I wrote about them:

“The competitive tension in this grand union is palpable but critical, and I cannot help but think of the ancient Greek word for competition, competra, which means ‘to rise together.’ And of ‘concerto,’ with its double meaning of joining together, working in concert, but also, from the Latin, to fight or to contend.

“Betsy’s and Andy’s long life together has often been tumultuous… but their carefully managed frisson has kept these two lovers passionate, edgy, and astonishingly productive. Their respective and combined genius has always fed on competition. They have worked in concert and they will each, someday, leave great masterworks behind, having risen together.”


For a deeper understanding of the Wyeths and Betsy Wyeth’s role in her husband’s work, readers are encouraged to visit the Wyeth section of Peter Ralston’s website— The content includes a 12-minute film about Betsy produced by the Farnsworth Art Museum.

Remembering Hoddy

Remembering Hoddy

Institute founder recalls Horace ‘Hoddy’ Hildreth’s essential Maine qualities

Story by Philip Conkling
Photo by Peter Ralston

When I think of the essential qualities a Maine person ought to have, at the top of the list is an instinctual recognition—a gut sense—of right from wrong. A Maine person is willing to speak their mind before waiting to join a chorus. They must have the confidence to challenge prevailing opinion. They should be a good judge of character. They will be understated but speak from broad experience.

They are humble—and know that their success is dependent on many, many others. They ought to have a sense of adventure—especially for the North. They should like the company of others and not mind bending an elbow with anyone.

They will possess a sly and salty wit. They will read widely. Staunchly loyal to family and friends, they will also be friendly to people from all walks of life. And finally, at their core, they have an unerring sense of decency. If we are fortunate, we may possess a few of these qualities.

Hoddy Hildreth was a complete Maine man who possessed all these qualities.

I first met Hoddy on the Vinalhaven ferry over 30 years ago. We fell into a discussion about the Maine islands, which he loved as much as I. His wife for life, Wooly, was with him. I don’t remember much else about our conversation except that we laughed a lot. As the ferry pulled into Carver’s Harbor, he suggested I come see him in Portland in the fall to tell him about my hopes for the Island Institute.

Diversified Communications was a much smaller company then. Hoddy had created it out of a few businesses his father had started, whom I gathered had not paid too much attention to their success.

With a keen eye to talent, Angus King was one of Hoddy’s first hires.

There was a radio and TV station in Bangor, the National Fisherman in Camden, and Fish Expo in Boston—which much later evolved into the Boston International Seafood Show under Hoddy’s leadership.

After graduating from Bowdoin, where his father had also gone, Hoddy went into politics, also like his father, who had been the governor of Maine, 1945-1949. Hoddy won a seat in the Maine Senate in 1966 and then went to work at one of Portland’s white shoe law firms—not that Hoddy would have been caught dead in white shoes.

Hoddy was asked to represent paper companies as a lobbyist in Augusta, but soon grew distressed by his clients’ reprehensible environmental records. His old law firm “retired” him, so he started his own firm. With a keen eye to talent, Angus King was one of Hoddy’s first hires.

With Hoddy’s leadership, the Maine Legislature passed landmark environmental laws including the establishment of the Land Use Regulation Commission, or LURC, to regulate development in Maine’s 10 million acres of unorganized territories. After oil companies began prospecting for sites to build oil refineries and terminals, Hoddy established a non-profit organization, the Coastal Resource Action Committee and led the successful fight to keep big oil out of Maine.

Recognizing that local planning boards could approve an application for projects like an oil refinery, which would have effects on nearby towns, Hoddy helped write and pass the Site Law of Development Act to provide oversight of development projects greater than 20 acres. These laws remain the bedrock on which Maine’s environmental movement was built.

When the Island Institute was still a wobbly six-year-old start up, Hoddy became chairman of the board of trustees. His guidance over the next 17 years while he led the board was crucial to the success of the Institute. When board discussions grew fractious, Hoddy had a talent for a wry remark or a self-deprecating witticism that could relieve tension.

As CEO of a family business with a board composed of relatives and in-laws, Hoddy was not immune to board room drama. On some level, we bonded over the experience of the slings and arrows launched at the head of a rapidly growing, enterprising organization. Of course, Diversified Communications was a hundred times larger than the Institute, but in both organizations, there were always other ways of doing things and no shortage of suggestions by others as to what those might be.

I could always rely on his being a good listener and an even more trusted advisor.

I remember one vivid example of how similarly Hoddy and I approached issues in our respective spheres. Hoddy had a highly talented executive assistant, who was also a skilled Myers Briggs facilitator. She had organized various Myers Briggs exercises for Diversified’s employees and wanted Hoddy to participate. Hoddy wasn’t so sure he wanted to be involved at the office, but he was curious and so signed up for a Myers Briggs workshop at the Island Institute.

For those unfamiliar with the exercise, the process involves answering detailed questions about how one approaches situations in life in order to give you an idea of your personality “archetype.” In the work place, this tool can be useful for understanding why it is so difficult to communicate with some people and so easy to communicate with others.

It turns out that Hoddy and I were both the same archetype—somewhat introverted, intuitive, and more oriented to thinking than feelings, more motivated by a “gut sense” than other ways of judging right and wrong. It was an “Ah-ha” moment for me, because I knew that Hoddy and I connected in a more fundamental, unchanging way and that I could always rely on his being a good listener and an even more trusted advisor.

Hoddy’s approach to leadership, which I hope I shared, was in his words, “Hire people smarter than you and then get out of their way.”

Hoddy’s instincts were rarely wrong. Once, when raising money for the Institute, a valued trustee convinced us that a big gala and auction was a tried and true method of filling the coffers. Everyone went to work to get artists and jewelers and people with fancy vacation homes or boats to donate to the auction, which would be held in conjunction with a fancy dinner with lots of wine under chandeliers encouraging people to bid. Although the event raised a handsome amount of money after expenses, it was inordinately painful for the both of us for inexplicable reasons beyond our similar archetypal response. As we were leaving at the end of the event, Hoddy took me aside and said, “No more f**king yard sales.”

Hoddy and I both retired from the Island Institute after a nearly 30-year partnership. But we continued to see each other regularly—both in Portland, where we met at Conservation Law Foundation meetings and on Vinalhaven when we shared many spirited dinner discussions.

We both shared a love of Arctic adventures, where Hoddy had first visited as a college student with Admiral Donald MacMillan aboard the schooner Bowdoin. He then returned to the Arctic four or five times, including a voyage on which we were both passengers from Iceland to Spitsbergen where we crossed the 80th latitude only 600 miles from the North Pole.

We both shared a love of Arctic adventures, where Hoddy had first visited as a college student with Admiral Donald MacMillan aboard the schooner Bowdoin.

On one of Hoddy’s Arctic expeditions aboard his specially designed ketch-rigged motor sailing vessel Tuak, he and his companions rounded into a small cove on the remote northern tip of Labrador and were surprised to find another vessel anchored there. As they came ashore for an unexpected rendezvous, the other party hastily packed up their gear and rowed back to their vessel without so much as a sidewise glance. The Tuak voyagers were shocked at this breach of basic maritime courtesy, but had the last laugh when they discovered the departing crew had left a movie camera behind in their haste. The camera case had the address of the owner, who may have been surprised by the irreverent visual message Tuak’s crew recorded on film of four moons rising at the head of the beach.

When Hoddy was clearly failing, Institute co-founder Peter Ralston and I went to see him a final time. Peter projected some of his stunning images of the Arctic while I read some of my ice-inspired poems. I like to think that Hoddy, in the last week of his life, in addition to the surrounding love of his family, eased out of this world with images of his two favorite region— the frozen reaches of the Arctic and the beauty and characters of the Maine islands.

Philip Conkling founded and served as president of the Island Institute from 1983 to 2013. He now runs Philip Conkling & Associates. See


Map of Florida Keys

Whelmed in Key Largo

Whelmed in Key Largo

Flooding Threatens the Florida Keys

By Steven Harris


In the fall of 2017, Hurricane Irma’s surge advanced toward my home in Key Largo, waves curling across the lawns of properties slightly closer to Largo Sound. After the storm passed, the neighborhood was excavated from beneath branches and trees that no longer provided shade, and piles rose in front of homes, those nearer the ocean punctuated by the stark colors and straight lines of refrigerators, stoves, and furniture, ruined by inundation.

These storm events are likely to increase in frequency and power, which is unnerving because, according to Rhonda Hagg, director of sustainability and projects for Monroe County, which includes the archipelago, “the Florida Keys are the third most vulnerable community to sea level rise in the nation.”

The Florida Keys, a string of islands consisting of once-submerged coral reef and oolite, stretches over a hundred miles southwest from mainland Florida, dividing the shallows of the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Bay from the Atlantic’s reefs and thrumming Gulf Stream. This nexus of habitats supports tremendous biodiversity, which in turn draws divers and fishermen from the world over.

But the islands are low, and the residents have seen flooding before.

Alisson Higgins, Key West’s Sustainability Coordinator, makes it clear that they are resilient. Even though tides are as predictable as, well, the tides, strong, consistent winds push waters onto the islands, adding mystery to when and where flooding occurs. Even if an event can’t be anticipated, she says, “Once residents walk out and notice a flooding event, they change plans, adapt… Near Duvall Street, our main tourist spot, some stores keep sand bags just inside their doors,” to keep the water out. Higgins explains that Key West has been adapting its infrastructure “as the problems come. French drains helped in some areas. Miami Beach made news when it installed one-way valves so high tides didn’t flood into the streets through sewers. We did that in ’97. We still don’t have them everywhere, so 11 intersections flood during full moon high tides; during King tides, even more so. A couple neighborhoods even put in injection wells, sucking everything up, injecting it deep underground.”

The Keys face unique flooding challenges because of the islands’ geology. Hagg explained that, because the substrate is porous, “flooding comes not just from shore, but up from underground.” And, therefore, as Higgins explained, “We can’t build a wall like some European regions do. Flooding is worst during rain events in low-lying areas when it’s high tide because the rains have nowhere to go. During those events, our public works department knows when the flooding will stop: in about six hours, when the tide drops.”

Unless it doesn’t. Hagg told of a neighborhood in Key Largo where residents had seawater on their road for three weeks straight, due to a combination of heavy tides and strong winds pushing water from Florida Bay.


South Florida’s mainland is porous, too, and this endangers the Keys’ water supply. Freshwater is piped 150 miles from Dade County to Key West. Much of the island chain’s water comes from a freshwater lens that sits atop denser seawater that fills the subterranean honeycomb of Florida.
“As sea levels rise, it could threaten our wellfield not just from the coast. There are even concerns about the seawater coming up from below,” Hagg said.

And Lake Okeechobee’s water, now shunted to the sea, nutrient-laden and toxic from commercial, residential, and agricultural runoff, no longer sheets down Florida through the Everglades like water down glass, recharging the aquifers. Increased demands on the aquifer cause negative pressure, drawing seawater plumes closer.

The Turkey Point nuclear plant that provides the Keys’ power uses a network of seawater channels to cool its reactors. But the cooling capacity was not sufficient during a period of high demand, and the utility sucked subterranean water to cool the reactors, moving a saltwater plume closer to the freshwater supply. The state of Florida and Miami Dade County have lawsuits against the utility, Higgins said, and Monroe County and Key West have written letters advising against expansion.

a flooded walkway with sign that reads

In spite of these dramatic manifestations of sea level rise, most residents don’t have to rent cars for weeks to avoid driving their own vehicles through seawater, and their taps still run fresh, so sea level rise doesn’t seem urgent. “It’s hard to notice in an average person’s day,” Higgins observed. And it is difficult to keep people informed because many residents are recent transplants whose baselines, in reference to water quality, reef health, and sea levels, began upon their arrival, long-time residents have moved on.

Visitors rarely even know about the flooding because the rainy season comes during the off-season summer and, when the King tides take place in the spring, skies are usually clear.

And tourists don’t want the spell to be broken. They dance to the region’s music which tells them to fish, drink, and forget their worries. They watch the sunset over Florida Bay as they eat fish mostly farmed and overharvested overseas. Many are spending their vacation funds, determined to believe that all is well.

But sea level rise is getting worse.

“In the last 100 years, we’ve had 9 inches of documented sea level rise, and the rate has gone up dramatically,” Hagg said. “Nuisance flooding occurred on an average of .67 times per year from 1980 to 1982. Between 2010 to 2012, it rose to 2.3 times per year. By 2060, if sea levels rise by 9 inches, flooding will occur 139 times per year. At the higher estimate of 24 inches, flooding would occur 672 times annually, so twice a day, during each high tide.” 

For now, Higgins said, the pressure is felt in the wallet.

“As far as people’s daily lives, it affects your annual insurance rates more than your live-ability.” And that might be where day to day adaptation is overtaken by long-term realities. A friend of Higgins’, who has worked in real estate for years, said nobody is asking these questions. But some realtors say sea level rise will eventually diminish the value of homes on the island chain because more frequent storm events, even if they strike and saturate other parts of the country, will raise the cost of insurance.


Not only do warmer waters feed stronger storms, sea levels determine how far up the islands storm surges advance. I was lucky during Irma because my house sits at an elevation of nine feet, in an X flood zone, which means we are just high enough that we aren’t required by mortgage companies to have flood insurance.

FEMA is reevaluating its maps and will release findings in the spring which may change flood zones. As a resident, I am grateful that FIRM (Fair Insurance Rates in Monroe County) is verifying that FEMA is using accurate data. But accurate data might be bad news.

“If the worst estimates are realized, 36 percent of our population could be displaced by 2060,” Hagg said.

Thankfully, while Margarita blenders are roaring in the resorts, people like Hagg are trying to prepare the Florida Keys for the future. Sea level rise will require “alternate forms of living and transportation,” she said. “What should the future of the Keys look like? We can’t save everything. We’re going to concentrate on what we can adapt to make sure people can stay here.”

Roads will be the top challenge because half of the county’s 300 miles of roads will be subject to sea level rise effects by the year 2060. “It will be very expensive,” she said, “maybe $10 million or more per mile depending upon how high we have to raise it.”

With just 35,000 residents in Monroe County, state and federal funds will be needed.

The most important effort of all is restoring the Keys’ habitat, not only because every job, every resident, is in some way dependent upon its unique ecosystems, not only because coral reefs cover far less than one percent of the ocean floor but support more than 25 percent of marine species, making it our duty to protect them, but also because maintaining the natural systems will help protect us. Mangroves, trees that grow finger-roots that are anchored in, and anchor, the sea bottom, act as shock absorbers that diminish the impact of storm surges. Offshore reefs knock down storm waves, making them less destructive. And these habitats are lynchpins in the tourism and fishing industries that will help fund our adaptation.

But, due to warming waters, ancient coral formations are succumbing to bleaching and disease so quickly that it is hard on the spirit. Algae blooms threaten fisheries, water quality, and wildlife, and warming waters lean hypoxic and diminish the vigor of ocean currents. With the stakes so high, the challenges so broad, it is difficult not to first be overwhelmed, then submerged in hopeless, finally turning away, hastening the flood.


Steven Harris is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Key Largo.


reading room in what was once Rachel Carson's summer home

Remember the Monarchs

Remember the Monarchs

Rachel Carson’s Last Summer at Southport

By Edgar Allen Beem
Photos by Michele Stapleton


“When the tide is high on a rocky shore, when its brimming fullness creeps up almost to the bayberry and the junipers where they come down from the land, one might easily suppose that nothing at all lived in or on or under these waters of the sea’s edge.”

So wrote Rachel Carson, perhaps the greatest environmentalist of the 20thcentury, in The Edge of the Sea. Carson was describing the littoral landscape just below her small summer cottage on Southport Island west of Boothbay Harbor. The low, one-story silvery gray home with its seaside deck sits like a wooden gull above the shore of the Sheepscot River between Dogfish Head and Hendricks Head Light.


Rachel Carson's cottage on Southport Island.
Rachel Carson's cottage on Southport Island.


The Carson cottage is an accurate reflection of the woman herself. A modest dwelling simply furnished with pine paneling, rattan chairs, books, nautical charts, sunlight, and sea air, her summer home is an artifact of the 1960s, intimate and authentic in ways that very few Maine summer cottages are anymore. The cottage defers to the site, hiding atop the ledges in the trees, not calling attention to itself.

Just so, Rachel Carson was a modest woman who lived a quiet life beside the sea, yet her work had a global impact. Carson (1907-1964) was a federal employee much of her working life, but her sea trilogy—Under the Sea-Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1951), and The Edge of the Sea (1955), established her as one of America’s leading nature writers. Silent Spring (1962), Carson’s bombshell documentation of chemicals in the environment, led directly to the banning of DDT and indirectly to the founding the Environmental Protection Agency.

*          *          *

Rachel Carson first came to Maine in 1946, renting a cottage for a month near Boothbay Harbor with her mother. In 1953, she built the cottage on Southport Island where she spent the happiest years of her life.

“Maine was her haven. It was her laboratory and it gave her the solitude to write,” says Martha Freeman, who edited the voluminous letters between Carson and her Freeman’s grandmother, Dorothy Freeman, and published them as Always, Rachel (1995). “Without Maine in her life, she couldn’t have done Silent Spring. Maine was her refuge. It re-energized her. It was her relation with nature. And she had my grandmother.”


Rachel Carson, far right; the other adults are Stanley and Madeleine Freeman. The boy wearing glasses is Roger Christie, Carson's adopted son.


Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman met when Carson moved to Maine and became the best of friends. Carson was an unmarried 46-year-old woman and Freeman a 55-year-old wife, mother, and grandmother when they met. In Maine, they explored the shores and woods together, sharing a love of nature and a companionship in the outdoors. Freeman became Carson’s best reader, confidant, and kindred soul. Carson was the writer Freeman had hoped to become. When they returned home—Carson to Silver Springs, Maryland and Freeman to West Bridgewater, Massachusetts, they wrote so often that Martha Freeman inherited an entire maroon plaid suitcase full of their correspondence, some 750 letters in all.

Though she became a major figure in the public life of America with the publication of Silent Spring, Carson was a very private person. One of the amazing things about her was how much she was able to accomplish despite the weight of family responsibilities that fell to her.

As an unmarried daughter, Carson became the caretaker for her aged mother. When her older sister died, leaving two young daughters, she took on that responsibility as well. When one of her nieces died at 31, leaving a five-year-old son, Carson dutifully adopted her grandnephew Roger Christie as her own son. All this while working full-time for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and writing her books.

*          *          *

When Silent Spring appeared in 1962, Carson found herself taking on not only the chemical industry, but government regulators and the media as well. For questioning the amount of toxic chemicals being pumped into the atmosphere, she was attacked as a spinster, a pseudo-scientist and a mystic. Time magazine, to its everlasting shame, was especially hard on Carson, calling Silent Spring “unfair, one-sided, hysterically overemphatic” and “nonsense.” The unnamed author of the Time review claimed DDT was perfectly safe, citing a government scientist who claimed to have fed 200 times the “safe” level of DDT to convicts for months with “no ill effects.”

The fact that Carson was able to prevail over industry, regulators, and media critics, says her son Roger Christie, who inherited the Southport cottage, was a function of the kind of person Rachel Carson was.

“She was a pretty compelling person,” says Christie. “She was good and she was thorough. She took great pains to document everything she was doing. She would just lock herself away and work. I’d ask her to do something and she’d say, ‘No, I’m in the study footnoting.’ The fact that she did it all while she was dying is even more remarkable. She wanted someone else to do it, but she couldn’t find anyone, so she did it herself.”



Carson struggled with cancer and a heart condition the last few years of her life, though male doctors never gave her the full diagnosis, as women were felt to be too fragile to handle the truth.

Then, as now, an earnest person in possession of a scientific truth could be subjected to partisan attacks and charges of fake news, but Rachel Carson only needed an audience of three powerful men to get her Silent Spring message out to the world. New Yorker editor William Shawn serialized the book, CBS Reports news anchor Eric Sevaried presented Carson to an audience of 15 million viewers, and President John F. Kennedy saw to it that Carson’s findings in Silent Springwere included in “The Uses of Pesticides,” a report of the President’s Science Advisory Committee.

“She was the apex of something going on all around the country,” says Martha Freeman, that something being the dawning of an environmental consciousness, the realization that human beings are part of the natural world, not separate and apart from it. “She was laser-focused, an efficient organizer, an excellent researcher, a great writer. And Kennedy wanted the facts. Government officials believed one of their constituencies was the facts, reality. That doesn’t seem to be true today.”

*          *          *

After the watershed Silent Spring year, Rachel Carson sought refuge in Maine the following summer, her last summer on Southport. She and young Roger arrived on June 25, 1963, and Roger, 11, was quickly sent off to camp at Chewonki for the month of July.

In mid-summer, Rachel Carson sent a note to Dorothy Freeman asking, “Would you help me search for a fairy cave on an August moon and low, low tide? I would love to try once more, for the memories are precious.”

The tide pools, stone beaches, and sea caves along the rocky Southport shore were Carson’s favorite marine landscapes. She loved nothing better than spending her time exploring the marine life at the edge of the sea. But when he returned from summer camp, Roger Christie discovered that Carson had been unable to climb down over the steep ledges to the rocks below the cottage.

“I knew she was ill,” recalls Christie, “but I didn’t know she was dying.”

Carson’s last tide pool expedition took place remotely in September 1963 when Christie, his friend Martha Freeman, and Martha’s parents brought specimens up to the cottage for Carson to examine under her microscope and then, at her insistence, dutifully returned them to the natural world.

“She taught us to have respect for other forms of life on the planet and to be good stewards of the Earth,” says Christie of his mother’s legacy.



On September 9, Carson’s cat Moppet died. The following morning she and Dorothy Freeman went to the Newagen Inn where they sat together on a bench above the shore watching the sea and sky and listening to the wind in the spruces, the surf on the rocks, and the gulls crying in the distance.

The highlight of that outing was the spectacle of a drift of hundreds of Monarch butterflies, riding the breeze from milkweed to milkweed before lifting off for Mexico. Already in a funereal mood, the two women speculated that these lovely orange and black butterflies would not live to return to Southport.

“But it occurred to me this afternoon,” wrote Carson to Freeman later that same day, “remembering that it has been a happy spectacle, that we had felt no sadness when we spoke of the fact that there would be no return. And rightly—for when any living thing has come to the end of its life cycle we accept that end as natural … when that intangible cycle has run its course it is a natural and not unhappy thing that a life comes to an end … That is what those brightly fluttering bits of life taught me this morning. I found a deep happiness in it—so, I hope, may you. Thank you for this morning.”

Carson died the following spring, April 14, 1964, in a Cleveland hospital without ever returning to Maine. Christie, Dorothy Freeman and the people who loved her scattered some of her ashes along the shore below the Newagen Inn.

A pair of white Adirondack chairs mark the spot, a comfortable perch from which to contemplate the natural world. On a quiet morning when no gulls call and lobster boats are too far off to be heard, silent clouds propelled by invisible winds cast shadows on the eternal rock and the gray-green brine from which we all came and to which we all return.

Just below the chairs is a bronze plaque mounted on a split boulder, marking where Rachel Carson’s earthly remains were returned to the sea.

“But most all,” reads the inscription, “I shall remember the Monarchs.”


Edgar Allen Beem is a freelance writer living in Brunswick. He has written about the cultural life of Maine since 1978 in such publications as Maine Times, Down East, Yankee, Boston Globe Magazine, The Forecaster, Maine Arts Journal and Island Journal.


Swan's Island fire department and residents

Responding First, Fifteen Miles Out

Responding First, Fifteen Miles Out

Islanders want to do their neighborly duty, but time and regulations add to challenges.

By Gideon Davidson


Eva Murray moved to Matinicus in 1987 to take a position as the school teacher. Matinicus then was similar to Matinicus now: a small island fishing town, 15 miles out to sea, resplendent in natural beauty and with a powerful sense of community, yet lacking many basic services. Medical care was nonexistent. When Murray arrived, there was “no one to go to if you got hurt, or got a burn – no one had any training and certainly no one had any obligation” to help. A program that had brought licensed nurses to Matinicus had lapsed in the 1970’s, and so island residents needed to rely on being able to get off Matinicus for serious medical attention. “We were the backcountry,” Murray explained.  “Being on Matinicus was very much akin to mountain climbing – whether you can get off the island or not was almost entirely dependent on weather.”

Each of Maine’s island communities faces challenges unique to each situation. But one incontrovertible fact unites all of them: no matter the mode of transport, it takes time to get to the mainland, and it’s that time that consumes the thoughts of island first responders like Murray. It’s what makes it difficult to receive proper training. It’s what makes an emergency 9-1-1 call take multiple hours. And it’s the reason on-island, dependable Emergency Medical Services are so important: because they are not a ferry ride away, they can get to the patient much faster than anyone else.


Vinalhaven's EMS volunteers demonstrate how they train to do CPR. From left: Denise Hopkins, Jeff Aronson, Sarah Crossman, and Marc Candage. PHOTO: JACK SULLIVAN
Vinalhaven's EMS volunteers demonstrate how they train to do CPR. From left: Denise Hopkins, Jeff Aronson, Sarah Crossman, and Marc Candage. PHOTO: JACK SULLIVAN


In 1994, after nearly twenty years of no medical care on Matinicus, Murray and four other residents got together and advocated for a licensed paramedic to come to the island and offer EMT training. This was both an essential service and it circumvented the first challenges facing island first responders: how to receive adequate, on-site training. Daily ferry trips are prohibitively costly – both financially and temporally. Having someone come to Matinicus guaranteed that more people would be interested.

Five people signed up, but what they didn’t realize when they started training was that they would be forced by law to form a state-sanctioned ambulance service.

Maine law holds that a Basic EMT needs 52 hours of continuing education every year to maintain a license. This training needs to be documented, certified, and archived. Only a few months after the five trainees on Matinicus received their licenses, Matinicus Island Rescue was born. Because it was a was a registered place of work, Matinicus Island Rescue also had to observe Bureau of Labor Standards. If an organization fails random BLS check-ups – which can happen when one or two people are in charge of all administrative, operational, and financial duties – then it is subject to fines. As Murray recalls, those five original trainees “had to become EMT’s in every sense of the word,” which turned out to be much more than anyone had expected. Ultimately, administrative demands became too much for Matinicus Island Rescue, and the service was disbanded. Today, Murray is the only licensed EMT on Matinicus.


The Swan's Island Fire Department, along with residents who are not members of the department. PHOTO: COURTESY DONNA WIEGLE
The Swan's Island Fire Department, along with residents who are not members of the department. PHOTO: COURTESY DONNA WIEGLE

That Matinicus had a cohort of enthusiastic citizens prepared to dedicate their time to emergency services yet couldn’t make it work speaks to the second – and most correctable – challenge facing island EMS departments. Maine laws hold small volunteer EMS departments like Matinicus’ to the same standards as large city departments. Comprehensive documentation is vital in any industry - especially in one with such high stakes, like EMS, but some leeway must be made for tiny departments serving remote areas. Less detailed recordkeeping is surely better than having no EMS at all.

On larger islands, the calculus shifts slightly; paperwork and administrative duties still take up a lot of effort for Swan’s Island’s and Vinalhaven’s Ambulance Services, but, by far, their biggest obstacle is a lack of volunteers. This, too, can be traced back to time. A typical call for Swan’s Island EMS will have EMTs on scene in five minutes and the patient stabilized in ten. But the subsequent trip to the mainland in the ambulance on the ferry might add three or four hours. And even though Vinalhaven has a medical center with a minor emergency room, Vinalhaven EMS director Pat Lundholm says, “A morning call around 8:45 requires that you be off island until 2:30 or 3.” Those additional hours may not seem like a lot, but those are hours that could be spent working a job or spending time with family. Of course, responding to an emergency is well worth it, but that people don’t step up to volunteer is not a surprise. They simply don’t have the time.


Vinalhaven EMS director Pat Lundholm
Vinalhaven EMS director Pat Lundholm. PHOTO: JACK SULLIVAN


Still, looking at how island communities react when something does go wrong, it’s clear that distance to the mainland isn’t the only trait these islands share.

Frenchboro’s Zain Padamsee described what happens when there is a fire on an island with no formal fire department. “One person runs and gets the brush truck, and another person calls everybody on the island, and everyone who’s on the island shows up and starts doing what they can – it’s a complete town effort.”

On Matinicus, there may not be an ambulance service, but Eva Murray still provides emergency care. “There are some heartbreaking sides to it,” she said. “Sometimes, I see friends and neighbors at their lowest. But being the one who can comfort them as they’re evacuated more than makes up for it. It feels good to be the one who can help. It feels like being a good neighbor.”

And on Swan’s, where I lived for a year as an Island Fellow and a member of the Fire Department, I’ll always remember one of my last days on the island, in the heat of August. After almost twelve months, it was my first fire call.

The scene was at a far end of the island, and as I drove over I wondered at the lack of other cars on the road. I was worried we wouldn’t have enough people to fight the fire, that people were out lobstering and hadn’t heard the call or couldn’t get back to the harbor in time.

But when I rounded the last turn, I saw as many cars as I’d ever seen parked in one place on Swan’s. I saw the cars of people in the fire department and the cars of people not in the department, of fishermen and fisherwomen, carpenters and teachers. While it was only the members of the fire department that were doing the actual fire-fighting work, seemingly the entire island had shown up to see if they could, in some way, help.

A father and his son – both still in fishing gear – told me the situation was under control. It had been a minor brush fire.

Being a small island community often means that the resource in shortest supply is people. For EMS, due to the administrative responsibilities and runs that last twice or three times as long as they would for mainland departments, this means that a disproportionate burden falls on a few dedicated people. That makes day to day operations of an island EMS service exceedingly difficult. But that day on Swan’s Island, I know that all of the people who showed up reacted instinctively. Even on a larger island like Swan’s Island, there are simply not enough people to think that someone else will answer the call. That’s how islands work. When help is needed, it is given – and given unreservedly.


Gideon Davidson lived and worked on Swan's Island as an Island Institute Island Fellow in 2017. He now lives in New York City where he works in operations at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.


Harpswell fishermen sitting around woodstove at Watson's General Store

Harpswell, ‘A Town of Superlatives’

Harpswell, 'A Town of Superlatives'

Cumberland County town has longest coastline in state, oldest population.



There’s a long-running joke in Harpswell that it’s really three towns in one.

The town has the longest coastline of any in Maine—216 miles of long, jagged edge that form the shape of three fingers, and serve as a home to communities with their own, distinct identities.

A handful of arterial roads run a connection from the mainland to the tips of each—Harpswell Neck, Orr’s and Bailey Islands, and Cundy’s Harbor—peninsulas that often are so narrow that the ocean is visible for much of the length of the drive out to sea. Small roads, many of them made of dirt, jut off from the main ones. With nowhere else to go, they head toward the water, providing access to the coves and cloistered harbors that have for centuries supported the town’s historic fishing industry.

There’s a fierce pride in each of the fishing villages that have found a home on each prong of of the town’s trident shape. And of course, there are rivalries.

"Having the bridge helps,” joked David Chipman, who serves on the board of selectmen and whose great-great-great-great-grandfather signed the town’s articles of incorporation in 1758.

He referred to the Mountain Road bridge that connects the town’s two largest peninsulas, and wasn’t built until the mid-1960s. It was built to foster a greater sense of unity in town—it used to be that people had to drive inland and cross through neighboring Brunswick to get from one side of Harpswell to another—but the bridge “hasn't eliminated all the geographic separations that we have here,” Chipman said.


 Lowell’s Cove on Orrs Island.
Lowell’s Cove on Orrs Island. PHOTO: MICHELE STAPLETON


Because of the town’s geography, town issues often have pitted the villages against each other. Whether it’s paying to save a Harpswell Neck landmark that means nothing to the folks in Cundy’s Harbor, or to consolidate schools across town, Harpswell’s annual town meeting isn’t complete without shouting over an issue that pits the priorities of one part of town against another. One time in the 1950s, Great Island tried to secede, Chipman recalled.

Yet the villages have more in common than not. “You can’t drive through Harpswell. It’s a dead end,” Chipman remarked. “It’s like an island.”

That’s why in recent years, the people who have long made up its historic blue-collar population have found a common identity in the face of an emerging new group of Harpswellians: the influx of people who have sought to retire and vacation there.

“You've got Harpswell, the fishing village, and Harpswell, the retirement community,” explained Chris McIntire, a 25-year-old Orr’s Island fisherman.

"There are a lot of people who move here that do a lot of incredible things in the community,” he said. “We've always been lucky for having a lot these people who have retired and moved her and still had energy and ambition and want to make a difference.

“But I hate change,” McIntire continued. “You go Downeast some places, and you can find small fishing villages that are gorgeous with a lot of old homes. And being from here, I can't believe the shore hasn't been built up with huge new summer homes.”


Concerned that rising property values are making it difficult for young adults raised in town to stay, the Harpswell House Trust created the Hamilton Place cluster development where affordable homes are set aside for those with community ties. David Chipman stands in front of one of the homes, owned by a young lobsterman.
Concerned that rising property values are making it difficult for young adults raised in town to stay, the Harpswell House Trust created the Hamilton Place cluster development where affordable homes are set aside for those with community ties. David Chipman stands in front of one of the homes, owned by a young lobsterman. PHOTO: MICHELE STAPLETON


Those massive houses—which have rapidly consumed the town’s shoreline—have driven up property values. In response, Harpswell’s working waterfront is shrinking.

A recently published study of the town’s fishing industry by the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association found that the total number of commercial fishing licenses among residents has declined by 40 percent, a drop from 763 to 462. Part of that is driven by changes within the fishing industry that have reduced opportunities to work on the water, according to researcher Kendra Jo Grindle. But it’s also because fewer fishermen are choosing to live in Harpswell because they can’t afford it, she said.

It’s hard for young people, too, who have trouble finding a rental cheaper than $800 a month, or one that isn’t rented on a weekly basis during the summer to accommodate tourists, McIntire said. As a result, Harpswell is now the oldest town in Maine, with a median age of 56.9, according to a 2015 demographic survey.

These changes have bred resentment, although not to the point where people don’t get along. As McIntire said, there are cohorts of retirees who, with lots of time on their hands, have devoted their time to trying to solve the problems facing the town—whether it be its aging population, or spurring commercial activity—by creating nonprofit community organizations or volunteering on town committees.

Still, fishermen say they’re encountering new kinds of neighborly disputes. They say they’re tired of apologizing for their boat engines making noise at 5 a.m., and for the smell of fish bait on their lawns. Some real estate agents have started to preface their sales with, “This is what it's like to live here,” Grindle said.

And what it will be like to live here in 10 years is still anyone’s guess, according to Nate Wildes.

Wildes is one of those young people who moved away because he and his fiancé couldn’t find an affordable home. Though not a native of Harpswell, the 27-year-old volunteered on town panels and took an interest in its future. It caused him a lot of frustration.

"It’s a town of superlatives,” he said, referring to its age and long coastline. “The culture is really good at being what they have been, and that's part of the charm. But the challenge of that is you don't know what you need to be. And my read of it is that Harpswell is not OK with that, but they don't have a plan to deal with it,” he said.

Governing is hard when preserving tradition may require embracing change, Chipman said. "It's a very fine line. You want everyone to get together and work on our problems as a town. These distinct villages have their own cultures and histories that people can't forget.”

He quickly added, “But that that's what makes Harpswell, Harpswell.”


Callie Ferguson is a reporter with the Bangor Daily News who used to cover Harpswell for the Forecaster newspaper.


Orrs Island, adjacent to the bridge made from rock cribwork.
Orrs Island, adjacent to the bridge made from rock cribwork. PHOTO: MICHELE STAPLETON


 Though most of the activities fo Harpswell Aging at Home focus on helping the town’s oldest residents live independently in their own homes, the “Lunch with Friends” series—here, at Bailey Island Union Church—is open to all ages.
Though most of the activities fo Harpswell Aging at Home focus on helping the town’s oldest residents live independently in their own homes, the “Lunch with Friends” series—here, at Bailey Island Union Church—is open to all ages. PHOTO: MICHELE STAPLETON


old men seated at a dinner table

Men, Books, Food, and Drink

Men, Books, Food, and Drink

Vinalhaven’s men’s book club is a community institution.

By Phil Crossman
Photos by Sheri Romer-Day


In 2008, Vinalhaven native and lifelong fisherman Steve Rosen was chatting with Ellen Chandler, a seasonal resident of many years, who told him of her book discussion group in Garrison, N.Y. and how interesting and enjoyable it was. The group was called WOWEE (Women of the World Eating Everything).


Men's book club meeting on Vinalhaven.
The men's book club that meets on Vinalhaven.


Ellen’s enthusiasm was infectious and Steve, an avid reader—and capable gourmand—had been toying with the idea of forming such a group himself and this was the impetus he needed.

WOWEE’s modus operandiwas to choose a book and meet to discuss it once a month and, importantly, to make that meeting a pot luck whose entrées had some relevance to what was being read.

Inspired, he contacted a handful of other islanders he felt were similarly inclined, and in 2009 a dozen men got together at The ARC, a local coffee shop, to talk about it. An agreement emerged to model ourselves after WOWEE, to choose a book and meet to discuss it once a month, to bring food and drink, the food evocative of that book and the drink, it should be noted, with no such requisite relevance.


Phil Crossman, left, shares a laugh with a fellow club member.
Phil Crossman, left, shares a laugh with a fellow club member.


The makeup of the group was and remains reflective of the 1,200 people who call this place home. Founder Steve, at 50, was, and until recently, remained the youngest bibliophile. I was a part of the group but, although my own mother was born here and my ancestors have called this place home since the 1700s, I, having arrived here when I was four, and worse, from Massachusetts, cannot lay claim to the same pedigree. Mike moved here in 1972 and carved out a very respectable niche for himself as a lobsterman, not an easy accomplishment. Equally unlikely, Mark moved here from, of all places, Kansas to become a skilled boat builder and sailor. Jackson, an artist from Cape Cod moved here in 1990 and has continued to produce beautiful things.

Wayne was a retired history buff who’d moved here in the 1980s and who’d written a biography of Claude McCay, a Jamaican author and poet who figured prominently in the Harlem Renaissance, and that book eventually became a group choice. Skip had come to the island a decade earlier to begin a new career after having summered here for many years. Karol moved here in 1981 and had since been the school’s very popular history teacher. Gary was a seasonal resident who was preparing to retire here full time.

The group has met faithfully each month since then and the founding prescription has been generally followed. As members come and go—and most who go have moved or passed on—their names are added to a roster and book choices are assigned sequentially so that each member may suggest a book once in any complete rotation and does so two months in advance of a given meeting.


Discussing the book.
Discussing the book.


Members are expected to have read the book, although there is no penalty for not having done so, and various of us bring appetizers, entrées, salads, and desserts that are expected, in one way or another, to bear some relationship to the book being discussed that night. Beverages need have no relevance and there are, not surprisingly, exceptions to protocol. We are, after all an eclectic bunch.

Gary, who passed on in 2015, brought homemade applesauce to every meeting for seven years and Bill has brought kale salad to every meeting since he joined not long after the group’s inception. These have generated no complaints; the applesauce was and the kale salad is very good and, when there is salad left over Bill graciously allows me to bring it home to Elaine who loves it. Regardless, we do consume excellent food and drink at each of these events, such that Steve’s wife Alice is understood to have lamented that every time Steve prepares something delicious he takes it to book group.

The meeting is held on the same day of each month and members begin assembling between 5:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. Over the years, the meetings have been in several locations, first at The ARC and then at Ted’s home for several years. Ted was a transplant whose presence here enriched the community in profound ways that many of us know nothing about. He was, as time went by, increasingly handicapped and couldn’t easily get out and around which is why we met at his place.

Those were memorable events because Ted was a gracious and engaging host, had always read the book, invariably had among the most interesting observations, and always presented a delicious and relevant entrée. When it was no longer possible for him to comfortably take part, we all struggled to maintain our group composure but we did, largely in his memory, and now meet at the Vinalhaven Eldercare facility to accommodate Roy, our eldest and, at 92, arguably our most well-read member.

Discussion about nothing in particular, although it sometimes involves the book, takes place for an hour or so and then dinner is enjoyed, after which the members settle down in the big living room to discuss the book in earnest.    These discussions are nearly always interesting, often revealing and equally often, funny. Jackson recently and rightfully complained that a book was a bad choice because it contained much, too much, unlikely erotica. He cited, by way of example, a scene in which, after many, too many, pages, an admiring lover who’d begun his exploration admiring a young woman’s hair, had only reached her neck.


The dinner is an important part of the gathering.
The dinner is an important part of the gathering.


Over the course of these nine years the group has read, if not always enjoyed, over a hundred books. Since 2010 we have hosted a Ladies Night in June to which we invite the members of their own book group, which started about the same time as ours. We also invite the author of a book we’ve particularly enjoyed during the previous year to be our guest of honor and to address the group and engage in conversation following dinner. Several of these have been authors with an island connection.

In 2013, having just read My Beloved World, we invited Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomeyerto be our guest. The justice penned a very gracious and apologetic handwritten response explaining that the date of the proposed June meeting coincided with a period when the court was not in session and she felt she should spend those precious moments with her family. In 2016, having read The Negotiator, the group invited its author, former Sen. George Mitchell, and he agreed to come, and to enjoy dinner with the two book groups, but asked for the opportunity to address not just us but the entire island community. The result was an enormously popular and inspiring talk to a full auditorium, so appreciated that a similar invitation was extended to address the community again the next year and he graciously came and again gave us, not only a fuller understanding of things worldly and political, but also hope.

Earlier this year, we enjoyed a beautifully written The News of the World by Paulette Jiles, David’s selection, and my own recommended reading, The Women in the Castleby Jessica Shattuck. We also read Michael Finkel’s The Stranger in the Woods, Bruce’s choice, about the so-called North Pond Hermit, Christopher Knight, who sustained himself by burglarizing seasonal cabins for the 28 uninterrupted years he lived alone and without shelter in the Maine woods.


An icebreaker works toward Beaver Island.

Great Lakes islands choose people-focused strategy

Great Lakes Islands Choose People-Focused Strategy



Let other people flock to Beaver Island’s white sand beaches, secluded forests, and scenic lighthouses in the summer, the busiest season for the tourist-friendly spot 32 miles off the coast in northeastern Lake Michigan. Pam Grassmick, one of the island’s 600 year-round residents, loves it there the most during the spring and fall, when the bucolic landscape is shaking off one season and welcoming another.

“I love to see the island awaken out of the snow. I love that time of year,” she said. “And the other time I really love it is the fall. We have a lot of maple trees and seven inland lakes, and you can really see the changing colors.”

Maybe it’s no coincidence that the transitional seasons are her favorites. Grassmick, 62, is a fourth-generation islander and grew up on a farm there. Her childhood memories are, in many ways, timeless. Just as her ancestors were, she was taught by the Dominican sisters whose mission was to come and educate the Beaver Island children, and non-school hours were filled with farm chores and fun. After Lake Michigan froze, the town’s plow truck would clear the snow off a portion of the harbor, and they would skate, sometimes making a cheerful bonfire on the ice to warm their hands and light the night.

“Those are some of my best childhood memories,” Grassmick said.

Still, she, like many of her classmates, left Beaver Island to try her luck on the mainland. She went to college, became a nurse and worked in Alaska and then Michigan. When she retired, Beaver Island pulled her and her husband back to live in the place she had always gone to recharge her batteries.

But she found the island had changed. It had prospered with an influx of people who built second, summer homes on it, and the increased property tax revenue allowed islanders to build a beautiful new school and a medical facility. But other changes seemed more ominous. Islanders were getting older, the school population was declining, and it seemed these two demographic realities were on a collision course that could not end well for the community’s long term viability.

Grassmick was getting worried. And so when she learned about a nascent effort to bring sometimes far-flung Great Lakes islanders together for collaboration and support on the issues that they are all facing, she wanted in. The Great Lakes Islands Initiative was inspired by the Maine Islands Coalition—a group that sends representatives of Maine’s 15 unbridged, year-round islands to quarterly meetings—but has quickly taken on a freshwater flavor all its own. There are 32,000 Great Lakes islands, with nearly 20 that have communities on them. All have their own character, traditions and geography, but many of the challenges they face are the same.

“At the heart of it is how to maintain a viable population,” Grassmick said. “The big thing is that we need to have people on these islands, and that’s what I really see in the coalition—islanders helping each other.”


The idea for the initiative came about in part because one Michigan man had spent a number of childhood summers off the coast of Maine. Jon Allan, the director of the Michigan Office of the Great Lakes, spent some of his formative years participating in an ecology program on Hardwood Island in Blue Hill Bay. Because of that, he kept on paying attention to what was happening on the coast of Maine, and was aware of the work that the Island Institute was doing. And when, five years ago, he was hired to oversee a state-run department whose mission is to protect, restore, and sustain the Great Lakes watershed, he figured that some of what Maine was doing would translate well to Michigan. The Michigan office long had focused on environmental protection, water resource management, and the ecosystems of the lakes, but it seemed to Allan that something important was missing from the recipe: people.

“It dawned on me that our Great Lakes islands have a lot in common with Maine islands, and the work that the Island Institute was doing was so profound, so insightful and in tune with their communities. We wanted some of that, too. How can we start to help our communities in a meaningful way?”

So, a couple of years ago, his agency began to collect information about the islands to learn from the remaining communities. They started with Beaver Island and have expanded. Now, residents of 14 different islands are working together to share information, ideas, problems, and more. A couple of years ago, several islanders came to Maine to visit coastal island communities and attend a meeting of the Maine Islands Coalition. Grassmick, who was there, said that it was a rousing success.

“It was such a powerful meeting,” she said. “Seeing the islanders all helping each other and cheering when someone had six students in their school, and sharing their stories, those messages really resonated with the group that went.”

After that, Great Lakes islanders came together for a summit of their own last fall on Beaver Island, with some staff members from the Island Institute flying out to share their experiences in Maine. People came from different states, different lakes, and different islands, but they had more in common than they had expected. Discussion topics may sound familiar to Mainers, who are used to conversations about improving access to working waterfront, aging in place, infrastructure, attracting new people to the island and, of course, waste and recycling.

Great Lakes islanders now are planning a second summit, this one on Madeline Island in Lake Superior in Wisconsin. They also are having a monthly conference call. It feels exciting to Allan, who wants islanders, and not his office, to drive the direction of the initiative.

“First, islanders understand islanders. They understand both the beauty and the challenges of these hyper-rural communities,” he said. “And number two, my impression is that the value of a collective voice, at a time when it’s easy to dismiss small or individual voices, is really profound. You don’t lose identity, but you gain voice.”
He and others in his office also hope that a louder, collective voice will help island communities raise their profile among mainlanders, government agencies, and the general public, which are not generally aware of what is happening miles offshore and out of sight.

“Everybody knows Mackinac Island [in Lake Huron], but only because you go there in the summer and you ride the bikes, stay a couple days and then leave,” Matt Preisser, the Michigan lake coordinator for the Michigan Office of the Great Lakes said. “People don’t think, ‘Wow, there’s a school there, and what do they do in February?’ There’s a big awareness gap right now, and raising awareness is one of the longer term things this group can help do.”

Allan doesn’t want to study island communities as a locked-in-time oddity or a living museum, but instead as vibrant places full of people who are independent, resourceful, and resilient.

“While we spend a lot of time on fish and habitats and invasive species and other things, our island communities really are a profound reflection of Great Lakes culture,” he said. “I think it’s incumbent upon us to learn from them. Let’s focus on these remaining phenomenally cool places with phenomenally cool people. Not as museums. These are not museums in the Sturbridge Village way. These are living, breathing communities that change and morph with time.”


Compared to many small island communities, Beaver Island has a lot in the way of amenities. There are hotels, restaurants, a full-service grocery store, two small airlines, museums, and more. There’s even music festivals, a golf course, and an Irish pub. But despite all that, it’s safe to say that most residents like the quiet, unspoiled nature of their island. Birders from all over come to spot the pelicans, piping plovers, and other bird species that flock there. Spring brings an explosion of wildflowers and summer lots of opportunity for swimming, hiking and other outdoor adventures.

“Beaver Island is quite active and beautiful. It’s still very wooded. There’s lots of wild deer and turkey and foxes—all kinds of cool things,” Dennis Winslow, a part-time island resident since 2000, said. “It really is an interesting little place. A lot of people don’t know the history, and a lot of people don’t know how beautiful it is.”
But the winters can challenge even the hardiest island dwellers. The ferries stop running when the lakes freeze up and islanders rely on airplanes to get back and forth from the mainland. If bad weather makes it unsafe to fly, people can be stuck for days on one side or the other (hard, though still easier than in the old days before planes, when islanders crossed the ice on foot or wagon on a trail marked by Christmas trees and hoped for the best. One year, the story went, a postal horse, wagon, and mailman got lost when the ice was too thin and they broke through to the lake).

A few years ago, Winslow and a couple other full and part-time islanders decided that one thing that could decrease the isolation and be good for the community would be a low-power FM radio station. In 2013, the Federal Communications Commission opened a window for new license applications, and the three Beaver islanders—old radio hands all—thought that a low-power station would be a perfect fit.


The crew of WVI: Below, from left: Kevin Boyle and Maureen “Mo” Abele; above, from left: Mark Beltaire, Dennis Winslow. PHOTO: COURTESY DENNIS WINSLOW


“The vision was for the radio station to be a way for the islanders to communicate and feel connected, especially during the winter,” Winslow said.

It took some work, persuasion, and a lot of help, but WVBI-FM began broadcasting about a year and a half ago. The independent, non-profit, community run radio station is broadcast from a studio in the Beaver Island Community Center, at the heart of the island.

So far, locally produced shows feature oldies, jazz, classic country, Celtic, and “Cottage Mix,” a kind of lucky dip that can leave a listener bopping to Elton John one minute and local artists the next. The station also covers community meetings, updates the community calendar regularly, has broadcast locally-produced radio plays, and even recorded and broadcast the memorial service for a longtime, well-loved islander.

Listeners who live within ten miles or so of the broadcast tower can tune in on their radios. But anyone, anywhere can listen to it online, and that helps the summer residents stay connected to the island, too.
“The station really has helped, I think, provide the island with its own voice,” Mark Beltaire, one of the radio guys who got WBVI going, said from his winter home in Detroit.

Then he paused. Beaver Island is a place full of unique, eccentric people, he said, and one of the things they have in common is a deep love of where they live. That reminded him of another radio station—albeit a fictional one—that also brought the people of a rural community together.

“People ask what does Beaver Island look like,” he said. “I explain it’s just like that old television show, Northern Exposure, only without the moose.”

King Strang’s Island

Among those thousands of freshwater islands in the Great Lakes, Beaver Island really does stand out. At 55 square miles and a two-hour ferry ride from the mainland, it’s the largest island in Lake Michigan, and also surely the only island that once was home to a Mormon kingdom ruled by a self-appointed king.

The island originally was settled by prehistoric Mound Builder Indians, then Chippewa and Ojibways followed by traders and trappers. But “King Strang,” arguably its most colorful resident, arrived on its shores in 1848. James Jesse Strang was a lawyer in the Wisconsin Territory who converted to Mormonism shortly before Joseph Smith, the founder of the faith, died at the hands of an angry mob in Carthage, Illinois. After Smith was killed, several people scrambled to succeed him as leader of the church. One was Brigham Young, who took his followers to Salt Lake City. But another was Strang, who brought his followers to Wisconsin and then to Beaver Island, at that time a sleepy fishing village.

Strang, who declared himself king in an 1850 ceremony that featured a cardboard crown, had his followers build roads, clear land for farming, and sell wood to passing ships. He came out as a polygamist, ultimately marrying five wives. Things seemed good in his kingdom. And yet there was a looming shadow—faraway American government officials, who didn’t cotton to the idea of part of the country being turned into a religious monarchy.

The same year as Strang’s coronation, he was arrested and accused of treason, and was taken to Detroit by navy ship to stand trial along with some of his men. The trial went well for Strang, who defended himself skillfully and was acquitted. He and his men returned home to their island, and Strang ran for a seat in the Michigan Legislature and won.

But the shadow hadn’t really gone away. Other, non-Mormon islanders remained suspicious and resentful of Strang, his followers, and his religion. In 1856 he was shot in the back and head by two men who were never charged with a crime, and he died a few weeks later of his injuries. The end of the Mormon kingdom came quickly after his assassination. Most of his followers left of their own accord or were driven off the island by a mob from nearby Mackinac Island, which also burned Mormon homes and the Tabernacle.

The next wave of settlers were the Irish, who took advantage of the rich fishing grounds that surrounded Beaver Island and the peaceful isolation on it. By the mid-1880s, the island was the biggest supplier of freshwater fish consumed in the United States, and church services and regular conversations were being conducted in Gaelic. But change, a constant on Beaver Island, struck again. Overfishing and technological changes brought the fishing heyday to an end by the beginning of the 20th century, and logging and then tourism filled the void it left.


A view down Bucksport's Main Street, with the paper mill's smokestacks in view.

Bucksport: Life After the Mill

Bucksport: Life After the Mill

Town at top of Penobscot Bay searches for its (new) heart and soul.

By Jim Baumer
Photos by Linda Coan O’Kresik

Maine has endured a litany of paper mill closures in recent years. These have been devastating to the communities that leaned heavily on the jobs and tax base these mills provided. But only one town moving into the state’s post-paper era can leverage its rich coastal assets.

When Bucksport’s Verso paper mill closed in 2014, eliminating 500 jobs, the community was already at work embracing a future that includes new uses of its waterfront, while leaning on an outside nonprofit to help the community find its new heart and soul.

Still, the demise of a mill whose history dates to the 1930s, isn’t easily glossed over. Some of the pain and loss has been captured powerfully by the town’s “poet laureate for life,” Pat Ranzoni, in her collection STILL MILL: Poems, Stories & Songs of Making Paper in Bucksport Maine 1930 – 2014.

In her introduction to STILL MILL, Ranzoni wrote:

“…what was happening in the Bucksport area was part of a larger, state, and country-wide loss of industry just as the coming of our paper mill had, in the first place, contributed to the industrialization of the Penobscot River, of the state of Maine and of the United States.”


Andy Lacher of BookStacks.
Andy Lacher of BookStacks.



Losing a legacy industry can cause people to “get stuck.” Moving on often becomes difficult, but Bucksport’s response seems different. It may be because Bucksport hasn’t seen itself as a traditional mill town for a while, but rather, a town with a mill.

Andy Lacher, owner of BookStacks on Main Street, and a downtown retail fixture since 1997, has seen downtown hold its own, even as the fortunes of the mill have declined.

“While it might seem counter-intuitive, I’m seeing more business now, then when the mill was open,” said Lacher.

When Lacher launched BookStacks, he was one of just three retail stores along Main Street.

“Now there is a tanning salon, a wine bar, a gift and card shop, the Alamo (theater) is showing films regularly—downtown hasn’t dried up without the mill,” he added.

Echoing Lacher’s enthusiasm for Bucksport’s downtown is Brook Ewing Minner, executive director of Main Street Bucksport.

“Although the mill closure was a big hit to the town both financially, as well as psychologically, people in town—and this included local government—knew that it was important to begin organizing and thinking about the future,” said Minner.

Building on Lacher’s enthusiasm for Bucksport’s downtown vitality, Minner highlights the natural assets inherent along the town’s waterfront area—which includes a marina, a park, as well as a waterfront walkway. Minner and Lacher recognize the potential represented by these assets bordering the Penobscot.

“I think that our waterfront presents opportunities for Bucksport that haven’t been fully realized,” she said.

Minner cites the expansion of the marina—which the town owns.

“This has been profitable, yet there’s still room for growth,” Minner added.

Given that the waterfront provides a protected space for boats, an increase in the marina’s capacity would bring more boaters to the area, which feeds into the health of downtown merchants.

When Sue Lessard arrived in Bucksport in August 2015, hired to serve as interim town manager, she was surprised by what she encountered.

“When I arrived, it was pretty clear that the town was in a ‘look around and figure out what we’re going to do’ phase,” she said.

Lessard credits local government with planning and preparing for a possible mill closure.

“There was a recognition by those in charge that with some correction, Bucksport could maintain services without raising the tax rate through the roof,” she said. “Now, three years later, we’re in the range and often lower with our tax rate than other full-service communities in the area.”

The town council had been setting aside funds for the possibility that the mill might close. Assessments made sure the mill’s value wasn’t inflated.

While admitting that the mill “closed sooner than anyone thought it would,” Lessard says this foresight created a fund balance of $8 million that allowed for the continuation of services.

A committee of residents and elected officials met to scrutinize expenditures so the town would be as efficient and economical as possible. Initiating zero-sort recycling, not filling the vacant finance director position, restructuring public works after the longtime director retired, contracting with the YMCA for recreation—all were implemented during that process.


Nancy Minott coordinated the Orton Family Foundation’s “Heart & Soul” work in town.
Nancy Minott coordinated the Orton Family Foundation’s “Heart & Soul” work in town.



The Orton Family Foundation is the philanthropic arm of The Vermont Country Store, a catalog, retail, and e-commerce business based in Manchester, Vermont. The nonprofit provides funding, along with technical and advisory resources, to communities like Bucksport that are experiencing an economic loss.

Orton’s model focuses on supporting and improving local decision-making, creating a shared sense of belonging, and ultimately seeks to strengthen the social, cultural, and economic vibrancy of the community.

John Paul LaLonde, a former mill worker who is member of the core group of Bucksport’s Community Heart & Soul team, recalls an October 2015 meeting at which several community-based players were present, including the Maine Community Foundation, Maine Development Foundation, and representatives from Orton and Bangor Savings Bank.

“What was attractive about Orton’s model was that it involved the entire community,” LaLonde remembered. “Their approach pushes members of the core team to understand the demographics before going out and collecting information and data.”

LaLonde recognizes that while the demolition of the mill is tough for many former workers to come to terms with, it also makes “moving on” the reality for Bucksport as a community with an eye to the future.

“There are no false expectations or hopes that the mill might reopen,” he said.

Jane LaFleur, who serves as a consultant and coach to Bucksport’s group, explains that the first step in Heart & Soul is to determine the town’s interest in signing on for the four phases that follow over a two-year period. Participating communities all hire their own coordinator.

Bucksport hired former teacher Nancy Minott to serve as coordinator, a role she’s occupied (in a part-time capacity) since October 2016.

"The coordinator's job is to walk the community through the phases of the process," said Lafleur.

Lafleur, who has coached teams in other Maine communities, has been favorably impressed by the Bucksport team. In another town struggling with a mill closure, the initiative was slower getting off the ground. In Bucksport, the community immediately “jumped in and got behind it.”

“The strength of Bucksport’s group is obviously the people in the community,” explained Lafleur. “It’s not simply someone coming in from the outside and telling them what to do, but connecting people in the community and strengthening partnerships that already existed.”

According to Lafleur, during Bucksport’s Heart & Soul process, it’s been clear what the town views as its assets.

“What our team heard is that people love the waterfront,” said Lafleur. “They also love the open spaces outside of town and Bucksport is 18 miles from everything—that’s a real asset, too. But the people are the biggest asset and the positive energy that they’ve brought to all of the potlucks, picnics, and the overall story-gathering—that’s something you don’t always see in places dealing with the closure of a mill.”

Lafleur indicates that the Heart & Soul process is set to wrap-up in spring.


Bucksport's town manager, Susan Lessard.
Bucksport's town manager, Susan Lessard.



When Verso sold the Bucksport Mill to a subsidiary of a Canadian scrap metal recycler the day after closing the plant, it left no doubt that papermaking in Bucksport was finished.

The new owner, AIM Development, is a subsidiary of American Iron and Metal, based in Montreal. While tasked to redevelop the 275-acre mill site, AIM’s first order of business was the demolition of the former mill structure.

What’s currently in the works is a plan to redevelop the mill site sitting prominently beside the Penobscot River, most likely for some type of industrial use. No one is certain what that might look like at this point.

Lessard envisions a diverse mix of industrial, commercial, and service type businesses replacing the mill and its jobs. The town has good schools, and because of that, people are moving into Bucksport.

Jeff McLin, AIM Development’s vice president, reported the company is “exploring redevelopment opportunities for the entire industrial-zoned site,” ticking off the considerable waterfront assets represented at the former paper mill site, such as “electrical infrastructure, ample fresh and saltwater supply, active rail, deep water river access—existing dock and wharf—close proximity to I-95, large amount of available land area.”

A spur line from the natural gas conduit that crosses Maine from Nova Scotia also is available at the former mill site. Additionally, Bucksport is part of a $200,000 Brownsfield Area-Wide Planning Grant awarded to Eastern Maine Development Corporation (EMDC) by the Environmental Protection Agency. EMDC is working with the town and the owner to develop an area-wide plan for redevelopment.


In recent years, the town developed a walkway along the Penobscot River.
In recent years, the town developed a walkway along the Penobscot River.


Part of the process involved hiring a consultant, Elan Planning, Design & Architecture out of Saratoga Springs, New York.

Lisa Nagle, Elan’s principal, said Bucksport residents will see the conceptual plan next spring.

“We’ve been working with various groups in Bucksport—like Community Heart & Soul—in soliciting community-wide input to help us in planning,” said Nagle.

While no one has a crystal ball, the industrial infrastructure along the waterfront remains attractive, especially for the right kind of investor.

It’s possible that a sign of things to come is represented by MaineWoods Biomass Exports, LLC, currently leasing a portion of the mill site (what was formerly the mill’s log yard) for wood handling, debarking, and shipping. This is just one step in the possible procession of other businesses locating to Bucksport’s port area. Art House, the company’s president and CEO indicates that he has established contracts with European Union buyers for wood chips to be shipped from Maine. He states his goal is to create good-paying jobs with benefits.

Lessard may have summarized it best when asked about Bucksport’s future, post-papermaking.

“It is an amazing community—driven by the spirit of those who live and work and have businesses here. They believe in this place and its future. No—it’s not nirvana—but it is a whole different approach to loss. No one is looking to be fixed or saved. They are looking to make their own way forward.”


Jim Baumer is a freelance writer who lives in Brunswick.

Newfoundland landscape with water and mountains

The Collector of Islands

The Collector of Islands

Their magical allure has carried through a lifetime

By Melissa Waterman


To get to the Lofoten Islands in Norway, you must take the ferry. But to get to the ferry you must journey by train. The train from Oslo takes 20 hours, travelling through Trondheim and the mountains to the tiny coastal settlement of Bodo. In Bodo I board the Hurtegruten, a coastal ferry that travels the entire Norwegian coastline year-round, to convey me to the small port town of Svolvær on one of the archipelago’s Arctic islands.

Christopher Columbus allegedly said after wandering about the islands of the Caribbean, “My desire was not to pass any island without taking possession, so that, one having been taken, the same may be said of all.” His was the deliberate avarice of empire; I am unclear what desire drives me.




I began my collection of islands young. One summer during high school I lived on Nantucket. I found a small room for rent above a garage on a road of sand and bicycled daily to my work as a chamber maid. On my days off I peddled as far as my legs would take me to find stretches of beach unencumbered by tourists. I slid down fantastic sand dunes and loitered amid low trees listening to the surf. Through the art of trespass I made Nantucket mine.

I later lived in Ireland for a time, traveling the island with my thumb out to find the small and the hidden. A fishing boat took me to the Aran Islands where I walked on fields hand-made of seaweed and dung. I stood on sleek stone cliffs seemingly carved with a ruler and plumb bob looking westward and thought young romantic thoughts.

Another island I claimed was named Prudence. Prudence Island sits in upper Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, a plump mitten of land filled with small homes, unregistered battered cars, and fields. At the island’s height lay a small vineyard owned by an older couple, refugees from post-war New York. They grew grapes, had a small cav to store their wine and a windmill to draw water into their home. I camped on the island and visited them often, suddenly awake to the fact that on a small island in an overcrowded state some people had achieved freedom.

As the poet Derek Walcott wrote, “Merely to name them is the prose/Of diarists, to make you a name/For readers who like travellers praise…” I wasn’t interested in the praise of anyone. Who can say why one collects islands?

I lived on Martha’s Vineyard for several years as a newly fledged adult. It is an island dipped in amber, caught in a preserve of money and fame that nearly renders it still and precious. Living on Martha’s Vineyard made me yearn for other islands less complicated. One day I found myself on Cuttyhunk, deliriously happy walking through a field of wildflowers in the sunshine, wind at my back. Another time I tromped the shore of Noman’s Land some years after the Navy ceased its bombing runs. I was part of a team picking up marine trash along the shoreline and cataloguing it for state records. We scrambled up the muddy cliffs to reach the island’s modest heights, skirting bomb craters and searching for seabirds. I sat on a rock to eat my lunch overlooking destruction blanketed in green and once again felt that giddy joy fall over me.

The British writer Robert MacFarlane writes in Landmarks that “We have come to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world – its spaces, textures, sounds, smells and habits – as well as by genetic traits we inherit and ideologies we absorb.”

Newfoundland is too vast to be recognized by the body as an island; the eastern Avalon peninsula, however, is not. There cloudberries grow in patches across expanses of barrens. Moose shuffle across the roads and along the abandoned shoreline. The fog sits off Ferryland and Placentia, ready to infiltrate and obscure these tiny towns whose houses are colored as brightly as children’s drawings. The people that I met on my travels were more like the houses than the fog: vibrant, loquacious, filled in from the edges to the center with stories and music, shaped by the rock upon which they live.

Vinalhaven, Matinicus, Islesford, Eagle Island, Frenchboro, the scattered islands of Merchants Row and Casco Bay – my island collection grew ever greater here in Maine. I would like to say that I became greater as well. A collection is not merely the objects found within a display. A collection includes time, in my case many years. Those years swirl around me like water. My islands are mine only because of the time I have spent on them, in close inspection and in the grandest of daydreams. They are mine because of the attention I paid for them.

Melissa Waterman is a Maine freelance writer who focuses on the marine environment. She often finds herself in, on, or around he water in an unending effort to augment the salt within her veins. Her stories have appeared in the Boston Globe, Maine, Boats, Homes & Harbors, and other New England publications.


Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, Canada.
Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, Canada.


Luke Holden, left, and Ben Conniff photographed in front of restaurant

Luke Holden’s 'Vertical Lobster' Adventure

Luke Holden’s 'Vertical Lobster' Adventure

Luke’s Lobster chain of restaurants is reinventing the fishing business



You hear a lot of horror stories associated with Craigslist ads, but this is not one of them. You could say it’s a business success story that has big implications, maybe even revolutionary ones, for Maine’s lobster industry. But maybe it’s best described as—dare we say it?—a whale of a tale.

Ben Conniff was a freelance food writer who really wanted to ditch the freelance life and get an employed position in the food industry. He jumped on Craigslist to look for his golden opportunity. He found and applied for lots of counter service and back-of-house jobs, but nothing developed.

Then one day he saw an ad for his dream job. It was posted by a guy named Luke Holden, a native of Cape Elizabeth who grew up on lobster boats but was working in investment banking in New York City. (“I was content and happy to do that [lobstering] until my parents basically said that it was time to do something else with my Georgetown education,” Holden said.)

Holden’s Craigslist post read something, in essence, (very loosely, mind you) like this:

“Opening up a Maine lobster shack in the East Village. I have no practical experience, but have great products and great familiarity and experience with Maine lobster shacks. Come help me do it.”

Conniff applied even though the only experience he had with lobster shacks was eating at the one on the wharf at Five Islands in Georgetown during childhood vacations. But he got the call and interviewed.

“I went in and met Luke and he actually had a good head on his shoulders and a really good business plan,” he said. “I probably would have done it anyways because it sounded exciting,” he added, “but the fact that the plan sounded like it would work made it more appealing.”

It was mid-August 2009. Holden told him that people buy lobster seasonally (read: not in the winter) so they’d have to open within a month. This timetable would have rung alarm bells in a lot of people, but not Conniff. Instead, he said to his new business partner, “OK. Where are we now?”

They didn’t have a location yet. This still did not give him pause.

As it turns out, his willingness (or craziness) to roll with it was a good thing, because what has happened since has been quite the ride.

With help from Holden’s father, a fisherman and lobster processor, they opened the first Luke’s Lobster that October, 30 days after signing the lease on their first location in Manhattan, and hit the ground running, learning fast on their feet. “It was insane,” Conniff said.


Today, there are 28 Luke’s Lobster restaurants in the U.S. in some of the country’s biggest markets, such as Boston, New York City, Chicago and Miami. There’s also one in Tenant’s Harbor (more on that later), six in Japan and, as of this writing, one scheduled to open in Taiwan in the spring of this year. Last year, the restaurants did more than $30 million in sales.

Pretty impressive stuff for a couple of young guys with no restaurant experience. But here’s where things really get interesting and where the potential for positive change to Maine’s lobster industry comes into play.

In 2012, just three years after going into the restaurant business, the pair decided to do something by all accounts rare in the restaurant industry and unheard of in the lobster industry: vertically integrate.

Holden and Conniff strongly believe in the farm to table—or in this case, trap to table—movement that is characterized by consumers who want to know where their food is coming from, how it is harvested and who produced it. They are committed to sustainable fishing and business practices, delivering a quality product, and supporting fishermen and their communities.

“With someone like Luke—he’s really kind of started to crack the code, in a way, in being able to figure out how do you vertically integrate a supply chain that has historically been unintegrated,” said Briana Warner, economic development director of the Island Institute, publisher of the Island Journal. “That’s really the innovation here.”

“We employ a stake holder model versus a shareholder model,” said Holden. “We look at everybody in our business, whether it’s our fishermen, our suppliers, our teammates. And we look for win-wins. We don’t look at the business and make short-term decisions that just positively affect profits. We think that type of decision-making process ultimately kills the business, and that’s not how we’re motivated as business managers.”

In order to meet the high standards they set for themselves and their business, they needed more control over their supply chain, hence their vertical integration strategy.

They began Cape Seafood, a seafood processing plant in Saco, that prepares and packages lobster and crab for Luke’s Lobster restaurants. In 2017, the Cape Seafood team of about 150 people processed over 4 million pounds of lobster and about a million pounds of crab, said Holden. Most of the lobster and crab is sourced from Maine fishermen, he said, but they also buy from Rhode Island and Marine Stewardship Council-certified fisheries in Canada.

Then they put in place the clincher in their vertical integration strategy: They partnered with the Tenants Harbor Fishermen’s Co-op.


Luke Holden at the Maine Fishermen's Forum. PHOTO: JACK SULLIVAN



Cape Seafood buys 100 percent of the catch of the lobstermen in the co-op, said Holden, so instead of going dock to dock selling to whoever is offering the highest price on a given day, the co-op fishermen know where their product is going and know they will get a fair price. Luke’s Lobster and Cape Seafood get a dependable product source and the quality they want.

For the co-op fishermen, the partnership with Cape Seafood offers them the ability to run a leaner business, potentially earn a few extra nickels per pound (which adds up over pounds and time), share in the revenues generated when Cape Seafood sells products made with lobster harvested by co-op members to retailers such as Luke’s Lobster or Whole Foods.

They also get to work with a trustworthy partner that respects and understands them and their business. And that’s no small thing in the lobstering world, where distrust between buyers and lobster harvesters is commonplace, said Josh Miller, a lobsterman from Tenants Harbor and a member of the co-op.

“If we can establish a relationship with a buyer we trust and we feel like we’re always getting a fair price and we’re not haggling and fighting, that’s a big benefit for us,” he said.

The partnership between the co-op fishermen and Cape Seafood was not a foregone conclusion. Holden had to prove to the fishermen that he was serious and trustworthy. So, he offered to open the first Maine-based Luke’s Lobster restaurant in Tenants Harbor on a wharf owned by Josh Miller’s family, where a restaurant had operated but had closed two years earlier.

He also agreed that 50 percent of the profits from that location would be shared with the fishermen in the co-op. The restaurant opened in 2016 and due to start-up costs, didn’t offer any profit sharing that first season. Numbers for 2017 had yet to be determined at the time of writing.

“Right off the bat, Luke went out on a limb with that,” Miller said. He’s continued to earn trust by not only visiting the Tenants Harbor location, but going out on the boats with the lobstermen and inviting them to participate in company events, like the opening of new Luke’s Lobster restaurants, and be part of the corporate team attending seafood conferences.

“They’re probably not the first buyers to go down to the shore and buy product directly off fishermen,” he said. “There are other companies that do that, but the level of participation and interaction that they’ve had with us and we’ve had with them, I’ve never heard of that before.”

With their personal and business ethos of doing right by their customers and by the fishing community guiding them, it’s safe to say that their whale of a tale is likely only to get bigger. In other words, to be continued … 

Stephanie Bouchard is a freelance writer and editor based in the Midcoast. Find her at

flooded field in Portsmouth Village

Salvage and Regeneration: Stories of adaptation and loss from two barrier islands

Salvage and Regeneration

Stories of adaptation and loss from two barrier islands

By Rob Snyder


I am going to start in the middle of two extremes, exploring what holds one island community together while another becomes a shadow of the past.

David Thomas, a fisherman from Little Cranberry Island and I are heading to Portsmouth Island, one of North Carolina's Outer Banks, skimming across the top of the water at 15 knots in a flat-bottom boat.
We bear northwest out of "the creek" on Ocracoke Island with Rudy Austin at the helm. He is assured and relaxed, much as his father Junius would have been in the 1950s and '60s, when he ran people across to the Portsmouth hunting and fishing club. It is a quick crossing, 20 minutes or so.

Through the crisp winter air we pass duck-hunting blinds, family-managed pound nets, and, on Casey Island, just off of Portsmouth, we pass a camp for fishermen who are "hiding from the wife” as Rudy puts it, laughing as if speaking from experience. We cross Ocracoke Inlet, with Pamlico Sound to starboard. Beneath us the shoal waters shift with the tides, while on the horizon a place frozen in time comes into view.

Earlier in the day David and I had anticipated what it would be like to experience an island whose community had changed dramatically-from a year-round island population to a place preserved because it "hearkens back to a simpler time” It made us uncomfortable, yet we were both eager to experience the place- David, as someone who has spent much of his life working to keep his island community vibrant, and myself, a "professional outsider" dedicated to supporting island communities- the perfect pair for this dystopian tour.

From the water Portsmouth appears archetypal, with its church steeple rising up above the red cedars, and 20 or so early-20th-century homes standing against the wind and tide. This barrier island was incorporated in 1753 and was sustained by an economy based on fishing and lightering work. Tall ships would unload to shallow draft vessels, allowing the movement of goods ashore to the Carolinas.

Chester Lynn accompanies David and me when we step ashore on Portsmouth. Chester is an Ocracoker, a descendant of Portsmouth residents and historian of the island. He is a steward of the community's history, celebrating the continuity of this place over time. Lynn's personality matches the large shadow that he casts while making his way slowly across the island with the assistance of a cane.

I am struck by the National Park Service's welcome: HISTORIC PORTSMOUTH VILLAGE-NORTHERN CORE BANKS, CAPE LOOKOUT NATIONAL SEASHORE. It really exists—a place that celebrates what year-round island living used to be like. A neatly manicured path leads us toward a high spot, a few feet above sea level on the Sound side of the island, where the small white post office faces out on an island cemetery and Main Street beyond.

The Civil War took its toll on the island, explains Lynn as we walk. Portsmouth's population had peaked at 800 residents, including 100 or so slaves, prior to the arrival of northern troops. The war drove the population down to around 300 by the 1870s.

A revival of the community seemed in hand with the construction of a U.S. Life-Saving Station in 1894. However, the closure of the station in the 1930s was a major blow to the community. Its brief reopening around World War II only slowed the community's eventual demise.

The population had fallen to little more than a dozen residents by the 1950s. The school closed in the mid-1950s, and the post office followed suit in 1959. By 1970 only three residents remained on the island, and they left in 1971. By this time most of the houses in the community had become seasonal hunting lodges or summer homes that people leased from the government in exchange for upkeep.

Portsmouth Island became a part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore in 1976. By the 1980s historic preservation of a range of island structures began. Today the post office is filled with interpretive exhibits of the island's history. The work of Lynn and others with the Friends of Portsmouth Island informs the educational panels hung around the building.

Standing on the steps of the post office, one cannot help but notice a post just off to the left noting the high water-marks from various storms. Hurricane Isabel is the highest of those recorded. It came ashore in 2003 and its mark stands about four feet above this high point on the island. A thought crosses my mind of being in the storm and looking out a second-story window from one of the perfectly preserved homes, wondering if the house will stay on its foundation, and if the water will ever recede.



Across from the post office a sign invites me to the schoolhouse, an acknowledgment of both the importance of schools to year-round island communities, and an appeal to our fascination with one-room schoolhouses. Maps of the United States, Europe, and the world hang on the walls; perhaps they are artifacts of 1940s geography lessons. The maps remind me of how different the world looked just 70 years ago. The woodstove in the middle of the room is a reminder of the work that would have been necessary to sustain daily life-importing logs, hauling them from wharf to school, and chopping them to feed the fire.

A path connects the school to the beautifully preserved lifesaving station at the east end of the island, providing an opportunity to stroll past homes preserved nearly as they were when the last residents left. But this place has no heartbeat. Unlike a year-round island, this place has no pulse. It feels eerily dead. Today Portsmouth lives on in increasingly distant memories; it is now celebrated only for its role in history, when descendants gather for biennial homecoming events.

I am struck by what we lose when island communities die. They did not build walls to hold back the sea, yet a community thrived here for nearly 200 years. I want to know what Portsmouth islanders knew about how to live with the environment. A way of life certainly resided in the embodied knowledge of Portsmouth's residents, a type of knowledge gained through repeating the mundane activities of everyday life, day in and day out, passed down through the generations. All of this is now lost.
The continuity of place in Portsmouth is now broken, frozen in time and place for visitors to interpret through the eyes of the National Seashore.

As we skim across the water back toward Ocracoke, Rudy reflects without prompting, "When they start recording how I talk, the stories I tell . . . I wonder if it isn't already too late.” Perhaps he is thinking about the work he has done to help preserve Ocracoke's fishing heritage. Although Rudy runs tours to Portsmouth, he and his sons are fishermen, and they are working hard "to keep [ Ocracoke's] fishermen off of the endangered species list.”


Back on Ocracoke later the same day, we head to the Working Watermen's Exhibit, a 1930s fish house that has likely been floated from place to place around the creek over the past half century before finding itself home to a celebration of the island's fishing heritage, past and present. It is not a large place; in fact, you can take it all in upon entering. David and I walk into a room full of 20 or so community members and a whole lot of homemade desserts.
Back in the far-right corner a woodstove has been fired up to take the chill out of the air, and Gene Ballance offers us cups of piping hot cider from the top of the stove. Gene is a mild-mannered Ocracoker and noted math whiz who runs the Working Watermen's Exhibit and represents the island as a Hyde County commissioner. He is also responsible for one of the more striking exhibits adorning a full corner in the room: a series of maps outlining a 100-year- old snapshot of Pamlico Sound Oyster Harvesting.

On our way through the room we meet the school principal, a real estate broker, new year-round residents, representatives from multigenerational families, and fishermen both young and old. They are here to discuss the future of their island at the invitation of the Ocracoke Foundation and Alton Ballance.
The Ocracoke Foundation is a nonprofit organization that was founded in 2006 in a partnership with the 30 or so full-and part-time fishermen on the island. The fishermen's goal, which the Foundation successfully supported, was to save the last fish house on the island. Because of this partnership Ocracoke's Working Watermen now have a storefront, a working wharf, and a co-op structure that will enable them to access the water in perpetuity.

Alton and his brother Kenny represent about the sixth generation of Ballances on the island (Gene is their cousin). Alton is not an elected official-at least, not anymore. He was North Carolina's youngest county commissioner when he was first elected to office, but that was over 25 years ago now. I found that whenever I would ask who was working hard to ensure a vibrant future for the Ocracoke community, today's elected leaders would whisper and point to Alton behind his back. A back filled with arrows- the true sign of a leader.

The issues of the evening are fisheries politics and year­-round housing. Sea turtle regulations threaten to shut down the summer gill-net fishery, precisely the fishery that feeds local, wild-caught fish to the one million or so summer visitors to the island. Adding to the discussion, David shares the challenges we face in Maine dealing with the northern right whale. There is a common bond in this discussion, and while there are no easy answers, the Foundation is keen to understand how they might organize to support the local fishermen in these debates.

The school is thriving with 132 students in pre-kinder­garten through 12th grade, but a number of teachers are retiring. They came to the island back when homes were affordable for the island's workforce. Island homes currently average in the mid-six-figure range. Teachers coming to the island today can't afford to buy. David and I are asked about what types of housing efforts are under way on Maine's islands, and how we structure housing programs that are not tied to national affordability standards. The Foundation is exploring how they can work with realtors and others to solve a problem that extends to other workforce needs, such as park service personnel, ferry operators, and the like.

These issues resonate with David and me, as Maine's year­round island communities struggle with similar issues. The meeting at the Working Watermen's Exhibit speaks to how healthy communities grapple with emerging threats to their survival. Later that evening, over a beer in Alton's kitchen, he ties Maine and North Carolina's islands together, noting, "The ocean doesn't divide our islands- it connects them”
Familial connections and commitments to place run deep on Ocracoke. They are brought to life through a range of stories that place today's challenges in context. In order to access these stories, we have to move back in time, but only just a day.


The day before my trip to Portsmouth Island, Alton shows me around his family home. "My dad built this shed” he says while pulling open the worn white door to a faded green shed behind his house. Upon entering it is clear from the smile on his face that he is still amused at what he finds inside. He shows me an old clam rake, handle missing-just the rusted out fingers ready to dig again if there were only time to fix the rake. But there isn't, because Alton is looking for something specific. He grabs an old duck decoy, handcrafted by a friend his father's age. I look around and notice stacks of spare pieces of wood running through the rafters, pieces of rope strung from nails. There is so much stuff that it's hard to move around, but he wants us inside, to take it all in.

"When my dad filled up this shed,” Alton says, "he did what everyone on the island does- he built another one.” He gestures to a second, less-dilapidated shed farther back on the property. We enter the second shed, equally packed with stuff This time he finds what he is looking for: an old gill net still coated in lime, a relic of his dad's fishing days. He cuts off a piece to carry with him. Then he holds up a black bag and asks us to guess what it is; after a few mis­guided guesses, I vocalize what I hope it isn't- a body bag.

A great storyteller, Alton recalls how his mom woke him one morning because his dad was fishing gill nets in Pamlico Sound, and a man had passed away at a local hotel. At this point David knowingly adds for my benefit, "Someone on an island has to be responsible for getting dead bodies off an island.” Alton continues, "My dad was away, so it was my responsibility. I had a friend sleeping over, so I woke him up and told him I needed help moving something” We laugh. It turns out that they found themselves attempting to lug a huge man's body down the stairs of a hotel while one officer comforted the man's girlfriend and another called to notify his wife. When they got to the next island over, Hatteras, all the undertaker wanted to know was how Alton's father had gotten his hands on such a nice body bag.

Beyond the humor of the story we learn something about living on islands, of holding on to things in case they are needed again; a story of living with scarcity. When one shed fills, you build another. In fact, Alton had just built a third shed on his property because the two his father had built were full.

He tells how one of his neighbors, Fowler O'Neal, had a record four sheds, one built right onto the back of the next. One day Fowler wanted to get a pedal bike for his grandson and he knew right where to find one; unfortunately, it was buried deep, a couple of sheds back from the entrance. The answer: Cut a hole through the roof of the shed above the bike and extract it. A different time, a plumbing part that could not be found anywhere on the island was right where another islander had left it- in the trunk of a car buried in the backyard. They dug it out and then reburied the car.


Stories of scarcity and salvage are interwoven with the ways that ships quite literally became a part of the fabric of the island community. Shipwrecks are today the stuff of legends on Ocracoke. The beams of a home that came from tall ships, pounds of nails, furniture-all that a ship­wreck offered up would be salvaged by the islanders.

As we walk from the church to the school, Alton notes that the cross in the church came from a shipwreck decades earlier. "They always told us that pallbearers would drop a casket if someone yelled 'Shipwreck!' in the church” he says with a smile.
A photo of the three-masted schooner NOMIS under­scores this salvage ethic. The schooner ran ashore at Hat­teras Inlet on August 16, 1935. Resting on the beach, the hull of the NOMIS is visibly shattered in three places. At mid­ship the gunwale and hull are dismantled, presumably for easier access to the payload. A wreck commissioner would have overseen the salvage, watching over dozens of Ocracokers that arrived to gather what they could. In the picture men are moving from ship to shore hauling wood via a makeshift dock built on-site for the occasion. The wood from the wreck is now a part of island homes, and it is said that some members of the community used a portion of the wood to build crude benches for the outdoor congregation of the island's then newly organized Assembly of God Church.

Everywhere we go, we hear stories of salvage. At a bed­and-breakfast undergoing some renovations, we learn that the newly built island in the center of the kitchen has a story: The legs were from a shipwreck, and the sides from the wooden floor in the decommissioned Coast Guard Station. The solid oak front door on another house comes from the same station. Before the age of recycling, salvage was de rigueur.

Stories of salvage and renewal on the island are wedded with respect for natural processes. Sitting in Alton's dining room he teaches something more, this time about life and death, and living with nature on the island. His mother was born in the front room, and she died in his arms in the dining room where we sit. This was important to her, and to Alton-that the cycle of life would be completed in this place.

I ask about storms. How do people get off the island? He laughs, having certainly been asked this question many times before. "Most people don't leave in storms; they stay. There is nowhere else you would want to be. You never know when you will be able to come back if you leave.” This surprised me coming from someone whose job it was as county commissioner to ensure the orderly evacuation of the island during hurricanes.

He recalls a storm where "it almost came to pulling plugs." I thought I had misunderstood what he said. Alton explained that older houses on Ocracoke were built as far as possible from the open ocean. On Ocracoke the historic housing is on the Sound side of the island, around the creek. Houses were built on top of large tree stumps, and load­bearing timbers often came from shipwrecks. The storms would come as they always had, so they designed ways to keep houses from floating away.

Pulling plugs is a very literal turn of phrase. Older houses on Ocracoke have large holes in the corners of their floors with cork plugs in them. When storms come through, Alton decides if it will be necessary to pull these plugs. The Ballances and others who have inhabited the islands for generations realize that the way to stay on the island is to let the water in and through the house. Open the front and back door, open any trapdoors, pull the plugs, and let it through.

This knowledge runs in the face of the common percep­tion of hurricanes hitting the Carolina coast. We are fascinated with media images of four-story summer homes barely holding ground as they are inundated by wave after wave. Yet Ocracokers, rather than fighting storms, live with them. They don't leave; they just move to the second floor of the house and let the storm pass through. How else could you survive for so long in a place where the natural environment is constantly shifting?

The knowledge lost with the passing of Portsmouth Island was still being lived on Ocracoke. I found this knowledge startling for what it said about living with a highly dynamic environment rather than against it.




Alton stops his truck so that we can walk on the beach shortly after our arrival on Ocracoke. He leans down and picks up a smooth gray oyster shell. He encourages David and me to do the same, and then tells another story, one that I later found in the introduction to his book, Ocracokers. We look at our shells as he recounts how the barrier islands of the Outer Banks are on the move. They have been moving landward since the beginning of time.

A geologist, Alton hypothesizes that while moving land­ward, the sand dunes have run into stationary pieces of land and gotten "hung up” The historic fishing and trade villages on Hatteras and Ocracoke occupy such pieces of land. In other words, the beaches of the National Seashore on Ocracoke may some day break off and become separate islands, leaving the creek and the surrounding community as a much smaller land mass.

Alton pauses after giving some geological perspective to this place. He then points out that the mid-tide oyster shells delivered to the beach on the falling tide do not grow in the open ocean. Instead, the oysters that grew these shells lived in Pamlico Sound, some 3,000 years ago or more. These shells have been buried under Ocracoke all this time, only to reemerge and be washed ashore as the dunes move landward.

To hold the soft worn shell of an oyster from the beaches of Ocracoke is to hold a tacit reminder, juxtaposed against the fate of Portsmouth, of the strengths of this place- of the hard work that goes into retaining a sense of continuity while engaging with change, and perhaps most of all, how important it is for those who live on to share their island culture and history.


Rob Snyder is president of the Island Institute. More information on the Carolina working waterfront can be found at