Workshop participants inspect a shell midden in the Damariscotta area

More Than a Pile of Shells

More Than a Pile of Shells

A new understanding of Maine’s shell middens



“These oyster beds were so productive that it gave a supply to all that wished for the period of many times 70 years, so that the shells of this food fish was piled up almost mountain high on the shore of a river bank for a long distance… Although the people stay around those oyster beds or near them almost the year round, but those who lived far away did not visit the place until just before the leaves began to fall, they then go there and gather oysters, clams and acorns for winter use…when harvest time comes the place contained many people from all parts of the country, and here they exchanged a great deal of information…”

—Joseph Nicolar, Life and Traditions of the Red Man


mon-u-ment. a lasting evidence, reminder, or example of someone or something notable or great… an identifying mark 

—Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary


Up a tidal river, around a blue-green bend where the banks begin to steepen, the wooded shoreline is interrupted by a tall white cliff. Weathered bits of shell and dust tumble down the exposed face, revealing layer upon layer of oyster shells.

Pockets of charcoal and fire-cracked rock are signs of human activity from millennia ago, when ancestors of the Wabanaki people came together to harvest oysters from the warm, brackish river in what is now known as Damariscotta and Newcastle. On both banks, they deposited the shells, one at a time, basketful by basketful, season after season. Eventually, the piles grew into small mountains some 30 feet tall.

Around 2,000 years ago, the local people stopped adding to the piles. Soil and trees grew over the tops, but the middens were massive and the river kept the edges washed clean, and they continued to attract attention after Europeans came on the scene.

Some thought perhaps the middens were a sign of a lost city, the famed Norumbega. Archaeologists, perpetuating beliefs of racial supremacy, believed the shell heaps to be evidence of a very ancient and long-lost people. Entrepreneurs estimated the volume and monetary worth of the minerals and artifacts contained in the middens.

They attacked the piles with shovels, trowels, and rakes, extracting thousands of objects from a single heap. They filled their pockets with shells and artifacts. They burned the shells for lime and carted wagonloads away for chicken feed. They dug out the things they deemed worth saving, and left the rest.

In their published reports, past archaeologists called the middens disorderly and unremarkable; they described the pottery as crude and poorly made, and the makers as mysterious people, cannibals or Esquimaux, perhaps.

Back at home in their towns and cities, the archaeologists presented their findings. “They are refuse piles of early man—their back-yards—just what a man’s back-yard of today, filled with old tin cans, hoop skirts, dirt heaps, and other rubbish would be if unearthed a thousand years hence,” said one. The crowd laughed and applauded—a response that revealed their thoughts about superiority and progress.

Historians and archaeologists interpreted the middens to be garbage piles, built a very long time ago. They speculated about how the piles were built and by whom. But not one of them ever asked why.

*          *          *

Last year at a University of Maine undergraduate research conference, a student presented a poster about Damariscotta River middens. Alice Kelley, a geoarchaeologist who uses geological techniques to study past interactions of people and climate and who was studying shell middens coastwide, fell into conversation with Jim Roscoe, who was also looking at the poster.

The giant shell heap reminded Roscoe, an anthropologist, of structures he knew from work in the South Pacific.

Roscoe spent two years in Papua New Guinea, among the Yangoru Boiken of East Sepik Province.

“The Yangoru Boiken are a densely populated people who practice horticulture and pig-exchange,” Roscoe explained. “They used to build large men’s cult houses with large sloping facades ornately decorated with painting and sculpture.”

Cult houses can reach enormous sizes in New Guinea, up to 100 feet at their apex and 600 feet long. Roscoe’s view is that these structures are an ingenious means for allied groups to keep the peace by demonstrating their strength—their size, the number of their allies, and their commitment to group interests.

It struck the two scientists that the Damariscotta River mounds might also be symbolic structures. Rather than dismissing the middens as mere garbage heaps, Kelley and Roscoe suggest that the middens had much more meaning to their human builders.

“There’s more to this than just a pile of shells,” said Kelley.

*          *          *

There are thousands of other shell heaps around the coast of Maine—but few are made of oysters, and none are so large. The Damariscotta River oyster piles are the largest middens on the East Coast north of Florida. Why are they so big? Oyster shells are large and durable, compared to the soft-shell clam shells that make up most middens. While the midden on the east side of the river was severely diminished by mining, it and other middens have survived because of the relative lack of development along the Maine coast. Also, the oyster middens sit on the edge of a river, 15 miles from the open ocean, protected from the rising seas and waves that have eroded middens in more exposed locations.

The Damariscotta middens are thickest at the water’s edge, but extend hundreds of feet into the forest. Discarded pottery and other artifacts from within and around the middens indicate people were living on site, not simply collecting and preparing shellfish. It was more than a fishing camp. People gathered there in seasons both warm and cold. They cooked and made pottery at the site and got water from a small stream. They ate berries and nuts; clams, fish, deer, seal, moose, and bear. And lots and lots of oysters.

The piles may have started out of accident or convenience.Or people could have intended from the outset to make their mark. They didn’t throw the shells back into the river, but instead built tall mounds, dumping shells on top and creating landmarks visible to people paddling up and down the river.

“There are lots of reasons why they’d want to make a shell pile large and noticeable,” said Kelley.

Were people trying to make a landmark visible to navigators? Were they trying to maintain peace, as Roscoe suggested?

These are the remains of structures built by people who wanted, perhaps, to send a message about their history of interaction with the land and sea.

Bonnie Newsom, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Maine and a tribal citizen of the Penobscot Nation, said the middens could have been navigation aids, social boundary markers, resource markers, or multi-purpose features on the landscape.

“Rather than features of prestige or power, the middens might have served to signal a shared resource, an invitation of sorts to share in the Earth's gifts to the people,” she said. “We know that Native people would leave wigwam frames in place for others to use and simply take the bark for the next stop, and communal land is not uncommon in Wabanaki communities today,” she said.

“That there were two or three large middens closely grouped in the area demonstrates that these resources were shared by many people,” Newsom added. “There are a wide variety of possible interpretations, and it is even possible that at different times, they served different roles. It does imply some sort of social organization or mutually agreed upon direction.”

Seeing is believing, Kelley argues.

“We want to show people how visually impressive these features were,” she said. “They were monuments.”

Roscoe and Kelley proposed the idea of middens as monument at the Society for American Archaeology’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., and after publishing a paper that explores the idea in more detail, they plan to look at other Maine middens with this model in mind.By studying these and other sites, and their relationship in time and space, they hope to learn more about how people lived within the environment in the past.

“We have to remember that social values and philosophies on property, territory, and ownership vary from society to society,” said Newsom. “Understanding those values within the context of indigenous worldviews and social structures will aid in our interpretations of middens as monuments.”

*          *          *

“One finds the heaps in a variety of ways, the commonest being by observing the white gleam of the shells, where the sea has cut into and exposed the heap,” wrote scholars who pondered the shell heaps a hundred years ago. They imagined“savage banquets” atop the “high and grim cliffs of shells.”

They caught faint glimpses of the long history of human presence on the earth, and imagined themselves as most civilized. But what they could not imagine and did not acknowledge was that the original inhabitants had any relation to the contemporary Indians living in the same landscape, that their habits may have encoded messages or warnings, or that they built landmarks with purpose.

By the middle of the 20th century, the river had become inhospitable to oysters, and the middens had stopped yielding profits. Trees grew back over the tops of the heaps. Farmers found that the “limed” soil was fertile, the rich mineral earth a good location for apple orchards. Waves washed the foot of the cliffs, and occasional floods continued to erode the banks, regularly exposing the bright, chalky-white layers as those old theories, founded on racist assumptions, were cast aside for new ideas.

Up close, or from a distance, the middens are as white as the Pemaquid Lighthouse and as tall as the rocks it sits on. Millennia ago, the ancestors of the Wabanaki people built mountains out of oyster shells, and they have captured imaginations ever since. The Damariscotta River middens are lasting evidence of sustenance, gathering, a connection between past and present, a reminder of the long and continuous history of people doing great things in this place. They were—they are—monuments worthy of protection and reverence.

Catherine Schmitt is the author of The President’s Salmon: Restoring the King of Fish and its Home Waters and Historic Acadia National Park: The Stories Behind One of America's Great Treasures.



An aerial view of the Front Street Shipyard in Belfast.

From Sardines to Yachts, Belfast Transforms Its Waterfront

From Sardines to Yachts, Belfast Transforms Its Waterfront

City, Front Street Shipyard collaborated to create a thriving working waterfront with public access.

By Tom Groening


It may have been inevitable. A part of Belfast’s waterfront characterized by graffiti-covered, decrepit industrial buildings wouldn’t remain so for long, given the safe bet that is investing in Maine harbor-front property. But the story of how Front Street Shipyard became established on that same property—now characterized by multi-million dollar yachts parked in and outside large green, steel-sided buildings—might seem like an overnight success story.

In fact, it’s a story that owes its happy ending to two groups of people who saw opportunity, and who were willing to work to find a way for each to win. Cliché though it might sound, the Front Street Shipyard and Belfast’s city government truly achieved a win-win. It may not have come to fruition without a bit of legal innovation with a name only a lawyer could love: contract rezoning.


The story begins with the demise of the sardine industry. In 2001, the Stinson Seafood plant on the city’s northeasterly waterfront was for sale. Wayne Marshall, the city’s planner, remembers Stinson asking $1.3 million for the property.

“It was pretty much an unusual beast,” this 1,000-feet of shorefront that was dormant industrial, yet close to the heart of downtown. It was flat, a plus for redevelopment, yet narrow, hemmed in by Front Street. “A real constraint on the property was that all of it was in the flood plain,” Marshall explained, and any development would need Department of Environmental Protection approval.

As the economy strengthened in the first decade of the century, the property drew interest from developers. Rather than allow a buyer to impose a vision, the city wanted a say in how this key property would develop.

“We established a contract zone goal statement,” Marshall remembers. “We would negotiate what the terms were.” Contract zoning allows municipalities to consider a range of development proposals, and to stipulate their own standards, and if both sides agree on a set of terms, a unique zone is created for an individual property. This provision is typically applied to larger properties.

In 2004, Tom Roberts, a would-be developer from New Jersey joined by four partners, applied to the city to redevelop the sardine plant as 22 residential condominiums, 14,000-square-feet of retail space and offices, a restaurant, and a 62-slip marina offering boat repair and storage.

He agreed to begin negotiating with the city on a contract rezoning deal—the first time the city employed this mechanism.

Roberts unveiled a design for the new building that mimicked the opera house in Sydney, Australia, resembling two giant sails. It received tepid reviews from residents and city officials. But the city’s harbor committee, planning board, and city council worked with the developer; Marshall remembers more than 25 meetings with Roberts, who landed financing for his proposal in 2005.

One key provision the city wanted in any deal with Roberts was his approval of a long-planned public walkway along the harbor, through the project site. The walkway idea originated in the late 1990s, Marshall said, with a renewed effort to establish it when the Armistice Bridge—the former U.S. Route 1 bridge, now known locally as the footbridge—was rebuilt in 2003.

In its negotiations with Roberts, the city also worked to establish protections for a small lobster fleet and to maintain public access from both the harbor and land. The contract between the city and Roberts was inked, but despite the deal, Roberts and his partners sought to sell the property and the project, perhaps because of a souring real estate market. By June 2008, Roberts and his group were ready to bail. Investors dipped in their toes, but none committed.

By late 2009 and into early 2010, Marshall said, “The property was becoming increasingly derelict. You could see water through the building from the street side. The owner was doing nothing. It was a safety hazard.”

The fate of the property, and the city’s vision for a public waterfront walkway, hung in the balance. If the building remained decrepit for another five years, city councilors could be blamed for driving too hard a bargain.


In late 2010, the city learned of an inquiry about the property from four men: Taylor Allen, owner and operator of Rockport Marine; JB Turner, former president of Lyman-Morse in Thomaston; Steve White, owner and operator of Brooklin Boat Yard; and Ken Priest of Kenway Composites. The group planned not a boatyard, but a shipyard, capable of handling large yachts and commercial vessels at the Belfast site.

The city then took a bold step, filing a notice of violation in court, declaring the building dangerous. Though the safety concerns were real, the city’s action had the effect of pressuring the Roberts group to sell. The stand-off between the city and Roberts on the safety violations was resolved with a sale looming.

The new investors accepted what Marshall describes as non-negotiable terms—the harbor walk through the property, a dock for commercial fishermen, removal of the building in the worst shape, and the city retaining a $200,000 performance bond.
In December 2010, the new entity, Front Street Shipyard, purchased the property. The business demolished the troubled building in 42 days.

“It was unlike almost anyone else I’ve worked with,” Marshall said. Not only was the city taking the new company at its word, but the partners trusted the city. “I’m not sure a lot of people would have purchased a single-family home with these conditions.”

What has followed has been described by both city officials and the shipyard as a love fest. The two parties have exchanged nearly 40 parcels of land, and right of ways and building height restrictions have been modified. And they were not city giveaways—the shipyard paid $600,000 for what had been a city parking lot.

“I remember it to this day,” said Turner, now president and general manager of Front Street Shipyard. “They had a vision for what they wanted Belfast to be,” he said. “They worked with us, arm in arm, to make everything possible that we wanted to do.”

Marshall echoes this recollection.

“I cannot overstate the trust arrangement between the two parties,” the planner said. “They had this vision to create a shipyard, not a boatyard,” and the city wanted to erase the “slum and blight” area while also creating public access. The planner credits the city councilors during this period as well as City Manager Joe Slocum: “They know the Maine coast.”

Construction began in January 2011, and in July of that year, the Front Street Shipyard opened its doors with a community picnic, with 450 attending. Marshall remembers seeing a 6-year-old boy operating the 165-ton travel-lift using a hand-held toggle switch at the event.

But there was more.

“All of a sudden, Belfast was sort of on the map,” Marshall said, with large yachts, some from the Caribbean and Europe, which had come solely for the service at the yard. The city recently landed a $1.9 million federal grant to rebuild Front Street with upgraded curbs, sidewalks, higher-grade asphalt to allow large vessels to be hauled, and new water lines.

“We would not have seen one nickel of that if not for Front Street Shipyard,” he said.

And, of course, the city benefits from the property taxes paid by the shipyard and the 100-plus skilled employees, whose wages average over $18 an hour.

The shipyard has since upgraded its facility, adding the 440-ton lift, and constructing new buildings on site and purchasing the adjacent former Belfast Boat Yard. And this spring, the company announced it would build a $4.5 million, 22,500-square-foot building tall enough to allow the large boat lift to roll through its doors.


The city's harbor front walkway passes through the shipyard, including near the 450-metric-ton lift.
The city's harbor front walkway passes through the shipyard, including near the 450-metric-ton lift. PHOTO: TOM GROENING

What lessons were learned through this multi-year process?

“We created a zoning process that was flexible and could respect the business interests and the public,” Marshall said. The city council form of government can act decisively, while others with town meeting government, would rely on public votes. And Belfast was chosen to host the shipyard because it is a vibrant community; the captains and crews of these multi-million dollar yachts are comfortable staying in town for months at a time to consult with the company on repairs and upgrades.

“A lot of things went right,” Marshall said, but the key decision was having a vision. “It’s identifying upfront what’s important to you.”

The walkway was one of those important amenities, and it’s busy, year-round, with people of all ages.

“It’s probably the only shipyard in North America where you can actually walk through the travel-lift area,” Turner observed, but it’s more than a recreation area. “We brought a working waterfront back to Belfast.”


Tom Groening is editor of Island Journal.


church in Frenchboro, Maine

The Sound of Island Silence

The Sound of Island Silence

What does it mean to listen closely in a noisy world?

By Scott Sell


There was a night on Frenchboro, a decade ago now, when I heard silence for the first time. It was during a February vacation for the school and most families were somewhere warmer on the mainland, even if it was the Holiday Inn pool in Ellsworth. All told, there were likely five or six people on the island.

Which is why, I think, my neighbors on the other side of the harbor had invited me over to their house for dinner and a movie: an attempt to keep the lone bachelor sane in the dead of winter. It was late when I left and other than their porchlight guiding my way down the hill, the entire island—itself sitting in an inky sea—was pitch dark.

Once I rounded the head of the harbor, I realized it was very quiet. More quiet than usual. Aside from the sound of my boots crunching in the snow, the whole island was still. I stopped walking and listened. There wasn’t a breath of wind. You could hear the proverbial pin drop. It was a silence that gave me the strangest feeling that I had lost my hearing altogether. I felt like I finally understand what Paul Simon was talking about.


In a time when we’re constantly barraged with sound—advertisements blaring from TVs at the gas pumps, the endless white noise of air conditioning—an island might seem like a good place to escape the din of our every day. The word itself conjures the image of a place that’s defined not by what it possess, but what it lacks: the mound of sand and lone palm tree of cartoons. An empty paradise or purgatory, depending on your perspective.

Of course, anyone who has stepped foot on a year-round Maine island knows this is a simplified way to think about these places. They are towns with commerce, government, wildlife, and problems similar to anywhere else. They just happen to be sitting in open water. Nevertheless, the quiet of an island is often why so many people live or visit or are otherwise entranced by islands, where sometimes it feels like the noises of modern life all but disappear. But what does an island sound like?

They used to be pretty noisy. Once European settlement occurred on Maine’s coast, and especially after the Industrial Revolution reared its head, things got loud. Sail beget steam beget diesel, and by the turn of the last century, everything was cranking at high volumes. Even when some islands started becoming “summer colonies” in the mid-19th century, there were still incredibly loud activities happening: quarrying on Vinalhaven, shipbuilding on Chebeague, fish processing on Swan’s Island.

Not that there weren’t eventual attempts to hush the racket. Voters on Islesboro, many of them summer residents, helped to pass a 1913 regulation that prohibited automobiles on the island’s roads. For 20 years, there was nary a car or truck in sight, or their engines to hear. But just like anywhere else, the inevitable caught up with all Maine islands and the clamor of progress came with it.


These day, the islands can feel just as busy and sound just as boisterous as any place on the mainland, especially in the summer. But in their moments of stillness, they may very well be one of the quietest inhabitable places you can find. And with the absence of distractive noises, there are thousands of small sounds to appreciate: the subtle shift of snow, the faint creak of tree limbs rubbing against one another. And there are sounds that are unique to each island, noises that make islanders recognize that they’re home.

For Ann Caliandro of Long Island, it’s the bell buoy in Hussey Sound. It was her favorite noise as a child, lulling her to sleep when her family would spend summers there. Now she hears it every night since making the island her home full-time in 2010.

Long Island also has an aural gem of its own: Singing Sands Beach. In her book The Maine Islands in Story and Legend, Dorothy Simpson tells us that there are varying descriptions of the beach’s song: “On a dry summer day and providing the wind is blowing right, it sounds ‘strange musical notes of great beauty.’” More accurately, it squeaks with each step you take, a strange, haunting noise beneath your feet.

A few years ago, Bill Trevaskis—musician and photographer on North Haven —began recording the sounds of his home island, audio tracks of his footsteps on a rocky beach, ferry horns, and animals baaing and baying at Sheep Meadow Farm. Trevaskis says some his favorite island sounds have to do with the fog.
“On a really foggy night, when the foghorns get going in chorus, it's chilling and magical,” he says. “They often harmonize with each other and create a pretty beautiful consonance out of dissonant intervals.”

And recently, he was boarding a boat on Vinalhaven—where he teaches music at the school—to return home to North Haven when he heard voices coming from what he thought was a boat close to him. The fog was thick and, because there was no wind, it dampened all sounds so he could hear every word of a conversation taking place across the thorofare on North Haven, over 500 yards away—a reminder to be careful of what you say on islands.

There were transcendent sensory moments during my years on Frenchboro: unfathomably beautiful sunrises and the smell of sun-warmed pines at Yellow Head and the taste of Lorna Stuart’s strawberry-rhubarb pie. But it’s those crystalline sounds that transport me back. I’d sit on the parsonage porch at dusk, the voices of island kids whispering make believe in their tree forts the only thing I could hear. Or I’d hike in the silent woods on a Sunday morning and hear the town singing “Amazing Grace,” the wind carrying the song, clear as a bell, across the island from the creaky church.

It’s still possible to find that clarity of sound. On every island I’ve lived or visited, there is that moment on a summer day when the flurry of morning activities gives way to a lull in the late afternoon. Fishing boats have come in and the hum of diesel engines has gone quiet. And not unlike siesta in Spain or riposa in Italy, things settle down as islanders get dinner ready, fix traps in the fish house, a few hours of calm before the next ferry arrives bringing groceries and guests, news and logistics to navigate. It might only last a few moments, but it’s there if you listen closely enough.


Scott Sell is a writer, video producer, and musician who lives in Rockland. He is a former Island Fellow and formerly worked for the Island Institute.


The North Haven boys take the court.

The Winter Game — Basketball on Maine Islands

The Winter Game

Basketball on Maine Islands


The water pipes on Vinalhaven have frozen.

Well, they may have frozen. No one really seems to know what happened, but an early January bitter cold stretch—daytime highs in single digits—has put some kind of hurt on the municipal water system. One explanation is that so many homeowners’ pipes have frozen and cracked, and now are leaking, that the system’s pressure dropped. Or maybe the main lines below the streets have frozen.

Either way, the home basketball game on Vinalhaven is now an away game on North Haven. In the course of an island winter, even one as brutally cold as this, the change doesn’t seem to be a big deal to anyone.

At about 4 p.m., Linda Crockett at J. O. Brown’s Boatyard on North Haven reminds Foy Brown and the crew that they’ve now got to cross the Thoroughfare to pick up the Vinalhaven teams—boys and girls—rather than shuttle the North Haven teams south to Vinalhaven. The word is that the Vinalhaven bus wouldn’t start, so transportation for parents and fans might be limited. But as it turns out, the bus does start, and those parents and fans will be transported by multiple trips on the lobster boat.


The Vinalhaven girls basketball team cross the Thoroughfare for a January game against North Haven.


Foy Brown (better known as Little Foy) and his four-year-old son Cyrus climb into Foy’s lobster boat, and across the 500-yard span they go, picking up and packing in students and parents like sardines. Chivalry is alive; the girls’ team is shuttled across first. It’s a frigid trip, so there’s less goofing around than might be expected, though when the boys make the journey, some make wisecracks about some of the North Haven names on boats they see floating at their moorings.

The depth of winter finds many Mainers deeply invested in high school basketball. It’s got all the elements we look for in those cold, dark months—the drama of competition, the spectacle of entertainment, and the warmth of shared community experience and family ties.

On the islands, it’s the same mix of ritual and passion. Even with the island-unique logistics—who goes to an away game by lobster boat?—basketball is a familiar wholesome diversion, an unscripted play in which a community’s teens improvise; they sweat, twist ankles, leap and soar, succeed and fail.

Carolyn Augusto and her younger son M.J., 11, mingle at Waterman’s Community Center, where the Vinalhaven players and fans took refuge from the cold after the Thoroughfare crossing. They then board the bus to ride to the North Haven Community School.

Augusto explained that M.J. had suggested going to the game when it was still planned for Vinalhaven, and once the change was made, they—including older son Frank, 12—thought they might as well make the trip to North Haven.


spectators seated on the sideline of a basketball game


Augusto’s husband is a plumber on Vinalhaven, and was just getting home after a long, cold day working on frozen pipes when she and the kids headed off.

“We are a sports family,” she said. The boys play soccer, basketball, and baseball, and her husband helps coach Little League. While some parents grow to dread the long trips to away games, especially those in remote mainland towns, Augusto loves it all.

“I love the trips with the team, watching all the kids grow into great players,” she said, “and the team spirit that the island teams share. Plus it’s something we do as a family.”


There are no junior varsity or freshman teams in such small schools. In fact, the Maine Principals’ Association, which oversees school sports, makes a special exception for schools as small as North Haven’s and allows it to include eighth graders.

The girls’ game is first, starting at about 6 p.m. During the player introductions, each girl shakes hands with the opposing team’s coach and fist-bumps with the refs.


Maddie Hallowell of North Haven drives to the hoop against Vinalhaven.


About 100 fans have packed themselves into the gym, filling the bleachers and overflowing into the corners. There is applause for the girls from both teams, though a roar greets the introduction of the North Haven team when it takes the floor.

The North Haven girls space the floor well, and seem to play out of a set offense. At the end of the first quarter, on a well-executed couple of passes, a North Haven girl hits a shot just as time expires. It’s 8–8.

But the Vinalhaven team, with more players, outworks the North Haven girls, swarming for rebounds, hustling for loose balls. They’re up, 23–13, at the half.

During the break, there’s lots of socializing.


Fans from both islands crowd into the stands.


Nathan Hopkins, 21, of Vinalhaven is among those standing in a corner of the gym. Well over six feet tall, he looks like a basketball player, and is—or was, when he played for Vinalhaven. The intra-island rivalry isn’t what it once was, he explained.

“Over the last five years, it’s gone more to a friendly camaraderie,” he said. These days, kids from North Haven play soccer and baseball for the Vinalhaven school, because the smaller North Haven school doesn’t have the numbers to field teams for those sports, he explained.

Scott James, 19, also of Vinalhaven, graduated last year. He agreed with Hopkins that it’s just as likely for a North Haven player to get an encouraging shout at a game on Vinalhaven as it is here.

Dana Tolman of Vinalhaven, home on Christmas break from Maine Maritime Academy, is stopped by an adult who asks how he’s doing. Tolman introduces the man to his girlfriend, who’s from New Jersey and seems a little wide-eyed at the whole experience.

As play resumes, the North Haven girls make a valiant effort to stay in the game. Sportsmanship is ethic of the hour. But that doesn’t stop North Haven principal Amy Marx, who’s sitting courtside wearing a T-shirt that reads lady hawks, the team’s name, from throwing both her arms into the air when her team scores on a steal and a fast break.


two girl basketball players, one in a cast with her arm around the other


Late in the third, Maddie Hallowell, a standout point guard for North Haven, has to be helped off the floor, limping. But when the fourth quarter begins, Hallowell is back on the court.

The Vinalhaven Vikings prevail, 58–32. When the final buzzer sounds, Ashley Hamilton of Vinalhaven hugs North Haven’s Hallowell.


girl basketball player with her face in her hands, teammate tries to comfort her

The other games on the schedule are, in their own way, even more brutal, though not without their allure.

Cecily Pingree, 34, and Liz Lovell Bartovics, 29, are the first-year coaches of North Haven’s girls’ team. The nine girls who make up the team are not the school’s best; they are, in fact, all the girls in the school.

“We’ve got every high school girl except one eighth grader, and she’s the manager,” said Pingree.

The two women played for North Haven; Pingree is a 1997 grad, and Bartovics, an ’02 grad. Bartovics scored over 1,000 points in her high school hoops career, and Pingree came within a handful of points of clearing that threshold.

“We both love the game of basketball,” Pingree said, and both happened to be living on the island again when the job opened up. They decided to share the load.

Transportation during the winter months is a challenge for most high school sports teams. That challenge multiplies when the teams come from remote rural areas, and multiplies again when there’s a ferry involved. To ease the logistics, island teams alternate between “home” and “away” seasons. While Rockland and Camden might face each other in one school’s gym in December and in the other’s in January, island schools play their opponents back-to-back in one town.

The 2013–14 season for North Haven was an away season.

“Every weekend they ship us up there,” Pingree said of the journeys the team takes to places like Rangeley, up near the New Hampshire border in Western Maine, or in Jackman, near the Canadian border, or Greenville on the shore of Moosehead Lake. The trips are necessary because the state’s athletic leagues are organized by school size; North Haven, Vinalhaven, and Islesboro are in the smallest sector, Class D, and must travel distances to find like-size schools.

“Usually, we would just sleep on the gym floor,” she said, but at Rangeley, the host school put the boys’ team up at a large cabin and the girls’ team at another one. It was 14 degrees below zero that Saturday morning, but the players and coaches were toasty warm in the super-insulated cabins, she said.

“The Rangeley girls are notorious for being solid,” Pingree said, and that meant the North Haven girls lost both the Friday night (December 13) and Saturday morning (December 14) games.


Vinalhaven athletes board Foy Brown's boat to return home.


The road trips bring back memories.

“I loved those trips to Rangeley,” Pingree remembered. “You’d get to interact with other kids.”

Back in the 1990s, visiting players stayed with the families of the host team. “It was really fun,” she recalled, but there were some bad experiences, with some teens feeling uncomfortable, and parents worried about what was going on in some of the homes, so the practice ended.

Still, there are lots of opportunities for social interaction, which is just the ticket for island kids in the depths of winter, Pingree said. Those long bus trips—three-plus hours to Rangeley, for instance—are good for chatting in a non-classroom setting.

And even seeing a different part of the state is stimulating and a diversion, Pingree added. Players are struck by the mountains, the different sorts of houses and stores. Even a trip to nearby Islesboro inspires observations about that island’s lack of a downtown, the different-size ferry.

Trips to those remote, rural areas also generate some bragging, or commiserating.

“There would always be a lot of humor about who was more rural,” Pingree recalled. Jokes would be made by islanders about North Haven not having running water or electricity, all in good fun.

These days, the coach will overhear her girls talking with opposing players in those hours between the night and morning games, asking teen-type questions: “So, what kind of music do you listen to? Do you have a car?” Internet-based social media has made the connections with other schools tighter. On the bus ride home from Rangeley, North Haven girls were “friending” the Rangeley girls on Facebook, Pingree said, and reading aloud some of the information they gleaned from those girls’ pages.

But it’s not easy. The teams practice two hours every day, then hit the road for those Friday-night, Saturday-morning games. These rigors can lead to players quitting. But, according to Pingree, the island teens seem to embrace the team, perhaps more than their mainland counterparts.


Back in the gym that cold night, the North Haven boys burst out of the hallway wearing tight, dark-blue warm-up suits and take the court, zipping around the floor in two concentric, opposing circles. They’re confident, all business. And there are only eight of them.


The North Haven boys take the court.


Vinalhaven takes the floor for warm-ups with 15 players.

Less than a minute into the game, Zeb Campbell of North Haven twists his ankle, badly, and has to be helped to the sideline. The gym falls silent. The Vinalhaven players take a knee until Campbell is off the court.

At the end of the first quarter, it’s North Haven up, 16–5.

Vinalhaven claws its way back, closing the gap to 16–10, then North Haven breaks it wide open, and it’s 39–16 at the half.


basketball referee about to throw up the ball to begin game


Two men near the baseline rib each other about the score, one rooting for Vinalhaven, the other for the home team. Another man slips outside to drink some schnapps, announcing his indiscretion to the others each time he returns. But it’s mostly a family-friendly affair.

Late in the game, a Vinalhaven boy who didn’t see any playing time is on the floor and hits an outside shot. Everyone roars. Then one of North Haven’s eighth graders, after missing a couple of three-point attempts, nails one. Again, the crowd roars.

The final score is North Haven, 83, Vinalhaven, 41.

Players, parents, grandparents, siblings, and others gather in the school lobby as a bus shuttles the Vinalhaven crew back to Waterman’s. At about 8 p.m., the Thoroughfare crossing is reversed, with some open skiffs helping to carry the student athletes and families across those cold waters. There’s a cry from a teen boy as one of the small boats lurches ahead: “We’re all gonna die!” But it’s more joy than fear.


spectators at a North Haven basketball game


As unusual as this ritual is, as vividly as it pictures how boats and community cooperation are woven into island life, no one seems to acknowledge it as anything but routine.

The crystal-clear, starlit skies, the inky waters, the dry snow crunching underfoot, and the still-piercing cold create a convivial atmosphere, a festive camaraderie among the teens and adults headed for home. The Vinalhaven boys try out some singing on the ride back to the school, taking stabs at some radio staples from the ’90s. The loss doesn’t seem to have bruised them much.


boys playing in a basketball game

It’s been a good year for island basketball. The North Haven boys made it to the Western Maine Tournament—the equivalent of statewide play-offs—the first time in memory. They won their first-round contest, but lost in the second. The Islesboro Central School boys also made the tournament, but lost in the first round. North Haven’s Avery Waterman, following in his father’s and uncle’s footsteps, cleared the 1,000-point scoring threshold. The milestone basket came in a game at Vinalhaven. The “away” crowd went wild, Waterman said.

Gary Allen

The Art of Perpetual Motion

The Art of Perpetual Motion

He sets off at a lope, elbows carving wide circles, with a gait that hints at decades of making room in crowded fields of runners. His shoulders are rippled with lean muscle, brown. Over the first few yards, he loosens, straightening, getting imperceptibly faster.

Passing the graveyard, he points out a rounded, smooth beach rock propped upright among the ancient headstones. It is the size and shape of a blue-ribbon pumpkin squashed flat and set on end. It bears a Great Cranberry Ultramarathon finisher’s medal.

“That’s Mom’s stone,” he says.


Gary Allen running on Great Cranberry.


Twelve generations of his family are buried here, in the scarce soil on a long, narrow strip of rock called Great Cranberry Island. He grew up walking along this road, only two miles long: walking to school, walking to the dock to catch the mailboat to Mount Desert Island, walking alone to the pond cradling a hockey stick, pretending he was Bobby Orr.

Now I am running alongside him over a rise and around a small curve in the road, where it turns to dirt. My knees crunch and crackle. We’re both sweating now, not saying much, hearts and lungs awakening, adjusting to this new pace. It has been about two miles. We arrive at a white-painted fence with a gate across the road. Beyond, basking in the sun that has burned haphazard holes in the fog, sits a white clapboard summer house, crisply tended flower beds, a flagpole adorned with the Stars and Stripes.

He reaches out and taps the post next to the gate, then turns, headed back the way we came.

“That’s one.”

Gary Allen is 57 years old. His athletic feats are widely known among distance runners. He’s among only a smattering of humans who have run a sub-three-hour marathon in five different decades. He’s built not one but two nationally recognized races on Maine islands, the Mount Desert Island Marathon and the Great Cranberry Island Ultramarathon. In its final year last summer, the Great Cranberry Ultra—more than 15 laps on the two-mile road—was the official Road Runners Club of America national championship for fifty kilometers. (Asked why he’s ending the Ultra, Allen compares it to both The Beatles quitting at their peak and Woodstock. “You were either there or you weren’t.”)

Last year, he ran more than 700 miles—the first several on snowshoes—from the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park to the U.S. Capitol in time for the second inauguration of Barack Obama. It took him only 14 days.


Gary Allen finished his run to Washington, DC. (Kevin Morris)


After some back-of-the-envelope math with former Runner’s World editor Amby Burfoot, Allen recently determined that he has run more than 100,000 miles in his life. Roughly 75,000 of those miles were on this two-mile stretch of road.

Great Cranberry Island has 48 year-round residents, down from a high of about 250 in the early 20th century, according to island resident and former selectman Phil Whitney.

In 2000, after years of slow decline, the island’s tiny elementary school finally ran out of students. It’s a familiar story for many Maine island communities: As the school population shrinks, parents and prospective parents look elsewhere for schools, jobs, and homes. The year-round population becomes increasingly older and smaller. The spiral toward a summer-only community begins.

“In order to persuade people to move out here to the island year-round,” says Whitney, “one of the most important things they want to know is that there’s a school for their kids.”


One end of the out-and-back course of the Great Cranberry Ultra, in its final running in 2013


Allen feels a sense of anguish about this. He and his second wife, Lisa Hall, and their 11-year-old daughter, Matilda, live nearby on Mount Desert Island. He spends much of his summer coming out to Great Cranberry to run and see his son Patrick, but the demographic shift has hit him too.

“It’s down to one [fishing] boat out here now,” Allen says. “This island is really teetering—teetering on the brink. Just in my lifetime, I remember seeing it really thriving.” Running, he says—especially races that bring attention to Maine islands—is his way of reversing this trend.

*          *          *

Allen usually runs at a pace between seven and nine minutes per mile. So when, as he recently did, he decides to turn an easy afternoon distance run into a 30-miler, that means he’s on the road for more than three and a half hours.

Those 100,000 miles he’s run? If his pace has been roughly consistent for his adult life, he’s been running for over 13,000 hours, or more than one and a half years.

That’s not just time running. It’s time spent in the tunnel vision of a long run, where complicated thought and worry are harder to sustain. The mind wanders. Daydreams appear and recede. Plans emerge and melt away. Sometimes, they stick.

It’s also time spent away from friends, family, and home.


Gary Allen running from Cadillac Mountain to Washington, DC, a trip of more than 700 miles. (Kevin Morris)


“I’m not a runner,” says Hall. “It’s foreign to me. Some days he’s out early, or he’s out late, but I know it’s just something that he has to do. If he doesn’t run, he’s miserable.”

Allen doesn’t disagree.

“Running has been part of my life for so long now that I can’t really remember not being a runner,” he says. “It keeps me going. It’s like breathing.”

Discussions of running with Allen turn inevitably to the road on Great Cranberry.

“I remember many a time running on this island, looking over there at those hills,” he says, gesturing toward Mount Desert Island, “and actually having my eyes tear up. ‘If I only had all that space, I’d be a really good runner.’ I decided that if runners over there can have all that space, and I only have this, then I have to work twice as hard.”


race markings spray painted on a road


In 1980, Allen stood on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, about to begin his first New York City marathon. At the starting line, thousands of runners danced on the balls of their feet, itching for the sound of the gun.

I’ve gotta do this in Maine, Allen remembers thinking. I don’t know how one does this, but I gotta do this in Maine.

For 20 years, he ran, raced, and ran some more. His mileage added up. His legend grew in the small but fanatical world of distance runners.

Then, in 2001, Allen started the Mount Desert Island Marathon.

“I worked at Cadillac Mountain Sports,” says MDI Marathon coordinator Mary Ropp, “and he used to come in and ask to use our printer, ask to make some copies of his poster. I thought, ‘That guy really needs some help.’ That was nine years ago, and here I am.”


Awaiting word from the pace car during the MDI Marathon.


Bar Harbor—MDI Marathon starting line—8 a.m., October 20, 2013

The runners are gone. The race has begun. In the middle of Main Street, Allen, his son Patrick, Ropp, and several volunteers are rapidly folding up the metal barricades and signage and loading them into a pickup. The street is wet from an overnight rain. The thick overcast is pierced occasionally by a cinematic beam of sunlight.

Allen hops into the truck, with Ropp riding shotgun.

“We need to get to Southwest [Harbor],” he says, nervously. “We need to make some magic happen.”

“You need to not freak out right now!” says Ropp. She is bubbly and positive, talking to him and about him with a bemused expression, like the mother in a sitcom.

“We need to get space blankets, medals, fluids, all those wooden tables. We have well over a thousand finishers. That’s a lot of bodies,” he says.

“It’s really good,” says Ropp, reassuringly.

“Yeah,” Allen says. He is silent for a moment. His face bristles with silver shards of beard. He looks completely exhausted.

Then he turns on the stereo. “Smoke on the Water” blasts in the truck, and he pumps his fist. We are speeding on Route 198. Outside, the trees are brown, green, and red. The wind has died down, and Somes Sound is as smooth as a frozen lake. The air is about 60 degrees. A perfect runners’ day.


Men's marathon champion Louis Luchini approaches the finish line.


Southwest harbor—finish line—8:35 a.m.

Volunteers mill about the damp parking lot in front of Pemetic Elementary School in Southwest Harbor. The sweet scent of damp leaves hangs in the air, and a relentlessly peppy playlist pumps through speakers.

Allen isn’t apt to delegate. Confronted by a pair of eager volunteers, he instructs them to carry boxes of medals over to the finish line. But in explaining where they should go, he begins demonstrating and winds up lugging half of the pile himself. Same thing with the water jugs and the awards for the top three finishers in each age group and category. His shoelace is undone, a volunteer points out. Allen thanks him as he walks by, never breaking stride.

With the help of another volunteer, Allen pulls apart a giant stack of trash cans and begins lining them with bags.

“Sometimes it’s just easier to do it yourself,” he says, thrashing a can liner in the air to unfold it. “Islanders just friggin’ do it. It’s the island way.”

“He has a hard time asking for help,” says Ropp, watching as Allen drags the winners’ podium into the middle of the road. “We’re very particular about things, but at some point you just have to let it go.” Allen is arranging the barricades behind the finish. “I just try to keep him calm,” she says.


Gary revs up the crowd at the finish line


Southwest Harbor—finish line—10:28 a.m.

After 2 hours and 31 minutes on the course, local running legend Louie Luchini blazes down the street, following the blue lights of a state trooper’s car. He leans over to high-five Allen on his way to the line.

“I’m exhaling,” Allen says. “It’s like I’ve been breathing in all week, and now I’m finally exhaling.”

Southwest Harbor—finish line—10:56 a.m.

Allen, Ropp, and Ross Lane, a volunteer ham radio operator who’s monitoring reports from the state trooper’s patrol car, are conferring about the women’s race: Will it be Lindsay Willard? She’s a favorite, the women’s course record holder, and a threat to break the record again. She seems to have it in hand. The radio crackles and Ross relays, “They’re at mile 24.5 . . . It’s [race bib number] F2.”

“That’s Lindsay,” Ropp says. “She’s got it.”


Allen and his daughter Matilda prepare for the finish of the women's half-marathon in Southwest Harbor.


But Willard has run the Chicago Marathon only a week before, and somewhere on the hot shoulder of Route 198, where the sun has finally broken through and there’s one last long hill to climb and descend, she falls behind.

“It’s F8,” Lane reports.

“Who’s that?” Allen asks.

“Leah Frost. Vermont.”

“If she breaks three hours she gets $500,” Gary says, brightening. The clock ticks past 2:57, 2:58.

Blue lights flash over the rise of Main Street, and Frost appears, a compact woman, brown hair in a pair of braids.

Suddenly, Allen sprints up the road toward her, thrusting his arms over his head and hollering, jumping in the air every few steps, in the manner of someone trying to warn oncoming traffic that the bridge is out. He’s encouraging her, begging her, willing her to the line.

She sprints past us in a blur with a big smile on her face, and the crowd roars. Allen’s daughter Matilda and a friend hold up a big, black ribbon. She dashes through it.


On the podium directly behind the finish line, as runners shuttle past in various states of anguish, Frost, wrapped in her crinkly plastic blanket, beams as Allen places a wreath on her head.

“This is Leah Frost from Vermont,” he yells to the crowd. “She just set the new course record, and she’s the first woman to run under three hours!” She waves her bouquet and smiles.


Women's marathon champion Leah Frost.


Willard is escorted past her to the medical tent, a vacant stare on her face like she’s receiving bad news by phone. Volunteers support most of her weight, and her feet seem to glide across the ground.

The finishers keep coming for hours. Music continues, and a volunteer in the timing truck calls out the name of every finisher as they reach the line.

Beyond the finish, in the school parking lot, runners wander around and talk. Flushed, wet faces beam. Runners take to patches of dry pavement and grass with satisfied grimaces. Aside from the crinkle of plastic blankets, the predominant sound is laughter.

Allen stands near the line, watching them come.

“We won’t be out of here until seven o’clock tonight, and then we’ll spend all night picking everything up.” He sounds proud.

Ropp, standing next to him, admires the result of their work.

“What I’m seeing now,” says Allen, “is that this is possible,” as though he’d ever conceded that it weren’t.

“It always comes together in the end, right?” Ropp laughs, heading over to assist a volunteer trying to move a folding table.

Allen just smiles and shakes his head.


Gary Allen and Mary Ropp confer at the MDI Marathon finish line.


*      *      *

It’s January and I’m on the phone with Polly Bunker. She’s lived on Great Cranberry for 86 years, and Allen is her nephew. He recently announced his plan to run from Cadillac Mountain to the Meadowlands for the Super Bowl, becoming both the first to do so and possibly the first to want to. He is raising money for the Wounded Warrior Project in the process. The fund-raising appeals he contrives for these runs seem at first like mere justification, but it becomes clear that his enthusiasm is genuine: If Gary’s going to do this crazy thing—and of course he is—then he wants someone deserving to benefit from it.

As a boy, Bunker remembers Allen being energetic and impulsive. One sweltering day long ago, she saw him walk by her gift shop door, shirtless and carrying a chain saw.

“Where are you going, Gary?” she asked.

“I’m going up to that piece of land to build myself a house.”

Before he did that, Bunker asked, could he help her construct a window to cool off the inside of her shop? She assumed this would be a couple of days’ work.

Instead, Allen walked in, fired up his chain saw, and cut a rectangular hole in the wall from one stud to another. He added a secondhand hinge to the extracted piece of wall, reattached it, and headed up the road.

“He built the house, too,” she says with a chuckle. “It’s still there.”

I ask Bunker whether the demographic slide that Great Cranberry has in common with so many other small towns in Maine is at the root of Allen’s passion for running, for publicity, for pursuing athletic feats that are painful, difficult, and dangerous.

Bunker isn’t so sure. And at this point, neither am I. It doesn’t add up. His races and spectacular achievements really do cast attention on the town he loves so much. One could argue that the MDI Marathon has extended the tourist season on MDI, a critical benefit to a place so dependent on visitors’ dollars.

But it doesn’t seem possible that Allen—the same Allen who careens over rural roads with traffic cones and goes sleepless the night before race day, the Allen who lay in the dark in Philadelphia, battered and sore, and got up the next day and ran on toward Washington—it doesn’t seem possible that this man decides to do these things because of economic metrics or public relations strategy. Something deeper is driving him. Something insatiable.

“Charlene was that way,” Bunker says of her late sister, Allen’s mother. “She was energetic and full of life. She was always mingling with people. She drew energy from it.”

I think of Allen, pumping his arms at stragglers on the marathon course and bear-hugging volunteers.

She sighs. “It’s been really hard losing Charlene. Hard on all of us.” She pauses. “He really is different, though. You’d think he’d do it, say ‘I’ve done that,’ and forget about it. But there’s still something in the back of his mind. There’s still something more he needs to do.” 

*       *       *

After the run to New Jersey is over and Allen is recovering, he tells me about the fifth day of that trek. In York, Maine, south of Portland, he began to shake violently while he was running. Soon, his vision began to deteriorate. Rattled, he asked his support team to take him to the hospital. He was severely dehydrated. He’d simply exhaled more moisture into the frigid, dry air than he was able to drink. After three units of saline through an IV drip, Allen put his shoes back on. He ran to Massachusetts before calling it a day.

Why do this? I ask him.

“You feel a little empty if you don’t do it,” he says. “I was taxing my body a lot. And I kinda liked it. I had never been that fatigued before, and I wondered, ‘Is there anything beyond this level of fatigue? Or is this it?’”

In the end, there is no answer; only a question.


man in red shirt running on paved road


Allen’s obsession, his drive to run great distances—and to be recognized for it—is both strange and familiar. The training required to be a good runner—especially a distance runner—demands hours, days, and weeks of obsessive focus. Thousands of people might run the same marathon, but each has trained alone. Each has fantasized about the race in the midst of a long run, sweating and chafing under the weight of a dream shared with no one. Each runner’s training schedule caters to his own needs over anyone else’s. And every runner who’s a parent—myself included—has had to ask someone else to keep watch over his children so he can go off for an hour or two, alone, to run and dream.

Running is a selfish pursuit. It is an old, ingrained desire; it’s older than conscious thought. It’s older than planning, older than conscience. Allen is its embodiment. Running is like breathing.

*       *       *

At town meeting in March—Great Cranberry is one of five islands in the town of Cranberry Isles—residents voted to keep Great Cranberry’s Longfellow School open, despite a lack of students, for the fourteenth straight year. The school provides a home for the library, and is one of the only public spaces on the island. But those who voted to spend town money to rehab the building—as Allen did—are hoping for more. They hope the island will once again have enough children to hold classes. Until then, they aim to keep the building ready.

“Cranberry is struggling,” Allen says. “The place I love that defines who I am is struggling."

But when we headed back to Great Cranberry on the mailboat after town meeting, you could sense that people had rolled up their sleeves and said ‘We’re not gone yet.’ ”

On Great Cranberry that week, the smooth round stone was under snow and ice. The finishers’ medal from the Great Cranberry Ultra would be obscured, if still there at all. The race itself is over for good.

But something will take its place. Allen’s going to come up with something. Of that, everyone who knows him is sure. Runners, first Allen, then more—maybe a dozen, maybe hundreds—will tramp back and forth along this road, the spine of the island, in front of this graveyard, with the ocean and the mountains of Acadia in the distance.

The road leads from the wharf to the fence post and back again. Repeat.

June Hopkins of North Haven

A North Haven Gift—June Hopkins


A North Haven Gift—June Hopkins


The sign on the front of the 19th-century frame building is very much like the woman who has run the business inside for the last 60 years. gift shop, it reads. No more, no less.

June Hopkins, who turned 90 on November 2, 2013, is as plainspoken and direct as that sign. She never planned to be operating a gift store on North Haven for over half a century, but that’s what happened. It certainly wasn’t a lack of ambition or confidence about making her way in the world that anchored her on the island’s landing, just above the ferry terminal, overlooking the Fox Islands Thoroughfare. That waterfront perch, in good times and bad, has been central in her long, rich life.

In a frank conversation about her two milestones—turning 90, and running the store for 60 years—Hopkins revealed that she stayed with the shop primarily because it let her raise her four sons on the island. It allowed her family to retain a place on that busy commercial waterfront, even as others have sold to summer folks and moved inland. And, despite a reputation for being a little severe, a little stern, Hopkins genuinely loves meeting and interacting with the people who visit and buy. So much so that she extends what she calls courtesy in-house credit: If a visitor wants to bring home that pretty piece of pottery or those pillows bearing the map of the Fox Islands, but doesn’t have the cash (she doesn’t bother with credit cards), Hopkins will tell her customers to send her a check when they get home.

It hasn’t always been an easy or a blessed life. Four tragedies loom large—the death of a child by drowning, the death of a husband, and the death of two grandchildren, all before they’d lived what obituaries call a full life.

Is it true, as those who know her say, that she’s a strong, maybe even a tough woman?

“I had to be,” she says. But here it is, perhaps the most telling thing she will betray about herself: Instead of an expression of world-weary resignation, what follows those words as she leans forward are the beginnings of an impish smile on her lips, a twinkle in her still-clear hazel eyes.


June outside her gift shop on North Haven
June outside her gift shop on North Haven. (Peter Ralston)


The building had belonged to her late husband Bill’s grandparents. Their oval portraits hang on a wall in what had been an ell of the store, looking like antiques for sale. Glancing up at the grandfather’s face, Hopkins says matter-of-factly, “I never met him.”

But she remembers the day Bill, an island native, came home from his job as principal of the school, “and he said, ‘We’re going to buy Grandfather’s store.’ ” It had been the W. S. Hopkins General Store. Even today, it’s easy to imagine islanders coming in for a sack of flour, a pair of work gloves, a half-keg of nails; heavy, clunky wooden drawers line a wall of the gift shop, a few with pieces chipped off, though all are painted a cheery white.

It had been a ship’s chandlery at one time—again, not surprising, given its proximity to the busy Thoroughfare.

Though it is indeed a gift shop in the classic sense, there is an aesthetic unlike what is found in stores that feature plastic lobsters and snow globes. A classical music radio station plays, and the place smells of balsam.

There are some of what would be described as “cute” items, but most are the sort of thing you would feel pleased to bring home as a gift for friends from your vacation on a Maine island: Deer Isle granite hot plates, Anne Kilham’s painted scenes on light-switch plates, some jewelry, lovely sea-blue pottery, tea towels with garden scenes, a few selected books. Nothing pretentious, mostly affordable, and spread out nicely in the ample space.

Hopkins still enjoys going to trade shows in Portland to be, as she says, “inspired” about what to sell.

“It’s all done by intuition,” she says of what she stocks. “My intuition.” Which may not be a by-the-book approach, she admits. “I think I’ve broken all the rules of retail,” such as her no-credit-card, send-me-a-check policy.

“I trust people,” she says. “I’ve only been stuck three times. And I get the nicest thank-you notes.”

She steps away from our conversation for an appointment nearby, but returns sooner than expected. As I wrap up a conversation I’d begun with a customer in her absence, Hopkins appears in the doorway, hands on hips, with a look that says Well, do you want to talk to me or not? I hustle back in.

She’s ready to tell the story of how she ended up on North Haven after growing up in Pittsburgh, a story that includes “the wife of a Vinalhaven undertaker.” Those hazel eyes must have spotted some confusion; she leans forward again, conspiratorially, and says: “This gets complicated.”

It was 1946, the war just ended.

“My father was an organist at a large church in Pittsburgh,” she says. He also taught organ and piano, and at the time, was “right at the top of his profession.”

Hopkins had completed her studies at the Pennsylvania College for Women and was looking forward to going on to Columbia University to get a degree in occupational therapy.

Through a member of the church, a connection was made for a summer job on an island off the Maine coast. This is where the undertaker comes in.

Hopkins—then known as June Collins—and another young woman traveled together to Rockland.

“We came by bus, and we missed the ferry to North Haven,” she recalled. “We must have looked bewildered, because a man asked us where we going,” and after hearing of the planned trip to North Haven, said: “Well, deah, you just missed the last boat to North Haven. The next boat isn’t until Monday.”

But he took pity on the women, and—something she says wouldn’t happen today—offered them another way to the island.

“We got into a smelly lobster truck, and he drove us to the public landing,” she recalled. The man secured a place for them on a boat heading to Vinalhaven.

“We went onto the boat, and into the fog. I was sitting on the bow and I couldn’t see anything,” she said. Finally, the boat landed and she and her friend were deposited on a float.

“There’s a path,” the boat owner said. “Just follow it.”

At the house at the end of the path—where the undertaker lived—calls were made, and the man who had agreed to hire June and her friend to work as waitresses at inns on North Haven was reached. “I’ve got your two girls over here,” their temporary Vinalhaven host told Herman Crockett—later known to the girls as “Uncle Herm.”

The girls finally arrived on North Haven.

“Guess where we landed?” she asks, then points to the small dock we are looking down on from the deck of her living space above the store.

*          *          *

“I met my husband my first day on the island,” she says, her tone suggesting it was fate-ordained. And maybe it had to be. “It was quite separated,” she said of those days, “islanders and summer people.” The courtship took some time.

Expecting to work at Haven’s Inn, Uncle Herm, on learning that she was college-educated, said she would instead work in the post office. (She later figured out that Uncle Herm had hired too many girls.) Quickly realizing that she wouldn’t earn extra cash through tips, much needed for further study at Columbia University in the fall, she objected, but Crockett agreed to pay her $20 a week, twice the $10 base pay she would have gotten at the inn, plus a room at Nebo Lodge.

She made friends fast, and one of those friends was island native Bill Hopkins.


June's son David, at left, with his mother and a customer at the gift shop.
June's son David, at left, with his mother and a customer at the gift shop. (Peter Ralston)


In a photo from those early years, Bill poses with June and island buddies Neal Holt and Garry Valentine. Bill is standing on the front bumper of what looks like a pre–World War II car. Unlike the other men—Valentine is wearing a tie, white shirt, and suit coat, and Holt, what looks like a neat crewneck sweater—Bill wears jeans and a work shirt, the sleeves rolled up. There’s a certain manly recklessness to his stance, and it’s not just his perch on the bumper. If you were casting the part of Dean Moriarty from Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road for a movie, Bill would’ve been a good choice.

“My husband loved the island,” June said. “He liked his boats,” she added, sketching in just a few words the picture of a man at home on the water and in the rugged, outdoor life that came with living year-round on an island.

Bill served in the submarine service during the war, yet he was also reflective and creative, writing a novel called Freeman Cooper. A publisher loved it, June recalls, but wanted him to change the last chapter. “Bill was really heartbroken,” she said, but refused.

It was published later as written, however, and he used a chapter called “The Fourth House” in a college creative writing class he taught through the University of Maine in Rockland. Bill also taught writing to lifers at the Maine State Prison in Thomaston.

June remembers beach parties: “No drinking,” she stressed. “Bill would take his guitar,” and they might use a horse and buggy to get to the shore.

“Everybody loved Bill,” she said. “He was kind to the older people” on the island.

Valentine, 86, who lives in Kennebunk but still summers on the island, remembers Bill as a pal.

“I was seventeen in 1945,” and because of the war, “there was just a few of us males left on the island.” The two began spending time together, typically on the water, lobstering and fishing for flounder.

After the war, Bill attended the University of Maine on the GI Bill, taking classes at its Brunswick campus, then in Orono. June said she and Bill kept in touch after that summer of ’46, as she resumed her education at Columbia University in New York. They married in 1948 at the end of his sophomore year. They lived in Orono, and June worked at Bangor State Hospital (now Eastern Maine Medical Center), doing the occupational therapy work for which she had trained. Then it was back to the island, although Bill was called back into service during the Korean War.

June, Valentine said, “is a very sensible person, a solid citizen.” But more than that, she was fun. “Bill and I would go out and play around in boats, and instead of waiting at home, she would come along.”

In that old photo, Valentine notes with a chuckle—and maybe a little pride—June can be seen holding his hand, not Bill’s.

*          *          *

Bill died in 1979 at age 54 of lung cancer. June was able to stay on the island.

“I was lucky,” she remembered. “I’d had the gift shop, and I had been very independent,” she said, remembering those difficult years. Her smile returns, though, as she relates how the business was incorporated. “I’m the president and the CEO.”

The old building, which is both home and business, is in constant need of maintenance, which June chips away at. Son David, who was able to retire in his 50s after 35 years working for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, now runs the art gallery below the store. The gallery was first launched by David and his older brother Eric when they were teens.

Bill’s wasn’t the first untimely death to cloud June’s life. The couple’s son Stephen drowned in the Thoroughfare at just five and a half years old, she said, gesturing toward the water as she spoke—again, just off the family dock.

“It really affected my husband. That was terrible.” After a pause, June said, “I have this philosophy that life goes on. It has to.” The couple decided to have another child, and son Thomas was born. He lives on the island in the summer and winters in the Washington County town of Whiting.

In 2001, Will’s son Shandi died at the age of 31. And then in March 2013, a fourth family tragedy struck—Evan Hopkins, just 20, June’s grandson and Eric’s son, was killed in a pickup truck rollover on the island.

David, now living with his partner, David Wilson, just off that town landing in the complex of Hopkins buildings, remembers those tragedies. As with most families, the pain from these and other emotional traumas through the years have slashed through relationships, he said. The pain remains, but so do the deep ties between a mother and her four sons, and between the brothers.

The creativity that infused his life, and that of brother Eric, a nationally renowned painter, comes from both mother and father, David said. From June, the boys inherited a visual sense, he said.

“She’s taught me everything she knows,” he said, with a hint of irony.

Both parents supported their creative endeavors.

“Eric and I started a gallery when he was fifteen and I was thirteen,” he said. They went to their parents and told them their plans, and both gave the green light.

“We bought a bolt of burlap to cover the walls,” he remembered, “and made a good deal of money in our first summer.”

On a late September weekday all these years later, David’s and his partner’s pair of Chinese Crested “powder puff” dogs, yapping at every passerby, staff the gallery.

David’s relationship with June is complicated, he intimates.

“She speaks her mind,” he said, again with a bit of dramatic understatement.

Later, when we rejoin June, a bit late from lunch, he worries his mother will be irritated at our tardiness.

But instead, June is warm and smiling.

Living to 90 is an achievement, but so is running a business for 60 years—especially as a woman. June puts in context what it was like being a businesswoman in the 1950s in characteristic plainspoken terms.

“I grew into it,” she said. “It was nothing that was planned.” When they bought Bill’s grandfather’s building, “Bill said, ‘We can rent that to a college girl to run a business,’ and I said, ‘I can do that.’ ” And she did.

David remembers his parents hiring college-age girls to work at the shop and babysit him and his brothers during the summer months. “They admired her for being a businesswoman in the 1950s and ’60s,” and many came to a 50th reunion in 2004, David said.

*          *          *

“I was very adventuresome,” June said, and, as if proof were needed, added: “The day I graduated college, I was put on a train to California,” where she spent the summer working.

Steering the conversation away from the sadness of the past, June’s smile returns.

“I tell you, I had to be feisty,” what with all those boys. “It seemed even all our animals were male,” she said. Her mother was Armenian and emigrated to the United States in 1890 as that ethnic minority suffered systematic extermination in present-day Turkey. She inherited that “survivor” gene.

Her boys enjoyed island life and shared her adventuresome nature.

“It was wonderful because they weren’t into television or iPods,” she said. “They had time to explore.”

Eric thrived in the environment, bringing sensitivity with which to interpret its rugged, natural elements. June remembers him coming across a dried fish as a child and being fascinated. “He painted that,” she said—not a picture, but on the fish itself. “He was, like, four or five.”

Eric agrees with his mother’s memories of their formative years. Unlike many children today who are glued to screens, “We were the portable devices,” he said, exploring the island and the waters around it. “We had a sense of wonder,” he said.

Will, the oldest, lives in Eastport and runs the Cobscook Bay Resource Center, whose mission is to encourage resource management and sustainable economic development in the region. Will connects his work with his island boyhood. “It’s kind of hard to grow up on an island and not learn from the natural processes around you.”

Both Eric and Will cite self-reliance and resiliency as gifts from their mother.

These days, June lives on North Haven for six months and in Rockland the rest of the year. Even at the age of 90, life on those two rugged Penobscot Bay shores suits her. “I think you have to be self-sufficient,” she concludes. “People say, ‘I would love to live on an island,’ but they can’t handle it when the ferry doesn’t go.”

An outsider herself all those years ago, the lines now have blurred between summer folk and natives. Especially since summer people often go back five or six generations.

She grows a little wistful, pointing to a house on the Vinalhaven shore on what is known as Hopkins Point, where former Massachusetts governor and US senator Leverett Saltonstall summered, and remembers seeing lights blink on in the house one night, signifying his arrival in Maine.

“I think I’ve mellowed,” she said. “Some of the things I took so seriously, I should have had more of a good humor about.” She also recalls a moment in the 1980s during a visit with her father: “Holding on to Daddy’s arm, and him saying, ‘You know, you’ve had a very interesting life. More than your mother and me, and we’ve had a very happy life.’ That made me feel very good.”

Looking down on the busy landing, the flinty June reemerges for a moment. “I’m determined that we not lose this,” she said. “I think one of the things that keeps me going is the gift shop.”

After all these years, she is a North Haven fixture, an islander by default who landed with the requisite grit for the life that awaited her.

An artist's rendering of the three proposed wind turbines off Block Island

The Cable Is the Key

The Cable Is the Key


Block Island, 13 miles south of the Rhode Island coast, is a postcard of beaches, quaint shops, and wild conservation land. With a year-round population of 1,000 residents and a summer population that can reach 10,000, it follows the seasonal ebb and flow of many New England islands. The place is small enough—10 square miles in all—that summer tourists can rent bikes and cover the entire island in a day.

As those visitors ride down Ocean Avenue on their rented bikes they can also hear a whirring reminder of what it takes to keep a remote and idyllic island in motion. Diesel generators. Block Island is connected to the mainland by a ferry service and an airport, but not an electrical cable. To keep the lights on, the Block Island Power Company imports about one million gallons of diesel each year, carried by trucks on the ferries. But a proposal from an offshore wind developer to build an offshore wind project and a cable to the mainland might change all of that.

The idea has turned into a four-year saga, with controversy on the island over altered views, and on the mainland, over the costs to ratepayers. The debate reached the highest political offices in the state and had to survive a challenge in the Rhode Island Supreme Court. But the proposal has also given the residents an opportunity to protect themselves from the expensive and unpredictable electric rates that plague many small island communities.

An artist's rendering of one turbine.
An artist’s rendering of one turbine.

The company, Deepwater Wind, is proposing a five-turbine wind farm with a capacity of 30 megawatts. A submerged export cable would run from the wind project to the island. Another cable would then connect the island to the mainland. Analysts have estimated that about 10 percent of the proposed wind farm’s output would be used on Block Island. The submerged line to the mainland would be bidirectional, able to export excess offshore wind-generated electricity and import power from the existing mainland grid back to Block Island when the wind stops blowing.

“The cable is a really big piece,” said Kim Gaffett, the first warden of the town of New Shoreham, which is co-extensive with Block Island. The first warden is the town’s senior elected official. “The cable is what is going to make power for Block Island really stable and affordable, or at least more affordable than it currently is,” she said. “We’re estimating it
will cut our power cost by a third, and that’s still a high rate compared to the mainland.”

The rates fluctuate, but Block Island ratepayers can pay as much as 60 cents per kilowatt-hour, one of the highest rates in the country. By comparison, the average cost in Rhode Island is about 13 cents per kilowatt-hour. The national average is just under 10 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Deepwater Wind officials know that the cable is the key to winning local support for the project. The company is planning to run the 34.5 kV alternating-current line from a substation on Block Island to South Kingstown or Narragansett on the mainland. As an additional incentive to the islanders, the submerged line would include fiber-optics cable, delivering high-speed connections that mainland residents largely take for granted.

“There are many people for whom supporting a landmark renewable-energy project is a very important thing,” said Deepwater Wind CEO Jeffrey Grybowski. “But many folks on the island consider the cable to be the essential component of the project.” Gaffett said the cable “is a great thing for us.”

In early February of this year, the US Army Corps of Engineers closed a public comment period and reviewed more than 80 letters on the project from on and off the island. Michael Elliott, project manager for the corps, said the comments were split evenly between positive and negative sentiments.

Kim Gaffett is the First Warden on Block Island
Kim Gaffett is the First Warden on Block Island

Gaffett said that the island is mostly supportive, but she acknowledged there are some residents with misgivings. In late 2011, a poll found 62 percent of islanders in support of the project and only 27 percent opposed. “More than a majority of the people are supportive, but there is a very strong vocal opposition,” she said. “For the most part that concern is aesthetic. Those are mostly people who are not affected by the cost of electricity.”

George Mellor retired to live full-time on the island 12 years ago. His house will face the turbines. “I will be looking at it, over the ocean,” Mellor said. “I’m for wind energy in general, but this is too close. This is a pretty unique place. We don’t have stoplights. We have dirt roads. I like that. This, I think, would change that.”

Christopher Warfel, a renewable-energy engineer, was elected to the town council last November after running for office largely on the basis of his opposition to the turbine project. He urges fellow opponents to focus on the economics of the project and avoid attacking the aesthetics or the concept of offshore wind in general. “I don’t have a problem with offshore wind as a concept, but I take issue with the way it was developed,” Warfel said. “It was really forced onto Block Island and the rest of Rhode Island by the governor and the legislature.”

In 2008, the state of Rhode Island issued a request for proposals from wind energy project developers to build and operate an offshore wind farm in Rhode Island state waters south of Block Island. Research has shown the wind resource off the New England coast to be extremely valuable. State regulators chose New Jersey–based Deepwater Wind as the preferred developer.

The company initially said it would build eight turbines with a capacity of about 30 megawatts. When the German company Siemens launched a new 6-megawatt offshore wind turbine—the largest machine yet available—Deepwater reduced the number of turbines to five, but kept the overall project capacity the same.

The project is small by European standards, where the offshore wind industry is well established. It would, however, be an industry leader in the United States, which currently has no installed offshore wind turbines. The Block Island project was intended to serve, in part, as a pilot for a larger wind farm planned for federal waters much further offshore.

Donald Carcieri, Rhode Island’s governor from 2003 to 2011, praised the project and threw his political weight behind it. In December 2009 William Moore, then the CEO of Deepwater Wind, he predicted that the Block Island wind farm would be operational in 2012, perhaps even before the long-running Cape Wind offshore wind development in Massachusetts. Moore said he supported Cape Wind’s bid to develop the first offshore wind farm in the country, “but if you can’t, then we’ll be first.”

The Block Island project had undeniable momentum. On December 9, 2009, the state announced that Deepwater Wind had struck a deal to sell electricity from the project to National Grid for 24.4 cents per kilowatt-hour in the first year of operation, with a 3.5 percent annual escalation.

Three short months after Moore’s confident statement, however, Deepwater Wind hit a roadblock. On March 30, 2010, the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission rejected the proposed power-purchase agreement as too expensive, and not “commercially reasonable.”

One expert hired by the state had told the commission that the price was inflated by excessive profits for the developer. Several analysts pointed out that the cost of the cable between the mainland and Block Island was not included in the power-purchase agreement with National Grid, and would eventually drive the cost higher.

Deepwater or another company could “be completely responsible for constructing, owning and operating the cable,” wrote Daniel Glenning, a senior project manager at National Grid, in prepared testimony to the RIPUC. “Under this option, the costs of the cable . . . would add at least $35 to $50 million to the project construction cost, to be recovered through the PPA.” RIPUC commissioner Paul Roberti was quoted in the Providence Journal, saying the decision reflected the unwillingness of mainland electric ratepayers to “pay substantially above-market prices.”

But Carcieri saw offshore wind as an economic savior for the state, where the recession was taking a heavy toll and the unemployment rate was over 11 percent. The governor and other Rhode Island political leaders would not back down. The Rhode Island legislature passed a law shortly after the RIPUC rejection that directed savings in the project to go to the ratepayers, and provided for an independent third party to verify the project’s cost. The law also effectively ordered the utilities commission to reconsider the power-purchase agreement.

In August, after a second round of review, the RIPUC approved the project. The Block Island effort is “much more than an energy project,” Carcieri was quoted as saying in 2010. “This is about creating a new industry in Rhode Island—an industry that puts Rhode Island at the epicenter of the emerging alternative-energy market.”

Although Deepwater Wind moved its corporate headquarters from Hoboken, New Jersey, to Providence, Rhode Island, the project was not out of the woods yet. Even before the commission had approved the power-purchase agreement, a group of organizations and politicians stepped forward to protest the process. One of the most ardent opponents was Rhode Island attorney general Patrick Lynch, a member of a prominent political family in the state.

“Deepwater had its chance to prove to an impartial panel, the PUC, that this deal had any merit for Rhode Islanders, and Deepwater couldn’t do it,” Lynch said, according to an account in the Providence Business News. “They had an appeal process by which they could have asked our Supreme Court to help them, and they didn’t even try to use it. It is wrong for legislation to ‘overrule’ a final judicial decision.”

Lynch was not alone. The Business News reported that TransCanada, a large onshore wind power developer, claimed that the Rhode Island law unfairly excluded out-of-state companies from meeting the state’s renewable-energy requirement. The Conservation Law Foundation, a nonprofit that usually aligns itself in favor of wind projects, protested what it saw as preferential treatment for Deepwater Wind. “The bill that created this new docket is not about renewable energy,” said CLF lawyer Jerry Elmer. “It’s a bill about helping one developer—Deepwater. CLF wants to see renewable energy done right, and that means a level playing field for all.”

When the commission approved the power-purchase agreement, it also rejected the TransCanada challenge. Lynch and the CLF immediately appealed the decision to the state’s Supreme Court. They were joined by two large manufacturers in the state, protesting the additional cost of the offshore wind electricity.

The appeals created an odd dynamic within the state government. Typically, the state attorney general defends the RIPUC’s rulings against appeals. In this situation the governor’s office was forced to find outside counsel. “The governor believes we have a responsibility to defend the constitutionality of the law. We believe the appeal is without merit,” said Amy Kempe, spokeswoman for Carcieri.

The project’s fortunes seemed to turn positive again with the 2010 elections. Lynch ran for governor but lost in the Democratic Party primaries. Democrat Peter Kilmartin was the only candidate for state attorney general who said he would drop the office’s appeal against the wind farm power-purchase agreement. Kilmartin, a former police captain, defeated the other four candidates by a wide margin.

“Although we view with trepidation the General Assembly’s unwavering quest to sink this demonstration wind farm into the sediment of Rhode Island’s continental shelf, we nonetheless are constrained by our standard of review and the bounds of the [offshore wind] statute,” the Court wrote. “In so deciding, it is this Court’s fervent hope that our Legislature’s William Seward-esque policy decision championing this amended power-purchase agreement proves as lucrative and majestic as the Alaska Purchase of 1867.”

But while the Court allowed the project to move ahead, some concerns remain. Warfel, the newly elected member of the town council, said that he fears the island could end up stuck with paying for the cable. “This project, specifically, is very expensive,” he said.

In 2008, as Rhode Island was issuing a request for proposals to offshore wind developers, officials were also launching a groundbreaking attempt to plan the use of the state’s ocean waters around offshore wind development.

The effort, known as the Special Area Management Plan (SAMP), ended up taking two years and costing $8 million. According to the SAMP website, researchers mapped fish abundance, distribution, and habitat. They also recorded where commercial, recreational, and fishing boats spend time, and identified the most valuable area of the ocean.

In July 2011, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) approved the plan. The announcement, delivered on the shores of Narragansett Bay, drew Lincoln Chafee, the new governor, Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, the state’s two US senators, and NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco. “By developing this plan, Rhode Island has emerged as a national leader in coastal management and ocean stewardship,” Lubchenco said, according to an NOAA press release.

Researchers developed the fishing section of the SAMP by meeting and working with the fishing community. Fishermen in the region, however, were (and are) wary of offshore wind development. “The fishing community’s opinion of the marine spatial planning process in Rhode Island is divided,” said Rick Bellavance, president of the Rhode Island Party and Charter Boat Association. He said that the fishing community is united in their belief that the final SAMP product was released prematurely. “I can say, collectively, that every fisherman feels the research that went into developing the fisheries component was inadequate,” he said. “I still think that fishermen buy into the concept of marine spatial planning, but the research needed to go further.”

Deepwater, for its part, hired a local fisherman as a liaison to the fishing community. “We have been working with him for almost a year now,” Grybowski said of the liaison. “He helps us understand their concerns and helps us deliver our message to fishermen.” Deepwater Wind also has a liaison on Block Island itself, a local citizen hired to represent the project to the residents. Grybowski said that connecting with the community and listening to local feedback has been “critically important” to the company. “Folks who didn’t support the project initially have come to support it—or at least to understand what we’re doing,” he said.

In October of 2012 the company filed its final state and federal permit applications for the project, and is hoping to begin construction in 2014. Gaffett said that the company has made outreach a priority, and “has done a really amazing job in reaching out and building local support.” She also cited the reduced risk of transporting one million gallons of diesel fuel to the island each year. But in the end, she said, it was the cable and the prospect of stabilizing local electric rates that swayed local opinion. “The cable clearly has been a major source of project support on the island,” Grybowski said.

Kathie Iannicelli in her greenhouse on Monhegan

My Garden in Your Backyard

My Garden in Your Backyard


Monhegan in late January is the antithesis of the island’s summertime buzz of endless work, activities and hordes of day-trippers. The days are short and bitter: the wind surges off the harbor and shakes the spruce and pushes against the house clapboards violently. And at night, with the stars frozen in the sky, there are only a couple of illuminated windows, many houses sitting quietly, dark and cold. And even though there’s a thin layer of icy snow on top of Kathie Iannicelli’s gardening plots, the Island Farm Project—her brainchild—is well under way for the year.

The 12-by-28-foot greenhouse—purchased and erected near the marsh in the center of the village last summer—is warm and secure and already full of chard, kale, and a lot of lettuce. Inside Kathie’s house, there are signs of the project everywhere. Dried herbs sit in glass jars in the pantry. Photos of blooming island flowers are taped to the walls. And in the mudroom, the master list of tasks to accomplish are scrawled, crossed out and annotated on a large chalkboard. These were the jobs that needed to be done to close out the 2012 season. Soon, though, this list will be erased and it will all start again: When the ground thaws in April, Kathie and her small crew of farmers will jump into action, turning soil, and creating a plan for growing and harvesting for the coming year.

It seems fitting that Monhegan has such a thriving gardening program considering that one of the first gardens in Maine was planted on the island in 1614 by Captain John Smith. He wrote, “I made a garden on top of a Rocky Isle in May that grew so well it served us salads in June and July.”


Monhegan farm volunteers tend a plot
Volunteers tend a garden plot on Monhegan


This will be the fourth season the farm project has been an active force on Monhegan, providing fresh produce to islanders and creating a culture of connectedness. But the project is at an important turning point: While they have figured out how to manage the project successfully and even turn a bit of a profit, they still consider it to be something of an experiment.

“My hope had been to make this into a business,” Kathie says. “For that to happen, we’d need to acquire more plots around the island and expand into something like a cooperative. We’re not quite there yet, but the next few years are going to be very exciting.”


A map of the Monhegan garden plots. (credit: Alexis Iammarino)
A map of the garden plots. (credit: Alexis Iammarino)


Kathie knows a thing or two about planting, growing, and nurturing a living thing. For over 25 years she has run her own gardening business on Monhegan, maintaining other people’s flowerbeds and vegetable gardens all around the island. She would prepare and plant and by the time people arrived for the summer, the gardens were ready to go. Tending to all of the properties gradually became a tall order for just one person, and she hired many helpers over the years, including Lillian Harris, a seasonal worker and a stalwart supporter of the Island Farm Project.

Lillian first came to Monhegan in the summer of 2004, taking a waitress job at the Island Inn during college. When she returned in the spring of 2009 to work at the Inn once again, she also started helping Kathie with her gardening business, as a way to supplement her income. While tending beds of flowers at neighboring cottages, they often discussed how great it would be to establish permanent plots around the island to grow vegetables. That struck a spark, and over the winter, Kathie started to put her plan into action: Identifying underutilized garden space, she came to agreements with several landowners, whereby they would receive shares of the harvest in exchange for the use of the property. By the time Lillian came back to Monhegan the following spring, the wheels of the Island Farm Project were already in motion.

It all started with a letter. Even though conversations about small vegetable gardens expanding into an island-wide farm had popped up with neighbors over the years, Kathie eventually sent a typewritten letter to everyone on the island, detailing what might be possible, potential actions to take, and wrapping up a list of answered questions with her own self-aware question: Do you know what you’re doing, Kathie? Her response was honest and optimistic: This is slightly overambitious and experimental, but my feelings are—that the time is right!

She struck a chord with some, and they immediately asked how they could help. Others were impressed with her ideas and effort, but wanted to wait to see how the project progressed before getting involved. The first season started slowly. Kathie hired an intern through the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) and they set to work with the few plots they had. Gardening equipment was simple: hand tools and wheelbarrows. People would offer to lift something heavy or the use of their truck, but by and large, the prep work in the spring went essentially unnoticed. It wasn’t until the first farmer’s market rolled around that people saw what they were capable of.

Like the season itself, that market started quietly, in the rain and with only lettuce, because that was the only vegetable available at the end of June. But it also started very positively. People approached Kathie and her crew and said that they had been waiting years for something like this.

“You saw all that social interaction right away,” Kathie says. “And I thought, ‘Wow, I hadn’t anticipated that part of things.’ People got really excited.”


Kathie surveys the crowd at a farmer's market
Kathie surveys the crowd at a summer farmer’s market


After that, the markets took off. For many on the island during the summer, it became the high point of the week, a chance for people to catch up on the church lawn and get excited about trying new food. What the success of the markets also did was light a fire under the whole community, invigorating retirees, kids, and fishermen alike. People started to help out with weeding or delivering produce or manning the market’s tables. Kathie estimates that of the roughly 55 people who live on Monhegan year-round, 80 percent of them have been involved, in one way or another.

And as the greenhouse was being built last summer, one year-round community member—who does a fair bit of gardening herself—approached Kathie and asked to use a small corner of the greenhouse in the winter. Now, two people, plus the three schoolchildren, have plots in there. In this way, it has also given any islander with a green thumb the chance to grow their own vegetables and keep themselves busy, especially in the winter when outdoor activities dwindle.

“It’s just one other way we can get people involved,” Kathie says, “to offer them a space and the fun of going over to a warm place to hang out when it’s freezing outside. The important thing is that we’re trying to do things with each other more often.”

The island’s 1,000 acres of rocky, but fertile, land once supported a good deal of agriculture, with potatoes being the chief crop. Even in the early 1800s, 80 acres of the island were still under cultivation; the island fed itself. As the island became more of an artists’ colony in the mid-19th century and the year-round population increased, more houses were built on tracts of farmable land.

Then, in the 1950s, Theodore Edison, who summered on the island for many years, purchased about 300 acres of the undeveloped areas and formed an organization, Monhegan Associates, which primarily acted as a land trust to protect the lands in perpetuity. In the past 50 years, Monhegan Associates has acquired more land through gifts and purchases, and at this point, they own approximately 480 acres of land, comprising about two-thirds of the island. That land is not developed, except for many miles of hiking trails going through it, which are open to the public.


A garden flourishes in the shadow of the island church
A garden in the shadow of the island church


Kathie feels very strongly about striking a balance between protecting open space—what everyone on Monhegan calls the “wild lands”—and providing the opportunity for land use in the community. Although she agrees with the need to keep land undeveloped, she wants to make sure the island is used to its fullest potential. In their mission statement, the Monhegan Associates write that in addition to being dedicated to keeping the land forever wild, they are equally committed to “the simple, friendly way of life that has existed on Monhegan as a whole.”

“In my mind, when it was created there was the thought that saving everything is not the end,” Kathie says. “You have to cast an ear toward the needs of the people who live here.”

To their credit, Kathie says the Monhegan Associates have already been quite generous, donating several parcels toward the project, as well as giving land over to the electric company and the waste-management area of the island. And besides, the ways of growing food have changed; even though there aren’t dozens of farmable acres anymore, it can be accomplished just as well in smaller spaces and more intensively—precisely the way the Island Farm Project ended up working.

Last year, Lillian started working with the Monhegan Associates, and the position has allowed her to facilitate collaboration between the Associates and the project. In addition to being an extra set of hands wherever she can, Lillian takes on the role of de facto cheerleader, comfortable with public outreach.

“Kathie has done so much of this on her own; I don’t want to take credit for all that she’s done,” Lillian says. “But at the same time, I think it’s been nice for her to have a sounding board, as well as someone who says, ‘Hey, this is awesome! I want to tell people about it!’ ”

One of the people who got the message loud and clear was Ronnie Short. Like Lillian, the 27-year-old was looking for a summer job in 2006 and a friend recommended the Island Inn. He washed dishes in the kitchen for a while, then started cooking breakfast for the Inn’s guests. He got interested in gardening and, after several years of working on farms through Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) in the U.S. and Europe, Ronnie finally ended up back on Monhegan. He started working at the Island Inn again, and then the following summer, at the Trailing Yew, another inn. When Ronnie came back in 2010, he saw how the project was progressing and wanted to get involved: He was getting the itch to garden. But he didn’t have the time or energy. He didn’t know Kathie too well, but when the summer season calmed down, he approached her, told her about his interest, and asked how they could start working together.

“She wasn’t cautious exactly,” Ronnie says, “but she said, ‘Hey, let’s go for a walk sometime.’ And we sat up on Horn Hill and she sort of interviewed me, wanted to know why I wanted to be a part of the farm, and why I liked Monhegan. I really liked her from that moment. I felt like she was a person who saw things more spiritually than just black and white.”

When he came back to the island the following summer, Kathie took Ronnie on as an intern, paying him a stipend while he continued his work at the Trailing Yew. He arrived in early April and lived with Lillian at Kathie’s house. For the first two months, it was nonstop seedling work and transplanting and working the soil in the new plots. Then there was a big push in the spring to get everything in the ground. Once everything was established, the rest of the summer was all about maintaining, weeding, and harvesting for both the farmer’s market and the CSA.

The CSA—an acronym used for community-supported agriculture—started as a way to provide produce to year-round residents who were, more often than not, working during the weekly farmer’s markets. The second year of the project, Kathie canvassed the island to gauge the interest in having produce delivered to people’s homes on a weekly basis. They had a few takers that year, and Kathie didn’t ask them to pay in advance because she knows that nobody has money in the spring. But now she figures that of the 30 or so year-round households, about half of them are current CSA subscribers.

At $10 to $12, the CSA bags are stuffed with potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, zucchinis and all kinds of greens at the height of the summer season. There ends up being so much from the harvest that people have taken to recipe sharing to take care of the extra—hot pepper jelly, kale chips—and often, shares are given to people who have lent a hand.

“Anyone who helped harvest, helped at the farmer’s market, we encourage them to take something home,” Kathie says. “And because we have some land on the Monhegan House property, we’ll give them a bunch of bok choy or zucchini that was left over from the farmer’s market to use for their soups.”

Enthusiasm around the project has been so widespread that, gradually, collaborations around the island have begun. The first year, they started selling mustard greens and cilantro and cucumbers to Mattie Thompson for him to use at the shack where he sells fish tacos and French fries. Some neighbors offered up one of their pickup trucks, which has become the delivery vehicle for the CSA, as wheelbarrowing vegetables from one house to another can sometimes be a mile-long trek. The Monhegan Library has allowed them to set up a rain barrel to get water to the greenhouse. Jes Stevens has started to keep bees, and Kathie can often find them gathering in the squash blossoms and the flowers in her gardens, the hive effectively supporting her blooming crops. In the coming year, there is a plan to devote a bed to Cascade and Chinook hops for beer that Matt Weber is going to brew at his fledgling brewery on the island. As a trade, Matt will give Kathie the leftover mash from the brewing operation, which makes for excellent compost.

“The farming project is kind of like a center hub of this wheel, and you have these spokes going out to connect to all these project,s” Lillian says. “I think it helps to support these new projects, feeling like you’re not doing it all on your own and you’re not sort of working in a vacuum.”

Kathie is becoming more of an advisor, and while she’d like to continue her seedling work, she knows she needs to leave the hiking up hills and heavy digging to younger bodies. The hope is that working closely with young, committed farmers—like Lillian, Ronnie, and lifelong summer resident and new intern, Sue Jenkins—will be the answer to strengthening the momentum she’s helped establish. And as the farm project continues to evolve, it will undoubtedly attract more of those younger bodies, more people who are interested in getting their hands dirty—literally. Kathie calls it an inevitable hunger.

“People have gotten away from working physically and being in the ground and having that connection,” she says. “Now more than ever, there’s a lot of young people who want that hands-on life experience.”

For his part, Ronnie feels like he’s up for the task.

“I might not want to be doing this forever, but right now, I have faith that this project will bring positive energy to the community,” he says. “In the last couple years, as the project has become more of a big thing, I talk to people and they say, ‘Oh, I really want to be part of this.’ It’s turning into a huge part of what the island is all about.”


Kathie puts a garden to bed for the winter
Kathie puts a garden to bed for the winter


That is really what is at the heart of the farming project: an understanding that any islander or visitor or friend who wants to be involved, whether by donating pieces of their land for growing garlic or helping to erect the greenhouse, ends up being an integral part of the growing farming community. It’s as much about developing a village-wide enterprise as it is about healthy eating, cutting down on fossil fuels, or food independence from the mainland.