Mount Desert Island harbors not only great natural beauty (I have roughly 2 billion photos from my years of visiting) but also a human history lined with great stories. One of my favorite stories is about John D. Rockefeller Jr, and the building of the carriage roads. It is so favorite, that I have a book totally dedicated to it (and told by his granddaughter Ann) called Mr. Rockefeller’s Roads (see here on goodreads). It tells the story of JDR Jr designing (himself!) fifty-seven miles of carriage roads in the early 1910s-1940s that allowed the public access to this glorious area.
If you have ever been walking or biking or riding on these carriage roads, you will know the thrill of coming around a corner to incredible views of the ocean. Or a hidden lake. Or a sprouting of directional signs that make you want to go everywhere! Bubble Rock or Seal Harbor? I don’t know, both sound great! The design of the carriage roads was so masterful that the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead was originally credited with the work. It was too hard to believe that JDR Jr, with no formal training, would understand how to design viewpoints so that those on horseback could see as well as those on the ground, or the leveling of the paths or the sweeping surprises of ocean views.
I could go on and on about the Rockefellers and their generosity to Mount Desert Island. David Rockefeller, who recently died, gave 1,000 acres to MDI on the occasion of his 100th birthday in May 2015 (story here). The Rockefellers have given gardens and houses to the park and donated money for upkeep. But not all the generosity, hard work and community feel come from the super rich. No, as a person “from away” I can only tell you what I see and I have heard, and I will tell you that this is one tight group of folks.
You are “from away”, according to my friend Jen (native Bar Harbor) if you were not born on the island. You could live for 90 years on the island, having moved there as a baby, and you are still “from away.” Yes, that “from Bar Harbor” club is closed to most of you and to me. And a very fine club it is–last night I watched the Bar Harbor Historical Society’s documentary of the Fire of 1947. It is the fire that forever changed the look of Bar Harbor–the grand cottages (think Newport RI) were mostly burned to the ground. Only through the “last stand” taken by the fire chief was the downtown saved. Jen’s grandmother is one of those interviewed about their experiences (most had been kids and teens during the fire) and what every single one says about the days of terror: the sense of community saved us. Is that part of what now makes them a tight group and the rest of us “from away”? Maybe. The DVD is fascinating and worth your 40 minutes.
This blog post seems more pensive than travel so perhaps I will just stay with that course. I am trying to show you a side of the place that maybe you haven’t seen as you get off your cruise ship or pop out of the Bar Harbor Inn for your moose t-shirt and lobster stuffie. Bar Harbor is REAL underneath all the doo-dads, the funny accents (apparently there is more than one) and busy streets. What do I mean by real?
- Every single person in Bar Harbor has more than one job. No, seriously. We sat down next to a woman at the bar of a restaurant who told us her three jobs: nurse at MDI Hospital, master gardener consultant and I can’t rememer the last one. I could never survive BH–they all have loooong great memories, I can’t remember what I had for breakfast. These are incredibly hard-working people. We met artists who were also waitresses, builders who were also lobstermen.
- They care for their own. As a visitor to a tourist town, you can sometimes forget how expensive it is for those who have to make their daily lives there. There are now loans and grants to buy first homes from the local banks specifically for the native sons and daughters. One of Jen’s contractors told us about his son who had bought his own lobster boat at 15, his own house at 19, with the help of the funding. And yes, that son also works at least two jobs–lobstering and construction. At least two kids at MDI high school get scholarship help for college from locals.
- Work hard-play hard. We went to my favorite breakfast restaurant called Jordan’s. I think it opens around 5 am for the fishermen and closes by 2 or 3 pm. Unbelievable blueberry pancakes. But I digress. The waitress there, who Jen has known since she was small, had just bought land with her father that they were working on after work every day and on the weekends–building the house themselves, making snowmobile and hunting trails.
- Generosity and kindness start at home…but also travel. I met the race director for the MDI Marathon who lives on Great Cranberry Island (off of MDI) — and is also MDI’s middle school cross country coach. He found out about a mill town called Millinocket suffering in midstate Maine…and helped them run a marathon for the last three years, raising money and filling the town with tourists. They raised a million dollars for the local library this year (I did donate to that one! I am a sucker for a library). If I didn’t so hate the term “salt of the earth”(what does that even mean?) I would say that these folks are really really salty. Salgado. Story of Millinocket is here.
This year I think I figured out one of their secrets. The secret is this: though they profess to not like the “summer people”, Islanders actually do. Why? Because they are fodder for their stories. Their wonderful hilarious stories. In reality, everyone and everything is fodder for the Bar Harbor police beat. My favorite all-time Bar Harbor police beat (printed in the Ellsworth American):
Steven Bunker, 17, was driving in his 1995 GMC pickup when he noticed an injured seagull on the road. He picked up the bird and took it into the truck, and was driving down Route 102 toward the Acadia Wildlife Center in Town Hill when the bird sprang back into action and began flying around the cab of the truck, according to reports. The activity caused Mr. Bunker to become distracted and lose control of the vehicle, which slammed into a utility pole, snapping the pole in half. The truck came to rest in a ditch beside a large tree, police said, and was estimated to have sustained $1,500 in damage. Mr. Bunker was not injured.
What did I say about Mainers telling an excellent story? Yes, even the police reporter. Why was the detail of it being a 1995 GMC truck important? I don’t know, but I love it. I used to follow the Overheard in Bar Harbor facebook page as well though things have slowed down over there (must be working multiple jobs) and they love stuff like this: Guy ordering lobster for the first time ever says to the waitress at the Seafood Ketch in Bass Harbor yesterday: “I want the one with the longest antennas.”
I never find the Maine humor mean, which other states can be. New York springs to mind and of course our southern friends with their whole “bless your heart” business. I also believe that the Mainers put on their best show accent when I am around because it is fun to see which percentage of their words I will understand. It would be great if Mainers remembered that “r”s need to be pronounced. Yesterday I proudly texted Jen that I understood all the people talking in the Bar Harbor documentary and she said, yeah, that’s because they’re townies not backsiders. Um, what? So yes, there is a “backside” of MDI accent that is 10 times stronger. Just don’t go west of BH and maybe Northeast Harbor; you should be okay.
So that’s what I’ve got for you today. Maybe today was rumination. I am figuring out this Bar Harbor thing one year at a time. Stay tuned.