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Maine's Hidden Treasure
Thomas R. & Deborah A. Fletcher
"They all wanted Deer Isle granite," the elderly gentleman with thick white hair squeezing out from under his captain's hat informed us. We were standing in downtown Stonington next to the stonecutter statue dedicated to Deer Isle granite workers. Long-time island resident Clayton Gross went on to tell us; "Some of New York and Boston's finest buildings are built of Deer Isle granite."
Indeed, granite from the island was used to build Rockefeller Center, the New York County Courthouse, and the John F. Kennedy Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery. It was also used to build some well-known bridges, such as the Manhattan and the George Washington. That was before the popularity of steel and concrete practically eliminated the market for granite.
Clayton was very proud of his territory. He described the days before 1939 when the two-lane suspension bridge joined Deer Isle to the rest of Maine. Many saw the coming of the bridge as the most important event in the island's recorded history which dates to the seventeenth century when some French explorers spent a time there.
"In the old days people came by ferry, which was nothing more than a glorified lobster boat. They came for the summer. Some owned homes, others rented space in boarding houses. Most came from New York, Boston , or Philadelphia," he explained. Deer Isle came to be seen as a destination in the 1870s, an escape from the smothering heat of the cities. Most came via the Rockland-to-Boston steamer, which had further connections to New York.
It was during this period that granite became the principle income producer, providing income for long-time island residents and newcomers alike. Today's village of Stonington was previously known as Green's Landing. The name was changed in 1897 in recognition of the great impact quarrying had on the economy. Stonington became a boom town.
Now, it looks as if there is still plenty of granite to be had. Huge, pink-tinged granite boulders, many the size of cars, some larger dot the island edges.
Deer Isle is the second largest of Maine's coastal islands (Mount Desert Island is the largest). It is one of a vast number in Penobscot Bay. Granite may once have been king, but lobster rules today. More that fifty percent of Deer Isle's population is tied to the fishing industry in some way.
Evidence of lobster fishing is everywhere. Stacks of lobster traps and buoys were piled high on the Stonington dock. Lobster boats were constantly entering and leaving the harbor. Fishermen cast and retrieved traps out on the bay. One home had about 125 traps stacked in the front yard. The only day it slows down is Sunday, when lobstering is prohibited.
On Sunday, we drove out to Lobster Wharf, there we could see a number of lobster boats at anchor. Never having visited New England before, there were certain mental images we held. The one before us that day was one of them: a rocky shoreline, fishing boats at anchor, a gull calling as it circled overhead, deep blue sky and sea. It looked just like the Maine we had envisioned.
We had seen enough of the lobstering activity and paraphernalia; our appetite was whetted. A resident directed us to The Fisherman's Friend Restaurant.
"Their claim to fame is that Billy Joel and Christy Brinkley ate there once," she said. We decided to follow Billy and Christy's example and give it a try. Of course we ordered the stuffed lobster, which came with two vegetable side dishes and bread. We were served huge lobsters, literally hanging over the plate edges. The price for this feast was unexpectedly reasonable. The fact the certain celebrities were rumored to have eaten there didn't impress us nearly as much as the fine food. It was exquisite.
Not only did we hold certain mental images of how we thought the landscape would look, but also of the cold, brusque New Englanders we have all seen portrayed in movies. We found that image doesn't hold on Deer Isle. Residents waved or spoke, whether we passed on foot or by auto.
The village of Stonington is the quintessential New England fishing village. We understand the fascination the area held for Eliot Porter, the famous photographer. The entire area begs to be photographed or painted. The rugged shoreline, the 12-foot sea level change between high and low tides producing an ever-changing landscape beckon the artist. The pine forests of the island implore exploration. We have always been impressed with the beautiful blue water of the Caribbean. However, Deer Isle has the bluest we have ever observed. It is a different quality of blue; deep, resonant. It is a blue of substance.
The Nature Conservancy maintains Barred Island Reserve on Deer Isle. One morning we decided to take a walk through the pines of the reserve. The forest floor was a soft, thick carpet of pine needles accumulated through many years. On that particular morning it was very misty. The morning fog shrouded the majestic pines. As we walked, the needle carpet cushioned our steps. The loudest sound heard was the cooing of the breeze through the pine boughs. The trees grow so close together we could hardly picture a moose fitting through. They must, for a few miles down the road we had seen a sign with a large moose silhouette painted on it, "moose crossing."
Tourism hasn't really taken root on Deer Isle, not like Bar Harbor and other touristy locations. Life centers around fishing. One store that caught our attention was Island Fishing Gear and Auto Parts--two things we usually don't consider together. The store is there to serve the residents, not our ideas of merchandising. In many island families the tradition of fishing goes back for generations. It is a lifestyle they love. We noticed several galleries featuring the works of local artists, which may be a sign that tourism is catching on.
One evening we decided to simply relax in our room, a second-floor suite at Goose Cove Resort. One side of the room features several windows overlooking the ocean. Another side faces west. We sat windows open slightly, the setting sun warming our backs as we read. The rhythmic, melodious sound of lapping waves drifted in on the evening breeze. We soon laid aside the reading material, merely basking in the sun's warmth, entranced by the soothing sounds. As we looked out to sea, we saw something bobbing in the waves. It looked like a basketball, but it was black. Quickly fitting a camera with a telephoto lens for a closer look, we saw it was a seal swimming to some unknown destination. In the foreground was a resort guest strolling the beach. His hands were thrust in his pockets, and a half-smile graced his face. He stooped, picking something from the sand, then placed it back on the beach. He stood erect, looked out to sea, then turned and continued his unhurried stroll--apparently not noticing the seal just beyond him. He, too, was apparently caught up in this wonderful "Down East" experience that is Deer Isle.
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