Schoodic: The Secret Side of Acadia
A dramatic corner of Acadia National Park and one of the last great Down East fishing communities.
- By: Virginia M. Wright
- Photography by: rgbpixels
Did the lobsterboats wake you at 4:30?” innkeeper Megan Moshier called brightly from the kitchen, which was emanating an enticing aroma of baked apple pancakes. No, I told her, I slept like a log. “My grandmother used to say that it was her favorite sound,” Megan said. I imagined Elsa Alley, who raised four children in this gabled nineteenth-century home, snug in her bed, listening for husband Carroll’s boat among the dozens of engines roaring to life across the road in Prospect Harbor.
The scene outside Elsa’s Inn on the Harbor, which Megan and Glenn Moshier own with Megan’s parents, Jeff and Cindy Alley, is much as it was when Carroll Alley fished here. True, Stinson Seafood, the last sardine cannery on the eastern seaboard, no longer sits on a wharf that flexed and twisted over storm-churned waves, but securely on land in the shadow of a gigantic fisherman bearing a can of Beach Cliff Sardines. And true, the lobsterboats are bigger and no doubt louder than they were when Elsa lay listening to them. Nevertheless, these working vessels, not pleasure boats, fill the harbor, just as lobster traps and buoys adorn lawns up and down the entire Schoodic Peninsula. Fishing is not a relic here as it has become in ports south. It permeates every facet of the culture and economy.
“My father, grandfather, and great grandfather were all lobstermen,” Jeff Alley told me one afternoon in Elsa’s parlor. “My grandfather moved here in the late 1930s and he lobstered until he was seventy-six. My dad lobstered until he was seventy-nine. He got sick when he had traps in the water, and he died with traps in the water. My brother and I went out and brought his traps in.”
Lobstering was the last thing Alley, now sixty, wanted to do when he graduated high school. He joined the army, spending six years in Germany, and another three at bases around the United States. “I would come home on leave and my father and brother would be talking about fishing,” he recalled. “It was a family thing, and I wanted to be part of it. Once I got started, I found I really did love it.” He and his son, Jeff Jr., own two of the twenty commercial lobsterboats that fish year-round from Prospect Harbor. There are about one hundred and fifty licensed lobster fishermen peninsula-wide.
“You find that story of moving away and coming back here a lot,” Megan said. She grinned. “I knew I wasn’t coming back.” After college, she worked in the hospitality industry in Washington, Honolulu, Philadelphia, and, finally, Boston. Expecting their first child and wrestling with how to minimize his time in day care, she and Glenn wistfully recalled their own carefree childhoods on the peninsula. A few months later, they were managing J.M. Gerrish Provisions, Winter Harbor’s beloved ice cream parlor, with baby Andrew snug in a pack on Megan’s back.
Now eight, Andrew and his younger brother, Emmett, practically live outdoors, riding their bikes, building tree houses, playing freely. “I know they’re safe, and they have all the opportunities for programmed activities that kids in more urban areas have, but none of the stress,” Megan said. “Things haven’t changed much here since I was a kid. Most people don’t even lock their doors. In winter, we leave the cars running while we go into the IGA. We live a way of life that no longer exists in most parts of this country.”
Best known for hosting a 2,366-acre sea-swept section of Acadia National Park, the Schoodic Peninsula is, in the minds of locals, at least, where Down East Maine really begins. The claim is not hard to defend. As soon as you leave wide, fast Route 1, the countryside opens up and the pace slows down, whether you choose Route 195, which runs straight down the peninsula’s center to Prospect Harbor, or Route 186, which loops the coastline like a necklace. Both two-lane roads pass coves, ponds, blueberry barrens, and mossy heaths. The pines, draped with lichen like Spanish moss, are stunted by Atlantic winds, so the land is exposed and bright.
Sea and shore are not merely scenery. They are the means of livelihood for the fishermen who harvest lobster, scallops, and urchins, and for the one hundred-and-twenty-five people who work at Stinson Seafood, the peninsula’s largest employer. Some folks follow the seasons. They dig clams and bloodworms, make wreathes, rake blueberries, cut wood, farm. Even the artists and craftspeople depend on the environment; it is their inspiration.
Tourism is important, too, but it has not subsumed the peninsula. This part of Acadia attracts about 250,000 visitors a year, about one-tenth the number that jams the park’s much larger (30,300 acres) section on Mount Desert Island, an hour’s drive west. With its sweeping views of MDI and the pounding surf at Schoodic Point, Acadia’s Schoodic District is high on natural drama, yet a low-key recreational experience. Except for a few hiking trails leading to 440-foot Schoodic Head, the park encourages meandering, contemplative exploration rather than sweaty physical challenges.
The laid-back pace is reflected in the peninsula’s two towns, Winter Harbor (population: 988) and Gouldsboro (population: 1,941). Together they host a handful of restaurants, several B-and-Bs, and one small motel. More than one hundred years ago, two Boston businessmen seized on much this same atmosphere to sell lots at Grindstone Neck in Winter Harbor, then part of Gouldsboro. Wealthy rusticators seeking a quiet alternative to Bar Harbor built grand cottages overlooking island-studded Frenchman’s Bay. Boasting its own wharves, a golf course, swimming pool, and tennis courts, the summer colony forever altered community dynamics, not least because Winter Harbor quickly seceded in order to reap the benefits for itself. The town developed as the only peninsula village with a commercial core, albeit a tiny and charming one overlooking its namesake, a deep, sheltered cove that has never been closed by ice.
Grindstone’s cottagers have been generous, none more so than banking heir and former owner of the Philadelphia 76ers Fitz Eugene Dixon, Jr., who was born on the neck in the summer of 1923. Listed three times in Forbes as one of the four hundred richest Americans, Dixon gave to causes small and large. He built the peninsula’s only supermarket, helped fund Winter Harbor’s gymnasium, and every summer laid down a hundred dollars for a single pecan pie at the Acadia Community Women’s Club’s bazaar. In 2002, when the U.S. Navy closed its Schoodic Point, Winter Harbor, and Corea facilities, Dixon gave what many regard as his
finest gift by renovating and marketing the housing that was being turned over to the town. “All he wanted was reimbursement for his expenses,” Winter Harbor Town Manager Roger Barto says, “but in the end he not only returned $4.75 million for the housing, he also donated his lawyer’s fees, about $250,000, because he thought they were too high.” Dixon died in 2006, but his gift keeps giving — the town uses the interest to pay for public improvements, such as the sidewalks, benches, and streetlights that were installed this spring.
By contrast, another multimillionaire summer resident, Roxanne Quimby, has some folks scratching their heads. The Burt’s Bees founder is a controversial figure in northern Maine for acquiring vast tracts of land that she hopes will someday be a national park (she has also purchased roughly forty acres on MDI, all parcels that are part of Acadia’s long-term acquisition plan). In Winter Harbor, residents chafed when Quimby bought and razed several village houses shortly after moving to town a few years ago. She replaced one of the buildings, a rambling Victorian that old-timers fondly recall as “Dr. Holt’s place,” with Mama’s Boy, an upscale restaurant that is bigger than anything else on Main Street except perhaps the old meetinghouse, Hammond Hall. A gift for Quimby’s chef son who ran it just two seasons, Mama’s Boy has been closed since 2006. Likewise, weeds grow on another former house lot where four years ago Quimby offered to build a village green. “She seems to have lost interest,” Barto says. “Maybe she felt people were making too many off-the-wall demands, but she asked for the input and she got it.”
Gouldsboro’s reputation as a summering place, meanwhile, is relatively new. Seasonal homeowners have been trickling onto the peninsula over the last fifteen to twenty years, but in sprawling Gouldsboro, the visual impact is dispersed among the villages of Birch Harbor, Corea, Prospect Harbor, and South and West Gouldsboro. “Bar Harbor has always had the really affluent people, and it was very rare that you’d find a million-dollar home on this side of Frenchman’s Bay other than at Grindstone Neck,” says Paul Tracy, a fourth-generation owner of the Winter Harbor Agency, an insurance and real estate firm. “Now we’re seeing more and more of those big homes ourselves.”
Given the way their paths diverged, it’s not surprising that the towns developed a rivalry, often exuberantly expressed at school basketball games, a popular pastime here, according to Tracy, whose great grandfather was a Winter Harbor secessionist. Two recent school crises, however, have strengthened ties. When their grammar school was shuttered by mold, 157 Gouldsboro students were eagerly welcomed at the Winter Harbor school, whose enrollment had plunged from 175 to 28 students after the navy left town. This fall, students from both towns will enter a brand new consolidated grammar school in Prospect Harbor. “There’s more cooperation between the towns now,” Tracy observes, “but I’ve always thought of us as one community. We go to the same benefit suppers and the same Little League games. We all shop at the IGA and have coffee at Chase’s.”
The peninsula is still adjusting to life without the navy, which employed 270 officers and enlisted personnel and 145 civilians. “Our biggest loss is in social capital — the diversity of people and the volunteers who coached school teams, worked at the libraries, and ran the lobster festival,” Roger Barstow says. “The navy families helped with just about anything we asked them to do. When a large group of people in their twenties and thirties leave, you’re left with a much older community.”
The economic impact has been mixed. The sale of navy housing brought in new residents, mostly summer people, and that’s been good for some businesses. “They use the restaurants, the IGA, me,” says agent Paul Tracy. “They have to buy insurance, order home heating oil, buy gas. A lot more money is being spread around.”
Pete Drinkwater, however, finds things neither better nor worse at his Winter Harbor 5 & 10. (Shoppers love to challenge the store’s motto: “Everything from A to Z, aspirins to zippers.” Drinkwater almost always has what they’re looking for.) He stocks fewer Halloween costumes and Christmas lights and more garden ornaments and sunscreen. He misses the young families. “Businesses have come and gone because they can’t make a go of it on a four-month season,” Drinkwater says. “We’d all like to see more year-round people, but we need the businesses to employ them.”
The arts have come into prominence, thanks to Schoodic Arts for All, which responded to the base closure with a campaign to save Hammond Hall, a magnificent 1904 meetinghouse on Winter Harbor’s Main Street that was slated to be burned for fire practice (Fitz Dixon got the ball rolling with a fifty thousand-dollar donation). The organization has since filled the space year-round with concerts, plays, art exhibits, and classes, and its monthly coffeehouses are valued as much for their music as for their sociability. Programs peak in early August with the Schoodic Arts Festival that this summer boasts nearly thirty performances and eighty workshops. The center also supports the Schoodic International Sculpture Symposium, a fledgeling event that brings sculptors from around the world to Acadia National Park from late July to early September. Working outdoors, the artists create large granite public artworks for Maine communities. “We’ve addressed the local economy in a very measurable way,” the center’s executive director, Mary Laury, says. “We’re a very community-based art center that is a centerpiece for downtown renovation. Sixteen creative businesses have moved to the Schoodic Peninsula since we began our programs at Hammond Hall.”
The navy’s Schoodic Point headquarters, meanwhile, have been returned to the land’s original owner, Acadia National Park, which is converting the base into the stunning seaside campus of the Schoodic Education and Research Center (SERC), whose mission is to advance science and learning. “At the time the base was being decommissioned, about twenty of these new science and learning centers were being created throughout the national park system,” explains Dennis O’Brien, executive director of the nonprofit Acadia Partners for Science and Learning, which was created to carry out the conversion. “Acadia National Park made a gutsy call because this one is many orders of magnitude bigger than the others. We’re taking advantage of the facilities — there are thirty-six major buildings — and we want to be an economic engine for the community.”
Though it is still very much a work in progress, SERC has already raised the profile of Acadia’s eastern side by hosting a diverse collection of science scholars, from the thirty-five entomologists who spent several days collecting and identifying butterflies to the seven hundred Maine middle schoolers who conducted biological research in the park. The goal, O’Brien says, is a twelve-month operation with forty full- and part-time employees.
The lobsterboats woke me my last morning in Prospect Harbor. I stole to the window to watch the boats depart and wondered if the peninsula’s unadorned beauty and the relative subtlety of the tourist economy lulls residents into thinking their home is immune to change.
Later in the day, Dana Rice, Gouldsboro’s harbormaster and a lobster dealer, talked as if he’d heard my thoughts. “People think we’re far enough east that tourism won’t overwhelm us,” he asserted, “but Bar Harbor is just five or six miles across the bay, and it’s a tourist trap. It hasn’t happened here yet almost by accident. My fear is that when the economy turns around, it will hit us like a tidal wave. Let’s let the tourists bring the dollars and enjoy what we take for granted, but let’s also make sure our children and grand-children can have jobs.”
Rice met me at a deteriorated 120-year-old lobster pound that he purchased for $345,000 at a foreclosure auction this spring. “My family has a long association with this pound,” said Rice, whose great grandfather and father-in-law were pound keepers there, “but I didn’t do this for sentimental reasons. I’m completely dedicated to locking this in as a working waterfront long after I’m done with it.”
A former fisherman himself, Rice buys as much as 18,000 pounds of lobster a day during peak season. He plans to rebuild the pound, which has five hundred feet of water frontage in Bunkers Harbor. “The lobstering industry and the herring industry are about the two only viable fisheries in the state of Maine today, and very few people away from the waterfront realize how important they are to the state economy,” he said. “Everyone knows tourism is a big thing in the state, but 90 percent of the tourists come to see the fishing communities.”
There are signs that the peninsula is indeed on the cusp of transformation. There are, for example, the million-dollar homes that Paul Tracy talked about, a construction trend that cooled when the national economy went sour. The potential for far more rapid and sweeping change, however, is packaged in a controversial proposal for a mammoth resort that could have as many as one thousand seasonal homes, two hotels, a golf course, and environmental education centers on three thousand wooded acres adjacent to Acadia National Park. After a flurry of news reports last year, little has been heard from the developer, Winter Harbor Properties, a group of twenty investors who have so far remained anonymous. In December, two Maine firms hired to help develop the project quit, citing philosophical disagreements and difficulties getting paid.
Park officials and conservation groups are opposed to the project, which they say would break up wildlife habitat and compromise the isolated beauty of Schoodic Head. Many residents, though, are withholding judgment as they cautiously await details. “I know why I and a lot of other people moved here: The area is unique and we don’t want to mess it up,” says Peter Drinkwater, who serves on the Winter Harbor Planning Board and the Schoodic Scenic Byway Corridor Management Committee. “But if they follow the subdivision ordinance and byway rules, they could do something very nice.”
Roger Barto agrees: “I think a carefully planned development could work here,” he says. “In order for the town to continue to grow, it’s got to have some place to grow into. If you tie it all up in conservancy, as some people want, you lose the tax dollars.”
Rice, too, says he’s not necessarily opposed to the project — or any other development that comes the Schoodic Peninsula’s way. “In the next ten or twenty years, there are going to be some huge changes on this peninsula,” he predicts. “It’s our responsibility to realize what could happen in just one generation. We can seek a happy medium. We need to protect the lobster-fishing community. Without it, there’d be nothing here. It would just be a resort.”
If You Go
The drive from Bar Harbor to the Schoodic Peninsula takes about one hour. During the summer, a ferry travels between Bar Harbor and Winter Harbor. The Island Explorer’s free shuttle service also serves Schoodic from June 23 to Aug. 31. There is no entrance fee. For more information, visit the park’s Web site at www.nps.gov/acad or call 207-288-3338.
- By: Virginia M. Wright
- Photography by: rgbpixels