Musings from Maine
Down East editors discuss burying Maine's power lines, a dairy's solar sense, and more.
Staying on the Air
The First Radio Parish Church of America learns people are listening.
In 1926 commercial radio was still such a new invention that Maine country boys were listening to local stations on homemade crystal radios built from a piece of quartz and some wire wrapped around a nail. On February 26 of that year, some of them heard the Reverend Howard O. Hough give the initial broadcast of the First Radio Parish Church of America over a fledgling radio station, WCSH-AM, broadcasting from the top of the Eastland Hotel in Portland.
Hough’s nonsectarian homilies were the birth of what is now the oldest broadcast church in the nation. Each morning at 6:15 the Reverend Peter Panagore, the church’s fifth pastor in eighty-two years, gives a two-minute talk of hope, reflection, and encouragement, ending with a brief prayer, on WCSH television (Channel 6) and its sister station in Bangor, WLBZ (Channel 2), as well as on the radio and the Internet (www.dailydevotions.org). The broadcasts still honor the promise of the original owner, Henry Rines, to give the church free airtime, a contribution Panagore estimates is worth a million dollars a year.
But the electronic church that survived the Great Depression of the 1930s was tottering late last year as the faltering economy and personal illness threatened its major funding source, an anonymous donor who had underwritten as much as 60 percent of the church’s $120,000 annual budget.
Panagore says the church’s future was seriously in doubt, despite his best efforts to raise money through grants or business contributions. Making a public appeal for donations went against eight decades of church tradition.
“We’d never done it. My predecessor had said don’t ever do it,” Panagore explains. “So I went to my board, and they said, ‘What have we got to lose?’ ”
Panagore broadcast five shows explaining what was happening and how listeners could help. “So far, we’ve increased our online donor base to 455 people, compared to the thirty we had before,” he reports. “Letters have flowed in with checks. I don’t know how much we’ve received in total yet, but I believe that because of the response of our viewership we’re going to stay on the air.”
Panagore describes himself as stunned at the support. “One of the things I don’t have the opportunity to see clearly is who our audience is,” he notes. “It’s not like standing in a pulpit and looking out over your congregation.” Now Panagore knows a lot of people are looking back, and they like what they see. And the country’s oldest electronic church will stay on the air for a good while to come.
Burying power lines could be stimulating.
Almost every severe storm these days is accompanied by news stories of power outages around the state, such as the ice storm in December that left some Mainers without electricity for a week before repair crews arrived. Having a generator stashed in the garage has become second nature, and many homeowners keep some form of nonelectric backup heat, such as a woodstove, on hand just in case.
The outages are inevitable in a state where almost all the power lines are strung from tall wooden poles. Trees and branches fall on the wires, ice builds up on them, high winds twist them back and forth. Which raises the inevitable question — why run power lines out in the open at all? European countries routinely bury their electric lines. Why can’t Maine?
“Generally because it’s very costly,” explains Gail Rice, spokesperson for Central Maine Power. Burying power lines costs about ten times as much as running them on poles — about a million dollars a mile, according to a study by the Edison Electric Institute. And Maine’s granite substructure doesn’t make the job any easier, Rice adds. “Maine has so much ledge just below the surface,” she points out. Burying the lines would take a lot of digging and blasting and even more money to get below the frost line.
Obviously what the project needs is an economic stimulus, and the new president might be just the person to ask about it. President Barack Obama has said he’s looking for “shovel-ready” infrastructure improvement projects. Maybe Maine has one in the pipeline, so to speak.
How common were lobsters before Columbus?
The shell heaps known as middens dot the Maine coast, remnants of long ago oyster feasts by our state’s original Native American inhabitants. Archaeologists love them, because the alkaline environment created by the shells helps preserve other artifacts that otherwise would quickly disappear in Maine’s acidic soil and harsh climate, such as pottery and animal and fish bones thrown onto what were essentially trash heaps. (A Viking penny turned up in a midden in Brooklin in 1957.) The middens provide a window into the lives of Maine natives dating back five millennia.
Yet the middens are also interesting for what isn’t found there — lobster shells. “I’ve looked at a lot of shell middens and haven’t seen them,” notes Brian Robinson, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Maine. Nor are crab shells commonly found either, he adds. “The only crab shell remains I know of have been charred in a fire,” he says.
Arthur Spiess, the senior archaeologist at the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, compares the shells to fingernails. “They’re protein, and they rot away very quickly,” Spiess explains. “The only exception is if they’re burned, and we have recovered fragments from hearth areas.”
But the fragments are rare, and they raise the question of how common lobsters were along the coast before European settlement. Some marine biologists argue that the surge in lobster catches over the past couple of decades is tied directly to the loss of stocks of predators like cod and haddock. Was the abundance of lobsters that early colonists found when they arrived linked to the heavy fishing along the coast that preceded them?
Certainly Indians harvested more than oysters from the shore and the Gulf of Maine. The middens have preserved abundant seal bones, fish remains, and even fish scales. “So we know something was going on,” Robinson says, adding that even the sites that have yielded relatively fragile fish scales don’t have lobster or crab shells.
Spiess says Indians were known to harvest lobsters for consumption. “We have great ethnographic accounts of Native Americans picking them up along the shore,” he notes.
Shell heaps research continues to offer insights into Maine’s past. Although the vast majority are less than three thousand years old, the oldest middens in Maine date back about five thousand years, Robinson says. Older ones, he explains, “were almost certainly covered with water” as shorelines shifted and water levels rose at the end of the last Ice Age. So even if lobster shells aren’t buried in them, contemporary crustaceans may be living on top of them.
One Mainer to Another
“We left the city with three objectives in mind. The first was economic. We sought to make a depression-free living, as independent as possible of the commodity and labor markets, which could not be interfered with by employers, whether businessmen, politicians, or educational administrators. Our second aim was hygienic. We wanted to maintain and improve our health. We knew that the pressures of city life were exacting, and we sought a simple basis of well-being where contact with the earth, and home-grown organic food, would play a large part.
Our third objective was social and ethical. We decided to liberate and disassociate, as much as possible, from the cruder forms of exploitation: the plunder of the planet; the slavery of man and beast; the slaughter of men in war, and of animals for food . . . .”
—Scott and Helen Nearing,
Living the Good Life, 1970
How come Maine doesn’t have any for-profit hospitals?
Anyone looking at healthcare in Maine would be struck by a peculiar fact: Maine is one of the handful of states that do not have privately owned, for-profit hospitals. All thirty-nine of the state’s medical centers are nonprofits. Steven Michaud, president of the Maine Hospital Association, says the answer is simple. For-profit hospitals need to make a profit, and that’s tough to do in Maine.
“We don’t have the critical mass [of population] necessary to put one of those hospitals in and make money,” Michaud explains. “And second, the regulatory and payment environments here are very poor. If you’re in the business to make money with a hospital, Maine is a tough place to do that.”
Michaud could recall only one tentative attempt at establishing a for-profit hospital in the state in recent years. “Back in the late 1990s, Columbia/HCA talked about expanding to all fifty states,” he says. “That never happened, and it doesn’t seem likely now.”
Sunny Side Up
A Portland dairy shows good solar sense.
Bill Bennett, president of the family-owned Oakhurst Dairy in Portland, is feeling pretty prescient these days. Two years ago, when he signed a contract with Ascendant Energy, of Rockland, to install two hundred thousand dollars worth of solar hot-water panels on the roof of his plant, he was paying $1.89 a gallon for heating oil at his Forest Avenue facility. Today, with prices nearing three dollars a gallon, “Our payback has gotten a lot quicker,” he notes wryly.
The installation is the most obvious example of a new attitude that Maine businesses are showing toward alternate energy proposals, and it’s no surprise that Oakhurst would be among the leaders. Its delivery trucks burn biofuel, and its car fleet already includes several gas-electric hybrids. “We try to be as green as possible,” says Bennett. “Besides, we’ve got a lot of real estate up there on the roofs of these buildings. We may as well put it to use.”
Kurt Penney, of Ascendant Energy, says the 2,700 square feet of solar collectors should save 4,500 to 5,000 gallons of heating oil a year while providing hot water for the plant’s case washer and its domestic hot water system. An associated wastewater heat-recovery system will save another 2,500 gallons. Penney says the panels circulate food-grade glycol through a heat exchanger to heat the water. The glycol allows the panels to keep working through the winter.
The solar panels have a design life of forty years, so even if it takes ten years to pay back the initial investment, “it’s free hot water for at least thirty years,” says Bennett. He says some of his business colleagues worry about the long payback times. “That thinking has been changing in the last year or two,” he adds. “This project is starting to turn heads, and that was one of the results we hoped for. Besides, it’s the right thing to do.”
Indeed, it’s hard to find anything wrong with saving money, reducing oil consumption, and helping the environment all at the same time. You might almost say it does a (milk) business good.
Found in Uncle Henry’s
I still have thirty T-shirts. They are new and still in the package. All the same. Adult small with a bank logo. What the heck they are free. Cannot mail or deliver. Belfast, ME.