Down East 2013 ©
CLOSING THE PUMPS
Are small Maine gas stations a dying breed?
Whoever is making money on Maine’s record fuel prices, it isn’t the gas stations selling it, and some of them are closing as a result. Although no one keeps definitive figures, both state government and industry officials say they are noticing a steady decline in the number of active gasoline outlets in Maine. For example, Route 1 between Bath and Waldoboro has seen at least four stations close in recent years, with no new ones taking their places.
“There’s no money on this end of the nozzle, I can tell you that,” says Jeff Pinkham, of Waldoboro, who this summer is having the underground storage tanks removed at his Route 1 service station, founded sixty-three years ago by his grandfather. Pinkham saw the writing on the wall almost three years ago, when he closed his pumps as an experiment to concentrate on repairs and tires. “I don’t miss them at all,” he says.
Jamie Py, president of the Maine Oil Dealers Association, says high fuel prices are creating a major cash-flow squeeze for retail gasoline outlets, especially the independents. “If a ten-thousand-gallon tanker comes into a gas station with wholesale gas at $3.50 a gallon, the owner has to come up with $35,000 immediately,” he explains. “Meanwhile, that gasoline is going to sit in the tanks until the owner can sell it.”
Additionally, the profit margin on a gallon of gasoline is so low that if a customer uses a credit card, the card company’s fee often wipes out the profit. “Your local guy operates on a very low margin,” offers Py, who notes that a convenience store makes more selling a cup of coffee than a gallon of gasoline.
“A credit card fee of 2 or 2.5 percent on four-dollar gasoline is a ton more than the profit margin on that gallon.”
That was true even when Pinkham was selling gasoline for $2.29. “The credit card companies were taking 3.01 percent,” he recalls. Today he operates strictly by cash or check, he adds.
Other factors, such as government recordkeeping requirements, environmental regulations, and problems finding and keeping good employees, also play a role. “The truth of the matter is that retailers are not making a heck of a lot of money on gasoline these days,” Py says. “We just have the big signs with the bad news.” He expects to see the shrinkage in gasoline outlets continue for the foreseeable future.
“There’s no money selling gasoline anymore,” says Pinkham. “I’ve done very well getting out of the gasoline business. I’ve got a smile on my face these days.”
If only the same could be said for Maine motorists.
LOST IN THE MAIL
A letter from an old friend makes us miss him all the more.
It’s not every day that we receive a letter from E.B. White in the mail. Granted, this one came via his granddaughter, Martha White, not the man himself. And it wasn’t addressed to us but rather to his goddaughter, Dorothy Lobrano. And if we’re telling the truth, it came over e-mail, making us nostalgic for the days when we used to open a crisply sealed envelope to reveal this kind of treasure inside. Nonetheless, it is a treasure we thought we’d share, a particularly funny commentary from one of Maine’s most famous authors (nicknamed Andy) on fellow Maine writer Ruth Moore’s novel
A Fair Wind Home.
To Dorothy Lobrano
229 East 48 [New York]
16 May 
I’ve just finished A Fair Wind Home and it gave me a fine time. Thanks for sending it and for the other Ruth Moore book. She is certainly a natural storyteller and when she gets her hooks in you, there is no escape. I think one reason she’s so good is that she has such affection for the people she’s writing about: there is just no substitute for that kind of emotion. Of course, like all historical novelists, she occasionally gives my credulity an awful shaking up. When Frank Carnavon throws Lizabeth into the sea from the deck of the Turkey Feather, climbs down a rope ladder, cuts the skiff free, and then finds Lizabeth dog-paddling her way to the boat, I began to tremble with the violent intensity of disbelief. I even started to do a little quiet arithmetic on the side. The Turkey Feather was running before a gale, which means that she was probably doing about nine knots — but we will call it eight to be conservative. Eight knots is roughly 48,000 feet per hour, or eight hundred feet per minute. I figure that Frank Carnavon, a heavy man, must have taken at least a minute to scramble down the ladder and cut himself adrift, but we will give Miss Moore the benefit of the doubt and say that he was able to manage it in forty-five seconds — a very credible performance in a gale. That means that when the skiff dropped free of the ship, Lizabeth was left approximately six hundred feet behind, or more than six times the distance between third base and home. “God help all,” thought Carnavon, and I echoed his thought. The woman had all her clothes on, presumably didn’t know much about swimming, and was surrounded by cresting waves. Carnavon describes her as “a good, sweet woman, honest as the day,” but I think she was far more than that, if she made it to the skiff. She was practically Esther Williams.
Lots of love,
Boy, do we miss him.
A river changes course and drastically alters the face of Maine’s most popular day-use park.
Most visitors to Maine are drawn here by the state’s natural beauty, but people stopping by Popham Beach this summer will learn firsthand that Mother Nature can be as unpredictable as she is beautiful. For generations, beachgoers have been able to wander out at low tide to the tiny lump of grass, rock, and sand that is Fox Island, as the receding water left behind a sandbar that served as a neat natural walkway. This spring, though, the Morse River eroded that sandbar enough to create a full-time breach, and the river now flows eastward along the beach rather than turning to the southwest as it had done previously. A trip to the island is not out of the question, especially for adults, but park manager Brian Murray says such an excursion now requires much more care, and everyone venturing to the island should consult a lifeguard first. “Even at low tide, you’re knee-deep,” Murray says. “Someone could easily get stranded now if they’re not watching the tide, as from about mid-tide on you’re stuck out there.”
The river’s new path has had another, perhaps even more dramatic, impact on Popham by removing much of the sand on the western side of the park. Murray says that at high tide, the beach is about half the size it used to be. Low tide still affords plenty of wide-open sandy expanses for visitors to stretch out on, but at high tide visitors might need to put their beach towels a bit closer together than they did last year.
While this year’s breach is one of the most dramatic in recent memory, geologists point out that the Morse River has previously cut off Fox Island from Popham in 1964, 1972, and 1987, suggesting the phenomenon occurs about every ten to fifteen years. Murray hopes that for visitors’ sake, Mother Nature rebuilds the sandbar even more quickly this time. “Who knows, in two or three years it may be the old Popham again,” he remarks.
SINKING JET SKIS
The court puts a damper on personal watercraft.
Personal watercraft, often called Jet Skis after one of the most popular brands, raise almost as many emotions as ATVs. Those who own and use them love them. Those who have to listen to them and share the outdoors with them — well, not so much. The latter group breathed a sigh of relief in May when the Maine Supreme Court, just in time for boating season, issued a ruling that upheld towns’ ability to limit or ban Jet Skis from local lakes and ponds.
The case involved Camden resident and Lake St. George camp owner Mark W. Haskell, who in 2005 deliberately operated his new personal watercraft on Lake St. George to challenge a ban passed by the Liberty town meeting. A Waldo County Superior Court judge originally agreed with Haskell and said the state law allowing the prohibition was unreasonable, but the Supreme Court overturned the ruling.
Haskell says he challenged the law because he felt it unfairly discriminated against Jet Skis. The ban, he says, stems from a small group of youngsters who “tore up the lake” with rented personal watercraft one summer. “I don’t blame folks for being mad,” Haskell says, “but you don’t punish everyone for the acts of a few.”
Popular sentiment against the craft goes back to the 1990s, when the fast, nimble, and noisy little watercraft first became common. Users were accused of harassing wildlife, disturbing the peacefulness many lakefront camp owners relish, and creating dangers by buzzing swimmers and canoes [Down East, July 1997]. In the late 1990s, the legislature passed a bill allowing towns to ban Jet Skis. The machines are now prohibited on some sixty water bodies in various municipalities, as well as throughout the Unorganized Territories.
“Folks around here had a lot of issues with [personal watercraft] in the past,” explains Liberty first selectwoman Judith Miller. “That’s why the ban on them was pursued in the first place.” A public hearing and two separate town votes on the issue produced little opposition.
As for Haskell, he plans to continue his fight for Jet Ski freedom. “On July Fourth I’m going to the lake and going for a boat ride,” he promises. “We’re going back to court.”
A pirate and his Bible haunt the Old York Historical Society.
Maine has a long history of association with pirates, of both the skull and bones and white-collar varieties [See page 86], but none of them impressed the Devil the way William Trickey did — or left the proof in a cursed Bible. The Bible lives on in the vaults of the Old York Historical Society. Trickey, it’s said, also lives on, a ghost haunting the local shore.
Trickey was a sometime fisherman who lived in the marshland between Kittery and York in the late 1700s. Known for a nasty temper and a penchant for piracy, Trickey supposedly committed such foul misdeeds that he attracted the attention of Satan himself, says Scott Stevens, the society’s executive director. The Devil cursed Trickey to spend eternity trying to bind and haul sand with a rope. “According to the legend, he haunts a cove in Brave Boat Harbor,” Stevens explains. “On windy nights his voice can still be heard calling for more sand and more rope.”
Trickey’s Bible was similarly cursed, according to Stevens. It refuses to open, legend says, and even when pried apart, its covers snap together again with great force.
Stevens says the Bible, printed in London in 1702, is only one of the many unusual items the society holds in its collections. The Old York Gaol opened as a museum in 1900, and “it received items from a lot of the old families in town,” he says. “I don’t know of a local collection anywhere with a similar scale, breadth, and depth.” The society’s nine buildings hold fine furniture, ceramics, clothing, textiles, and much more, including a display of American folk art that is part of this summer’s Folk Art Trail.
As for Trickey’s Bible, “it’s sitting on a shelf right now, closed,” Stevens notes, “but we can open it if you want.” When allowed to fall open on its own, “it favors Proverbs,” Stevens adds.
How can the Pine Tree State be short of shavings?
The Damariscotta River once supported some of the most productive oyster beds in the Northeast, so rich that local Indians camped all summer on its shores and left behind shell heaps twenty feet high. Sawmill operators in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries destroyed them by dumping untold tons of sawdust into the river as a way to dispose of an unwanted byproduct.
These days, those sawmills would be making more money off the sawdust than they would their lumber. Strange as it sounds in a state with as many trees as Maine, the Pine Tree State is suffering from a sawdust shortage. Shavings, too. It’s another of the unintended consequences of an economic downturn combined with soaring demand for a material that many sawmill operators once cursed as waste.
“Sawdust is going for fifty dollars a ton and more, up from twenty dollars just a year ago,” says Peter Lammert, a forester with the Department of Conservation. “Dairy farmers prefer sawdust for bedding. The number of horses is up, too, and they use sawdust and shavings for bedding as well. Plus you have increased demand from wood pellet mills. The mills started without any way to generate the raw material they needed, and now they’re looking for sources. And many sawmills burn waste wood and sawdust to generate power and heat their kilns.”
The increased demand is countered by a decline in the national construction industry that has Maine sawmills cutting production or closing altogether.
“Voila,” Lammert says. “The law of supply and demand kicks in, and prices go through the roof.”
Lammert says prices have risen so high that some sawmill owners have considered milling low-quality lumber into sawdust and shavings rather than boards and beams. Farmers are turning to everything from ground corncobs to shredded newspaper for bedding. “This housing disruption is causing multitudinous upheavals in many sectors,” Lammert adds. Too bad those old sawmill owners on the Damariscotta didn’t leave sawdust behind the way the Indians did oyster shells.
PILOT CRACKER IN PERIL
Once again Nabisco is threatening to stop making Maine’s favorite chowder accessory.
For Donna Damon, the second death of the Nabisco Crown Pilot cracker is déjà vu all over again. “You’d think they’d have learned the first time,” Damon, of Chebeague Island, says of Kraft Foods’ decision to shut down production of the cracker that has given chowder its traditional crunch for more than two centuries. Damon and Maine food historian and writer Sandy Oliver, of Islesboro, are coordinating a campaign to persuade the international corporate giant to reconsider. And if it won’t, at least let us make our own.
Crown Pilot crackers, a form of unsalted hardtack or ship’s bread, were first made in 1792 by a Massachusetts bakery and quickly found favor as the perfect accompaniment for chowders of all sorts. Nabisco bought the bakery a century later. Then, in 1996, Nabisco dropped the cracker, citing declining sales and limited regional demand. The company revived it in 1997 in the face of a concerted campaign from consumers that culminated in humorist Tim Sample appealing for its return on his CBS Sunday Morning report.
Now Damon, the organizer of that earlier effort, is trying to repeat the miracle. But in 2000 Nabisco itself was bought by Kraft, one of the largest food corporations in the world, and getting the ear of a giant may be more of a challenge. “It’s a different cast of characters now,” Damon acknowledges, noting that in 1996 she had the home phone number of the advertising executive in charge of the Pilot cracker account. Today all she has is the same 1-800 number the general public uses.
As much as she hopes “they’re just testing the waters to see what the reaction is,” she suspects Kraft may take a firmer position on the cracker’s fate. She says the decision must date back to at least late last year, when a reporter doing a ten-year retrospective on the Pilot cracker battle called Nabisco and was told to “please don’t write about it,” she recalls.
Sandy Oliver got the same response when she called Nabisco for a similar story for the island newspaper Working Waterfront. “They were hoping it would wither on the vine to the point where they could yank it quietly,” she says. Both she and Damon blame a lack of promotion for the cracker’s declining sales.
“If you could go to McDonald’s and get a McChowder with a Pilot cracker on the side, its future would be assured,” Oliver says.
Damon says Kraft/Nabisco should bring back the cracker or “give us the recipe so we can make it ourselves,” she says.
Oliver says she would love to see the Pilot cracker return home. “We need to find a Maine entrepreneur to make this cracker or one so similar it won’t matter,” she declares. “Think, jobs in Maine. Crackers made from Maine-grown wheat. Nothing but good stuff.” A Maine-made Pilot cracker is definitely something we could sink our teeth into.
An urban oddity catches eyes at the jetport.
Airport parking is always a challenge, and Portland International Jetport is no exception, particularly in recent months as the jetport demolishes part of its old parking garage and builds a new one. So harried travelers can be forgiven if they sometimes find unusual places to leave their vehicles. It’s as good an explanation as any for the ancient, rusting hulk of a car that is slowly settling into a swamp just off the western end of the runway. No one seems to know — or is willing to say — how long the car has been there and who owns it.
The car can be seen a few hundred feet off Jetport Boulevard in the wetland next to the Hilton Garden Inn. “The car is not on airport property,” notes jetport manager Jeff Schultes. An inn spokesperson said the swamp isn’t part of the hotel’s property, either. Speculation that the land is part of the adjoining Brooklawn Memorial Cemetery couldn’t be confirmed; Brooklawn’s owner and president, David Morgan, failed to respond to repeated requests for an interview.
Given the car’s decaying condition and the brush surrounding it, the vehicle has apparently been sitting in the spot for many years without attracting much attention. “I’m surprised someone hasn’t pulled it out and sold it for scrap,” observes Eric Hamlin, a staffer in the Portland office of the Department of Environmental Protection. As it is, any environmental impact is probably long dissipated. “It might cause more damage to move it than to leave it there,” he says.
Besides, the car has become the sort of urban landmark that makes a place unique. “It’s an urban curiosity now,” Hamlin quips. And given its location next to the cemetery, who knows, maybe Jimmy Hoffa is in the trunk. Someone call Geraldo.
WAS IT INEVITABLE
A Down East museum faces the end.
There was a certain sense of inevitability at the news in early June that the Downeast Heritage Museum would not reopen. The architecturally stunning museum on the shore of the St. Croix River in Calais had struggled from its opening day, hampered by the loss of a vital federal grant and unrealistic expectations about visitor numbers and outside support. Now, barring an admittedly remote “long shot,” the fledgling institution devoted to Down East culture [Down East, April 2004]  may well prove its skeptics right and face foreclosure by autumn.
Executive director Jim Thompson recalls that the museum, built with six million dollars in federal grants and loans, was “bleeding money all over the place” when he took the job shortly after the June 2004 grand opening. “A federal agency had promised a million dollars over four years as operating capital,” he explains. “Then it got hit with budget cuts, and that money vanished.” The grant would have given the museum breathing space to develop alternate funding from foundations, corporate sponsors, and other sources, as well as devise a marketing campaign to draw visitors and grow the facility’s reputation.
“Most museums get only 20 percent of their revenues from operations — admissions, store sales, and events,” he explains. “From the beginning, we had no operating capital.”
The museum also suffered from overly optimistic projections of visitors for the region’s four-hundredth anniversary of European settlement of St. Croix Island. Consultants predicted four hundred thousand tourists would visit the far reaches of Washington County for the celebration. The actual number was far lower, Thompson says. And despite Calais’ status as one of the busiest crossings on the U.S.-Canadian border, the museum attracted few travelers.
“There were expectations of thousands of people interrupting their journey to stop here,” Thompson says. “That never materialized.”
The museum filed for bankruptcy protection last year. Thompson says he and the board are still working on several long-shot possibilities that might rescue the museum. “By the end of the summer, we have to succeed or the Rural Development Authority [which holds the mortgage on the museum building] will likely foreclose,” Thompson says. “One way or another, we’ll know before snow fly.”
SEBAGO'S PIKE PROBLEM
Bucket biologists have imperiled the state’s signature fish.
Anglers and fisheries biologists knew they had a problem in May when Eliot Stanley, of Portland, caught a seventeen-pound, forty-one-inch northern pike in Sebago Lake. But the problem got a lot bigger when Stanley found a thirteen-inch salmon in the pike’s stomach. The pike instantly went from being a quietly watched intruder to being a major threat to one of the most storied landlocked salmon fisheries in Maine, and all because some “bucket biologist” with more bobbers than brains decided to pollute the second-largest lake in the state with an aggressive new species that has never belonged there.
Sebago now has a breeding population of northern pike, according to Francis Brautigam, a biologist with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, “and we don’t really have any effective means of controlling them in a lake that big and deep.” Brautigam says pike first turned up in biologists’ sampling nets five years ago. “Every year afterwards we heard about two or three pike being caught,” he recalls. “Then two years ago we heard about a lot of pike being caught. Obviously a male and a female had found each other.”
Northern pike are voracious fish that will eat anything from smelts and salmon to turtles and ducklings. Brautigam says the Sebago Lake pike were obviously introduced illegally by an angler who thought pike would “improve” the fishing. About forty of Maine’s lakes and ponds now have pike populations thanks to such “bucket biologists,” including the Belgrade lakes, where the fish first showed up in the late 1970s. That number could increase dramatically now. Sebago has thirty-two lakes and streams draining into it, including Long Lake.
“In the last eight years we’ve seen a rampant explosion of illegal stocking,” Brautigam explains. “There are folks out there with selfish intentions who are ruining some great fisheries. We have pike in the Penobscot River drainage now, and down in York County.” He predicts that the salmonid population of Sebago will survive in the long run, but at much lower levels than the past.
The reaction around Sebago Lake has been almost universal dismay. The lake attracts tens of thousands of anglers each year looking for trophy salmon and trout, and “this is obviously a concern,” says Barbara Clark at the Sebago Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce. “I’m not going to scare people away just because they found one fish, but it’s something we have to keep an eye on.”
“No other state has the native brook trout, lake trout, and landlocked salmon fisheries that Maine has,” Brautigam notes. “It’s what makes Maine special.” To keep it special, he adds, there is no bag or size limit on northern pike. For him and many other anglers, when it comes to northern pike, catch and release is not an option.
Bail or bale: To toss or throw away with special vehemence. “That TV died in the middle of the Sox game. I’m gonna bail that sucker right through the front door.”
FREE FOR THE TAKING
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