Down East 2013 ©
Cartoon by Jamie Smith
North Woods To Go
An Aroostook company ships log homes — and the Maine lifestyle — to China.
If you donned athletic shoes, toasted bread, talked on a cellphone, or hammered a nail today, you probably used a product made in China. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to get through the day without engaging with some item that was manufactured in that vast and populous East Asian nation.
But trading with China is not a one-way street. The Chinese eat at KFC, wear Avon cosmetics, and even wash their dishes with Amway detergent purchased from door-to-door salesmen. Soon, some of China’s wealthier citizens may be chilling by a lake in a cedar log home manufactured in Aroostook County.
In January, Katahdin Cedar Log Homes sent twenty shipping containers packed with logs, bolts, and caulking compound to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in southwest China. There, the Beijing-based real estate development company Syswin is assembling a ten thousand-square-foot lodge to serve as the welcome center and showroom for a lakeside resort development of twenty-five Maine-made single-family log homes.
Katahdin was one of several log home manufacturers that Syswin contacted last May, according to Katahdin’s president, David Gordon. A few weeks later, three Syswin representatives visited Katahdin’s headquarters in Oakfield, and Gordon drove them around to see some log homes, including a sprawling luxury model in Presque Isle that would eventually guide the Chinese developers’ choice for the welcome center. Katahdin, which harvests its wood in Oakfield and Ashland, ultimately beat out twelve other log home companies to win the Syswin contract.
Log homes are uncommon in the Land of the Dragon, says Kersam Liu, Syswin’s business development manager in Santa Clara, California. “We’re trying to bring a new lifestyle to the Chinese,” he says. “It is quite promising. The log homes offer stylish living, and their energy efficiency is quite impressive compared to the traditional Chinese home. People in China are talking about green living and having a low carbon footprint.”
China is new territory for Katahdin, but the company is accustomed to working with overseas customers. The largest cedar log home manufacturer in the United States, it has sold houses to individuals in France, England, Japan, and Israel (homes destined for the latter war-torn land were custom designed with eight-by-eight square-foot concrete-reinforced safe rooms). “It is expensive to ship a house overseas,” Gordon concedes, “but if you want a log home, it’s much cheaper to have it come from here, where wood is abundant, than it is to try to purchase it where timber is scarce.” - Virginia M. Wright
A Rube Goldberg Ice-Out
A Fort Kent man has built a device that records the precise minute spring arrives.
Around this time of year, Mainers are eagerly awaiting that harbinger of spring called “ice-out,” when the frozen surface of a lake or river thaws and breaks apart and water flows freely for the first time in months. For lake watchers, ice-out may still be several weeks away — Moosehead Lake typically clears in early May. For river watchers, March is the time to start placing bets.
That’s what they’re doing in Fort Kent, where ice-out is determined not by simple observation, but, rather, with a gadget reminiscent of the board game Mouse Trap. Every winter, when conditions allow, the device’s builder, George Dumond, sets out on the frozen Fish River, not far from where it meets the St. John. There, on the ice’s surface, he places a wooden pallet holding a two-by-two foot red flag. He runs a high-tension nylon string from the flag to an electrical cord plugged into a socket box that has been screwed onto a telephone pole on shore. From the socket box, a low-voltage wire runs across the street into the Boy Scouts’ cabin, where it is hooked to a furnace relay box, which in turn has wires leading to a 1960s vintage General Electric flip clock and to a light bulb in the window.
When the ice breaks, the pallet drops into the water, tugging the string, which yanks the plug, which sends a voltage signal to the relay box, which trips a circuit, which turns on the light bulb signaling Dumond that ice-out has occurred and, most important, stops the clock. “We know the exact minute the ice went out,” Dumond says. Last year the clock stopped at 5:55:12 a.m. on March 25.
What to do with this information? Raise money, of course. Dumond is a member of American Legion Post 133, which sells 1,440 tickets — each one marked with a different minute of the day — for two dollars apiece. Whoever holds the ticket that matches the minute the clock stopped wins two hundred dollars. The American Legion uses the rest of the proceeds to fund its community programs. “As soon as people hear the tickets are for sale, they want to buy them,” Dumond says. “We always sell out.”- V.M.W.
Two-dozen black widow spiders give the workers at Bath Iron Works a scare.
The black widow spider, Latrodectus hesperus, is filled with venom fifteen times more potent than that of a rattlesnake and distinguishes itself through an ominous red hourglass on its otherwise shimmering black underbelly. A single bite can wreak havoc on the human nervous system and cause muscle spasms, severe abdominal pain, respiratory failure, and, in some cases, death.
Fortunately, black widows are nonexistent within Maine. That is, until this past Thanksgiving weekend when a crate arrived from California at Bath Iron Works carrying two potentially deadly sets of items: missile-launch assemblies for a guided-missile destroyer and two-dozen black widow spiders.
A machinist found an arachnid, placed it in a pill bottle, and compared its likeness to images from an iPhone Google search of “black widow spider.” In total, forty-two spiders and several egg sacs were spotted and exterminated over a two-week period. No one was bitten, and, the species, as of the timing of this publication, has not taken over the state. Linda Rayor, a professor of entomology at Cornell, says the chances they could survive in Maine exist, but are rather slim. “Their normal distribution isn’t farther north than North Carolina, but if it were a protected enough spot from the weather, then they could last. A factory would actually be good for them.” Peculiarly, one Maine publication had been prepping the state for this unlikely infestation decades in advance.
Michelle Souliere, editor of the Strange Maine blog, discovered the Biddeford Journal’s odd pattern of running largely precautionary articles on black widows, regardless of their absence from Maine. “The articles seem like they were just thrown in there to make that day’s news more exciting,” Souliere says. “Most of them are just tips on how to avoid black widows, which you wouldn’t ever be running across in Maine. But I guess they wanted to warn us just in case.”
A 1955 article titled “You Shouldn’t Fool Around With Black Widow Spiders’” (falsely) warns, “all spiders in the United State are harmless to man except one,” and recommends that those “bitten by black widow spiders should call a doctor at once.” In 1977 the paper profiled the false New York urban legend that black widow eggs once existed within Bubble-Yum brand gum, while in 1984, it warned readers with a full article that the spiders “will not bite unless agitated, hungry, or protecting an egg sac.”
At the time, the articles’ connection to black widows in Biddeford or the rest of Maine may have been puzzling. Fifty-seven years later, the Biddeford Journal can be proud of its foresight as a (not so) potential crisis was averted.- Will Bleakley
A 158-year-old letter sheds light on a shameful period in Bath history.
A time-worn letter discovered among a family’s keepsakes is reinforcing a prominent businessman’s reputation as a voice of compassion during a tumultuous period in the City of Ships. Penned by the Reverend Peter McLaughlin in 1855, Bath’s first resident Catholic priest, the handwritten letter asks Oliver Moses to discreetly serve as a proxy buyer of a deserted church so that the city’s Catholics would have a place to worship.
“I got the letter from my father, who got it from his father, who got it from his father, who got it from his father,” says Richard Moses, Oliver’s great-great grandson and a Bath native who now lives in Atlanta, Georgia. Forgotten in the handing down of the missive was the dramatic story behind it: Oliver Moses, himself a Universalist, had been allowing Bath’s Irish Catholics to hold mass in his home since the summer of 1854, when rioters connected to the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party torched the Old South Church. That same night, Moses stepped into the path of the roving mob to stop it from destroying a Catholic family’s home. “It’s a remarkable story,” says Richard Moses, who learned about his ancestor’s actions when he donated the letter to the Patten Free Library’s History Room this past fall.
Oliver Moses had the stature to influence public opinion. He was a founder of the First National Bank of Bath and Bath Savings Institution, and, with his brother William, he established the foundry that would evolve into Bath Iron Works and founded the Worumbo Mill in Lisbon, where Richard Moses worked until it was sold to J.P. Stevens and Co. in 1956.
In the letter, McLaughlin asks Moses to deceive the owner of the dilapidated church by pretending to purchase it for his own denomination, then resell it to the Catholics. Yet even as McLaughlin advocates for his flock, he disparages the Irish as a “nuisance,” illustrating just how harsh their circumstances must have been. “Indeed, with religion, active religion, the Irish are a good people,” the priest tells Moses, “but without religion occupying their time on Sundays especially, any city would be better without them.”
For reasons not known, Moses did not serve as a secret middleman, and the Catholic parish paid an inflated price for the building just as McLaughlin predicted. That hasn’t harmed Moses’ standing with the still-active St. Mary’s Church, which views him as an important figure in its history.
“The letter certainly shows that by his words and his deeds, Oliver Moses was more tolerant of Catholics than many others were in town and in the nation at the time,” says Robin Haynes, co-manager of Patten Library History Room, who occasionally delivers talks on the Know-Nothing riot. “We’re remarkably lucky to have it survive and so lucky that the family gave it to us.”- V.M.W.
Maine proves fertile ground for two creators of mosquito-killing traps, real and imagined.
Dennis John Ashbaugh and Mohsen Shahinpoor have never met, but their recent projects suggest they are kindred spirits, at least when it comes to mosquitoes.
Ashbaugh is a prominent New York painter who was so tormented by our state bird (the mosquito, that is, not the chickadee) while vacationing in Tenants Harbor that he was driven to creative expression. With twigs, stones, barbecue skewers, electric cords, and other beach debris, he crafted a dozen or so mosquito traps so whimsically macabre they would make Charles Addams smile. They include a flame gun fashioned from a grill lighter and a bundle of kitchen matches, a tank with an inflated snack bag for a body and a plastic straw for a cannon, and a tripod pulley system which, judging from the blood smear at its base, has just dropped a stone on an unsuspecting skeeter. (See Ashbaugh’s traps online at mosquitoesmustdie.com)
Shahinpoor is a University of Maine professor of mechanical engineering whose lifelong fascination with the Venus flytrap led him to create a robotic version of the carnivorous plant. The Venus flytrap’s lobes snap shut when an insect alights on their sensitive bristles. Mimicking those trigger hairs on Shahinpoor’s plantbot is a polymer membrane coated with gold electrodes. It looks like something right out of Ashbaugh’s imagination.
Artist and scientist have entirely different aspirations for their works. Though his constructions are humorous, Ashbaugh seriously hates mosquitoes. “They have killed more people than wars,” he says, citing diseases like malaria, yellow fever, and encephalitis. “But no one thinks about how bad they are unless he has mosquitos on them. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Bono, and Bill Clinton have made progress in the fight against mosquitoes. I’m only an artist. What can I do? I can bring awareness to the issue.”
Shahinpoor, by contrast, is not an entomophobe. “I’m into intelligent robotics and smart materials,” he explains. Artificial muscle, as he calls his polymer, might be useful in industry or in medicine (an eye blink, for example, could trigger a sensor, which in turn releases tears in patients with dry eye). “And I know this is rather gruesome,” Shahinpoor adds, “but it could be used to create robots that feed themselves. If a robot can move around and capture prey, it can fuel itself. And if the prey is something we don’t like, such as mosquitoes and flies, there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Ashbaugh, not surprisingly, reacted with glee when told of the professor’s vision, but we admit the notion gives us a twinge of trepidation. After all, if mosquito-eating robots had been roaming Tenants Harbor when Ashbaugh was visiting, he might never had made his delightfully ghoulish devices, and that would have been a shame indeed.- Virginia M. Wright