The Fading Americana of Down East Maine

In the easternmost counties in the country, fragments of a nostalgic American aesthetic linger along the byways and back roads.

Photographed by Benjamin Williamson
Text by Brian Kevin
From our July 2022 issue

it’s a hard term to pin down: Americana. It has to do, of course, with some ineffable qualities that make our strange, young country what it is, or what it was, or what we like to think it is or was. Road trips come to mind, because what’s more American than itinerancy, movement, displacement? Route 66 and all the mid-century iconography balled up with it: diners and billboards and roadside attractions. Car culture and consumerism. Consumerism and nostalgia. Nostalgia and decay, because Americana is about places and moments worn down by time, half remembered and idealized as progress marches on, oxidizing back there in the rearview mirror as the car keeps trundling westward.

Or maybe eastward? In Maine’s Hancock and Washington counties, a bit of the old Route 66 mystique still clings to the roadways that hug the down east coast, where there’s no such thing as an on-ramp and the franchises are few and far between. A traveler down east sees tableaus of local color that are faded but not faded out, callback curiosities that proclaim a rural regional identity — and a uniquely American aesthetic.

The tumbledown lobster shack is the coastal Maine equivalent of the chrome diner: classic and comforting, threading the needle between authenticity and affectation. When Patty Staples first opened Bar Harbor’s Happy Clam Shack, in 2015, the exterior was all but bare. It has since acquired some flair.
Tangles of painted lobster buoys have been staples of Maine dooryards for a couple of centuries, but not until Styrofoam buoys started replacing wooden ones in the1960s did the old cedar and spruce varieties become decorative adornments, as on this shed in Harrington.
Once a state facility, this garage in Cherryfield, now privately owned, isn’t actually on the Washington County line, but as the crow flies, the sign is only a few thousand yards off. The Narraguagus River, behind the shop, runs through blueberry barrens in the country’s easternmost county before meeting the gulf in Milbridge.
Collectors refer to vintage tin and enamel gas-station signs as “petroliana,” along with old pumps and garage bric-a-brac. On the shingles of the former antiques store known as the “Love Barn,” on Route 1 in Orland, they share space with weathered signs for soda pop, Rexall drugstores, and more — all beneath the heart-shaped window that earned the landmark its nickname.
The cerulean dome of Wild Blueberry Land beckons Route 1 drivers in Columbia Falls to pull over for a slice of pie and cup of blueberry-flavored joe. Proprietors Dell and Marie Emerson opened the place in 2001, five years before 11th-generation Maine farmer Dell retired from a half-century stint managing the University of Maine’s wild-blueberry research farm. These days, the Emersons are transitioning their offbeat shop into an education center.
Eastport’s harborfront fisherman statue has only been around 21 years, but in some ways, it’s as totemic of American culture as any weathered monument. It was built by a TV studio for a murder-mystery reality show filmed in the fishing town in 2001, an imitation of a beloved community landmark rather than a real one. But Eastport embraced it, and a few years later, the town spruced it up and gave it a permanent base. A plaque dedicates the statue to Angel Luis Juarbe Jr., the New York City firefighter who won the reality show and was killed shortly after, as a first responder on 9/11.
A former Esso station, on Route 1 in Harrington, now hosts Bygone Antiques and Bygone Motors, where proprietor Chuck Hammond sometimes has a sign out near the old pump declaring, “Gas 35.9 since 1968.” It’s gone up some since.
Not every eye-catching roadside curiosity down east is to be found on Route 1. This decorated shed, in Jonesport, a labor of love for its owner, is along a quiet coastal side road. Maine’s Bold Coast rewards travelers who take a few exploratory turns off the numbered byways.
On Route 186, in Prospect Harbor, on the site of the former Stinson Canning Company, Big Jim is a painted, 40-foot-tall metal cutout in a slicker and sou’wester. Also known as the Stinson Man, he was a postcard idol at the turn of the 1960s, when he marked the border with New Hampshire, holding a sardine tin that welcomed motorists to “Vacationland & Sardineland.” The Stinson Company later brought him down east.
The red Pegasus emblem of Mobil gas is, for many travelers, the welcome sign that they’ve reached the village of Stonington, a place that John Steinbeck — on the classic Americana road trip that became Travels with Charley, in 1960 — said “does not look like an American town at all in place or architecture.” Steinbeck had in mind the terrace-like rows of houses that descend to the waterfront, which he thought recalled southern England, but there’s nothing Old World about the forthright facade of the circa-1930s Square Deal Garage.