Maine Road Trip: Miles 334 to 451

The Midcoast

Driving becomes an exercise in speeding up and slowing down as Route 1 widens to carry heavy summer traffic then narrows as it passes through villages like Searsport, Camden, and Wiscasset. Ellsworth, with its hodgepodge of strip malls and chain hotels vying for the attention of tourists on their way to Acadia National Park, is the gateway to this other Maine. The generosity of summer money is seen in the occupied storefronts and the well-maintained mansions that form the village of any town with a waterfront, of which there are many. There also is an abundance of fancy inns, antiques and souvenir shops, not to mention roadside art, from carvings of fishermen wearing yellow oilskins to lawn lighthouses and giant lobsters.

It’s been a long goodbye: The Waldo-Hancock Bridge, which has been slowly rusting next to its replacement since December 2006, is finally being demolished. The $7.6 million removal project is expected to begin this summer and will take several months to complete.

The 2,040-foot-long bridge over the Penobscot River once linked the towns of Prospect and Verona Island. Designed and built by Robinson and Steinman, of New York, it made news from the start. Maine’s first long-span suspension bridge, it was named the Most Beautiful Bridge Constructed in the United States in 1931 by a committee of architects and engineers appointed by the American Institute of Steel Construction. Robinson and Steinman used innovative technology, including pre-stressed twisted wire strand cables and Vierendeel trusses, whose members form rectangular rather than the conventional triangular openings. Given the bridge’s historic and architectural credentials, it’s no wonder that news of its irreparable structural problems was greeted with public dismay in 2003.

The dramatic design of the bridge’s replacement softened the loss. The Penobscot Narrows Bridge is reported to be one of just three cable-stayed structures in the United States with a cradle system whose stays are carried from the bridge deck through the tower and back to the bridge deck as a continuous element. One of the bridge’s two towers contains an observatory 420 feet above the Penobscot.

Jim Pendergist
Owner with Mark Rosborough of 112 Main Street, Ellsworth, the landmark building housing Cleonice Mediterranean Bistro.

“I came to the area in 1966. I was stationed with the navy in Winter Harbor, and I stayed. Ellsworth has changed a lot, especially High Street (Route 1, east of downtown) and up on Beckwith’s Hill, where Home Depot and Walmart and all that development is. There was nothing back then. When my wife, Brenda, was a kid here, there were fields going out High Street.

“Downtown has maintained its integrity. It hasn’t changed much. Businesses come and go — the old Watson’s Dry Cleaner is now Simone’s restaurant, Western Auto is now H&R Block — but you haven’t seen the buildings replaced or new buildings going up. This building is one of only two on Main Street that is still close to its original condition; the other is the Grand Theater. The Luchini family built this place in 1933 after a fire destroyed everything on Main Street. They had a restaurant that was a long, long time success. The basement is like a bomb shelter — the thickness of the walls is amazing. Some of the old-timers say it was built like that because the family had been through [World War I] in Italy. Summer was always a bustling time, and still is. I used to pump gas at the High Street Sunoco and traffic was backed up over the hill, with only one way coming in and one way going out.

“Ellsworth is a retail hub for Hancock and Washington counties. The population is just under eight thousand, but we’ve got fifty to sixty thousand people coming to Walmart or going to the restaurants. We are not wholly dependent on the tourists for our economic success.”

Kim O’Brien manager of Perry’s Nut House, 45 Searsport Avenue, Belfast, which is owned by her parents, George and Ellen Darling

“The founder of this store was I.L. Perry, who originally had a cigar store here. In 1925, there was a bumper crop of pecans in Georgia. Perry had some shipped to Belfast, where he roasted and salted them and sold them out of a downtown storefront. They sold so well, he moved the nut operation over here. Joshua Treat III bought the store at age nineteen in the 1940s and added oddities like the museum of taxidermy mounts that people remember. All of those animals were sold at auction by another owner in 1997.

“Slowly, over the years we’ve added back the items people remember from their childhood: gag gifts like stink bombs, whoopee cushions, fake dog poop, and fake vomit, and old-fashioned toys like metal spin tops, train whistles, jacks, tiddlywinks, and pickup sticks. We’re selling handmade wooden toys made by Ed Parent, the Toymaker of Maine — things like a wooden toaster with wooden toast, a wooden chain saw. We’ve cleaned out his workshop so he’s going to come out of retirement to make toys for us. And, of course, we’re still a nut house, and my brother makes all the fudge fresh every day — that piece of the business keeps getting bigger and bigger.

“A lot of people think we’re actively seeking to bring the taxidermy mounts back to Perry’s Nut House, but that’s not quite true. I bought back a few because they are the iconic Perry’s pieces that everyone remembers: the gorilla, the python, which is twenty-one feet long, and the alligator, which is sixteen feet long. We sell a lot of fudge and we want to keep the animal presence to a manageable level!”

Rick Skoglund, Perry Greene Kennels, 449 Atlantic Highway, Waldoboro

“Perry Greene was the P.T. Barnum of his time. He had a huge presence and a booming voice. In 1941, he and his stepson took a team of seven Chinook dogs on the longest sled dog trek ever made in the United States. They hauled eight hundred pounds of equipment from Fort Kent to Kittery — 502 miles in ninety hours. The Saturday Evening Post did several articles on the trip, and Chinooks were elevated to absolute legend. Dorothy Lamour met Greene in Portland and took a Chinook. Governor Frederick Payne met him and got a Chinook, Dirigo. Thousands and thousands of people visited here — Perry Greene and his wife, Honey, built this log home and kennel in 1947. The Fort Kent-to-Kittery team is buried here.

“All Chinooks trace their bloodline to Arthur Walden’s lead sled dog, Chinook, who was bred from a mastiff stray and a descendant of Admiral Peary’s lead dog, Polaris. Greene acquired the Chinook breed in 1940, and he was very possessive of it. People who wanted to purchase a Chinook had to stay over night and meet his dogs. He had an exclusive on the breed; he only let spayed females leave the kennel. After he died, there was no clear successor, and Chinooks fell on hard times. By 1981, there were only twelve breedable dogs. A group of breeders, including me, divided the dogs up all over the country so we could begin bringing back the breed. Today, there are probably six hundred to eight hundred Chinooks.”

Adultery! Lies! Murder! Camden! Fifty-five years ago Camden was Peyton Place. We’re not being metaphorical here. Camden really was Peyton Place for the month of June in 1957, when it served as the setting for Twentieth Century Fox’s movie version of Peyton Place, the controversial novel by Grace Metalious that portrayed life in a small New England town. “The town was full of movie stars, actors, film crews, and the air was electric with excitement,” says Terry Bregy, who narrated a trolley tour of the movie’s landmarks during the town’s fiftieth anniversary celebration of the film in 2007. (Bregy is on the marketing staff of Down East Books.) “And after the movie came out, the town was changed in many ways — some good, some not so good, depending on who you ask.”

Although it is tame by today’s standards, Metalious’ novel, which exposes the hypocrisy hiding behind Peyton Place’s tranquil, prim façade, was scandalous when it was published in 1956. Indeed, many public libraries, including Camden’s, banished it from their shelves, yet it also was wickedly popular, selling 12 million copies.

Twentieth Century Fox chose Camden for the setting after failing to find suitable locations in Vermont and New Hampshire. Five hundred local people were hired as extras. The movie, which starred Lana Turner (whose Camden scenes were played by a double), Hope Lange, Lee Philips, and Arthur Kennedy, had its world premiere at the Camden Movie Theater on December 11, 1957, a big deal for a small mill and summer resort town.

The buildings and landmarks seen in the movie haven’t changed much. Among them is First Congregational Church, which appeared in a montage of churches.

“The director wanted to underscore the irony that a town with so many sordid secrets would have so many fine churches,” Bregy says. “This raised a few eyebrows among the local parishioners.”