A Town in Repose
The last village on the U.S. Atlantic coast does everything quietly, including celebrating its bicentennial.
- By: Virginia M. Wright
- Photography by: Herb Swanson
Alden Mingo is a contented man. “Everyone wants to go to heaven,” the blueberry and cranberry grower tells his wife every day, “but when I get up in the morning and put my two feet on the floor, I’m already there.”
He wakes up in Robbinston, the last town on the Down East shoreline — the last town, for that matter, on the Atlantic coast in the United States. If it were possible to make a running leap off Robbinston’s wild red sandstone cliffs and soar over Passamaquoddy Bay, you’d land in the resort town of St. Andrews, New Brunswick, whose fine mansions, two hundred dollars-a-night historic hotel, and botanical garden inhabited by peacocks represent not just another country, but another world.
Lean and ropy from working the land, Mingo is in his early seventies and has lived in Robbinston, a lake-dotted hamlet of five hundred people, all his life. “I’ve traveled quite a bit,” he says, “so I know what a beautiful community it is. The people here are real people. When there’s a disaster, like someone loses a home to fire, the whole community is right there. The grade school is the best — the teachers, the principal, everything. The kids who go to that school go very far in life — you’d be surprised to hear what some of them have done. And the basketball games, well, you can’t get in because the seats are full for every game.” He grins and folds his arms across his chest. “I’m not moving.”
Heaven could be more heavenly, Mingo admits. His daughters — one in upstate New York, the other in Delaware — would love to move back home, but there are no jobs for them in the Passamaquoddy Bay area, whose roughly 17 percent poverty rate mirrors that of Washington County as a whole. “We’re losing all our younger people,” Mingo laments. “They’re all gone. The (Woodland Pulp LLC) paper mill in Baileyville has just about the only good-paying jobs there are, and it’s always on shaky ground.” (In 2009, then-owner Domtar closed the mill for six weeks, idling three hundred workers. Domtar sold the mill to International Grand Investment Corporation last fall.)
Mingo’s sons, meanwhile, “are slugging it out here,” one in construction, the other as his business partner. In October, both men, their wives, and children will pitch in to harvest fifty thousand to a hundred thousand pounds of cranberries growing in bogs that Mingo has carved into nine acres straddling the Robbinston-Calais border. Soon after, their sisters will arrive to help decorate and ship 14,000 locally made evergreen wreaths. “You have to be versatile in this part of Maine,” Mingo says. “You have to have more than one frying pan in the fire.”
I hear that assertion many times during my stay in Robbinston, a relatively unknown community despite being the site of one of three hotly debated liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals proposed on Passamaquoddy Bay since 2005 — and the only one still being actively pursued. “I’ve always kind of thought of our area as a developing country within a developed country,” says Georgiana Kendall, a fifth-generation resident of neighboring Perry. “We have more poor people here than most places in the United States.” Dispirited by the contentiousness that surrounded the LNG proposals, which she opposed, Kendall shifted gears two years ago, giving up a full-time job at an economic development organization to open the Red Sleigh, which markets the vegetables, meats, and handcrafts of more than forty local people. The store is, she says, her way of making an investment in her community. She has yet to take a salary from the enterprise and makes ends meet by waiting tables in Eastport and managing a pair of rental cabins on Boyden Lake that she inherited from her grandmother. “We’re all trying to figure out how to make a living,” Kendall explains. “Many of us are working three jobs in order to put everything together.”
Still, Kendall stays. She talks of clean air and clean water, of growing up “knowing what the tops of carrots look like,” and of twenty-five-foot tides that recede from Robbinston’s Mill Cove to expose sea anemones and starfish “this big around.” She forms a circle with her hands. “When I was little, I couldn’t wait to get away,” she reflects. “After college I got the travel bug. I went into the Peace Corps, and I was away for twenty-seven months.” Her voice breaks, and she wipes tears from her eyes. “This elastic band went snap, just like that. I had to come home. I missed it so much.”
Route 1 northeast of Machias is a patchy two-lane road with few streetlights and fewer businesses. For forty-five miles it flirts with but rarely meets the shore until it reaches North Perry and Robbinston, where the firs and scrubby brush give way to a string of lonely coves on Passamaquoddy Bay and the St. Croix River. Robbinston village unfolds as a straggling trail of architectural surprises. First, there’s Katie’s on the Cove, a brilliant yellow cabin splashed with sixties-style hippie flowers, where Lea and Joseph Sullivan sell handmade chocolates. A little farther along is the former town hall, a stalwart granite box that houses artist Peter Johannes’ the Edge Gallery. Finally, there is a trio of elegant old homes, each one a distinctive architectural style. Built by the Brewers, a prominent shipbuilding family, they are testaments to Robbinston’s past as a regional center for trade and industry and as a retreat for some of America’s political and intellectual elite.
“Quite a few boats, some up to one thousand tons, were built right here,” says retired business journalist Robert Henkel, who, with wife, Bobbi, lives in the rambling Mansion House, built by John Brewer, the brigadier general of the Washing-ton County Militia during the War of 1812. When the militia surrendered, Henkel says, it was Brewer who persuadedthe British not to burn Robbinston’s houses.
The granite stones that mark each of the twelve miles between the Mansion House and Calais are the legacy of the house’s second owner, James Shepherd Pike, Abraham Lincoln’s ambassador to the Hague. A racehorse enthusiast, Pike used the markers to clock his horses on his way to his law office. Presumably the Calais native was a little more relaxed when he hosted summer guests like the legendary New York newspapermen Horace Greeley and Charles A. Dana and Supreme Court Justice Salmon P. Chase, who shared his interest in the abolitionist movement.
The setting was apt for their gatherings: Local legend holds that Robbinston was the last stop on the Underground Railroad, and fugitive slaves bound for Canada hid in what is arguably the town’s most beautiful building, the Brewer House, built by General Brewer’s son, Captain John Nehemiah Marks Brewer. Northeastern Maine’s only amphiprostyle Greek Revival building (that means it has a colonnade on each of its gable ends), the house is now a bed-and-breakfast and gallery owned by Passamaquoddy Bay Orchestra conductor Trond Saeverud and his wife, painter Joan Siem.
It was Captain Brewer’s widow who built the third Brewer landmark, an ultra-lacy Gothic Revival house. One of the few female shipyard owners in Maine history, Henrietta Brewer would have been able to watch vessels being built from her house’s cliff-edge perch. Today diners in the Redclyffe restaurant, as the house is now known, gaze upon a deserted cove. The only industry within sight is the large quarry and ship-loading facility on the New Brunswick shoreline nearly two miles across the bay.
Robbinston’s shipyards, along with the lumber mills that once flourished here, eventually yielded to vegetable farms and sardine canneries. Then they, too, disappeared (the last cannery closed in 1978). No industry has grown up to replace them, and the town’s population has dwindled to half of what it once was.
Having seen other Washington County towns make the wrenching decision to close their schools because of declining populations, residents worry about the future of Robbinston Grade School. “It’s easy to say we’ll merge to save money, but the school is really crucial to keeping the town together, even for people who no longer have children or grandchildren,” Henkel says. “The basketball games serve an important social function. The school is the town’s identity.”
Securing the school’s future, along with the promise of jobs, were key factors in 2006, when Robbinston, in a 227-to-83 vote, embraced a proposal for a $400-million LNG import terminal on the south shore of Mill Cove, says First Selectman Tom Moholland. Robbinston expects to collect $1.2 million in local property taxes annually from Downeast LNG, and the company says it will create fifty or more permanent jobs, as well as three hundred temporary construction jobs. “We’re geographicallyisolated,” Moholland says, explaining why he began courting LNG companies seventeen years ago.
“I don’t think tourism is the answer. Seasonal employment doesn’t necessarily mean good benefits and good pay. The tourist season is very short here.” An LNG facility alone won’t reverse the Passamaquoddy region’s fortunes, Moholland concedes, but he hopes the development will attract other industries.
Mill Cove is beloved for its curved and deeply fissured sandstone cliffs and gravity-defying rock formations like thirty-eight-foot-high Pulpit Rock, but Moholland believes the visual impact of the LNG terminal will be minimal. Downeast LNG is promising a buffer of trees to all but hide its two storage tanks and a re-gasification plant, he says, so only the 3,900-foot pier — and the massive LNG carriers that dock there — will be visible from Route 1.
An LNG terminal anywhere on Passamaquoddy Bay faces opposition no less formidable than the Canadian government, which has said it will not allow LNG tankers to pass through Head Harbour Passage, a narrow stretch that Transport Canada (that country’s DOT) rated as the most dangerous passage in all of Canada. And Robbinston’s acceptance of the project notwithstanding, the debate over it and the other two LNG projects — one in Perry, the other in Calais — sharply divided residents of the Passamaquoddy Bay corridor six years ago. “We don’t oppose LNG or natural gas in general,” says Robert Godfrey of Save Passamaquoddy Bay, whose members come from both sides of the border. “We oppose inappropriate siting. All three of the proposed Passamaquoddy Bay LNG locations are closer to civilian populations than is considered appropriate by the industry’s own published best practices. It’s been a real shame. If the developers had sited these things more appropriately, they probably wouldn’t have had the problems that they had. As it is, they did a lot of damage to relationships among friends, neighbors, and communities.”
The Perry project was abandoned in 2009 when the Passamaquoddy tribe terminated its land lease with the developer, Quoddy LNG. Last year, Calais LNG put its plans on hold after losing its sole financial backer. Downeast LNG, meanwhile, remains interested in the Robbinston site, but the project has not advanced since the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued a favorable draft environmental impact statement two years ago. LNG developers across the country are waiting for the federal Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to issue its final review of new models for siting facilities, according to Cathy Footer, a Robbinston resident who is Downeast LNG’s community liaison (she also works part time as the town’s tax collector). Once that is complete, Footer says, the company expects to receive FERC’s final environmental impact statement and to apply for permits from the Maine Board of Environmental Protection. She says she has received more than 250 resumes from people interested in working for Downeast LNG.
With Downeast LNG’s fate in the hands of state and federal officials, the passions that once surrounded the topic have given way, for now at least, to ambivalence of the sort expressed by Alden Mingo. “I can’t say I’m against it,” he says. “I’m not afraid of it. I have a friend in the merchant marines who works on LNG tankers and he says it’s one of the safest pieces of equipment on the sea. I don’t know if it’s the answer for our area. The construction will bring a lot of employment, but I don’t know how many jobs there’ll be for local people when it is done. The real question is, what comes behind it? Some of it could be good, some not so good.”
Some Passamaquoddy Bay area residents believe the promise of a more prosperous future lies in the nascent creative economy that has taken root in the small waterfront city of Eastport. “Eastport has become a mecca for artists, and Perry and Robbinston are on the trail of that,” Georgiana Kendall says. The Red Sleigh, a cross between a farm stand and a craft gallery, “broke even during an economic depression in one of the most economically depressed counties in the country,” she adds. “If that can happen, we have potential.”
Just down the road, though, Peter Johannes says there isn’t enough traffic to justify regular hours at the Edge gallery. He spends much of his summers selling his photographs and paintings at arts-and-crafts fairs around the state; the gallery is open between trips.
An imposing figure with a bushy beard, Johannes came east from Washington State thirty-six years ago. “My wife and I wanted to go to another place where we could see the lights of Canada at night,” he says. “We took a map and literally flipped it over and said, ‘Let’s go see what’s in Maine.’ ” At the time, Robbinston had two general stores, stocked with everything from baked hams and cheese rounds to hunting jackets and tarpaper. “It’s all gone now,” he says. “Robbinston is a town in repose. I own one of the largest photo galleries in the state of Maine in the worse location in the state of Maine.”
Nevertheless, for him, it’s heaven. “I can sit on my deck and look over the water, and things become more distilled, more clear, because we are so far away,” he explains. “We can’t get overnight delivery here. We can’t get a current New York Times. The slow pace of Robbinston helps me to focus. Here, I have peace.”
IF YOU GO
Robbinston is two hundred years old, and it's celebrating. On June 18, the Robbinston Historical Society is sponsoring a bicentennial picnic with hot dogs, ice cream, and lemonade at the Robbinston Boat Landing and Park. The windjammer Sylvina W. Beal will be on hand for cruises of Passamaquoddy Bay. Grace Episcopal Church and Robbinston Vistors Center on Route 1 will be open Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., from mid-June to Labor Day and other hours by chance or appointment (207-454-3455; 207-454-8121; 207-454-3620). Except for the woodstove, the rustic carpenter Gothic-style church is just as it was when it was built in 1882 by the Reverend Peter Henry Steenstra, a summer resident. The simple wooden chairs, organ, gas lanterns, and woven palm floor mats are original. The Episcopal Diocese of Maine's plan to raze the chapel in 1999 led to the founding of the Robbinston Historical Society, which now owns and maintains the church.
- By: Virginia M. Wright
- Photography by: Herb Swanson