Musing from Maine
Down East's editors discuss an odd township, The County's harvest break, pesky pigeons, and more.
A Different Sort of Unity
When is a town not a town?
It’s easy to feel unwanted in Unity Township. The curious little tract of land north of Benton and south of Burnham in Kennebec County is an anomaly of political geography, an unorganized township surrounded by towns in the center of one of the most settled areas of Maine. It belongs to no one, is administered by state officials in Augusta, and operates on an informal system of neighborly help and volunteers.
“We need something done, we generally just do it ourselves,” explains Ed Pickard, the township’s unofficial mayor and a lifelong resident. Pickard handles plowing and road maintenance, for example, at a discounted cost to keep county taxes low. With just 10.5 square miles of land and less than two miles of road, the township has fourteen families at last count, according to Pickard. The 2000 Census found thirty-one residents, but Pickard says there’s been an influx of young families and people from away lately.
The township was originally organized as a plantation, a sort of junior town with limited self-rule, but de-organized in 1942. “We couldn’t afford ourselves anymore,” Pickard explains. “At one time we had our own school and a town office and a general store, but that’s all gone now.”
Today residents vote in Albion, go to the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC) in Augusta for zoning issues, and register their cars in the neighboring town of Unity, across the line in Waldo County. Pickard says some forty years ago a local politician tried to persuade residents to join the town of Unity, “but we said no.”
“We’ve got a few curious little places like that,” says LURC director Catherine Carroll. The agency is better known for administering the vast swaths of the North Woods, but it also oversees orphan territories like Hibberts Gore and Matinicus Island. “Why the town of Unity or one of the other neighboring towns hasn’t absorbed it, I don’t know.” Carroll says there’s precedent, including the town of Millinocket, which absorbed a tract of neighboring unorganized land to expand its tax base. “Chester did the same thing a while back,” she adds. Annexation requires an act of the legislature.
“Unity township is very quiet from our point of view,” Carroll notes. “The only industry is a composting facility.”
Pickard says residents like the quiet of their self-imposed lack of self-government. “No one knew we were here until the compost facility opened and the county saw the added taxes,” he allows. “Now if we could just get them to forget us again . . . ”
Home for the Harvest
A school vacation in Aroostook County may have outlived its purpose.
When most kids think of October, images of protractors and workbooks float in their heads. Then again, when most kids think of August, school is the last thing on their minds.
Not so in Maine’s northernmost county. Many children attending public schools in Aroostook County begin school in mid-August and have vacation in October. It’s a schedule held over from the days when the majority of families living in the area participated in the harvest of potatoes. Hence the name donned on this oddly timed vacation: the harvest break.
But in October of 2008, exactly how many kids benefiting from these days off are utilizing them to harvest? Anecdotally very few.
A sampling of calls to area schools found a shockingly low percentage of students involved in the potato harvest. The numbers are not scientific by any means, but they give a sense of participation level. In Ashland the seventy high-school students have a week off in October. Approximately one student has participated in the harvest in the last several years. In Fort Kent, which for the first time is also giving the elementary school a full two-week break, about twenty high school students out of three hundred picked potatoes. In Madawaska, for their two-week break, thirty high schoolers out of two hundred might be harvesting during the vacation.
Only one school noted an actual survey they used to conduct. (The results might have something to do with why they stopped.) Houlton partnered with MSAD 70, which includes Hodgdon, and surveyed more than 1,300 staff and students in 2005. One hundred and twenty-eight said they were actually involved in harvesting over the three-week harvest break. Or, in other words, under 10 percent.
Whether or not it retains relevance with its origin, the harvest break has become a cultural tradition. And schools are allowed to do it, says David Connerty-Marin, director of communications for the Maine Department of Education. “We require 180 school days per year, of which 175 must be instructional days, but there is no special provision that says they can’t start school earlier and have a break in October.”
No official provision, but summer is short enough, and the rest of us want as much of it as we can get.
The Legend of Talleyrand
Was the great French statesman a Mainer?
Rulers and rock stars may be known by one name, but very few diplomats are. The exception is Talleyrand, the great French statesman who managed to serve — and survive — three kings, the French Revolution, and Napoleon. The official biographies say that Talleyrand was born into a noble family in Paris in 1754. But there are persistent stories that the political visionary was instead born the illegitimate son of a fisherman’s teenaged daughter on Mount Desert Island, Maine.
According to a version of the story in the Bangor Historical Magazine of July 1887, Talleyrand’s true antecedents came to light when he visited Maine in 1794 during his self-imposed exile from France during the Reign of Terror. Edward Robbins, a former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, had met and become friends with Talleyrand in Boston. Robbins was surprised to run into him again on Mount Desert Island and was even more surprised that Talleyrand apparently did not want to be recognized. Local people told him they knew Talleyrand as the French Boy, the offspring of a liaison between the captain of a visiting French ship and the young daughter of a local fisherman. Talleyrand’s distinctive limp, they said, was the result of an accident when the child was only a year old. His mother died shortly afterwards, and his grandparents took care of him.
A few years later another French ship visited. A well-dressed nobleman came ashore and visited the grandparents. The child, he said, was the son of a great noble family in France, and he proposed taking him back to Paris to be raised by his father’s family. The grandparents agreed, and the boy was raised as Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord.
In another version, told to a Lewiston Journal reporter by Nicholas Thomas, of Eden, the mother lived and often spoke of the legendary statesman who had been born in the family’s rude home in Southwest Harbor. The story was well known on MDI, Thomas said, and was widely accepted.
“It’s a story, but I don’t think it’s a story with any proof,” observes Charlotte Singleton, executive director of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society. She says the tale still circulates among island families, with its origins long lost. “There’s always been a French connection here, of course,” she points out, referring to MDI’s initial European discovery by Samuel Champlain in 1604. “Whether the Talleyrand story is an enhancement of it, I don’t know.”
In addition to the lack of documentary proof, Singleton says, another fact casts serious doubts on the legend. “So far as we know, the first permanent settlers didn’t arrive on Mount Desert Island until 1761,” she notes. “So the fisherman’s daughter thing doesn’t really work.”
Who cares? It’s a great story nonetheless, and there are enough holes in the historical record to raise at least the possibility that Talleyrand was indeed a Mainer.
The World’s coolest Tree House
A camp in Rome lifts up disabled youngsters in more ways than one.
For children, there’s something magical about a tree house. These lofty perches are usually the first kids-only spaces in a young person’s life and represent one of their first steps toward independence. Many children with disabilities, however, never get to enjoy a tree house and are instead restricted to areas where their wheelchairs can roll.
That changed last summer at Pine Tree Camp in Rome, where a team of volunteers and professionals opened Maine’s first wheelchair-accessible tree house. The 384-square-foot space is nestled in the branches about eight feet above the earth — “It certainly seems like way, way off the ground,” declares Executive Director Anne Marsh — and is reached by a long ramp at the end of a nature trail. The inside of the structure was left empty and relatively rustic, balancing the feel of the conventional, and often rickety, tree house with a space suitable for nature classes and other camp programs. In addition to the children and young adults at Pine Tree Camp, the tree house was used this year by campers from other camps, group homes, and other visitors with disabilities.
The tree house is the result, in part, of a push by the Vermont-based nonprofit Forever Young Treehouses, which aims to erect one such structure in every state. The group helps organizations with
design issues, fund-raising, and coordinating the army of volunteers who donate everything from engineering studies to lumber and roofing. Construction on the tree house in Rome began last September and lasted about eight weeks. Marsh says the work was done in the fall to make sure the tree house was ready when the camp opened in the spring (it also prevented mud-season headaches for construction crews).
Marsh says the smiles on children’s faces are worth far more than the two hundred thousand dollars that the camp raised to pay for the structure. “The camper who cut the ribbon on the tree house was eight years old before she even touched a tree,” Marsh says. “I can only imagine what a thrill it must be for her to be up there.”
Mainers should be proud to have such a structure in the state; the only way to improve upon it would be if other tree houses like it were to begin appearing elsewhere in the Maine woods this fall.
Solving the Pigeon Problem
Portland has finally discovered a cure for its avian woes.
Portland has long had a pigeon problem. By itself, the bird with the bobbing head is a sort of cute urban accoutrement, like a solitary deer grazing in the backyard. But in flocks roosting on Portland City Hall or swooping low over the hot-dog carts in Monument Square, the pigeon has all the appeal of a fresh swarm of blackflies.
Or had. After decades of noisemakers, owl statues, rooftop spikes, and chicken-wired cornices, Portland seems to have beaten the pigeons — for now, at least — and by the simplest of methods. Portlanders stopped feeding them.
About six years ago the Portland City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting feeding wildlife in the downtown district, “and it worked,” observes Bob Leeman, the city’s director of public buildings. Leeman remembers when the pigeon infestation at City Hall was so bad that the plaza in front had to be cleaned every day and City Hall itself was periodically pressure-washed. According to one account, the pigeons were so brazen one entered an open window and laid two eggs on the mayor’s desk. If there were political implications, the bird didn’t hang around to explain them.
“All the downtown building owners tried various stuff,” Leeman says. Noisemakers and owl statues were tried. The city installed a sound system to broadcast hawk calls. “They worked for a little bit, then the pigeons got used to them,” Leeman recalls. “They’re pretty stubborn, so I think not feeding them made the difference.”
That’s not to say Portland is pigeon-free. There are still enough around the downtown to attract a healthy population of hawks and even a peregrine falcon or two, which make their own contributions to reducing the pigeon population. These days the large flocks that once plagued Tommy’s Park are long gone.
Nature abhors a vacuum, though. “Now the seagull population has greatly increased to make up for the pigeons,” Leeman laments. “Fortunately they’re not as big a problem. At least they’re not roosting on windowsills.” Or leaving eggs on anyone’s desk.
FOUND IN UNCLE HENRY’S
Free For The Taking: Three Little Kittens are so glad they don’t need mittens but a home is what they desire. If you have a heart and want to do your part a kitty is what you should acquire. To be the one blessed w/such a playful friend all you need do is enquire. Naples, ME