Phippsburg is one of those peninsular towns that characterize so much of Maine's coast, communities whose history goes back so far it predates even their own isolation. In the age of sail, Maine's offshore islands and peninsular headlands were the most accessible places in New England. Close to both fishing grounds and the transatlantic shipping lanes, Phippsburg and Georgetown, Pemaquid and the Boothbays were among the first places the English put down roots. Seclusion didn't come to the peninsulas until the late nineteenth century, when the nation's commerce shifted to rail and road farther inland.The schooners and steamships stopped coming, and suddenly the only places the peninsular towns were near to were one other.
Today, Phippsburg is still essentially a nineteenth-century landscape, a constellation of villages and hamlets spread along marshy creeks and snug little anchorages. Even the larger settlements like West Point, the Center, and Popham Beach are home to just a few dozen families apiece, their houses clustered around a harbor and white wooden church steeple. There are few farmers, but plenty of fishermen, whose trawlers and lobsterboats still outnumber the yachts and power cruisers in most harbors. Forests, bogs, and salt marshes fill in the spaces between the villages, where people hunt, fish, or wander about on foot, snowmobiles, or ATVs. More than a few people carry on the work of their colonial predecessors: cutting firewood and hunting deer in the forest, digging clams on the great tidal flats of the Kennebec, or harvesting the bounty of the surrounding sea.
But the tides are changing in Phippsburg these days. Development has been creeping in for decades — a few more houses, a few more roads piercing the peninsula's wild spaces each year — but at a rate too slow for anyone to get alarmed. Then, a few years back, a developer bought up eight properties in the fishing village of West Point, including the general store (remodeled as an upscale "nautical theme" restaurant), the dance hall, and six houses. Most were transformed into luxury residences and rental properties with little eye to the character of the village. Last year, Portland developer Bruce Poliquin announced plans to build the largest subdivision in the town's history — sixty-nine units — at Popham Beach. Nearby, Poliquin will construct a private beach club near Popham Beach State Park. Suddenly residents have realized that Phippsburg's days as a quiet, rural town are numbered.
"So many of the old-timers are convinced that this kind of growth is going to threaten the essence of what Phippsburg is: a rural working community," says resident Leila Percy, who represents Phippsburg, Harpswell, and part of West Bath in the state legislature. "It absolutely breaks my heart to be seeing that happen."
It all began out behind Jane Stevens' house on Sabino Head: the English settlement of Maine, the founding of New England, and the first time summer visitors "from away" tried to tough out a Maine winter.
They arrived four hundred years ago next summer, 124 colonists led by George Popham, tasked with building what was to have been the first successful English settlement on the North American mainland. In that fall of 1607, they built a sizeable fort, an assortment of dwellings and storage buildings, an Anglican chapel, and the Virginia, a small seaworthy sailing vessel, Maine's first ship. When spring came they beat a hasty departure, loading their goods aboard the Virginia and their resupply ship and sailing back to Plymouth, from whence they came. The Maine coast, their chief patron concluded, was "over cold and [therefore] not habitable by our nation."
No surprise there, says Mrs. Stevens, who has lived on the site for a quarter century. "I know that by the first day of October they knew that they had picked the wrong spot," she says. That's when the winds shift around to the north, howling down the Kennebec and over Sabino Head with sufficient power to knock a person over. Stevens' house is shielded by a ridge of ledge, but the Popham colonists built their homes on the exposed side. "I guarantee you that's the coldest spot south of Greenland," Stevens says. "It's a wonder they survived at all."
Later settlers survived as well, of course, and scattered out across the twelve-mile length of the Phippsburg peninsula. Thomas Percy, Leila Percy's ancestor, stepped off the boat at Cox Head in 1740; some eighty-two Percys are buried in a graveyard there, one of more than ninety cemeteries in the 18,500-acre town. West Point was founded in 1767 by Henry Totman, the King's tax collector for the area, who built a log cabin on the sandy shores of what is now called Tottman Cove; his descendent James Totman is Phippsburg's current fire chief and Thomas Totman serves on the board of the Albert F. Totman Library. Jane Stevens' kin are relative newcomers: grandfather Hiram Curtis Stevens moved to Popham after he retired from the Grand Banks schooner fleet in the early 1880s.
The summer folk weren't far behind Mr. Stevens. They came in search of solace from the heat and pollution of the East Coast's newly industrialized cities, riding the rails and the overnight steamships from Boston. At Small Point Beach and Popham Beach they built rustic cottages and, in many cases, passed them down for generations. The middle class came later, after Route 1 was built through Bath, filling the beds at the Rock Gardens Inn and Sebasco Lodge, both built in the early twentieth century and still in operation today.
"In those days factories would close for the same two weeks every summer and groups of friends came together," says Dee Dee Bradford, whose family owned the Sebasco Lodge from 1959 to 1997. "Families who were there at the same time got to know one another and would come back year after year." There was relatively little mixing between the middle-class summer colony at Sebasco and the old money one at Small Point Beach, a situation that persists today.
Phippsburg's hamlets and villages developed their own identities, from the compact fishing village at West Point to the pastoral mills at Winnegance, just across a creek from Bath. For much of their history, they each had their own church, schoolhouse, and social circle. Today the villages share an elementary school and town government, but otherwise they continue to carry on their own separate existences.
"We have all these little villages, and they're completely separate," says Mrs. Stevens, shaking her head in bewilderment. Through the picture window behind her two men in rubber boots are visible, digging for clams in the harbor flats. "I keep harping on it: why do we stay by ourselves so much when we're all part of the same town?"
Sebasco fisherman Arthur Pierce, Jr., thinks lobstering has something to do with it.
Until recently, much of Maine's lobster habitat was divided into informal fishing territories, each of which was controlled by the lobstermen of a particular harbor. Through custom, peer pressure, and the occasional extralegal act, lobstermen defended their harbor's turf against fishermen from rival harbors. Until the late 1990s, the waters off Phippsburg were divided between Sebasco, West Point, Small Point, and Popham. Rivalries on the water, Pierce explains, reinforced the village's distinct identities.
"People were a lot more friendly with one another when they got back to land, because a lot of guys would go hunting together, but down on the water it was a different thing," Pierce says with a good-natured laugh. "I've noticed since they had the [consolidated Phippsburg Elementary] school built in the fifties things have been a lot better. You go on to high school in Bath after that and to them you're 'from Phippsburg', not Sebasco or Small Point."
When the Pierces moved to Sebasco from Boothbay and Southport a century ago, most of the peninsula's roads were winding cartpaths, and some were impassable at high tide. "In the wintertime people couldn't get from Sebasco to Bath on the roads, and it was easier to go by sea to Portland" than to go around Small Point and up the windy Kennebec to Bath Pierce explains. "In those days you were more acquainted with the people on these points" — Cundys Harbor, Five Islands, even Portland — "than you were with people inland."
In his own lifetime, Pierce, 54, has seen Sebasco and West Point change from tight-knit fishing villages to, increasingly, a residential neighborhood for the affluent. "Years ago whenever I came in from the sea, I'd be looking forward to seeing West Point," he says. "You know it's cold, you're cold out there, and you see the lights in the houses, and you know there's all these people you know all cozy and warm in there. It's kind of comforting. Now, though, you come by there and there's a lot of dark places. Some people have died, some have sold because they had to or because they couldn't resist the money to retire on. Don't blame them, but as it happens, the community fades."
In many of Maine's towns, this turnover has resulted in a loss of working waterfronts, particularly the piers, fuel docks, and associated facilities that make commercial fishing possible. Fortunately, Phippsburg's newer residents have supported the town's efforts to acquire landings in each of the fishing villages. "I've been very grateful to the people of the town," says Pierce, who headed up Phippsburg's town landing commission. "They've supported everything we've asked for. Even people who haven't been longtime residents still want to support that part of our town's heritage."
Terry Watson notices Phippsburg's growth most when he's out hunting. When he first started hunting as a kid in the late 1960s, he could spend the entire day in the woods without seeing a house or another hunter. Then, around 1990, the woods started disappearing, breaking down into smaller and smaller bits as new roads and houses popped up throughout the peninsula's interior. "I go out to a place I've hunted all my life and now it's nothing but houses, and I move on," says Watson, a lifelong clam digger and, as proprietor of Clam Hunter Seafood, the largest clam wholesaler in these parts. "It's not going to be long before this town will be bow- and shotgun-only" because the housing density will start presenting safety concerns for more powerful firearms, he says.
Nor has growth made clamming any easier. In the past, diggers could count on crossing their fellow residents' property to access the flats. Not anymore. "People say that something like 95 percent of the shore frontage in Phippsburg is owned by out-of-town people, if not out-of-state people, and most of them didn't buy it to let us go across their front lawns," Watson says. "In a way, I can't blame people for blocking access. I've been digging for thirty-one years, and all that time I've been picking up after that handful of guys who don't give a thought about littering. Still, it's made it a lot harder for the rest of us."
These days, any serious digger needs to own a boat so he can access the flats from the water side. Unfortunately, there's only one public landing on the Kennebec shore in Phippsburg, where most of the clam flats are, and it's not in a particularly convenient spot for the diggers. "To get to the closest flat that's open year-around means a six- or seven-mile ride downriver, and the Kennebec is pretty nasty on a winter day," Watson says. More waterfront houses mean more waterfront septic tanks, multiplying the chances of one failing and forcing the closure of the flats the clammers depend on.
Bob Cummings bought his house on the shore of the Kennebec at the northern end of Phippsburg in 1962 and has lived here ever since. "My mother grew up here, my cousins grew up here, and I moved here from just a mile up the road in Bath, but I'll always be a stranger," he says with a smile as the river flows by his living room window. "I'll always be the radical newcomer from away."
It probably didn't help matters that back in the early seventies, Cummings spearheaded the creation of the Phippsburg Land Trust, one of the state's first. Foreseeing a day when the outside world might covet Phippsburg's ponds, lakes, and sixty miles of waterfront, he helped guide the town's efforts to buy undeveloped land as it came onto the market. "My goal has been that each section of town should have some place that you can easily get to and walk on," says Cummings, who has helped preserve hundreds of acres in the town.
The land trust has its critics — and plenty of them — who resent restrictions on ATVs on trust land. But Cummings says they're missing the big picture. "If we didn't buy these properties so that people could use them and walk on them, then somebody else would have bought them, built another $500,000 house, and probably nobody else would be able to use them at all," he says.
Richard Nichols of West Point has been urging his fellow Phippsburgers to think ahead ten or twenty years and to lay plans to shape the development that is certain to come their way. "As more people move in from places that have a vast array of services, they will ultimately demand to have those services: full-time fire fighters, curbside trash collection, and the like," says Nichols, a descendant of one of Phippsburg's eighteenth-century settlers. He speaks with a West Texas drawl picked up during a career in the army. "Phippsburg's just been isolated long enough that a lot of people here don't see that. They just aren't able to look down the road twenty years and see what it will be like."
Nichols was among the residents who introduced a measure to halt residential development for six months, in part to give the town time to analyze how the proposed Popham beach subdivision and other large developments might affect demands on Phippsburg's services, water supply, and budget. The measure was defeated by an estimated twenty-point margin in a show of hands at a special town meeting this past January. Opponents were skeptical of any measure that eroded private property rights.
"Growth is inevitable: you can plan for it, or you can let other people plan for you and live with the consequences," Nichols says, standing beside the wooden West Point lobster skiff he's building in his back shed. "Phippsburg's losing the open spaces, the ability to walk across the peninsula without coming across land that says 'keep out' or has housing developments all over it. What's being lost is a way of life."