North by East
Should Mainers return to the election days of yore?
Mainers go to the polls this month, but a few of them — fewer and fewer with each election — remember that it wasn't always this way. Until the Maine Constitution was amended in 1957, the state voted on the second Monday in September for every elected office except president.
Maine's early bird elections began with the state's creation in 1820. Poor roads and a scattered, mostly rural, population combined with the prospect of bad weather in autumn persuaded the drafters of the Maine Constitution to make life a little easier for voters by moving up the date for state elections to September. Presidential elections continued to be scheduled for November, according to election records at the Maine Law and Legislative Reference Library.
Several other states, including Vermont, Ohio, and Indiana, also voted in September or October in the nineteenth century, but it was Maine that earned the reputation as an electoral bellwether in 1840 when the Whigs won an upset victory over the Democratic Party, which had led the state since independence. The Whigs went on to a surprising victory at the national level in November, leading political wags to declare: "As Maine goes, so goes the nation." (That ended in 1936, when only Maine and Vermont failed to support Franklin D. Roosevelt.)
The amendment that put Maine voters on the same schedule as the rest of the country was a recognition that heavy weather or an early snow didn't keep folks at home anymore. But there's something to be said for voting in early September — if nothing else, the sense of relief that the politicking is over before the leaves change. Maybe it's time to start campaigning for a return to the old days. . . .
News of the Weird
Maine's mystery beast will live forever on the Internet.
Newspapers used to call August the "silly season," when people made the front page for frying eggs on sidewalks or claiming to have been kidnapped by zombies. These days silly season lasts year-round on the Internet, and a Maine mystery has taken up permanent residence on its conspiracy sites and chat rooms.
It started in mid-August when residents of Turner found the body of a strange animal near a local road. Over the previous year residents had muttered among themselves about hearing strange screams at night and seeing an evil-looking, red-eyed animal that attacked their pets. Was this carcass the culprit? And just what the heck was this thing?
Once the story made the local newspapers and television stations, illustrated with some casual photographs snapped by a neighbor before the body was eaten by scavengers, speculation ran rampant, not only in Maine but around the world. A media frenzy erupted in small-town Turner, with reporters calling from news outlets across the country. The animal's picture was splashed across the Drudge Report and featured on Internet sites devoted to the study of unknown animals, a field known as cryptozoology. Conspiracy buffs declared it a government experiment gone horribly awry, and others claimed it was "half-dog, half-rodent," a spotted hyena, a wolf pup, and even a wild boar. A graphic artist in California began selling Maine Mutant T-shirts illustrated with a drawing of a drooling, pop-eyed beast. By mid-September, long after DNA tests showed that the mystery beast was nothing more than a feral dog, a Google search turned up more than 535,000 hits.
"It's the new seven-day wonder," muses Loren Coleman, the well-known Portland-based researcher who has an international reputation for his investigation of legendary monsters such as Bigfoot and sea serpents. Coleman was called in to inspect the animal's remains and promptly identified it as a dog, but that hasn't stopped the Web chatter. "You'll be seeing references to this on the Internet for years," he predicts.
Coleman says such stories always pop up in times of social stress. "Every time people get tired of war news or political news, you start seeing stories about Bigfoot or UFOs," he explains. "People need these outlets, I think."
The Maine mystery beast is now part of the Internet mythos, even after the quasi-hysteria surrounding it has faded. It sure was fun for a while, though. And next August is only ten months away.
At Maine colleges it's no wonder undergrads are fighting the freshman fifteen.
In years past, college students have looked forward to coming home to relax, get some laundry done, and enjoy some of mom's home cooking. These days, though, you might find your kids a bit more critical of the Stove Top stuffing and mushy carrots you put in front of them. According to the Princeton Review's annual Best Campus Food list, Bowdoin College in Brunswick again has the best campus food in the country, while Colby College comes in at number eight, the College of the Atlantic clocks in at eighteen, and Bates College ranks twentieth on a list that includes precisely that many schools. The key ingredient, colleges say, is good Maine food.
"People today are more aware of where their food comes from," says Ken Cardone, associate director of Dining Services and executive chef at Bowdoin. While the school has bought haddock, shrimp, and blueberries from local producers for the past twenty years, today Cardone relies on resources such as Farm Fresh Connection to supply a wide variety of local food. The Portland nonprofit acts as a middleman, working with local growers to distribute meat and produce to hospitals, colleges, markets, and grocery stores throughout Maine.
Martha Putnam, operations director at Farm Fresh Connection, estimates that colleges comprise about a third of her business. "Bowdoin is our best customer," says Putnam. "Bates uses us less because they do a really good job of handling their business with the individual growers." Last year Colby and the University of Maine at Orono also began working with Farm Fresh Connection, and the University of Southern Maine occasionally takes a delivery or two.
In the end, the emphasis on quality Maine ingredients may actually be attracting parents back on campus. Cardone says guest counts for dinners at Bowdoin are up during parents' weekend, possibly indicating that mom and dad are curious if the fare is really as good as their kids claim.
A popular political Web site has surprisingly strong Maine ties.
It's hard to find a political blog more popular than Daily Kos, where those of the liberal persuasion gather to dissect the news of the day, drum up support for Democratic candidates, and make snarky comments about conservatives. Whether you're sympathetic to the site's politics or not, you can't dispute the fact that it has become a bona fide community for tens of thousands of readers.
A prominent member of that community is "Bill in Portland, Maine," whose popular "Cheers & Jeers" posts appear on the site's homepage Tuesdays through Fridays. Marketing copywriter Bill Harnsberger began writing "Cheers & Jeers" nearly three years ago as a way to both boil down the day's news and provide a little humor (much of which would be lost on readers not attuned to political minutiae). While most other posters have somewhat cryptic handles — teeb, RobotsRUs, and epc3, to name a few — Harnsberger wanted his to be transparent about who he is and where he's from. "I wanted to be like a good Mainer and be plainspoken," he says.
And as a way of providing some context for his views, Harnsberger makes a point of including Maine content, whether a link to a news story about the quadruple homicide in Bethel or an account of the truck that spilled paint all over Forest Avenue and Harnsberger himself on his evening commute. In the hundreds of comments each post generates, readers spin off into their own conversations, venting about politics or sharing news about sick pets (comments on a recent post, for example, included an extended discussion of feline diabetes).
Coincidentally, Daily Kos runs on software developed by another Mainer. Rusty Foster, a Peaks Island resident, wrote the program, called Scoop, several years ago when he was living in Washington, D.C. (It was picked up by Daily Kos in 2003.) Moving to Maine, says Foster, has shown him that his interest in online community building extends to the world outside the computer, too. "It's hard to find [community] in this country," he says. "But we have it here in Maine, and I think that's why I've stayed."
In Maine, it seems, all politics really is local.
Waterville's last dairy farmer calls it quits.
Carroll Shores ticks off the farms that dotted Waterville back when he was a boy in the 1940s. In just a few seconds, he gets all the way to seven, and concludes that there were easily a few more that he can't remember right off the top of his head. Today, though, there are exactly none. "They just sold out," he says. "A lot of them didn't have anybody to take over."
And now Shores has joined that number. His cows have been sold, and his farm is under contract to a Portland firm that plans to build condominiums on the land. "We only had 110 acres left. We used to have a lot more than that, but when they built Interstate 95 they took a lot of it. And the land we've been hiring to use has been sold off for houses," he says. "All in all, it puts you in a hard spot."
Shores' land has been in his family since 1802, except for a period of thirteen years when it was sold to another landowner. "But the old folks took it back," he says, "and it's been in our name since then."
Still, he seems unsentimental about leaving the land — and Waterville's farming history — behind. The developer, Village Works, LLC, is planning to build a subdivision full of duplexes and single family homes on the property, though Shores and his wife can stay in their house until the end of May. The company, Shores says, "came to me. We talked it over, and thought it was about time."
"I imagine you've got to keep up with the times," he says. "You can't go backwards."
The Rise of Fleece
Not that we're knocking wool.
We noticed it a couple of years ago, a new addition to the Maine uniform. That there is a Maine uniform is beyond doubt; even lawyers wear Bean boots, and our own doctors favor flannel shirts instead of Oxfords. But this new item of outerwear we first noticed among ourselves — suddenly everyone in the office was wearing a fleece vest from early fall to late spring.
Vests come and go in the Maine milieu. Down vests were popular for a time in the 1980s and still have some fans, but they bear an unfortunate resemblance to those old Mae West life jackets, all poufy and quilted. And leather or sheepskin vests either look like biker gear or remind us of Hoss Cartwright on the old Bonanza television show.
But fleece captures the essence of Maine — simple, warm, practical, even colorful and stylish. L.L. Bean has been selling fleece clothing for at least twenty years, but "the last couple of years we've seen a definite uptick in our [vest] sales," says Cindy Gibson, Bean's go-to person for fleece outerwear. "They're part of the whole layering trend, and they give ease of movement along with warmth."
Fleece vests can be seen year-round along the coast, where summer sailors often throw one on over their Izods when there's a nip in the ocean breeze. But Gibson credits vests' adoption in the workplace to the growth of casual dressing for office wear. In Maine, in particular, practical often wins over stylish in the war for warmth, and fleece comes closest to satisfying both needs.
Gibson doesn't see any slowdown in the fabric's popularity in Maine — or anywhere else, for that matter. "Ten years ago we were thinking that fleece can't grow anymore," she recalls. "We were wondering what the next big thing would be to replace it. But it hasn't died. In fact, it's taken on a much bigger role in the marketplace. And people can't seem to get enough of their fleece vests."
One Freeport farm finds a profit in old restaurant grease.
Last winter, Ralph and Lisa Turner burned more than 5,500 gallons of oil to warm the greenhouse in Freeport where they grow gourmet vegetables and salad greens for some of the top restaurants in the Portland region. They'll likely burn that much and more this winter, especially after they add another 5,000 square feet to the 7,500 they already have under plastic. And not a single pint of it will come from Saudi Arabia.
The Turners are keeping the radishes toasty at their Laughing Stock Farm with used cooking oil they collect from local restaurants. Even factoring in labor and mileage, Ralph Turner figures the oil is costing a mere twenty to thirty cents a gallon, while he predicts conventional heating oil may cost as much as $3.50 a gallon this winter. "We would not be able to operate without this system today," Turner says. "It's been key to our success."
Turner, a mechanical engineer who helps build biofuel plants, says he did "a lot of research" before settling on straight used cooking oil as a fuel, as opposed to biodiesel, ethanol, or some other alternate fuel. Cooking oil from either vegetable or animal sources can be burned using the same technology found in the waste oil burners that have been standard fixtures in auto repair shops for decades. The only processing required is heating the oil to 140 degrees to allow water and food bits to settle to the bottom of the tank.
This is the fourth winter the farm has used the cooking oil heating system, and Turner says he has yet to find a drawback to it. Restaurants normally pay rendering plants up to a dollar a gallon to dispose of their old cooking oil, so they're only too happy to give it to Turner. "Each restaurant we collect from figures it's saving $1,000 to $1,500 in disposal costs," he notes.
The environment also benefits, since the cooking oil produces 30 to 40 percent lower carbon emissions when burned than petroleum-based fuel oil. "Sulfur emissions are almost zero, and particulate emissions are 40 percent lower," Turner adds. "Plus, we've gotten to know local restaurant owners better, which is good for our business, and it helps tie us into the community more closely."
The used cooking oil system has attracted attention from greenhouse owners all over the country, although Turner notes that some are put off by the need to actually collect their own fuel rather than have it delivered. Still, he estimates that Maine alone produces about three million gallons of used cooking oil each year. That's only a drop in the bucket compared to the 450 million gallons of fuel oil the state's homes and offices burn, but it's a start. In fact, his only fear is that his success will encourage too many other people to begin collecting the stuff and turn it into a salable commodity instead of free fuel. That would be a little too successful.