People all over the world have heard of Kennebunkport, the lifelong summer retreat of President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara. The media attention given this seaside town of 3,720 is less intense now that the Bushes are retired, but images of Kennebunkport still flash around the globe with some regularity owing to the Bushes' fondness for hosting guests like President Bill Clinton and Saudi Prince Bandar, not to mention their son, the president of the United States of America.
But those images are narrowly focused on a very short, very fabulous stretch of Ocean Avenue, where most of the homes rival the grandeur of the Bushes' estate at Walker's Point.There's more to Kennebunkport than that.
Above all, Kennebunkport is its people - people who keep the beaches clean and accessible, people who cook and serve your shore dinner, people who make art, entertain, and make you feel welcome. Here are six people who, through their work, help define Kennebunkport today.
Jestena Boughton is Kennebunkport's Eloise. Like the children's literature heroine who lives in New York's Plaza Hotel (and whose mother knows designer Coco Chanel), Boughton grew up in the seaside Colony Hotel (her mother danced with actor John Carradine). But while Eloise is forever six years old, Boughton has matured and become the hotelier.
"I was just a baby when my dad bought the Colony in 1948," Boughton says. !"There were always things to do. Shuffleboard and croquet. Ping-Pong on the porch. On Sunday nights, the guests played Bingo in the ballroom. They were playing for money so my cousins and I weren't allowed inside, but we would sit in the hallway and play - we knew which cards were the good ones. And we always swam in the ocean. We'd come out purple with wrinkly hands and want to go right back in."
Spectacularly sited atop a rock promontory overlooking the Atlantic, the Colony is just one of two golden era hotels remaining in a town that once boasted several. Built in 1914 as Breakwater Court, the large white, wooden building is graced with a wraparound porch and crowned with a cupola, making it a landmark for pedestrian and sailor alike.
As she did when she was a child, Boughton calls two Colonys home. Her mother and father, Agnes and George Boughton, bought and renamed the Hotel Alterep on Florida's Delray Beach in 1935 as they were returning from a Havana honeymoon. Summers, when the hotel was closed, the Boughtons managed northern resorts. Their seasonally itinerant lifestyle settled into a more predictable pattern with the purchase of Breakwater Court, where they added a heated, saltwater pool and an eighteen-hole putting green.
Boughton learned the business from the bottom up. At twelve, she was the elevator operator. At fourteen, she was the relish girl, serving pickles, spiced watermelon rinds, and cottage cheese to diners. When she was a little older, she waited tables and served cocktails. As a young adult, she sought a different path and became a landscape architect, acquiring an aesthetic and an environmental ethic that guide her now that she is back in the hotel business.
"A lot of the way the hotel looks has to do with how people feel about it," she says. From the floral hooked rugs and white painted beds of the TV-less guestrooms to the lobby's warm pine paneling (her father's touch), the hotel is at once cozy and elegant. It also is green, the first hotel in Maine to adopt Green Hotels Association standards for conserving water and energy and reducing solid waste. Boughton's ecological sensitivity is expressed in her philanthropy, as well: In 2003 she donated more than a hundred thousand dollars - one dollar for each guest who has stayed at the hotel since 1995 - to the Kennebunkport Land Trust. The program continues on an annual basis. "It's part of our history that people come here for open space," she explains. "They don't want to see Kennebunkport covered in houses and neither do I."
Boughton still dips into the chilly ocean at least once each summer. "We have that beautiful heated saltwater pool," she acknowledges, "but it's nice to do the real thing."
The heavyset tourist steps off the curb and ambles across Kennebunkport's Dock Square, petering to a halt when he reaches the landmark eagle monument on a traffic island overflowing with flowers. As if in a trance, he stares, open-mouthed, at the contraption that is rolling onto Ocean Avenue.
The lollipop-red pedicab, or bicycle rickshaw, is powered by Debbie McGrath, a trim blonde whose pumping, sinewy legs are clad in black spandex shorts. Riding in the roofless fiberglass cab are husband Brian, who possesses his own pair of impressively muscular legs, and me, whose legs are not up for discussion.
"This all came about because one night we had a bottle of wine and a nice meal at Mabel's Lobster Claw," Brian tells me. "When we finished, I said, 'What we need now is a pedicab to drive us home.' Who wants to walk a mile after a big dinner?"
Bicycle rickshaws are a common form of hired transportation in Asia, but they operate in only a couple dozen American cities. The McGraths first encountered them in Charleston, South Carolina. Last summer they bought three - one red, one white, and one blue - and launched D&B Pedicabs.
"The business was slow starting because people didn't know what a pedicab was," says Debbie, 56, a triathlete with several Ironman competitions under her belt. "So we gave free rides around the parking lots. Our primary business comes from the hotels and restaurants. It's a lot easier to leave the driving to us because there is almost no parking in the village. Our idea was to alleviate that problem and the traffic congestion."
Charging five dollars per person for a fifteen-minute ride, the McGraths are not getting rich driving pedicabs, but that was never the plan. "It's a way to pay back the town, a way to do a little bit of preservation," says Brian, 68, a marathoner who has competed on every continent, including Antarctica.
Debbie steers the pedicab to Government Wharf at the head of the Kennebunk River, where she gives away the fact that she is from away by pointing out the men winching empty lobster "cages" from their boat. "Traps," Brian quickly corrects.
The McGraths are Texans who split their year between Kennebunkport and Houston. They lived in town in relative anonymity for twenty years, but now they are local celebrities. Pedestrians smile broadly and wave as the pedicab, back on Ocean Avenue, passes them at jogging speed. Robert Fischer, owner of Mabel's Lobster Claw, calls hello from the restaurant porch. "And isn't this a nice way to see the town?" Brian says, beaming. "It's relaxing and casual, almost like walking, but easier."
Located about two miles northeast of touristy Dock Square, Cape Porpoise is as authentic a fishing village as any on the Maine coast. This is so in large part because of the work of the village's former grocer, a humble fellow named Tom Bradbury.
Director of the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust since 1978, Bradbury has led the effort to protect more than seventy individual parcels, including twelve islands off Cape Porpoise. The view is much as it was a hundred years ago, a rarity in heavily developed southern Maine.
More important, in Bradbury's mind, lobstermen are not competing with yachtsmen and residents are not encountering "No Trespassing" signs when they paddle to traditional picnic spots. Something more valuable than land has been preserved. "The spirit of the town is much as it was when I was a kid, and I think the trust's protection of key parcels has contributed to that," Bradbury says.
Bradbury grew up in Cape Porpoise, working summers at the small grocery started by his grandfather in 1943. "If you look at my high school class roster, lobstermen's sons became lobstermen and storekeepers' sons became storekeepers because those were the only sorts of job slots available if you wanted to stay in town."
After college, Bradbury returned to Bradbury Brothers grocery, where he came to know everyone in Cape Porpoise. Perhaps that is what made him an attractive recruit when he was asked to join the fledgling trust's board in 1975. He agreed reluctantly and, true to Gumperson's Law, he was soon president.
Those were discouraging years. "You'd fight a development and the developers wouldn't get all the units they wanted, you wouldn't get it protected, and both sides ended up frustrated," Bradbury recalls. "We realized that was crazy. Rather than having this constant losing battle over what we are against, we flipped it and asked what we're for. What we wanted was, as the town grew, to maintain the essential character of the community, to retain its beauty and enough wildlife habitat so that species can survive."
With this narrowed focus, the trust identified key properties and straightforwardly asked owners to consider donating them. A surprising number of people did.
To those who could not afford to donate, the trust offered fair market value. "The native population didn't have retirement plans. The land was their retirement plan. If we and a developer are offering the same amount of money but we'll protect the land the way they love it, they will go with us."
In 1996, Tom Bradbury received the Catto Charitable Foundation's first American Land Conservation Award. Jay Espy, president of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, declared at the time, "Tom has built one of the most successful local land trusts in the nation. He is an unassuming consensus builder who readily gives credit to everyone but himself."
Indeed, Bradbury says the true conservation hero is the late Stephen Emmons, a thrifty, hardworking lobsterman who donated his beloved land, now a preserve and site of the trust's headquarters. "The greatest progress we've made is in working with people like Steve who simply love the land," Bradbury says. "Our fear isn't where the money will come from so much as losing the generation who has that connection to the land. Steve's love was here. By giving it away he was able to see his dream come true."
What do most customers order when they dine at Kennebunk's oldest restaurant? "Lobster," says Heidi Dalton, who has been waiting tables for eleven years at Mabel's Lobster Claw. "They definitely want lobster."
Not that they necessarily know what to do with it. Many Lobster Claw customers are sampling Maine's famous crustacean for the first time. Despite the placemats that give claw-to-tail illustrated instructions for dismantling the body and retrieving the sweet meat from the shell, some diners remain perplexed. "They don't know what you can eat and what you can't," Dalton says. "Some people, I swear, have even eaten some of the shell when I pick up the plates!"
Steamed clams can be similarly daunting. Some diners chow down without removing the mollusks' rubbery neck membranes, the mere idea of which makes Dalton wrinkle her nose. "You notice it when they're halfway through and wonder, 'Do I tell them they weren't supposed to eat that?' " Often it's best to leave well enough alone. "They think that's the way it's supposed to be. They're like, 'That was great!' "
Mabel's Lobster Claw is housed in an unassuming clapboarded building with a porch that practically sits on Ocean Avenue. Some customers have been coming since 1953, when the restaurant was opened by Teedy Hutchins. After fourteen years Hutchins sold it to Mabel Hanson, who lived above the thirteen-table dining room. She was so protective of the restaurant's reputation that she insisted Robert Fischer work alongside her for a year before selling it to him and his wife, Stephanie, in 1997. Besides using Mabel's recipes, the Fischers have retained the vintage fifties interior, with its varnished pine booths and paneled walls.
The Fischers are one reason Dalton returns each season to work five nights a week at the Lobster Claw, which is open from April to the end of October. "They are awesome bosses," Dalton says. She likes the casual atmosphere - "you don't have to worry about serving from the left, clearing from the right, and all that uptight stuff" - and the tips are good, too. "You get the old couples who slip you two dollars because it means so much that someone has taken care of them," Dalton says, "and you have a lot of wealthy people for whom forty, fifty, one hundred-dollar tips are routine."
Once a popular after-show haunt for stars of the Kennebunkport Opera House, the humble Lobster Claw continues to welcome glitterati among its clientele of summer residents and vacationers (locals, Dalton says, avoid the traffic and dine out of town). Dalton and her colleagues have served television news anchor Peter Jennings, actors Peter Boyle and Rue McClanahan, and celebrity cook Rachael Ray. One of Dalton's favorite customers is Gordon Zacks, a former advisor to President George H.W. Bush. Zacks comes nearly every night, always dressed in a jacket and tie. "We say when Gordon Zacks talks, people listen because he's a really smart guy," Heidi says. "Before he bought his house near Walker's Point, he used to stay at the White Barn Inn. Their guests would come here, saying, 'Wherever that guy's dining, we're dining.' " A pair of Secret Service agents typically arrives in advance of George and Barbara Bush, who sup at their favorite corner table three or four times each summer. Despite the presence of the agents, who sit at their own table, "it's very low-key," Dalton says. "The Bushes come so often that they don't feel like celebrities to us anymore, but everyone else is in awe. We don't do much business those nights because the customers have eight hundred cups of coffee. They just stare and don't want to leave."
The seaside wedding of President George W. Bush's second cousin last summer attracted seven hundred uninvited guests to Kennebunkport. Carrying anti-war signs, the demonstrators marched from Dock Square to a checkpoint overlooking Walker's Point, the summer retreat of the president's parents. For about ten minutes the group chanted protests, then turned and marched the two-and-a-half miles back to the square. With them every step of the journey was Kennebunkport police chief Joe Bruni.
"When the president visits, we have the world watching us," says Bruni, who commands a force of twelve full-time officers (more in summer). "No matter what your political opinion is, he's still the president of the United States and we need to protect him. I try to keep the way of life for the people who live in town as normal as possible and balance that with everyone's constitutional right to freedom of speech and assembly. That weekend, I wanted the protesters to know we cared about what they wanted to do, but also I wanted the locals to know, 'Your chief is here.' "
Bruni's resume is unique in Maine and, perhaps, the nation. He joined the Kennebunkport force as a patrolman in 1980, one month before the vice presidential inauguration of the senior Bush, and was promoted to sergeant shortly after Bush was elected president in 1989. Bruni became chief in 2002, one year into the younger Bush's first term. "By the time George W. gets out of office, I will have been working presidential details for twenty years," Bruni says.
He coordinates responsibilities with the Secret Service, the Coast Guard, the Maine State Police, and police forces in towns through which the Bushes' motorcades pass. When a foreign dignitary, such as Saudi Prince Bandar, visits, the State Department is involved as well.
President George W. Bush vacations in Crawford, Texas, but his occasional, short visits to Kennebunkport are more demanding than any of the retreats his father enjoyed as president. "We weren't looking over our backs every single second like we are now," Bruni explains. "Terrorism has changed everything. I exerted more energy planning for those four days last summer when the president came for the wedding than I did when his dad came up for the whole month of August."
Bruni's most stressful workday, however, was in 2000 when the press learned of George W.'s 1976 drunk driving arrest. Working into the wee hours, Bruni fielded angry, threatening phone calls, some accusing the police of sabotaging the upcoming election, others blaming them for a cover-up. "Wow, what a weekend," he says, "but as soon as the true story came out on television, the phone calls stopped." (A Portland lawyer, not the police, leaked the story. Department policy is not to announce such information unless asked for it, Bruni says.)
The Secret Service typically notifies Bruni whenever the senior Bushes are coming into town, which is often. "Every Memorial Day they come down to see the parade, and there is a point where it's just me standing with Barbara and George," Bruni says. "It is always a thrill because they are so down to earth. For me, it's a private moment even though there are thousands of people standing nearby."
No one welcomed the Rev-erend Sherwood and Nancy Treadwell when they attended their first service at the Church on the Cape in 1993. Recently retired from a New Hampshire pastorate, the Treadwells had just moved into the Kennebunk Beach house they'd purchased years earlier. They had long anticipated this day, when the Cape Porpoise village church would become their church, their community. Now here they were, feeling invisible. It's not as if they could have gone unnoticed. The congregation numbered just twelve.
Sherwood, with forty-five years in the ministry, knew what he was seeing: a dying church resigned to closing its doors. The Treadwells didn't return.
Months later, Treadwell was coaxed out of retirement to serve, of all places, the Church on the Cape. Friends warned, "Sherwood, this is a very old congregation. You're going to spend your life doing funerals. You don't want to go to that church."
He replied, "Yes, I do."
His first day at the pulpit, he told the congregation, "We're putting a moratorium on death. You're not to die for at least a year." There was, he said, work to do.
"The church was badly deteriorated. Skunks had taken over the basement and raccoons had taken over the attic. The congregation was also deteriorated. They had lost their sense of being an important part of community life. They needed a catalyst to help them rediscover their identity as the Protestant church in Cape Porpoise."
First piece of business: a choir, formed just in time for Treadwell's second sermon. Next: a Sunday school. "Waste of time!" the governing board said. "There aren't any children around."
"Of course there aren't any children around," Treadwell answered. "You don't have anything for them to do."
Notices were sent to Cape Porpoise homes. Within two months, forty-five children were enrolled.
"Then I had a flash," Treadwell says. "Lobster buoys. A lobster buoy from every fisherman in the village hanging in the hall."
"Whatever for?" skeptical board members asked.
"Oh come on! It's to catch people's attention, let them know we're here."
"Waste of time! The fishermen will never do it."
No, but their wives would. Two weeks later, three big tables overflowed with colorful buoys. "When they were dedicated, there were more lobstermen at church than had ever been seen outside of a prominent person's funeral," Treadwell remembers with a smile.
Speaking of funerals, Treadwell marked his first anniversary as pastor without having officiated at a single one. By then the number of Sunday worshippers had grown to fifty; it would eventually swell to more than one hundred. A second service was added for summer folks. Visitors came to see the buoys. Congregants renovated the restrooms, built a new organ, laid fresh coats of paint. They took pride.
"It seemed there was no mountain too high for them to climb, and it wasn't just the church but the whole village becoming more alive," says Treadwell, who retired in 1998 but remains active in the parish. "They did everything to grow this sense of who we are and why we're here. You can do so much when people believe in themselves."