Down East 2013 ©
1. Maine is really safe
We have the second lowest violent crime rate and the lowest incarceration rate in the nation. The juvenile crime rate is a third of the U.S. average, and the overall crime rate is among the lowest in the nation. [For the rest of this story, see the November 2008 issue of Down East.]
2. The oldest European settlements in New England are in Maine
The French colony on Calais’ St. Croix Island (1604-5) and England’s Popham Colony in Phippsburg (1607-8) both failed after a single winter. But Popham colony patron Sir Ferdinando Gorges didn’t give up, establishing permanent fishing stations at Damariscove and Monhegan islands prior to the sailing of the Mayflower. But when Francis Parkman, George Bancroft, and other nineteenth-century Harvard dons began writing the history of the country, they sought to aggrandize their ancestors’ role and diminish that of Jamestown, Popham, and Damariscove. To dwell on the existence of fishing stations in Maine that predated the Puritan migration would have undermined the Boston Brahmins’ historical claim to be the rightful rulers of the nation. This historical amnesia continues to the present: Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower never mentions Gorges or Damariscove.
3. Maine is a post-colonial society
This is a fact that has colored our outlook ever since. Maine and Massachusetts were on opposite sides of the English Civil War in the 1640s, and Maine’s side lost. When the dust settled, (Puritan) Massachusetts forcibly annexed (Royalist, Anglican) Maine, making it a colony of a colony. So, from the 1650s until statehood in 1820, Maine was ruled by and in the interests of Massachusetts. Maine settlements were repeatedly destroyed during nine decades of warfare provoked by Puritan hostility to New England’s Indians. As those wars ended, Massachusetts land speculators moved to seize vast stretches of the midcoast and Kennebec Valley under the thesis that Maine claimants had lost them to enemy conquest, prompting an eighty-year insurgency by backcountry settlers. This struggle was one of the factors that prompted Mainers to seek statehood. The other: the War of 1812, when Massachusetts thwarted federal efforts to liberate the British occupation of eastern Maine.
4. Moose are very large
They weigh up to 1,600 pounds, stand over seven feet at the shoulder, and aren’t particularly shy about crossing roads. You don’t want to hit one. Your car is likely to only take out the animal’s legs, sending the body straight through the windshield or collapsing the entire roof. In a statistically typical year, some 700 vehicles collide with moose, 160 people are injured, and three are killed. A vast majority of collisions occur at night in the months of May to October (when moose are most active) and in northern regions (where they are most populous). But there are plenty of anomalies: last year a motorcyclist was killed on I-95 in Pittsfield in the middle of the day. Moose eyes don’t reflect headlights, and with their deep brown coats they’re much harder to spot in the dark than a deer. Watch out for the latter, too: while your chances of surviving a collision with a deer are twenty-five times better, they occur more than five times as often.
5. Being born here doesn’t necessarily make you a native
There’s an old Maine saying: “Just ’cause your cat has kittens in the oven, it don’t make them biscuits.” In some circles, being “native” requires not only that you were born in Maine, but that your parents and possibly grandparents were as well. In most cases, the critical question is this: Did your family move to the area in living memory? If not, congratulations, you may be a Mainer. In fact, individuals born out of state to multi-generational Maine natives often get a special dispensation, as long as they move back. In Maine, as with any nation, belonging is more a matter of ties and culture than it is point of origin.
6. Maine is a small state
Governor John Baldacci is a first cousin, once removed, of former Senator George Mitchell and, thus, a second cousin of corporate lobbyist Jim Mitchell. Baldacci’s brother, Robert, teamed up with Senator Mitchell to try to develop a hotel and office complex on Portland’s Maine State Pier and with former Senator Bill Cohen to buy the Portland Press Herald. Tim Allen, political editor at the Bangor Daily News, is a first cousin of Congressman Tom Allen, but you don’t need to worry about bias in the coverage of Allen’s race against incumbent Senator Susan Collins: his boss, executive editor Mark Woodward, used to be her press secretary. As for our other senator, Olympia Snowe: she’s married to former Governor John McKernan.
7. Mainers frown on waste
Southerners take note: in Maine, a “redemption center” isn’t an Evangelical church, but rather a place to take your returnable bottles and cans. Maine was the third state in the country to have a deposit law, passed in 1976. It wasn’t easy: bottlers and distributors opposed the move and subjected the law to a statewide referendum. Despite their media campaign, Mainers passed it by a comfortable margin. When bottlers forced a second referendum two years later, 84 percent of voters backed recycling. The law has since been expanded to include all beverage containers (save those for milk and raw cider) and has served as a model for other states. Thirty-nine states — including all of those in the ex-Confederacy — still have no deposit, and a lot more roadside litter.
8. Maine is the whitest state in the country
Maine saw a doubling of the number of blacks and a 40 percent increase in Hispanics between 2000 and 2005, but it’s still the least racially diverse state in the country: 96 percent white in 2005, down 0.9 percent from 2000. Four centuries after Popham, it’s also the state with the second highest percentage of people of English ancestry, at 21.5 percent. The primary reason: much of Maine was in a profound economic depression in the late nineteenth century, with relatively few jobs to attract immigrants, like the Irish and Italians who are the dominant groups in Massachusetts and Connecticut respectively. Maine’s rival in Anglo-ness may surprise you: it’s Utah.
9. Maine is unusually civic minded
Our voter participation rate was the highest in the nation in the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections, number two in 2000. In 2004 an incredible 74 percent of the state’s voting age population cast their ballots, the highest in the state’s history. Unlike most states, municipal governments wield considerable power here, and many are controlled via town meetings, where citizens debate face to face before voting directly on the issues at hand.
10. Maine’s caucus system is broken
The influence of your vote in this year’s presidential caucus depended entirely on what town you lived in, if it counted at all. Maine Democrats allocated state delegates based on an arbitrary standard: the number of voters who cast a ballot for John Baldacci in 2006. It didn’t matter if one person or five thousand showed up at a given caucus on February 10 — the numbers of delegates were already set in stone. The result made a mockery of the one-person, one-vote ideal. Portland got one delegate for every 18.5 voters who showed up, while the ratio in Bangor was one for every ten. In four rural towns (Gilead, Lagrange, Osborn, and Woodville), only one voter showed up, and each got to be a delegate, thus exercising twenty-seven times the influence of a Camden voter. For Republicans, the situation was even worse. Under party rules none of the state’s delegates to the national convention were bound to observe the caucus results in choosing the presidential candidate, meaning your vote didn’t count at all.
11. Maine is a great place to raise kids
At one point or another in the past decade, Maine has been recognized as having the lowest infant mortality rate in the nation, the best performing K-12 education system, the best eighth-grade readers, the highest child immunization rates, and the Children’s Rights Council distinction of “the best place to raise a child.” According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Maine ranks well in prenatal (second) and child medical access (ninth) and has the sixth-lowest teen birth rate. We also have by far the highest participation rate for the SAT: 87 percent of this year’s high school graduates, four points higher than Massachusetts and twenty-nine times the rate of the Dakotas, Iowa, and Mississippi.
12. How to avoid highway robbery
When Portlanders return from points south, they get off the Maine Turnpike and onto I-295 at Exit 45, not 44. The benefit: you avoid the sixty-cent toll, news residents of the midcoast and lower Kennebec Valley will be happy to make use of. And if your ultimate destination lies anywhere north of Gardiner, you’ll want to come this way, too: not only is I-295 more direct, it’s free.
13. Quaint fishing towns were built by fishermen
Those fish houses, piers, and lobsterboats support a real life industry, one with its own noises and smells. Lobstermen leave at an early hour, and the sound of their diesels can carry across the water. Fish piers can smell of bait. Active shipyards survive because of generations of accumulated skills despite low-wage competition from overseas and the Deep South; the occasional midday racket is a small price to pay. If you move nearby, be a good neighbor: don’t try to pass town ordinances that put the working waterfronts out of business. Newcomers are doing that up and down the coast, harming Maine’s people and sense of place.
14. There used to be a lot more fish
Between 1965 and 1999, New England’s haddock catch fell by 95 percent, halibut by 92 percent, and cod by 40 percent, as foreign and domestic fishing vessels harvested more fish than the region’s fishing banks could produce. This prompted fisheries managers to impose a variety of painful restrictions to allow stocks to recover. But the damage may be worse than people think. Recently, researchers at the University of New Hampshire used fishing logs to reconstruct the catches of mid-nineteenth century small boat fishermen of western Hancock County, where there are essentially no cod to be found today. In 1861, using small sailboats and baited hand lines, they were able to catch more cod than the entire modern U.S. fishing fleet was able to catch in the entire Gulf of Maine between 1996 and 1999.
15. How to pronounce place names
Boothbay is pronounced as one word (not two), and there’s no such place as Bang-gurr (it’s Bang-gore). Damariscotta is Dam-ur-scotta and the town next to Biddeford is pronounced Sah-co. Calais, despite being named for the French channel port, sounds like callous. Old timers agree that you don’t pronounce the second “w” in Woolwich (it’s an English thing), but they’ve long been outnumbered by non-natives, who add it in for some reason.
16. The fishing fleet is in trouble
A generation ago, more than three hundred vessels fished for cod, haddock, flounder, and other bottom-dwelling fish from their bases in Rockland, Boothbay, Stonington, Portland, and other Maine ports. This year less than seventy remained and only a handful of large (Portland-based) draggers on account of fewer fish, tighter regulations, and the advantages of moving to Massachusetts (lower fuel prices, reduced sailing times, and the ability to sell any lobsters accidentally caught in nets). The Portland Fish Exchange has seen fish volumes drop by almost 90 percent since the early 1990s, endangering the wholesale market. Lobstering has been the only bright spot: Maine’s lobster catch has exploded from about twenty million pounds a year in the fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties to 63 million pounds in 2007.
17. The term nor’easter is in debate
The late Edgar Comee of Brunswick led a one-man campaign to stop newscasters from calling northeast storms “nor’easters,” describing it as “a pretentious and altogether lamentable affectation, the odious, even loathsome, practice of landlubbers who would be seen as salty as the sea itself.” Comee, who covered Portland’s waterfront in the ’40s for the Evening Express, argued persuasively that the abbreviation old salts used was “noth’easter.” After all, many New Englanders avoid pronouncing their “R”s. Truth is, Englishmen have been using “nor” for “north” for at least four centuries. A character in a 1612 Thomas Dekker play warns of an approaching “nore-nore-west” storm, and early seventeenth-century New England deeds regularly refer to property lines running “nore-east” or “nore-west.” “Nor’easter” also appears frequently in nineteenth-century books, suggesting the construction isn’t “wrong,” at least for landlubbers.
18. Mainers invented some odd stuff
Earmuffs were invented in Farmington by Chester Greenwood in 1873, Moxie by Dr. Augustin Thompson of Unity in 1876, the combine harvester by Hallowell’s Samuel Lane in 1828, the Peavey logging tool by Joseph Peavey of Stillwater in the 1850s, and, yes, the common mousetrap by Sangerville native Hiram Maxim, who also invented the machine gun.
19. Not long ago, Maine was really, really poor
Up into the early 1980s, the state frequently finished last or nearly last in the country in per capita income, particularly when the numbers were adjusted for the cost of living. In 1960, nearly a quarter of its families earned less than three thousand dollars a year and were defined as poor under federal antipoverty legislation; in Washington County, the state’s poorest, the figure was 41.8 percent. The situation has improved: in 2000, the
state’s family poverty rate was 11.5 percent.
20. Maine has enormous regional disparities
In economic terms, Cumberland and Washington counties might as well be in different countries. Washington County’s poverty rate in the last census — 21 percent — was more than two and half times that of Cumberland, its median income was 41 percent lower, and the unemployment was three times higher.
21. Clammers could use your support
Those guys with the dangerous-looking tools who sometimes cut through the woods to the shore and wander about on the mud flats are harvesters, not criminals. For a dozen generations, clam and worm diggers could take access to mudflats as a given: everyone knew one another. But in recent years, newcomers have cut off access with “No Trespassing” signs and calls to their local sheriff, making a very hard job even harder.
22. Global warming will hurt
More than half the “rockbound” coast of Maine is actually composed of unconsolidated bluffs of marine clay that are vulnerable to the more frequent and powerful storms global warming is expected to deliver. “The next big storm will cause large-scale damage to the southern Maine coast, just like it did in Louisiana,” University of Maine geologist Joseph Kelley predicts. Others warn that fir and spruce will be pushed northward, ski resorts will see shorter seasons, and the range of Lyme-disease carrying ticks will continue toexpand.
23. We have unusually deep ties with neighboring parts of Canada
The Down East coast and southwestern New Brunswick and Nova Scotia were settled in the 1760s and 1770s by the same wave of people, and have retained close cultural and familial ties ever since. Even today, you’ll meet many Americans in Eastport, Perry, or Calais who were born in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, and Canadians on Campobello Island born in Machias, simply because they preferred the hospital. Almost everyone in the region has uncles, cousins, or siblings living across the border, including the Passamaquoddy Indians, whose traditional lands encompassed the entire St. Croix watershed. In Aroostook County and other parts of the northern border, the shared culture is French-Canadian, while many residents of Lewiston and Biddeford are descended from late nineteenth-century immigrants from Quebec.
24. The North Woods are in flux
In 1974, Ralph Nader’s Center for the Study of Responsive Law described Maine as a “paper plantation” where seven pulp and paper giants dominated the economy and political system. No longer. Those companies that still exist have divested themselves of much of their landholdings — including the vast “empty quarter” where there are no towns or public roads. Today financial investors have replaced industrial firms as the state’s largest landholders, suggesting that Plum Creek’s proposed development on Moosehead Lake may just be the first of many controversial projects in the northern forests.
25. Where the sun also rises
Lubec’s West Quoddy Head Light is the easternmost point in the continental United States, but during the fall and winter, the first rays of sunlight actually strike Mount Cadillac. For much of the fall and spring, Mars Hill is the first part of the U.S. mainland to see the sun; West Quoddy gets its chance for a few weeks in June and December. For the U.S. as a whole, Guam has them all beat by fourteen hours, which accounts for the territory’s official motto: “Where America’s Day Begins.”