HOME: The Story of Maine

"A Place Apart" - The Story Behind the Image of Maine


Richard Judd, Associate Professor, University of Maine:

There's an old legend in Old Orchard Beach that says that on Saint John the Baptist Day the waters the ocean waters off of the beach itself take on special purifying qualities and this was the attraction for the local people and it became the thing that drew metropolitan New Englanders and Northeasterners.

The tourism industry began in Maine as early as 1837 I believe when Ebbon Staples in Old Orchard Beach was a farmer in that area began adding on to his own farmstead his own homestead houses to accommodate people who would come then to visit Old Orchard Beach.For the first time we have a house that is specifically there as a destination for recreational purposes.


Maine's image as an idyllic destination began long before the start of tourism. The story behind the image of Maine has its beginnings in the 1500's when the first European explorers came to the area looking for a route through to the wealth of the Far East. The motive of trade and economic gain was powerful and it pushed Europeans up every river that looked like a possible way through. When no passage was found, these early explorers turned their attention to what surrounded them. And the unexpected bounty of Maine's thick forest and deep, rich waterways did not go unnoticed.

Jere Daniell, Professor, Dartmouth College:

One thing they got that they didn't expect was the weather. If you go across the Atlantic Ocean from Maine you hit Spain. They expected to have since they knew about latitude, they knew how far south they were from the North Pole, they expected a much more temperate climate.


The climate of Northern New England is the result of the arctic current that runs along the coast and the polar air masses that glide across the Canadian Shield -- something early explorers knew nothing about. The first explorers and colonists arrived in the middle of what's known as the Little Ice Age - a period from about thirteen to seventeen hundred -- when the climate of the Northern Hemisphere was several degrees colder than it is today.

Temperatures of 40 below weren't uncommon on the coast and southern Maine's Casco Bay, which became valued as the closest open port to England during the 1800's, would actually freeze.

Richard Judd:

Some of the earliest explorations were done exclusively in the summertime. Maine's a great place in the summer but to hang out through the entire winter was another proposition. And it was touch and go. Maine's colonies, Maine's earliest colonial endeavors were very, very marginal. People built something here and it disappears, built something else and it disappears. There's a lot a lot of fluctuation in the population on the Maine coast for the first couple generations.


One of the world's first glimpses of the region was the voyage of Giovanni da Verrazano in 1524.

Richard D'Abate, Executive Director, Maine Historical Society:

That's a very important voyage. He had a wonderful experience actually someplace in Rhode Island with the Narragansett Indians which he wrote up in his letter to the King of France. It was this description on an idyllic world: a world where the natives were civilized, and where the fields were rolling, and where food was easy to gather and so forth became what was ultimately became the story that was associated with a land called Norumbega.


This image of a land of plenty was further reinforced by Esteban Gomez who sailed up the Penobscot River in 1525 in search of the elusive Northwest Passage. His description of the wealth of the region got laid over the story told by Verrazano, and soon the area we now know as New England appeared on maps as the fanciful region of Norumbega.

Jere Daniell:

It's usually cartographers that determine when a name's gonna stick. They put it on a map and people read it on a map. And Norumbega appears on numerous maps of the area. And it had certain mythological qualities about it that were often a fusion of impressions that came from the explorers written reports and also they'd go down to the local bars and talk about things. Everyone imagined there was gold over here. And it was really rooted in the fact there was an awful lot of gold down in the Spanish Empire which got there earlier so it really wasn't a myth. It just was like a dry well.

Richard D'Abate:

The English began to use this concept of Norumbega in the 1580's as a kind of advertising supplement to get people to be interested in buying up properties out of the patents that had been formed.

Jere Daniell:

What they did is they came over and summered. And then set up drying places and then took the fish back and some may have stayed over winter.

Richard D'Abate:

And really only at the very beginning of the 17th century do the English and the French start to make serious efforts to both examine the coast of Maine and begin to think about colonizing.


Early European trading posts and fishing stations like those on Monhegan made way for permanent settlements throughout the 1600's. And by 1622, Damariscove Island was home to the first successful permanent European settlement. Most of the new settlers were engaged in agriculture but others cut timber, fished, trapped, hunted, and traded furs. The traditional skills and craftsmanship we associate with Maine today had begun. And by the mid 1800's, Maine was well positioned to meet the needs of a young and growing nation.

Richard Judd:

We were engaged in shipbuilding and doing very well. In the 1840's we were also the nation's premiere fishing state. At the same time the nations largest shipper of lumber products. So there was a lot going on in which Maine was right on the cutting edge of American industrial development.

This is also what historians have called the wooden age -- the age of wood when virtually everything that we used to eat out of, drink out of, to carry things in, to build structures, everything was made out of wood. Since then, we've developed plastics and cement and structural steel and things like that that have replaced this but in the 19th century if you wanted to build a city, at least in the first half of the 19th century, you built it out of wood. Maine lacked certain resources for the types of industrial development that you see in the late 19th century. We don't have coal deposits, we don't have steel deposits, geographically we're very isolated from the mainstreams of American demographic movement which moved from east to west of course.

We tend to think of Maine as an isolated particularly the upland sections of Maine as being relatively isolated but in fact railroads moved in in the 1840's and 1850's able to carry a lot of materials into the inland sections where they were manufactured, brought together with some of our own natural resources and sent back via the railroads via the shipping lanes into the world.


Railroads also brought the world to Maine. By the end of the 19th century, tourism had become an important part of the State's economy. Rail and steamboat lines promoted Maine as an ideal destination, and, once again, Maine's resources, once again, presented seemingly endless potential for economic growth. Elegant hotels, sporting camps, and boarding houses were filled with rusticators and sports who craved Maine's signature combination of opulence and rugged beauty.

Christina Tree, New England Travel Writer:

The obsession of the outdoors really as a place to explore rather than to conquer really began in England as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution in England in the late 18th century. The Industrial Revolution brought weeks and weekends that that demarcation. When people were just on the farm or working in a non-industrial society there wasn't that combination of having to spend time in and kind of the idealization of wanting to get out. And like the Industrial Revolution it reached New England in the 1820's and it also coincided here with a couple of things. One was passion to establish our identity as a real place, as a country. And so there was a celebration of the American landscape and to get out into it. You had Thomas Cole's Essay on Nature in the 1830's and artists celebrating the woods and the mountains and putting those out in front of people in the shape of big paintings and just thousands of sketches that people just ate up. This was their country. This was America. New England was kind of the first finished corner and we were into being finished, into being a place.

Richard Judd:

Health was a very important component of this early tourist industry. That is, the reason people got out of the city is because they were looking for healthy places to stay. This is a period in the 1830's, the 1840's when American cities were growing at a phenomenal rate -- rural to urban migration, you have the immigration from Europe coming into our east coast cities and they're growing fantastically during this time. Things like sanitary engineering, technologies for sewers, and public health are still 4 or 5 decades away.


During the summer months, epidemics like yellow fever, typhus, and cholera would sweep through American cities. If you were wealthy enough, you packed up your family and left for the season. And what you were looking for was someplace with a reputation for health. Sea breezes, mineral springs, healthy mountains, and clean rural environments attracted wealthy urbanites to Maine.


Richard D'Abate:

We've always played down our urban character because what was really wanted out there by the world which was tired of it's urban environment was a natural pristine kind of world. And so those who are packaging Maine give it to them.

Jere Daniell:

Well, I've always been fond of the phrase captains of industry. Captain is a nautical term obviously. A lot of the transfer from a maritime to an industrial society which in coastal New England was a natural one because people who were captains of ships were kind of small industrialists in their own way. They quickly became the entrepreneurs.

Christina Tree:

In a few places you had Boston developers. It was a Boston company that developed Kennebunkport complete with hotel and all the houses. But in general these were local entrepreneurs and frequently they were the wives of sea captains.


Elsie Jane Weare opened the Cliff House, a grand hotel in Ogunquit in 1872 and by the 1880's, Ogunquit was on the map of summer resort destinations.

Farther up the coast in Bar Harbor, tourism had been popular since the 1850's and, by the time Ogunquit was establishing itself, many of the grand hotel patrons in the area had already built their own mansion sized cottages.

Interior Maine boasted many grand hotels including the Ricker family's famous Poland Spring House and others in the Moosehead and Rangeley Lake regions. Both upper and middle class tourism boomed all along the train and steamboat lines. In western Maine, the Bethel Inn was for the well-to-do. And middle-class visitors found respite from city life by boarding at farmhouses. Today, only a handful of the original grand hotels remain. The Claremont in Southwest Harbor and the Oakland House in Brooksville are both examples of grand but not large rustic resorts that have been preserved with a sure touch.

Jim Littlefield, Innkeeper, Oakland House, Brooksville, Maine:

It's something that I love. I grew up in it. 4th generation. It's almost in my genes. It's long hours but you don't mind that if you love it like I do.

Sally Littlefield, Innkeeper, Oakland House, Brooksville, Maine:

Oh that was my biggest terror when I married Jim of course. Professionally my past life I'm a designer. Worked in theme parks and museums and environments. And when people found out that I'd done that they just it was like 'You are going to ruin this place!' It was really hard for me.

Jim Littlefield:

I think many guests were in fear that things would be changed. They're always telling us not to change anything. It's just the way they want it.

Christina Tree:

The sporting camp is one of the few resort options in Maine that hasn't changed in 100 in even well 130 years. These were built as very simple resorts. They're resorts because there's a difference between a sporting camp and just a camp because a sporting camp has a central eating and gathering place and offers both some guides and the whole focus in on the outdoors.

Wayne Snell, Owner, Wilsons on Moosehead Lake, Greenville, Maine:

And I guess history tells ya that years and years ago from working at Mt. Kineo and from reading the ledgers here they'd come with their family and their big trunks and get off the train and unload and they'd stay the whole summer long.

Shan Snell, Owner, Wilsons on Moosehead Lake, Greenville, Maine:

I think it must have been very charming to see the women in their long dresses and the guides at one time supposedly there was how many guides hired (Wayne off camera: 40+ guides) 40 guides that just worked out of Wilson's.

Matt Libby, Owner, Libby Camps, Ashland, Maine:

I think the railroad is what really spurred the whole sporting camp business. When the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad came in they pushed Aroostook. It was called not necessarily Aroostook County, it was called Aroostook Country. And everybody even in Moosehead used that phrase Aroostook Country because it was very famous for its fish and game that they had up here. Even though we still advertise wilderness isn't true wilderness like when Mum had it. When the Libby's first came and to operating they used to have to meet people in Mesardis with a buckboard to bring them to the hotel in Oxbow and the 2-day trip to camp so it was quite a chore to get back there. But they all enjoyed it and they would come and stay a month at least.

Elsie Gibson, Former Owner, Libby Camps, Ashland, Maine:

And of course back then the cows were brought into camp. You had fresh milk butter cream that was right there. The sportsmen liked that. Something unusual, different, they hadn't had at home. Maybe we should go back to doing that Matt.

Howard Hughey, Retired Maine Guide:

My father run, well he always run sporting camps. I started guiding when I was 17. That's right in the depression. They'd come up, whole families, and just lay around, hike and read and fish and watch nature. Relax. It was clear up into the 40's when they still came by train a lot of em. Just before the second world war. And then the automobiles started coming and they started putting roads in. It started then that they'd come for weekends or maybe 3 or 4 days and then they'd go home again. And it was a different type of person that come. More or less a working man.


This change actually started after World War I when more and more American's began to own their own cars. And by the late 1940's, travel was no longer only for the upper class, the average person could afford to come -- and did. The wealthy summer people who settled in for the season at private cottages, hotels, or sporting camps were joined by an increasing throng of middle class tourists who stayed overnight at newly developed motor courts.

Christina Tree:

You almost have to mention L.L. Bean and his effect on rural Maine because his boot and the whole ethos of where you can wear it and what you can do with it.

Howard Hughey:

90% of the people I guided stopped there and bought equipment. think it was good for the state L.L. Bean. Very good. Put a lot of it on the map.

Richard D'Abate:

That difference between what's out there and what's here has always worked to our advantage. An important author in the 30's was Gladys Hasty Carroll whose book As the Earth Turns was a national best seller. It's a novel that recognizes the encroaching modern world and modernity in general but also at the same time is trying to find the kind of core value of what it means to be a person connected to the land. And one of the reasons it was such a big hit at that time, of course that was the depression, was you know people really wanted to hear that message again. That if you didn't have skyscrapers and if you didn't have subways and you didn't have all the accoutrements of modern life you could still have you still had something of value.

Gary Lawless, Associate Professor, Bates College:

You can still read a book by Gladys Hasty Carroll or Country of the Pointed Firs or Kenneth Roberts and still get enjoyment out of it. I printed a bumper sticker that says I read Ruth Moore and I've given away a couple hundred of them and every now and then travelling around the state I see someone go by me in a car that says I read Ruth Moore on the back and I think you know yeah. She had mass appeal in the 40's and 50's and 60's. Spoonhandle sold a million copies in the late 40's. Her books made the New York Times Bestseller lists, they were condensed by Readers Digest, they were published in foreign languages which I'm still curious about readers in other countries reading these stories about the Maine coast and wondering what was going on.

I live in Elizabeth Coatsworth's house -- in the house that she and her husband Henry Beston lived in and it now belongs to her daughter Kate Barnes who's the State's Poet Laureate and I'm sort of haunted by Elizabeth and Henry. All their books are around me. All their furniture is around me. They're buried there at the farm. And Elizabeth in her lifetime wrote 125 books which were published and most of her books like Ruth's are out of print and to me that's almost tragic.

Richard D'Abate:

Another interesting novel was Sinclair Lewis's Babbit. The idea of a Maine vacation plays out significantly in that novel. Babbit is kind of a booster go-go guy in a Midwest city. And his answer in his own mind to the spiritual crisis of being a modern businessman is to get to Maine as soon as possible. So who are we to argue with that kind of thing? You know I go to a lake every summer and I wouldn't trade it for anything. A lake in Maine. I wouldn't go anyplace else.

Matt Libby:

We are still very remote very wild compared to what people have in New York or Portland. Or wherever. And I guess in that sense relatively speaking we haven't changed from the turn of the century until now. We're still a lot more remote than they are. And probably the same difference that we were at the turn of the century.

Christina Tree:

The meaning of sport is changing. In the 1830's, 40's, 50's, 60's and on around the turn of the century it was somebody who was a hunter, fisherman, and wanted to get out into the wilderness and prove his manhood and you know commune with nature but didn't know how and so they needed a guide.

Howard Hughey:

Well I'd say a sport is a man that he doesn't catch more than his limit of fish, he obeys the law, and when you're guiding him he helps you out if he can. Where some sports don't.

Christina Tree:

Today, sports still exist in that way. You still have people who come to sporting camps and want to hire a guide and obviously a boat. But you have a new brand of sport and that's the person who comes wanting to experience the wilderness and to do it quickly. Maine has that special sense of escape and you know if you want to hike the wilderness, if you want to sail the sea, if you want to get to islands, it has a sense of fulfillment that there's stuff out there for you. I think the promise of this immensity in a world as it becomes more and more confined and defined I think it survives.

Wayne Snell:

And it's hard for Shan and I because we live it everyday to realize how special it is to some of these other people and how they work all year long for just those 2 weeks or however long it is that they're going to spend with us at Wilson's.

Matt Libby:

You actually change some people and give them hope I think.

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