Rockland, Maine: Fine Art and Family Fun
By Stephen Hartshorne
Do you have an especially practical member in your family? Someone who listens patiently to your plans to go ziplining in the rainforest, and then says calmly, “We could have just as much fun at a bed & breakfast in Maine.”?
Well I could get sacked for saying this, since I work for an international travel website, but they’re absolutely right. The Gulf of Maine is one of the most beautiful places on God’s Green Earth, and it’s a great place for a family vacation because there’s so much to do. If you try a weekend there, you’ll end up coming back for at least a week.
My friend George and I recently took a trip on the quintessential American highway, US 1, to Rockland, Maine, “Rock City, USA,” on Penobscot Bay, where we found more opportunities for fun than you could shake a stick at.
Downtown Rockland has a newly-renovated theater, The Strand, for movies, concerts and other performances, no fewer than 24 art galleries and studios, the world famous Farnsworth Art Museum, the new Maine Lighthouse Museum, lots of first-rate restaurants, and a lot of cool new 21st-century businesses, the kind run by people who love what they’re doing.
There are shipbuilding demonstrations at Atlantic Challenge and golfing and conference facilities at the Samoset Resort. Right nearby are the Abbe Native American Museum, the estate of Revolutionary War hero Henry Knox and many beautiful ponds for swimming and canoeing.
We went out and pulled traps with a lobsterman and found out all about the life cycle of the world’s favorite crustacean. We gawked at World War I biplanes at the Owl’s Head Transportation Museum — real Fokkers and Sopwiths that still fly.
We took a dinner cruise amongst and between all the beautiful little islands in the bay, and learned about the restoration of the puffins, the world’s cutest and cuddliest seabird, at the Puffin Center on Main Street. We went sailing on the schooner Morning in Maine (or is it a ketch?), part of Rockland’s famous fleet of historic sailing vessels.
We got up 5:30 a.m. and went fishing for striped bass, a game fish you can’t buy at the market. Even I caught one. We toured the Lighthouse Museum and three historic Victorian mansions and visited the Farnsworth Art Museum, which has one of the finest collections in the world.
But for me the highlight of the trip was the Farnsworth Homestead, a part of the Farnsworth Museum, where I had the good fortune to meet Miss Lucy Farnsworth. She passed away in 1935 at the age of 97, but there in her home among all her family’s possessions, I felt a close personal connection.
She used to dress all in black and the local children called her a witch, but it was Miss Lucy Farnsworth, more than anyone else, who helped to bring about the Rockland Renaissance more than half a century later…
The Limestone Millionaires
During the 1800s, Rockland was the fourth largest port on the East Coast because of the limestone that was shipped all over the world to make mortar and cement to build cities like New York and Boston.
Because there were so many millionaires back in the day, the entire city is a virtual museum with magnificent architecture all over the place. They have 145 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. That’s more than some states.
Our hosts were the Historic Inns of Rockland, a group of three Victorian B&Bs. Since these old Victorian mansions have never been sectioned off into apartments, they retain their original character and give guests an authentic glimpse of what life was like for a fabulously well-to-do family in the 19th century.
The Farnsworth Homestead goes a step further because it still has all the original furnishings, from the dishes and silverware to the upholstery in the parlor to the shoeshine kit in James Farnsworth’s bedroom.
Many museum curators scour the country for artifacts from a single period and put them together in a display. The artifacts at the Farnsworth Homestead have never left the house.
Like a modern-day Miss Havisham, Lucy Farnsworth preserved the house in mint condition for 97 years. And she held onto the family pile with both hands. At one point she sued the heirs of her brother’s wife to recover the family jewels; and she won.
In her will she bequeathed $1.3 million to found the William A. Farnsworth Library and Art Museum in honor of her father. The Homestead is now part of the museum complex that also includes, besides the permanent collection, the Wyeth Center, added in 1998, and the Olson House in nearby Cushing, the subject of many paintings by Andrew Wyeth.
Hard Times for Rock City
The limestone industry declined and disappeared in the first half of the 20th century, partly because of the invention of sheetrock. Then, in the second half of the last century, the fishing industry disappeared.
neighbors, Rockland has always been a working class town. Jobs became few and far between, many of the storefronts were boarded up, property values sank and the downtown became a place many people avoided.
Ten years ago, times were tough.
The Mainers, The Artists and The ‘People From Away’
Because of the local geography, people in Maine have always had a pretty tough time eking out a living. The landscape and the weather are pretty unforgiving
If you so much as go out in a rowboat in Maine, you had better know what you’re doing because the sea is no respecter of persons, and even if the weather looks nice, it could turn nasty in the twinkling of an eye and you could wind up halfway to France.
This may be why, for as long as anyone can remember, artists have always come here to paint, not only the beautiful scenery, but the “authentic” people.
“Don’t mind me, just go on being authentic.”
One of the first to do so was Winslow Homer, a famous Civil War illustrator who moved to Maine in the 1880s. A reporter once came to Prout’s Neck to interview the famous artist. He went up to one of the men on the town dock and said, “I’ll give you a quarter if you’ll tell me where to find Winslow Homer.”
With a quick glance at his companions, the man said, “Let me see the quarter.”
When the reporter produced the coin, the man said, “I’m Winslow Homer.”
As this story illustrates, the artists and the people of Maine have become familiar with one another over generations and some artists like Winslow Homer have even been able to become honorary Mainers, even though they are “from away.”
Mount Desert Island has one of the most famous artists’ colonies in the world and many of the most famous artists of the 1800s came here at one time or another, including most of the members of the Hudson Valley School.
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