Rockland, Maine: Fine Art and Family Fun
A Down East Success Story
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.
Unlike some of its 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.
The Most Authentic House in Maine
Another example would be the Wyeth family, N.C. Wyeth, the famous illustrator, and his son and grandson, Andrew and James Wyeth, both world famous painters, who for three generations have lived in Port Clyde, just south of Rockland. Their family home is named “Eight Bells” after a painting by Homer.
It was Andrew Wyeth who discovered the most authentic people in Maine, Christina and Alvaro Olson. They lived, naturally, in the most authentic house in Maine, the Olson House.
You can see it in “Christina’s World,” a Wyeth painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Or you can see the house itself, carefully preserved, in Cushing, next door to Rockland.
“I just couldn’t stay away from there,” Wyeth wrote. “I did other pictures while I knew them but I’d always seem to gravitate back to the house… It was Maine.”To me it looked quite a bit like a lot of other beautiful historic New England houses I’ve seen, but I’m not ready to argue art with the Metropolitan Museum.
The Rockland Renaissance
So when the limestone industry and the fishing industry disappeared, it was the artists who provided the nucleus for Rockland’s economic comeback. When a town goes from one art gallery to 24 art galleries in ten years, that’s what you call a social indicator.
Eric Hopkins, who has been painting on the nearby island of North Haven for 25 years, moved his studio and gallery to Rockland last year because he needed more space. He says he’s part of a movement “from the bottom up, not the top down” that includes not just Rockland, but many other nearby towns and islands like Port Clyde, Tenant’s Harbor, Thomaston, North Haven, Vinalhaven and Matinicus.
“For both the artists and the art, the Farnsworth really helped pull it all together,” he says.
Along with the galleries came a new generation of businesses — people who were willing to stick it out during the tough times and grow along with the city, people who love where they are and what they are doing.
And since it has always been a working-class city, Rockland has the kind of atmosphere where Mainers and artists and tourists and out-of-state millionaires all rub shoulders together and everyone is accepted for who they are.
Kerry Altiero, who started Café Miranda in 1993, says some people enjoy his more esoteric offerings like sea scallops pasta verde, and some say, “Whatever. I’ll have spaghetti.”
“The people who move here and live here have a sense of quality,” he says. “If you do quality and do it honestly, they’re going to give you a shot.”
Surveying the Cafe’s long, eclectic menu, I just couldn’t pass up the Hawaiian barbeque. It was really superb. GoNOMAD travel connoisseur Kent E. St. John calls Cafe Miranda “the best restaurant in Maine.”
The Family Fun
Saturday morning we went out with lobsterman Steve Hale of Captain Jack’s Tours and pulled traps and learned all about the life cycle of the lobster, how it sheds its shell and has to hide out under the rocks until its new one hardens, how the female mates first and then lays eggs afterwards and fertilizes them. It’s pretty complicated. You can find out more at this site.
Hale told us about how members of the lobster fleet assign territories among themselves, how they mark their traps with specially colored buoys, and the steps they take to ensure the lobster population remains viable.
And, of course, he demonstrated the old trick of hypnotizing a lobster by rubbing its back.
Rockland is known as the lobster capital of the world and the city’s annual Lobsterfest is one of several summer festivals that draw thousands of visitors from near and far. Others include the Windjammer Parade, when the area’s fleet of windjammers (cargo schooners retrofitted for passenger cruises) sails by the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse and the North Atlantic Blues Festival, which includes a “club crawl” to more than fifteen nightspots with blues bands.
The Friend and Guide of Sailors
Next we visited the newly renovated Maine Lighthouse Museum, where we learned about all the time and effort that the Coast Guard, and the people of Maine, have put in over the years to prevent shipwrecks and to rescue people in danger.
The museum has the largest collection of Fresnel lenses and lifesaving artifacts in the US, including the cannons they used to fire rescue lines to shipwrecked vessels and the harness used to transport people to shore.
We learned the heroic story of 17-year-old Amy Burgess “the friend and guide of sailors through dark nights,” who kept the light going at the Matinicus Rock through a four-week storm that prevented supply ships from reaching the island.
Then it was off to the Farnsworth Art Museum which has more than 10,000 paintings, sculptures, watercolors and fine art objects. Besides the “great names” like Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, George Inness, Fitzhugh Lane, Gilbert Stuart and Thomas Sully, the American Impressionists are represented, as well as many great artists from the 20th and 21st century.
Then there’s the Wyeth Center, showcasing the work of that world-famous family. You’ve probably seen N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations in old editions of Ivanhoe and Treasure Island. And Andrew Wyeth’s paintings, especially those of Christina and Alvaro Olson and their house in Cushing, are just the kind of paintings that really grab you, even if you’re not an art connoisseur.
I got a copy of “The Witching Hour” to put in my office. And visiting the house itself gives a truly unique insight into the work of this amazing artist.
All the works at the Farnsworth are presented beautifully, with helpful information, and even a special children’s guide to the museum.
This Tingly Goosebumpy Feeling
As I mentioned, my favorite part of the trip was our visit to the Farnsworth Homestead, which was like stepping into another world. The kitchen and the dining room have all their original furniture and utensils.
The parlor has many clashing patterns and colors that seem kind of tacky to a modern eye (no offense, Miss Lucy). As our docent pointed out, “To the Victorians, nothing was ‘too much.'”
It was when I went upstairs and saw the bedrooms that I got this tingly, goosebumpy feeling of connection with the people who had lived there for so long. Lucy and her brothers and sisters, but also the maid and the handyman; their rooms are up there too.
I looked at the hairbrush and manicure kit in James room. I’ve seen so many of those in antique stores. The Homestead has also preserved a curious artifact in that room: a small electric motor designed to deliver mild electric shocks. It was thought to alleviate nervous disorders. We can only wonder what Miss Lucy’s brother used it for
In the evening we took a dinner cruise with the Monhegan Boat Line among and between all the beautiful little islands in the harbor. We enjoyed a Maine lobster dinner from the Dip Net Restaurant and had a chance to meet with the businesspeople who are part of the Rock City Renaissance.
Some are authentic Mainers, some are from away. Some started their businesses years ago when times were tough and some have come more recently. What they have in common is a real love for this beautiful place. Skipper Ken Barnes, who is usually sailing his own boat, said it was nice to get a chance to relax and enjoy the scenery.
“This is the first time I’ve ever been through here without having my nose in a chart,” he said.
After a good night’s sleep and a delicious breakfast with our hosts PJ Walter and Frank Isganitis at The Limerock Inn, we got up at the crack of dawn to go fishing with Captain George Harris of Superfly Charters.
The air was crisp and the sea was as still as a millpond as we set off from the dock in Port Clyde up the Saint George River through the mist and the quiet of the morning in quest of the striped bass that head up there this time of year.
We found them all right. Even I, the world’s worst fisherman, caught one. George caught a whole bunch, but we decided to let them go on their merry way.
Next time I’m going to keep them and slow-bake them on a bed of rice. Yum.
After breakfast we were out on the water again with Captain Bob Pratt aboard the windjammer “Morning in Maine.” We got a splendid view of the harbor and lots of interesting information and funny stories from Captain Bob, a marine biologist and former instructor at the Maine Maritime Academy.
Then we went to the Project Puffin Visitor’s Center on Main Street and saw a video about the restoration of the puffins to the Coast of Maine by Dr. Stephen Kress, who brought several pairs back from Canada.
It’s a real heartwarming story about hard work, persistence, and ultimate sucess. And who could resist buying a piece of puffin memorabilia? They’re so goldurn cute and the profits go to the Audubon Society.
The Way Home
On the way home we stopped at the Owl’s Head Transportation Museum, which is a family destination in its own right. There are cars, trains, boats and planes of every description — even a space capsule and a full-sized replica of the plane the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk.
They have World War I biplanes that actually fly, a Concord Coach, old bicycles and motorcycles — you name it.
I especially liked the automobiles and airplanes that didn’t work out, the ones that crashed or caught fire or experienced chronic control problems; they were all part of the evolution of transportation.
The museum also has all kinds of shows as well for every kind of vehicle from vintage cars to snowmobiles to trucks and tractors.
Another mandatory stop on the way home was the Maine State Prison Showroom in Thomaston, which has a huge array of furniture and craft items for very reasonable prices. I got these beautiful little hexagonal cedar boxes for three dollars each.
They also have cutting boards, bureaus, coffee tables, cabinets, stools, model ships and a host of other items, all handmade in the prison wood shop, where inmates can learn marketable job skills
Another fun stop in Thomaston is the Museum in the Street, a walking tour featuring 25 panels with old photographs and historical information.
Then it was back onto US 1 for our trip back down the rocky coast of Maine.
Stephen Hartshorne is the associate editor of GoNOMAD.com. He writes a blog called ArmchairTravel about books he finds at flea markets and rummage sales. He lives in Sunderland, Mass.