A Day O’ History


Today was a day to explore new frontiers and plumb old ones, and to do it at the same time.  We sat about on the Porch O’er Penobscot and contemplated the short-range future this morning while drinking coffee and watching the tide go out.  I no longer have to play the Tide In Or Out Guessing Game because I discovered that this cottage features atide clock.  I did not know these things existed.  It looks just like a normal clock, round face, markings at the quarters, but it only has one hand, and the markings say things like “High Tide” and “Low Tide” instead of 12 and 6.  Thanks to this marvel of moderately modern technology, I will always be able to tell in which direction the water is headed.  At least, for the rest of the week.

We were here for absolutely rock-bottom low tide this morning.  It really is staggering how far the tide comes up and goes out here.  In Galveston, the low tides today are running at .7 feet and the high tides at 1.6 feet.  Here, the low tides today are running at .1 feet and the high tides at 11 feet. My thoroughly mediocre understanding of this situation says that in Galveston, the water is about a foot higher at high tide than at low tide, and here, it’s 11 feet.  When you factor in the topography of the ocean bottom – which in Galveston is quite flat for very long distances, and in Maine, is not flat even for three feet – you get huge swings in where the water comes up.  When I went out this morning at low tide to take some pictures of the neighbor’s boathouse, I wound up perhaps thirty feet from the bottom of the steps…that are right now under water as the tide peaked within the last 90 minutes.  In Galveston, as well, the ocean bottom is sandy – here it is nothing but rocks.  And lobsters.  But mostly rocks, which explains the prevalence of lighthouses along the coastal waterways.

Notice there I don’t say “ocean”.  This is because “coastal waterways” here include the ocean, bays, inlets, harbors, and massive tidal rivers.  I have not ever been able to determine what separates a river from a harbor or a bay in this part of the coast.

In any case, as we contemplated what the day would hold, my attention was arrested by the sight of a review of the Penobscot Marine Museum.

I should say here that I am not, historically or by tradition, interested in Boat Museums.  In my opinion, boats are for being out on the water in, not for looking at inside of buildings.

This review, however, spoke to the general disinclination of individuals like me to view boats in buildings and assured us that we would not find the trip in vain.

Quite right it was, too.  We set out for Searsport, happily passing the lobster pound, Mainely Used Cars, Mainely Potter, and Mainely Haircuts as we went.  The museum itself was housed in a compound of historical buildings (already: promising) and staffed by talkative docents eager to relieve their present state of boredom by enlightening us.  I’m sure that we would have had less personal attention had we arrived even an hour later, but as it was, we were some of the first ones there.

The exhibit that drew my attention initially was all about Summer Folk: people like us, people who have been coming to the region for a hundred-fifty years and more.  We have fine evidence of this just down the road from our cottage: the hamlet of Bayside, a surprise outcropping of small Victorian cottages dripping with trim and loaded with character.  It was built up in the mid 1800s as a Methodist Camp where zillions of people from the region would flood in and live cheek-by-jowl for two weeks to hear The Word.  And, presumably, swim and boat.

The old photographs and stories about how people would come up to the area were extremely interesting, as was the impressive collection of ephemera.  They had steamboat schedules from 1880, train schedules and ticket, you name it.  Access to this area by land was challenging, as this section of the coast consists of vast numbers of islands from the tiny one-tree hump to the very large, with 47 miles of roads, and the mainland extends in narrow fingers jutting southeast into the Gulf of Maine, in their entirety presenting an impression of fjordness, of substantial glaciation.  In order to get from point A to point B which may be 4 miles apart as the crow flies, it is necessary to drive at highway speeds for close to one hour.  Given this, land access required a lot of bridges to be built.  This display documented the influx of horse-drawn and automotive traffic as the bridges were built over the course of a century or more.  It really was quite fascinating.

The museum’s regular collection also proved interesting, although much more so when the commentary and narrative of the docents was added into the mix.  One thing I learned is that Searsport had the highest density of naval captains in the country for an extended period.  Hundreds of them.  Must have been impossible to swing the proverbial cat without nailing some Sea Captain.

More interesting was this:  plenty of those captainstook their wives and families along.  Yes.  Cap’n Bobby sets out on a three year sail round the world to trade with China, and takes along the wife and kids.

And this:  sometimes those kids were a bun in the oven…departing land as a tiny promise of a human, or even as a Gleam In Their Parent’s Eyes.  And – with journeys lasting up to several years – this naturally meant that many of these kids were born at sea.

Now, I can’t help thinking of this, so I’m going to drag everyone else along with me.

Consider first the clothing that women had to wear in the 1800s and early 1900s.  Corsets, massive skirts, long sleeves, layers and layers, and four feet of hair piled up becomingly on top of their heads.  That’s bad enough, in my opinion.  Then you add: wearing all of that rubbish on a boat.  With I-can’t-even-imagine sanitary facilities.

Then add in the Victorian Sensibility, that dictated that we didn’t even say “pregnant”.  This museum had an impressive collection of scrimshaw – the real thing – one of which was a crudely carved woman’s leg up to mid-thigh.  The commentary indicated that feet were considered erotic, so this thing must have been next-door to pornographic.  I think it was a pipe.  So to be on a ship full of earthy, unwashed sailors who go all to jelly at the thought of a woman’s knee, having to wear five tons of clothing and corsets, for years, is already starting to tax my imagination.

Then, of course, these are clipper ships, and sloops, and brigantines, and whatever…they’re all wood, and they have a bazillion sails, and the ride is notoriously uncomfortable.  No stabilizers here.  No pitch-and-yaw control.  No gas motors.  No GPS, no weather satellites.  Lots of storms.  Plenty of seasickness.

So now imagine wearing five tons of highly restrictive clothing while surrounded by individuals generally regarded to be of low moral character, on a big wooden ship, seasick, and pregnant.

Now have the baby on the ship.

And do it without anesthesia, cussing, or many other women to help in the immediate aftermath.

The only thought that comes out of my paralyzed brain once it moves all the way to the logical endpoint here is “Holy cow, those were some incredibly tough old broads.”

And some of them had four or five babies at sea.

The docent informed me that the birth certificates of these children listed the Place of Birth as a set of coordinates.

One of them went on to play Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz.  No, really.  Go check it on imdb.


Jeff chatted up one of the docents while I inspected a collection of 19th century souvenirs of the China Trade, and got a recommendation for lunch at a restaurant 4.5 miles away…as the crow flies.

On the way to the restaurant, we passed more great examples of the Mainers sense of amusement:  “Th’Barn” to start with.  I have been puzzling for the last seven hours over this apostrophe.  Jeff thought it was supposed to mean that the place was both “bar” and “barn” but that doesn’t explain the mystifying contraction of the word “the”.  Just past “Th’Barn” was “Bait’s Motel”.  Now, that one was downright hilarious to me.  I must be Going Native.

Later, we crossed the Penobscot Narrows bridge. This bridge is about 6 years old, and has a design that is unique in my personal experience.  It looks like a suspension bridge, but instead of having two sets of cables, one on either side of the roadway, it has only one, going right down the middle of the thing.

This is a very interesting picture of that bridge. I noticed the spotlights on every cable and thought it must be a very striking vision at night.

The next thing we learned is that our destination, the town of Castine, is older than Plymouth by 7 years.

This town was founded four hundred (400) years ago next year.  Elizabeth Regina nearly lived to see it.  At present, the prospect is commandeered by a massive oceangoing vessel of some kind called the “State of Maine”. The Maine Maritime Academy is located in this town, as is a decent waterfront restaurant.  And the usual assortment of galleries that one inevitably finds in a destination.  As we finished our lunch – a leisurely one thanks to our waiter, who put the “Dumb” into Dumb Blonde – an odd small cruise ship anchored in the harbor and began to unload a horde of geriatric tourists.  We chatted a few of them up on our way to the inevitable ice cream cone, and discovered that this cruise sets out of Portland Maine, motors up to Bar Harbor, and then works its way down the coast stopping at various interesting harbor towns for the next six days.

And in an interesting turn of events, I just watched that very same ship power into the Belfast harbor.  Doubtless to unload its cargo at the lobster pound, which is as good an argument as I can conceive for heading in the other direction for dinner.


This is a picture I took five years ago on my first ever trip to Maine. I took this from the parking lot of the “Seafood Ketch” – yet another ghastly example of Mainer Pun Humor.


About Lori Holder-Webb

I'm a Southern Woman by birth and a Texan Woman by upbringing...and yet I find myself living in New England and married to a New York City boy. Up here we use the same currency as we do at home, and I don't need to travel with a passport, but the commonalities pretty much end there. The language is different, the jokes are different, the people are different, and the weather and terrain sure are different too. I moved away from Texas in 2002, and ever since then, I've been the stranger in the strange land... I've had some questions about the name of the blog - if you were not alive, or living abroad or under a rock, or in grad school during the late 1980s, Oldsmobile attempted to shuck its stodgy image with a series of commercials intended to bring brand appeal to the younger generation: this car, they said, is not your father's Oldsmobile. If you have a morbid curiosity, hit YouTube for William Shatner Oldsmobile...it will take you right there.

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