My windows overlooking Passamaquoddy Bay are open on this early July morning, but when I first woke up, I thought they must be closed, so silent is the morning at 7 a.m. On a Maine lake, the silence would seem normal, but here in Lubec on this working waterfront, the wharf is too quiet, the bay too empty, with no bobbing lobster buoys and only a few moored boats, evenly divided between working and recreational vessels.
I heard a brief spate of noise at 4:30 a.m., when the sun was rising, but nothing like the rumbles and sputters of other Maine coastal villages in the early morning, as lobster boats roar to life and motor out of the harbor, waking all but the heaviest sleepers before a silence descends again.
Today the bay is placid, calm like a lake. So far during my stay, I have seen only a couple of kayakers out on the water, both because Lubec is far away from the hordes and because with the 29-foot tides here, the currents are deceptive and dangerous. The power of the water is visible when the tide exits through the Narrows, the channel separating Lubec from Campobello Island, New Brunswick.
Back in 1987, when I first visited Lubec, turning off Route 1 onto Route 189, I remember feeling as if I were on a road to the end of the world. Surrounded by the gray-blue waters of the bay, I drove past green meadows and the occasional small house, until finally, at the tip of the peninsula, I found an improbable densely packed village of small houses and a main street lined with shops and other business—a community.
Back then, one sardine factory still operated, along with McCurdy’s Smokehouse on Water Street. Although a steep decline from the 24 smokehouses and sardine processing plants that once commanded all the best views of the bay, these two businesses persisted, thanks to entrepreneurial owners who had found niche markets for the sardines and smoked herring for which Lubec once was world-renowned. I didn’t take much notice these operations and only stayed long enough to get a cup of coffee at a shop on Water Street before heading over the international bridge to visit Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s family ‘cottage’ on Campobello Island.
This week, I am sleeping in the belly of Lubec’s last sardine factory, which closed in 2001, and was purchased a few years later by Victor and Judy Trafford and renovated into a waterfront inn and restaurant. Below the restaurant, they maintain a working wharf at which fisherman unload their catch and kids sell periwinkles and clams gathered on the mud flats at low tide.
During the Depression, Lubec was a great place to live, but you probably didn’t want to visit as a tourist. The place
belched with smoke as fires lit on the wooden floors of the waterfront smokehouses smoldered day and night. Everyone stank of fish, but they had jobs and money in their pockets — a lot more than many other Americans had circa 1933. On Saturday nights, residents thronged Water Street to see a movie, eat a meal or catch up on the local gossip. The Depression was a boon to Lubec because canned sardines and smoked herring were a cheap source of protein that didn’t need to be refrigerated.
Today, at Lubec Landmarks on Water Street, visitors can tour the small wooden skinning shed of the McCurdy plant and learn about the traditional process of smoking fish — a process that originated hundreds of years ago and which continued, with minor revisions, in Lubec until the mid-90s. Fresh herring were packed into bins of salted brine to cure for several days, then strung on racks and left out on the wharf to dry before before smoking. Then, as workers tended smoldering fires around the clock, the fish were gradually and manually shifted upwards on the racks in the smokehouse as a part of a multi-stage process for premium smoking. Finally, the fish were “skinned” – their heads and tails chopped off – and packed into wooden boxes.
The industry rapidly declined in the 1950s and 60s, partly because herring were getting harder to catch and partly because of changes in taste, both in fish and employment. By late 1990s, I imagine the last sardine cannery had a hard time finding enough employees to do the dirty work of packing sardines, even in an area with high unemployment.
Growing up in the 1960s and 70s, I can’t ever recall my mother opening a can of herring. I’ve eaten smoked herring, or “kippers,” on camping trips and can’t say I was later tempted to serve them as a party hors d’oeuvres. You can still buy sardines and herring in the supermarket – and both are an excellent source of omega 3s – but when was the last time you saw them on a menu? What was once a non-perishable portable source of protein has been surpassed by the widespread availability of fresh fish, meats, and poultry. Easy to blame the government for the industry’s decline (which raised concern in the 1990s about the dumping of brine into the bay as well as the safety of the traditional smoking process), but harder to blame ourselves, the ways our tastes changed. When local or regional sustainability means eating strong-tasting oily fish, it’s harder to get on board.
Today, Lubec is a great place to visit, with its long views of the bay and the iconic red-striped Quoddy Head Lighthouse, the most easterly in the U.S. But it takes a certain kind of person to live here at the end of the world. The year-round population has declined and continues to decline, falling by 17 percent, from 1,652 in 2000 to 1,359 in 2010 (and down more than 60% from a high of about 3,300 during the 1930s). Abandoned houses, some falling apart and others looking as if their owners had packed up yesterday, are a common site downtown. The high school closed in 2010. Like many Downeast Maine towns, Lubec struggles with a significant prescription drug abuse problem.
But the town persists. A sizeable core of dedicated Lubeckers, both summer and year-round residents, stay on, find a way to make a living, to keep the community going. About 100 kids attend the K-8 school and ride their bikes around town, unsupervised and free. Retirees, teachers and others from away have bought up and renovated older houses to use as summer places. (Lubec is the kind of town where a teacher can afford to purchase a summer residence, possibly even one with a water view).
Downtown, painters and carpenters hammer away at dilapidated buildings. Every restaurant and shop on the
eastern side of Water Street has a waterfront deck for viewing the Narrows, with its currents and frolicking seals. On a summer night at the Congregational Church, built in 1820 on a high point of land downtown in 1820, a packed house fills the pews to hear a decidedly non-traditional but beautiful performance of Olivier Messian’s “Quartet for the end of time,” which the composer wrote in a prison camp in France during World War II. The town’s half-dozen restaurants appear to be doing a brisk business during this peak season.
I am here in Lubec to study piano in the SummerKeys music program, a sort of intensive music camp for adult music students. Founded by New York-based pianist and teacher Bruce Potterton about 25 years ago, SummerKeys has helped to pump up the town. Most summer weeks, 40 or more students come to town from around the United States to study piano, cello, violin, guitar, or another instrument. These music students fill the inns and B and Bs, buy iced tea at the Atlantic Coffee House, and dine at the various restaurants. On Wednesday evenings, the program sponsors a concert at the church that brings in people from around the area.
Watching Mr. Potterton, who isn’t getting any younger, race around town in his little station wagon, moving pianos and meeting with students, I am struck by how just a few people with a good idea and a lot of hard work can make a difference in sustaining a community, in creating a new ecosystem of social and commercial activity. At the Inn on the Wharf, the Traftons, who could be enjoying a comfortable Florida retirement, work 18-hour days running the restaurant and inn, buying fish at the wharf, teaching yoga classes in the meeting room. Visitors stay at the inn, or study with SummerKeys, and then tell other people about their experiences, and then more come the next year. This summer-based economy may be one which is more dependent on the “outside” for sustainability, but then again, maybe not. As a one-industry fish town, Lubeckers were always dependent on the tastes of far-away consumers.
I daydream about buying a small home downtown and spending the summer by the bay, walking to the library, the grocery store, to a night out at the Wharf restaurant. But probably not. I live near the sea now, in Kittery, and Lubec is far away, a five to six hour drive. But I’ll tell other people about my visit, especially other music students. And I’ll come back myself another year, to be part of this town at the end of the world, if only for a week.
More on Lubec:
Lubec: A Border Town Shaped by the Sea: A detailed, well-written account of Lubec’s history, hosted by the Maine Memory Network.
Klondike: Lubec’s Gold from Sea Water Hoax: In 1897, an ordained Baptist minister from Martha’s Vineyard and his collaborator came to Lubec claiming that they had devised technology that could extract gold from sea water. They set up their operation in North Lubec and hired a hundred locals to set up their gold “accumulators.” Thousands of shares for the project were sold, mostly to eager investors in Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut. Many invested their life savings and/or mortgaged their homes to get in on this “can’t miss” opportunity. A year later, Jernegan and Fisher disappeared along with the money, and the hoax dominated newspaper headlines in New England and around the country.
Visit Lubec Maine: Sponsored by APPLE (Association to Promote and Protect the Lubec Environment), this site includes information about Lubec’s history and economy, as well as about town services and community activities.
Quoddy Head Station: Lodging at former Lighthouse station.
Inn on the Wharf: Modern spacious rooms overlooking Passamaquoddy Bay in a converted sardine factory. A great value and the food in the restaurant is excellent.
SummerKeys: Adult music and art program, including photography and creative writing.
West Quoddy Head Lighthouse Keepers Association: This organization maintains the West Quoddy Head Lighthouse and Visitor Center. The website includes include links to Lubec-area lodging and other local resources.