Back for the Future

Seated about a dining table at Mary Jones sun-filled house in Bass Harbor are Muriel Trask Davisson, Marc Fisichella, Mary Jones herself and 89 year-old Elsie Reed Lunt. Today, Ms. Lunt is the focus for the Tremont Historical Society’s new oral history project.

This is not Ms. Lunt’s first time here. In fact, this spot tucked into a little pocket of the harbor is where she spent much of her childhood when the town was still called McKinley.

It is the site of the home her father built in 1936 and where, as a teenager, she left every morning with her mother, Flavilla, to walk to work at one of the town’s two sardine packing plants – Underwood’s and Machaisport Canning.

“Everybody had a job back then,” Ms. Lunt recalls. “Of course, all that’s changed now.”

She remembers how she and roving bands of neighborhood children used to swim in the harbor from May to October, walk a good five miles to the little Bass Harbor Library across the harbor in Bernard, and how a student from Tremont was always chosen to be valedictorian at Pemetic High School.

As Ms. Lunt’s memories unspool themselves with gentle prompting from Ms. Davisson, Mr. Fisichella, a relatively new Bernard resident, makes adjustments to the sound levels on a laptop computer that is recording this conversation or, more aptly, interview, through a digital microphone.

This sort of thing has been attempted before. Back in the early ’70s, Tremont native and author Eleanor Mayo started gathering oral histories and photographs from her elderly relatives and neighbors with an eye toward organizing them all into a cohesive town history. But in 1980, after 10 years of making these recordings, Ms. Mayo died at age 60 leaving all those stories trapped in spools of thin brown tape and boxes of photographs.

Now, some 30 years later, the Tremont Historical Society has picked up the banner Ms. Mayo dropped.

“I had just completed a project cataloguing historical buildings for the town of Southwest Harbor,” Ms. Jones says, “and was looking for a similar sort of project for Bass Harbor and Tremont.

She says her primary interest is buildings, but this time she says she wanted to approach the subject from a different direction — learning about the buildings in the context of the lives of the people who lived and worked in them.

This past June, as a board member of the Tremont Historical Society, Ms. Jones proposed the idea of creating a comprehensive oral and pictorial history of Tremont. The response was enthusiastic.

While the town now has its own museum housed at the old Bass Harbor Country Store, as well as its own library where such a precious resource could find a permanent home, Ms. Jones has a grander vision.

“The Library of Congress now has a Folk Life Collection with stories from communities all over the country,” she says. “I would like to submit our finished project to be accepted as part of that.”

Ms. Jones acknowledges this will involve a certain degree of professionalism in both recording and editing of the gathered material. The introduction of modern technology and recording methods dampened the enthusiasm of some of the early project volunteers who were intimidated by the technical requirements.

Cue Mr. Fisichella. The former Bernard summer resident turned year-rounder, heard about the new project and turned up at a meeting one day, asking to participate. Not only was Mr. Fisichella not intimidated by the equipment involved in recording the proposed interviews, as the production designer and or art director of dozens of big budget movie and TV productions, including the most recent “X-Men: Thriller,” “Twin Peaks” and “Anna and the King,” (for which he was nominated for an Academy Award) he is, if anything, supremely overqualified.

In fact, it is something of a puzzlement that someone used to working with a multi-million dollar budget, which might include organizing anything from elephant processions to alien spaceship attacks, would be content to sit at a kitchen table in Bass Harbor listening to Elsie Lunt’s childhood memories. The $40 recording device is no bigger than a TV remote.

“To tell you the truth,” Mr. Fisichella insists, “this is every bit as interesting” as a big Hollywood production. “I have loved this community since I first came here as a summer resident in my early teens. A lot of thought went into the decision for my wife and me to move here permanently. I also love history. So really, I couldn’t wait to get involved.”

“Marc has been a godsend,” says Ms. Jones. “Not only as a valuable member of one of our two interview teams, but in training us all how to use the equipment.”

Today’s interview with Ms. Lunt is this interview team’s second attempt, yet it appears to run its course smoothly with Ms. Davisson asking Elsie questions from a prepared list, letting the older woman take it where she wants, occasionally responding to a comment when it sparks one of her own memories of growing up in Bass Harbor.

“In the first interview, Muriel made a point of not interjecting her thoughts into the record,” says Ms. Jones. “But it turned out to be too formal and each topic dried up quickly. This has a much more natural flow.”

As a case in point during this interview when Ms. Lunt mentions her grandmother, Emma Joyce Scott, Muriel interjects — “Oh, that’s interesting, I’m related to Joyces, too.” And they digress for a bit, talking about their mutual Swans Island connections.

It may have eaten a little tape time but Ms. Lunt, who has been sitting up rather primly since the start of the interview, relaxes a bit more into her chair. From time to time, Mary scribbles something on a piece of paper and hands it to Muriel — a question she has thought of or follow-up to something Ms. Lunt said.

“I also make time notations,” she says, “so that if we want to go over something Elsie said we can find it more easily on the record.”

Mr. Fisichella says they are all learning what works as they go. For instance, he says, after the recording stopped and they were looking through old pictures in a genealogical album Ms. Lunt brought along, her manner brightened considerably as she talked about the images

“I had also brought along an old photo of Bass Harbor taken from the water tower,” he says” “and Elsie walked us down the streets in the photo pointing out this and that. So we decided in the future to go through the photographs during the taping, not after.”

Ms. Lunt admits that the process was tiring for her, but says she was glad that, at last, someone was paying attention to her old hometown of Tremont.

It’s very quiet here now,” she says, wistfully, recalling the noisy gaggles of her girlhood days, or perhaps the chatter of women working on the packing line of the fish factory. “But I had a wonderful time growing up here.”

And perhaps one day, long after Ms. Lunt and her interviewers are gone, anyone, from anywhere in the world, who wishes to know what it was like growing up in McKinley, Maine, around the time of the Great Depression will be able to hear Elsie Reed Lunt tell them all about it.

For more Living Stories, pick up a copy of the Mount Desert Islander.

Nan Lincoln

Nan Lincoln

The former arts editor at the Bar Harbor Times writes reviews and feature stories for The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander.