Journalist and author Colin Woodard speaking at a Colloquy Downeast session at George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY STEPHEN RAPPAPORT

Journalist traces Maine attitudes to early settlement history

BLUE HILL — In an era when political leaders describe the press as the enemy of the American people and decry all criticism as fake news, perhaps 100 people sacrificed a beautiful Sunday afternoon to hear journalist and author Colin Woodard talk about Maine’s history and explain why Mainers are so independent.

Woodard reports on state and national affairs for the Portland Press Herald. He is also the prizewinning author of several books, among them “The Lobster Coast,” which he describes as “an exploration of my home state’s unusual history — and its complicated relationship to Massachusetts — and the marine environment that shaped so much about its character.”

Over the course of an hour, Woodard traced the development of Maine’s society and economy, beginning with the first failed settlement of Georgetown at the mouth of the Kennebec River in 1607 by Sir Ferdinando Gorges and the first real permanent settlement at York in 1623.

Woodard autographs a copy of his book “The Lobster Coast” after a Colloquy Downeast session at George Stevens Academy.

While Maine was initially settled with an eye to economic opportunity, Massachusetts was settled by “religious radicals,” Woodard said. The Massachusetts Bay Colony also attracted a much larger number of settlers, some 20,000 in the first years of the 17th century, compared with only about 700 in Maine.

Unlike their neighbors to the southwest, the Maine settlers were also royalists who “lost their connection to England” and the “outside world” with the ascent of Oliver Cromwell in the mid-17th century English Civil War.

“They were two societies side by side at odds in many ways,” Woodard said.

Late in the 17th century, the more prosperous Massachusetts colony annexed Maine and the Gorges family sold its vast tracts of land in Maine to Massachusetts. For the next 100 years or so, Maine’s scant population suffered the effects of repeated wars with Native American tribes and settlers from eastern Maine became refugees, leaving vast tracts of land along the coast largely unpopulated except in tiny, isolated settlements.

From the 1730s until the early 19th century, Woodard said, there was “armed insurrection” on the part of Maine settlers against the Massachusetts elite who were “great land barons.”

Until it achieved statehood in 1820, Woodard said, Maine was “governed for the benefit of Massachusetts” as a “post-colonial society” that left Maine’s small and widely dispersed population saddled “with pride, defiance and self-doubt” that became the basis for the lingering animosity between the two states.

For a long while, Woodard said, most commerce along the Atlantic Seaboard was carried by water. Natural resources plentiful in Maine, such as granite, timber and even ice, were key parts of the growing national economy in the “good old days” from the 1820s to the 1840s and most easily accessed from the sea and up Maine’s long rivers.

In time, though, as railroads developed, those rivers and the heavily indented coastline of Maine became impediments to commerce. So, too, were the winds that carried schooners rapidly “Downeast” but delayed Maine fishing boats based in remote villages from delivering their catch to the growing ports of Gloucester, Boston and New Bedford as the demand for fresh fish grew and the market for salt cod slackened.

Farmers saw changes too as the railroads opened access to the Midwest and “tens of thousands” of people moved westward to cultivate the “Ohio topsoil.”

Maine, “east of the East Coast” was “a little too far from everything” to prosper, Woodard said.

As a consequence, Maine tipped into a prolonged economic depression and, he said, “in some ways we’re still in it.”

While the rural economy declined, a wealthy urban class emerged that, with East Coast academics, was drawn to summer in Maine.

“They thought they’d found an Eden,” Woodard said, not least because the landscape was populated by “taciturn New Englanders” rather than noisy foreign immigrants.

The new “rusticators,” Woodard said, sought to preserve the landscape they cherished, and one result was to “create enormous tensions with the locals” that lasts to this day.

The fights over whether to allow automobiles on Islesboro or in Castine, or to create a national park on Mount Desert Island, are echoed today in the tensions surrounding the establishment of casinos, big-box stores and the creation of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument today.

The struggle is between protection of Maine’s natural beauties and creation of jobs so that the state can be economically viable, Woodard said, but the two visions are compatible.

“Maine doesn’t have a problem of how to attract people,” he said. “People already want to live here.”

The key is to find a way “to hold on to what we have and yet create an economy so people can stay here.” Woodard said. “Part of the key way forward is building trust” among Maine’s diverse communities.

Stephen Rappaport

Stephen Rappaport

Waterfront Editor at The Ellsworth American
Stephen Rappaport has lived in Maine for nearly 30 years. A lifelong sailor, he spends as much time as possible messing about in boats. [email protected]

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