Maine, capping off the northeast corner of the country as it does, has always been a place apart. Much defined by geography (it has the most irregular coastline around) and climate (natives speak of two seasons: winter and July), it is a place where people have learned to cope with elements and isolation to develop a strong sense of past and place.
The sea has always been a part of life here; most of the population lives along the coast. Fishing is a mainstay. Not surprisingly, Maine ranks first in the country in lobster production. But agricultural enterprises are found here as well. Blueberries are abundant; more unusual, perhaps, is the fact that Maine ranks third in production of potatoes. Ninety percent of the state is covered with trees. And, it seems, there is no hurry to cut them down; Maine also leads the country in production of toothpicks.It is a place where you travel "down east" rather than "up north." And where those not born here are forever considered "flatlanders from away." It is a place of small towns and seaside villages that delight and captivate with their New England charm.
For proof of that, consider Waldo County.
Where's Waldo? you might ask. This is not a name that comes readily to mind when you think of Maine. Bar Harbor, Portland, Augusta, even Kennebunkport are higher on the name-recognition list. But that doesn't mean Waldo County should be overlooked. Tucked between the more touristy areas of Camden and Bar Harbor, it lies along Penobscot Bay in the heart of mid-coast Maine. U.S. Highway 1 runs through it; and major cities, such as Augusta and Bangor, are less than 50 miles away.
...And care has been taken to preserve and refurbish historic homes and buildings, so you get a taste of the Maine of yesteryear...
Real Maine, say those who live there, is found in the working port towns and rural villages of Waldo County. And care has been taken to preserve and refurbish historic homes and buildings, so you get a taste of the Maine of yesteryear as well.
Although the county was named for a General Samuel Waldo, who encouraged German immigrants to settle there in 1748, the area has a lot in common with the Waldo of children's literature fame. Little treasures and unexpected pleasures are likely to pop up at every turn. Here are just a few:
SEASIDE: Explorer Samuel de Champlain called the mouth of the Penobscot River "marvelous to behold," with its "numerous islands, rocks, shoals, banks and breakers on all sides." And that hasn't changed in all the years since. The irregularity of the coastline makes for dramatic scenery all along the shore. It's easy to understand the need for lighthouses, such as those found at Fort Point State Park and Grindle Point on Islesboro Island.
All the seaside activity you might want can also be found here. Belfast Harbor is popular with sailors and boaters and kayakers of all kinds. A sandy beach and good swimming can be found at Lincolnville. Bayside, once a religious retreat, is now a picturesque cottage community with rental units available by the week or month.
SAILORS: Where there's sea, you'll find those who want to sail it. But never to the extent that you once found in Searsport. At one time, 10 percent of all merchant marine sea captains under the U.S. flag came from this little town - more than from any other town its size in the world. Eleven shipyards were located here; more than 250 sailing vessels were built between 1792 and 1891.
Many of the sea captains' homes have been preserved and turned into bed and breakfasts. But the best place to capture the flavor of the era is the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport. Here, four sea captains' homes, the Town Hall and First Congregational Church - with its Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass windows - and several other buildings still reside in their original locations. Galleries showcase Maine's largest collection of maritime art, as well as ship models, furnishings and photographs from the China trade and more. The Stephen Phillips Memorial Library has extensive maritime, photographic and genealogical holdings. Had a sea captain in your family? Look him up here.
And that square, little Town Hall? The town of Searsport was named after wealthy Boston merchant David Sears, who had a summer home on a nearby island, in hopes that he might contribute something to help build the town. Sears did kick in $1,000 for the Town Hall, but when it was done and he came to see it, he was so offended by its plainness that he never set foot in the town again.
SOLDIERS: The most-visited historic site in all of Maine is Fort Knox, which was built on a rocky outcropping overlooking the Penobscot River. No, it's not the one with all the money, although it's named after the same guy, Maj. Henry Knox, who was head of artillery for George Washington. This Fort Knox was built in the 1840s, to defend the area against the British in a dispute over the Canadian border. But the fort was so intimidating - with 40-foot thick walls, 133 cannon emplacements, two hot-shot furnaces and cannons that could shoot 21/2 miles - that the attack never came.
Kinda too bad, say today's rangers, who give guided tours. They think it would have been nice to see how the fort stood up under attack. But it was used for training Union soldiers during the Civil War, and it saw some activity during the Spanish-American War when troops were quartered there for a month. It also speaks of the time when this part of Maine was the Lumber Capital of the World and may need to defend its title.
STEWARDSHIP: Some towns in Waldo County have made it their business to protect the quality of life found here. Unity, for example, has the country's only college specializing in environmental studies, natural resource protection and outdoor recreation. And in nearby Liberty, community-based Liberty Graphics demonstrates the oldest use of water-based ink in its exquisitely detailed T-shirt designs.
Kelmscott Farms in Lincolnville is dedicated to preserving rare livestock breeds. Two hundred animals and 10 species of rare farm animals are featured, including Cotswold sheep, an American Cream draft horse, Gloucestershire Old Spots pigs, Kerry cattle and more. At Mayari Farms, environmentally conscious soaps and other beauty products are made from the milk from Nubian goats.
And Peggy and Richard Weston, owners of Pussy's Port O' Call in Northport, not only provide luxury quarters for cat boarders (complete with seaside views and porches), they've taken in 21 cats of their own, many strays looking for a good home. There's also a gift shop with all manner of cat paraphernalia.
STOVES AND SUCH: What do you during those long, cold Maine winters? If you're Joe or Bea Bryant and have a passion for old stoves, old cars and all things musical, you may spend the time adding new things to your museum. The Bryant Stove and Music Museum in Thorndike already houses what must be the world's most eclectic collection of restored cook and parlor stoves, vintage automobiles, player pianos, nickelodeons and dancing Barbie dolls.
And while you're in the mood for old things and working things, you might want to check out the Liberty Tool company, which not only has a collection of antique implements but also 1,100 different types of screwdrivers for today's handymen.
If it's antique shopping you want to do, you'll find lots of options. Quilt stores and craft shops are also plentiful (something else they do during those long Maine winters).
SOLITUDE AND SERENITY: In Waldo County, you're never even close to the madding crowd. But certain places can take you even farther away. Moose Point State Park, for example. Three moose are said to reside in the park, but it's unlikely that you'll spot them. You will see nature at its finest. Hiking trails take you through a section of Maine woods; you can explore tidal pools at low tide along the shore or picnic against a panoramic Penobscot Bay backdrop.
Places such as this are beautiful at any time of year, but in the fall, the maple, oak, spruce and hemlock put on a spectacular show.
Where's Waldo? If you're looking for the little guy in the red and white shirt, you're on your own. But if you want a place where simple delights mix with singular pleasures, you'll find it in Waldo County - off the beaten path, perhaps, but still in the middle of the Maine-stream.
Carma Wadley visited Maine as a guest of Waldo County Regional Chamber of Commerce and United Airlines. For more information on area attractions, call 1-800-870-9934.