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Maine Homecoming--Never Too Late to Go Back

April 12, 1987|JAMES H. LAVENSON | Lavenson is the owner of San Ysidro Ranch, Montecito.

When I was a kid about 50 years ago, people drifted to Maine in the summer for lots of reasons . . . to buy Bass moccasins, to shop at Dunham's in Waterville in search of more Hathaway shirts.

They went to shoot the rapids down the Allagash and to buy a handmade maple canoe paddle at Sanders Store in Greenville; they went to eat lobster at Pemaquid Point, and they went to rock on the porch of the Poland Springs Hotel.

I went to Maine because my mother made me.

After my first summer at a co-ed camp in Harrison I went back willingly, having qualified as the youngest Peeping Tom in Maine's history. Later I became a guide for a boys' summer camp and had to be content with watching deer and moose in the then-wilderness of Maine.

But before and after the camp season my brothers and I toured the entire state and luxuriated in what were then called "tourist cabins," the forerunners of motels as we know them now. Maine housewives convinced their husbands to construct tiny sheds on the lawns of their homes on U.S. 1 and Maine 5 and 17. The really big hostelries had multiple-hole outhouses but, typical of Maine, even they were clean.

Anti-Skunk Security

What I remember best is that there were no locks on the door of your cabin, just a hook and eye on the inside--to keep the skunks out while you were sleeping. One time in the late 1930s I took a portable radio into my cabin and was asked by my host why I wanted it.

He reminded me that the walls would carry the sound to the neighbors.

In those days, if you were just ordinary folk from Philadelphia or New York it was considered smart to affect a Maine accent and try to pass yourself off as a native. The only visitors who seemed unashamed that they lived someplace else were the blue-haired ladies on the porches of the old Samoset, Summit and Poland Springs hotels.

Arriving in Maine for the summer was a little like going through a decompression chamber, because it took two full days to drive up from Pennsylvania or, at best, an overnight trip on the Maine Central Railroad.

Today, with the turnpikes from the south of Boston and Interstates 95 and 295 north, one is already in Maine before he's had time to slip into the disguise of a red flannel shirt and try to blend into the woods as a lumberjack.

What many people who visit Maine don't understand is that most Mainers love visitors, and not just for the money the tourists bring. It's rewarding to have visitors admire and appreciate your home. Very few Maine people are lured away from their home state to migrate to the very places from which the summer people escape.

For almost 40 years my Maine friends greet me with, "How long can you stay this time?" It was years before I understood that the true translation of that question is, "Now that you're here, why don't you stay?"

The only time I suspected a slight lack in Maine hospitality involved a very large native, a bull moose who made mincemeat out of my car on the road to Rockwood around Moosehead Lake.

Neither the moose nor I carried insurance. From that day on I paid extremely close attention to road signs that said "Deer Crossing." In Maine even the highway department speaks only when it really has something to say.

Better and Better

Looking back, Maine doesn't get older. It just gets loving care. Unlike Waikiki, whose beaches are now half sand, half discarded Dixie cups, and unlike Palm Beach, now one giant hotel, Maine seems to be just more of the wonderful unspoiled things it was 40 years ago.

The ferry from Lincolnville to Isleboro now has radar, but it doesn't make the trip across Penobscot Bay in fog any less wondrous. The sideshow at the Skowhegan Fair still had the only half-man, half-woman in the world. The log-rolling contest there still dunks the participants, and the best wood-chopping time is still turned in by a young lumberjack whose father worked for the Great Northern Paper Co.

Summer theater at Ogunquit still packs 'em in, and the Lobster Festival in Rockland is the only time of year that you can't get a parking space in front of Sears.

The dirt road down to the homes on Lake Meguntecook is just as dark at night as it ever was, so the 5 m.p.h. speed required lets you take time to smell the pine needles.

The thousands of tiny coves and islands make even the Out Islands of the Bahamas seem like Fort Lauderdale's Bahia Mar. Last summer we anchored in a dozen places where the only other sign of life was the thud of a clam dropped on our deck by an angry sea gull.

Few of the old tourist courts are left along U.S. 1 in Maine but their replacements, the motels, are mostly tasteful, full-service hostelries with indoor plumbing and TV and swimming pools. The proprietor is still the wife of the handy Mainer, and if you play your cards right and check out at breakfast time you might even get a free home-baked blueberry muffin at the front desk.

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