The Maine attraction – includes related article on accommodations
By 5:00 a.m., Phyllis Schartner’s strawberry fields in rural Thorndike, Maine, are teeming with 300 basket-wielding visitors. Hers is a you-pick-’em farm, and novice “farmhands” line up early for the privilege of boarding the berry buggy and claiming their rows of fruit. The experience usually proves so satisfying that many visitors make plans to return for the raspberry, corn, apple, and pumpkin seasons.
“We treat them like guests,” says Phyllis, who sends pickers packing with Schartner family recipes that range from herbed green beans to strawberry facial cream. Tourists who want to enjoy the fruits of the labor without all the labor can do their picking from among the 3,000 jars of jams, jellies, pickles, and salsa that Phyllis and her husband, Herb, personally prepare each year to sell.
Entrepreneurship is booming in Waldo County — that part of Maine snubbed by the state’s major highway and left on its own to attract visitors to its treasures. Residents have responded by building businesses based on area history and family traditions. Flea markets, antique shops, craft co-ops, bed-and-breakfast inns, and seafood restaurants thrive in tiny towns with optimistic names like Unity, Liberty, Freedom, and Prospect. The people are friendly, their prices are right, and the landscape is sufficiently scenic to provide enough photos for a century of calendars. Visitors are never far from a sea captain’s mansion, a picturesque lighthouse, a rugged beach, or a granite fort that dates back to early skirmishes with the British.
Little wonder that Henry David Thoreau used to come here in search of tranquillity. People still do. A tourist less eloquent than Thoreau recently struggled to capture the magic of the place. “It’s all so … Maine-y,” she noted.
Like many worthy destinations, this chunk of New England requires time to find and a car to explore. A would-be visitor could diligently study a Maine map and still wonder, “Where’s Waldo?” The county seat of Belfast — hardly a metropolis with its 6,000-plus residents — is 100 miles north of Portland on a route that winds through the state capital of Augusta, then turns abruptly toward the ocean. More than 200 years old, Belfast was a boat-building mecca that saw 360 ships launched from her docks. The industry is gone now, of course, but its legacy is a downtown district that boasts storefronts and residences in the Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, and Cape Cod traditions of architecture.
Equally colorful is nearby Searsport, former home to more shipmasters than any other town of its size in the world. These seafaring citizens not only built rambling mansions, but they furnished them with treasures collected from ports of call around the world. Many of the houses are included in walking tours or have been converted into inns and gift shops. (See related story, next page.)
A few days in Waldo County offer tourists the chance to roll up their sleeves and experience the Yankee life firsthand. Some 19 farms, gardens, and orchards are open to the public, and visitors can choose merely to stroll the grounds or to help harvest the bounty at several pick-it-yourself operations.
Kate NaDeau, a transplanted Californian with an art history background, serves tea and scones to guests at her Stone Soup Farm and conducts one-day workshops on arranging dried flowers and making balsam wreaths. Her specialties are hardy annuals and perennials, and she offers an adult apprenticeship program for persons interested in growing herbs and designing gardens. “I set up my business the way I like to shop,” she says of her farm-based boutique that is filled with books, baskets, gardening gadgets, and packets of seeds.
Not to be missed is a visit to “downtown” Liberty, a village that boasts 800 residents, an octagonal post office, and two of the strangest shops on the East Coast. First stop is the Liberty Tool Company, Maine’s largest secondhand store, where a visitor can challenge a clerk to find a collapsible shovel, a pair of left-handed pinking shears, or some other oddity from the tens of thousands of tools in stock. Given enough time to burrow through the inventory on four floors, the clerk almost always delivers the goods. Waiting customers can pass the time by visiting Grandma’s Attic on the top floor and sorting through a hodgepodge of prints, old furniture, and books that make up the town’s lending library.
Across the street from Liberty Tool is Liberty Graphics, an environmentally conscious T-shirt and printing store that uses water-based ink to print original images on all-cotton shirts. The fun comes in rummaging through huge bins of “oops” garments — items that were misdirected during production and somehow emerged with mixed messages. A shirt that endorses Michigan’s wildlife on the front might advertise a hot-air balloon race in Albuquerque on the back. But, hey, for two dollars, shoppers register few complaints. Nearby Thorndike village also has a one-of-a-kind attraction in the Bryant Stove Works and Museum, an enormous collection of cast-iron stoves, parlor heaters, roadsters, touring cars, player pianos, pipe organs, calliopes, nickelodeons, and mechanical toys. Stoves date back to 1750, and the jewel of the car collection is a 1915 Metz. Museum owner Joe Bryant negotiated for 30 years to acquire a 1920 touring car with a mother-in-law seat in the back and only 14,892 miles on the odometer. “Some good deals just take time,” explains Joe.
A favorite exhibit at this museum is a doll circus that comes to life with the flip of an electrical switch. Waltzing couples circle the floor, a teddy bear teeters across a high wire, a cow tap dances, and a swivelhipped Barbie doll launches into a hula. The entire room seems to gyrate as if on the verge of a rapture.
Another museum, eclectic in its own way, is the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport. The purpose of the meticulously maintained nine-building campus is to document, preserve, and present the history and culture of downeast Maine. It easily accomplishes its goal through displays and exhibits of hundreds of paintings, photographs, models, books, navigation devices, logs, and memorabilia. Visitors come away with an enlightened sense of this rugged region and its past and present residents. A spokeswoman could be referring to all of Waldo County when she sums up the museum’s mission: “We take only a little piece of history and we do it really well.”
Rooms with a View … and a Past
Visitors bent on sampling Maine’s history and chumming with its residents can accomplish both by booking rooms with a view and a past. More than 25 bed-and-breakfast inns dot the Waldo County landscape, and each one comes complete with quirky features and affable innkeepers who gladly point them out. Furniture reflects the period of the home’s construction and typically includes fainting couches, cannonball beds, pedestal sinks, and claw-footed bathtubs.
At the rambling Jeweled Turret Inn, the seven guest rooms are named for jewels — choose from the ruby, topaz, tourmaline, sapphire, emerald, opal, or amethyst rooms — and the house’s dominant tower has leaded glass panels that glitter like (what else?) precious stones. Even the rock fireplace in the den glistens; its stones were collected from the 45 states that made up the Union in 1898, the year the house was erected. Appropriately, this Victorian gem is located on Pearl Street.
The Inn on Primrose Hill, built by the town of Belfast’s first mayor, originally was heated by a boiler from an old sailing ship and boasts twin parlors that overlook Penobscot Bay. The Thurston House, a former parsonage, was once occupied by a minister with family ties to artist Winslow Homer and poet John Greenleaf Whittier. The Brass Lantern Inn, built by Captain James Pendleton for his bride, has on display books and collectibles from the current owner’s native England and two-year stay in Ethiopia.
Guests come from everywhere: as close as Lewiston, Maine, as far as Dallas, Texas, and even “on the road to Singapore,” if you believe a testimonial scrawled in one of the guest books at the Jeweled Turret Inn. Some travelers return with same-time-next-year regularity — often to catch October’s changing colors — and request “their” rooms for every stay. The more adventuresome opt for different rooms at different B&Bs whenever they indulge their Maine habit. Innkeepers understand the area’s attraction because many of them, like their guests, were once out-of-state visitors who couldn’t get Maine off their minds. “We saw this house and that was it,” explains Ron Kresge, formerly of Pennsylvania and now co-owner, with wife Fran, of the Thomas Pitcher House.
“The town has a certain lure,” agrees Cathy Heffentrager, whose family moved from Alaska to Belfast ten years ago to refurbish the Jeweled Turret Inn. Like other innkeepers, the Heffentragers have contributed to the “lure” by building their future on the area’s past and ensuring its progress through its preservation. “Somehow,” says Heffentrager with relief, “our county has managed to miss urban renewal.”
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