Driving from Ogunquit to Wells, Maine, much of the land is part of the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. Carson (1907-1964) was born in Springdale, PA, about twenty miles up the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh, which in her day was a city filled with buildings blackened by smoke from the steel plants. She worked for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, writing radio scripts, pamphlets, etc., and eventually becoming Editor-and-Chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She also wrote for newspapers and magazines, and poured her passion into books, the best known is Silent Spring.
This 5,300-acre Wildlife Refuge here in Maine is a tribute to her and the impact she has made as a writer, scientist and ecologist. The land runs in quilted patches along the fifty-mile stretch of coast from Kittery to Cape Elizabeth.
In Wells, the Refuge abuts City of Wells and State of Maine lands, and this is where the Laudholm Farm is located. The farm happens to be the site of one of our favorite antique shows, and is the home of the Wells Reserve Estuarine Research Center. Each summer on about the last weekend in June, dealers set up their wares on the grounds around the farm buildings and inside the ancient barn. After searching for vintage treasures, we love to roam the grounds of this saltwater farm.
Inside the farmhouse is a visitor center with displays and information on the salt marsh, tides, and ongoing conservation and research projects. The reserve covers 2,250 acres and has over seven miles of intersecting trails that are open year-round from 7am to sunset. The trails cut through all sorts of terrain from an abandoned apple orchard and an aspen grove to peat bogs and tidal pools to Laudholm Beach on the Little River, which depending on the tide, may be a sandy beach or just a narrow path along the shore. Rachel Carson would delight in the birds and wildlife making their homes within this inviting, natural space.
I love the 1904 water tank with its 2,500 feet of piping that supplied water from the Merriland River. The river’s current, assisted by an electric pump and a series of one-way valves, pushed water uphill to fill two tanks. The tanks, one above ground and the other below ground, in combination hold 2,200 gallons of water that, in their day, supplied water to the house and the cows’ drinking bowls in the dairy barn.
In contrast to the peaceful, quiet beauty of the farm just six miles up the road in Kennebunkport, tourist traffic clogs the streets all summer long. The town marks its boundaries with the Kennebunk River on the north and the Mousam River on the south, and its name comes from a Native American word meaning ”long cut river,” referring to a high bank at the mouth of the river the tribes used as a navigation point. In 1640 Jon Sanders built the first house at the mouth of the Mousam River and other’s followed, but by 1690 ongoing Abinaki raids had cleared the area of European settlers. They stayed away until around 1750 when they could come back and live under the protection of the newly established Larrabee Garrison.
There are few signs left today that tell of the early fishing, shipbuilding and shipping that supported the growing town…but if you look behind some of the waterfront buildings you can still catch a glimpse of what the town looked like when a catch was being offloaded or laundry was still strung between the old wooden buildings.
What is left from those days are the beautiful old homes of the sea captains and shipping magnates. Many of these homes are now comfortable B&Bs and many are located within an easy walk to Dock Square with its eagle-topped granite pillar and waving flag. The interesting old storefronts lining the square are filled with shops and restaurants.
By the early 1900s there was a major push to turn the town into a resort area to rival Bar Harbor and “The Village Improvement Society, packed with more summer people than year-round residents, had seen to it that the village had well-kept fences and hedges, clean streets and docks, neat iron railings, roadside landscaping, and an ‘entire absence’ of rubbish or unsightly advertising” (Calhoun 50-51).
Now, you may want to roll down your car windows as you take the two-mile drive to Walker Point. Savor the fresh sea-tinged air and drive through Cape Porpoise, following any little road that takes you close to the water, and enjoy the salt-grass marshes. Look for old water-stained pilings where the tides have left their mark over the years. It is easy to imagine men building dories and other smaller vessels on those old piers.
The Walker family had already been vacationing in the area for about twenty years when they shocked the community in 1902 when G.H. Walker bought Cape Arundel Peninsula (now commonly known as Walker Point).
Part of the shock the locals felt when the point was purchased came because they had always been free to picnic, fish and hunt on this eleven-acre rocky spit of land that jutted out into the ocean. They were also concerned that it had been bought by folks “from away”…never mind the fact that the Walker family had been summering there for at least two decades. Over the winter of 1902-03, seventeen railroad cars of lumber arrived and “nineteen carpenters worked through the winter, and by July one ‘cottage’ was ready to be occupied, with the other completed by the end of summer” (Calhoun, 51).
Building on the point continued over the years and it is now a compound that became internationally famous as the summer home of President George Herbert Walker Bush. Today, tourists still stop along the side of the road to take photos and hope to glimpse Bush family members enjoying summer in Maine.
Another favorite photo stop is at St. Ann’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church where the Bush family worships. The open land between church and sea was donated to the church and was dedicated in memory of Loulie Wear Walker (1874-1951), President George H.W. Bush’s grandmother.
In spite of the Secret Service and the intense security, the Bush family members have become familiar faces in the community. A couple of years ago, I found a rectangular brass luggage tag in an antique shop down the road in Wells that reads “Mrs. Barbara P. Bush / 5838 Indian Trail / Houston, Texas 77057.”
My husband encouraged me to write a letter to Barbara Bush to confirm that this tag had in fact belonged to her. As it turned out, we ran into Mrs. Bush in another antique shop just a week or so later…before she even had a chance to receive my letter. When we approached her, she calmed the ever-alert Secret Service Agents and I explained that I collect sterling silver luggage tags, but had purchased this brass one, hoping that it had belonged to her.
Mrs. Bush was very gracious and was curious to see the silver luggage tag I was wearing as a necklace. After our conversation, we parted company and a short time later I received a lovely note from her on stationery with a drawing of Walker Point. She confirmed that the tag was hers and she wished me well with my collecting. I treasure the tag, the note and especially my personal encounter with this warm and charming woman.
Back a few miles inland, in the equally historic town of Kennebunk, the streets are slightly less tourist-traveled and they are lined with flowers. Most businesses have beautiful gardens or planter boxes…lampposts are hung with baskets of flowers, and there are even little “dory-style” planters filled with colorful blooms along the curbs.
For those seeking Maine history, Kennebunk is a good place to look according to Charles Calhoun. He points to 1790-1860 as “the founding years of the modern state, and much of Maine’s towns, industries, educational system, religious beliefs, and ways of everyday life took shape” within that timeframe (52).
U.S. Route 1 goes right through the heart of Kennebunk, and in the park where the road crosses the Mousam River, there is a “Museum of the Streets” sign with a street map and twenty-five historic sites listed.
The surrounding forests were rich in timber, so lumbering, sawmills and shipyards drew a large workforce, and ship building was the primary industry between 1755 and 1918. The Mousam River, which appears to be quiet and pastoral today, “was used for grist mills, paper mills, twine manufacture, leather-board manufacture, matting factories, shoe factories and more” (Museum of the Streets).
Tourism became the secondary industry and the Kennebunk Inn & Restaurant opened in 1799 to accommodate businessmen and travelers. Tourism is the largest industry Maine today and the Kennebunks draw a good number of visitors in the summer and fall every year.
The Brick Store Museum is located in town on Route 1 in a block of 19th-century buildings. The museum has a fine collection of Federal period furniture and portraits and its rotating exhibitions focus on the art, history and culture of the area.
One of my favorite exhibits featured antique quilts. The pieces reflected a diverse range of designs, colors, fabrics and patterns.
One of the most fascinating Maine quilts I have ever seen was described by the museum sign as a “cyanotype pictorial history quilt.” It was made in the early 1900s by Mary Adams Potter, wife of Camden, Maine, photographer Herbert Jay Potter. “The squares were printed using a glass transfer method of his negatives onto chemically treated fabric.” The twelve photographs are of the “mid-coast area from Camden to Owl’s Head, several schooners, and a portrait of the quilt maker.” The squares and the paisley back were machine stitched and finished.
For visitors who enjoy fiber arts, Camp Wool is a must see shop with an outstanding stock of fine wool fabrics, patterns, and products for rug hooking. They also have hand dyed floss and pearl cotton and hundreds of patterns for penny rugs, cross stitch, needle punch and braiding. For some of our friends, Camp Wool is their first stop on any Maine visit.
Evidence of the wealth and social development of Kennebunk is reflected in its public buildings as well as the Colonial, Federal, and Greek Revival homes that line the streets. Since there is so much less traffic than in Kennebunkport, it is a pleasure to walk, bicycle or slowly cruise the streets to enjoy the handsome homes.
The most photographed house in Kennebunk is the Wedding Cake House. It began its life as “a rather chaste Federal mansion of about 1825. In the 1850s, owner George Bourne encased his dwelling and barn with exuberantly Gothic filigree woodwork.” One theory is that “its builder, an otherwise conventional shipbuilder – found in its architectural details an escape from his problems, personal and professional.” His shipyard business was in decline and there were “a series of family tragedies and in his final years he busied himself with his Gothic Pinnacles, arches and tracery, his crockets and quarterfoils and cusps, doing much of the intricate woodcarving with his own hands.” The lighthearted exterior did not change his luck: “The work was completed in the summer of 1856. By December, he was dead of typhoid fever” (Calhoun 52-54).
After touring so much history in one day, you are probably ready to backtrack a bit to a restaurant that caught your eye along the route. The Kennebunk Inn’s menu is highly regarded or you may want to return to the shore and finish your day watching for wildlife activity in a saltwater marsh or eating lobster along the shore. Whatever you do, take time to enjoy and reflect on this unique place.
Recommended Resource: Calhoun, Charles C. Maine (Compass Travel Guide). Oakland, CA: Fodor’s Travel Publications Inc, 1997.