The History of the Summer Folk
Arrival of the Rusticators
Most summer visitors to Penobscot Bay arrived by steamship, and smaller vessels connected the smaller towns.
Henry David Thoreau’s 1846 book The Maine Woods and Fitz Henry Lane’s paintings of Penobscot Bay in the 1850s depicted a bucolic place untouched by the industrialization that was beginning to affect East Coast cities. These depictions, and the promises they offered of a country lifestyle, clean, healthy air, and relief from city stresses, began to draw Maine's first tourists from the urban upper class. These wealthy visitors were known as "rusticators" for the rustic experience that they sought.
Passenger steamers carried these visitors from Boston to Bangor with stops at Rockland, Belfast and other towns along the way. A steamer network fanned out across the Bay from Rockland, connecting it with other towns and the islands.
The Bay Becomes a Destination
Hiking was popular among Maine's summer folk in the early 20th century. Even in outdoor sports, women were still expected to dress modestly.
Vacations became fashionable among middle and professional class citizens following the Civil War, and several large hotels, some with hundreds of rooms, were built to serve them, transforming some towns and islands from isolated refuges from society into centers of society in their own right. Rusticators from large cities gravitated to specific towns: Bostonians to North Haven, New Yorkers to Bar Harbor, and Philadelphians to Camden.
Not all visitors were “from away:” many came from Maine’s major cities, Portland and Bangor. In 1869, Bangor's intelligentsia arrived on Islesboro. They were followed in the 1880s by East Coast city dwellers who bought up land for planned vacation communities, large summer cottages designed by renowned architects, and golf, yacht and tennis clubs.
In mainland towns serviced by steamships from Boston and Portland, small hotels and summer communities sprang up. Methodists from Maine and Boston flocked to the Bayside community in Northport, turning a tent encampment into a gingerbread village reminiscent of Martha’s Vineyard. In the 1870s, Castine’s quaint architecture inspired summer residents, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and families from Boston, Hartford and Chicago to buy sea captains’ homesteads or farms, or to stay in hotels and inns.
Artists, Islands and Automobiles
As the automobile increased in popularity and more tourists began to arrive by car, roadside attractions sprang up all along the coast.
The Monhegan art colony began in the 1870s, as artists were drawn to this scenic island. Their paintings, brought to the attention of the big-city wealthy, served to advertise the area to a wider audience, and helped accelerate the area's conversion to a tourist economy. In some towns, the number of summer folk grew larger than the year-round population, creating jobs for cooks, gardeners, builders of recreational boats, yacht captains and others to serve the tourist industry.
In the 1880s, summer residents from Boston and other cities “discovered” Isle au Haut and built cottages in a private club on Point Lookout. In the 1890s, Bostonians set up a colony on North Haven with the intent of living “simply” and sailing on Penobscot Bay as much as possible. Wealthy families built elaborate Shingle-style "cottages" in Camden and filled the harbor with their yachts, while hotels sprang up in Camden, Rockland and Castine to attract visitors of more modest pretensions. The Searsport House Inn went through three expansions; Stockton Springs’ Fort Point Hotel was the largest resort in the area before it burned in 1898; Rockland’s original Samoset Hotel opened in 1898. (It continued in business until 1969, spanning an era in which visitors arrived first by steamship, then by train and finally by automobile.)
By 1920 tourism had become the major source of revenue for many coastal towns. With the advent of the automobile, motor inns and cottages sprang up along the major roads around Penobscot Bay. The opening of the Kennebec Bridge in 1927, the Waldo-Hancock Bridge in 1931, and the Deer Isle Bridge in 1939 all served to make the region more accessible to motorists. Maine's famous “Vacationland” license plate made its debut in 1936, confirming the importance of car-based tourism to the state as a whole.
New Forms of Recreation
Windjammer cruising, which began in 1936, kept the last of the old working schooners alive. (Photo courtesy of Maine Windjammer Cruises)
Schooners had continued to carry cargo around Penobscot Bay even while steamboats dominated the passenger trade, but in the early 20th century, working sailboats were on their way out, replaced by rail and road carriage. In 1936, some of the remaining cargo schooners found second lives as "windjammers," carrying tourists on daysails and multi-day trips around the bay. They have continued to this day, and now more than a dozen are in operation, working primarily out of Rockland, Rockport and Camden, with day excursion boats based in Castine, Belfast and a few other towns.
Also in the 1930s, the Maine State Park system opened a campground in the Camden Hills, catering to car-campers and travel trailers. The 1947 opening of the Maine State Turnpike made the Midcoast region even more accessible, and Maine tourism increased by 225% between 1946 and 1956.
As tourism caused the area to modernize, historically-minded year-round and summer residents sought ways to preserve its past. Montpelier, the Thomaston home of Revolutionary War General Henry Knox, was replicated as a museum in the early 1930s, and Penobscot Marine Museum was founded in Searsport in 1936. Fort Knox, a huge Civil-War-era fortress guarding the Penobscot River in Prospect, became part of the Maine Department of Parks & Recreation in 1940. The Farnsworth Art Museum opened in Rockland in 1948 and the Owls Head Transportation Museum in Owls Head in 1974. Combined, these museums serve as a tourist draw second only to the area's natural beauty and contribute significantly to the region's identity as a holiday destination.