While the arts community of the Cranberry Isles gets its due at the Portland Museum of Art, a few blocks away a simpler way of island life can be seen at the Maine Historical Society in Portland.
Great Cranberry Island is one of 29 communities included in “Main Street, Maine: Downtown Views From the Eastern Publishing and Illustrating Company,” a photography exhibition now on display at the historical society. The exhibit is similar to shows held last year at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport and the University of Maine.
The images were drawn from more than 40,000 glass-plate negatives in a collection now owned by the marine museum. The images were made by the Eastern Publishing and Illustrating Co. between 1909 and 1947. The collection includes images of almost every town and city in Maine, and thousands more taken in New England, upstate New York and Florida.
“I wanted a diversity in terms of where they fell in the state,” said Penobscot Marine Museum photo archivist Kevin Johnson, who picked the photographs. “Other than that, [the choices were] based on photo composition and how strong they were as images. There were plenty to choose from, and it was quite hard to pare it down.”
The exhibit focuses on the central role main streets have played in our communities, and the photographs reveal how small-town main streets in Maine adapted to some of the major changes of the 20th century.
The images also reveal the challenges small rural communities faced in adapting to modern times — in some images there are electric lines and streetlights, along with dirt roads and horses.
“[Main streets] were kind of the hub of every town and I think that’s what makes them relevant now, is that there seems to be a back-to-the-main-street movement,” Johnson said. “We went through a mall phase, where everyone was going out to the strip malls and the big malls, but now there’s a push to come back to downtown.”
The Great Cranberry Island photo, which shows a southern view of Main Street, was taken around 1915. It’s an image of the dirt road that ran the length of the island, but doesn’t seem to contain many businesses or any modern conveniences. Main Street on Great Cranberry must have been purely residential, which sets the photograph apart from many of the images in the exhibit.
The Cranberry Isles, located off Mount Desert Island, are one of many Hancock County images included in the historical society show. There’s a circa 1910 photograph of downtown Bar Harbor, with the still-standing classical columns of the First National Bank building visible. Ellsworth is included, as are Deer Isle, Stonington and Northeast Harbor, a particularly poignant choice considering the two Main Street fires there since July 2008.
The Northeast Harbor image, from about 1910, shows the shops that sprung up to keep pace with the needs of the summer colony that grew up in the area.
Other towns in the exhibit include Fairfield, Mechanic Falls, Rome, Kennebunk, Mars Hill, Ellsworth, Mexico, Princeton, Limerick, Wiscasset, Thomaston, Ripley, Searsport, Farmington, Fort Fairfield, Lille, Presque Isle, East Wilton, Brownville Junction, Rockland, Belfast, Norway, Brunswick and Saco.
There are another 700 or so images in a slide show on a computer situated at the end of the exhibit.
The main streets have, of course, all changed over the years. Populations and industries have changed, causing some to shrink or expand. Some of the main streets are still standing intact. Others are vastly different.
“At the time [Eastern Publishing and Illustrating] was photographing these towns, they were booming and the streets were vibrant,” Johnson said. “Now it’s not the same. Different towns are on upswings or downward spirals. There’s a constant ebb and flow.”
“Main Street Maine – Downtown Views From the Eastern Publishing and Illustrating Company” is on view until May 31. For details, go to www.mainehistory.org. The Penobscot Marine Museum is working to put more than 10,000 of its glass-plate negatives on a Web site, which will be launched this summer. Prints will be available for purchase, and are available at several local retail locations. For more information, contact Kevin Johnson at 548-2529, ext. 210, or e-mail email@example.com.