BUCKSPORT, Maine — It made perfect sense to Ethel Cunningham.
Years after retiring, she didn’t want to just sit at home knitting. So the 88-year-old Orland resident decided to seek work at the same building where she first entered the work world at age 14 in 1937.
Cunningham now works at the senior housing complex in the former Jed Prouty Inn, a historic downtown property built in 1783.
Sitting in the glassed-in porch of the former inn that offers views of the Penobscot River, Cunningham, dressed in a cheery pink jacket over a white blouse and skirt, gestured to where the dining room had been at the inn back in 1937.
“I started my first job here,” she said, waiting on and clearing tables, making beds, ironing table cloths and washing dishes. As far as she can remember, the inn then was more of a hotel, with guests staying weeks or even months at a time, and some even living there.
“It was more like an eating place,” she recalled, pointing to the part of the building where a coffee shop was, and then to a back room which had been a large, more formal dining room. The first paper mill in Bucksport opened in 1930, and workers at the relatively new business may have patronized the restaurant at the inn, she said.
During the summer months when she worked at the Jed Prouty, Cunningham would stay with her sister who lived in Bucksport.
Cunningham was born and raised in Blue Hill where she attended George Stevens Academy. She didn’t finish her last year there, though, recalling the eight-mile, one-way walk to school as a disincentive. She and her late husband raised two daughters, and she now has great-grandchildren.
The Jed Prouty Inn was initially a two-family home converted to an inn known as the Robinson House. Early in the 20th century the name was changed to the Jed Prouty Inn. During its time as an inn, it hosted such notables as presidents Martin Van Buren, James Buchanan, John Tyler and William Henry Harrison, as well as statesman Daniel Webster. Admiral Robert Peary, credited with leading the first expedition to the North Pole, reportedly stayed at the inn while his expedition’s ship was under construction nearby.
Late last year, John and Rhonda Chambers purchased the historic building, which had been vacant for eight years. The couple operates assisted living centers in Calais. The former inn was repaired and reopened in February, providing 16 beds for seniors.
When Cunningham showed up at the front desk in mid-February, Rhonda Chambers assumed she was applying for residency. Instead, Cunningham wanted to work.
Chambers invited Cunningham to stay for dinner that first day, and Cunningham responded, “Yes, if I can clear the tables.” And she did.
Following her start at the inn at age 14, Cunningham worked most of her life as a waitress, including 26 years at Millett’s Drive-In restaurant on Verona Island, then several years at the Grand Mariner in Searsport. When the owner of the latter restaurant died, Cunningham went to work across Route 1 at Hastey’s Treasures, an antique store. All three businesses are defunct.
“I loved it,” she said of the work. “I loved meeting people, waiting on them, especially with the little kids, socializing with them.”
Now, she lavishes the senior residents with that same attention.
On arriving at about 10 a.m. each day, Cunningham visits the residents on the first floor, wishes them a good morning, then does the same for the residents on the second floor, then it’s on to the kitchen, “to see what’s cooking,” then it’s time “to round them all up” for lunch.
Cunningham helps serve food and then clear tables, then she might play cards with some of the residents.
At about 6:30 p.m. she again makes the rounds of rooms.
“I say goodnight to all of them, and tell them I love them,” she said. The night before, “we had a hard night,” she adds. “I didn’t get out until 9:30 p.m.”
“I wish I could clone her,” John Chambers said of Cunningham.
Rhonda Chambers says simply, “She’s wonderful.”
And Cunningham has kind words for the Chambers, “They are very, very caring people,” she said. “If someone can’t work for them, there’s something wrong with themselves.”
Speaking of work, Cunningham has some advice on how to succeed at a job.
“They’ve got to make up their mind to work, be on time and stay late if they need you for extra work, have a good appearance and try to cooperate” with co-workers. In a telephone message left after the interview, she adds two other points: “Get a good education and be honest.”