Note: This story ran in the Bangor Daily News in June 12, 2000. It ran for the first time online on June 12, 2017.
GREAT CRANBERRY ISLAND — It is a community obsessed with time.
The morning boat from Northeast Harbor arrives at 8 a.m. loaded with carpenters, plumbers and freight. The mail comes at 11:15 a.m., when nearly the entire community gathers at the Cranberry General Store to talk and wait for their letters, magazines and bills. By 12:30 p.m. they’re back at boat yard, homes or gardens until the evening boat takes the workers and tourists away.
But now this island of 30 or so year-round residents is looking at time in another way: as in how much time they can remain a thriving year-round community. Wednesday evening they celebrated the graduation of Keith Wedge, 14, from the Longfellow School, the island’s tiny two-room schoolhouse.
Keith and his younger brother, Heath, 12, have been the only students to attend this school the last two years, keeping the long running schoolhouse open in the face of a steadily declining enrollment. But with Keith’s graduation, Heath will continue his education at the Pemetic School in Southwest Harbor, leaving Great Cranberry’s school empty for the first time since its establishment in the mid-1800s.
This small island has all the traditional elements of communities elsewhere. A general store and post office greet visitors as they leave the dock. A fire station and church sit near the center of the island, and one building serves three roles as public library, town office and schoolhouse.
Earlier this year, island residents voted to keep the school open administratively, and set aside enough money to employ a teacher and educate students should a family with school-age children move onto the island. While some may wonder what’s the sense of keeping a school without any pupils to teach, people here say it’s all about surviving as a community.
Working the soil in front of her home and gift shop Tuesday, Great Cranberry Island resident Polly Bunker explained that the Longfellow school has always been the center of the community: a place to meet and greet, play and learn. Without a school she fears the island will eventually lose all of its year-round residents, and with them the island’s history and character.
“Generally speaking, I think it’s important to have a school to maintain,” Bunker said, tossing a stick of wood for Patsy, her boisterous Austrian sheep dog, to retrieve. “It makes a community.”
Bunker said the school was home to as many as 18 students as few as five years ago, but recent years had shown a marked decrease in enrollment. The decrease, she said, came from a mix of graduations, families leaving the island and students traveling to larger schools on other islands or on the mainland.
From her home and business, which lies just a few hundred feet or so from the schoolhouse, Bunker said she has witnessed the decline in students in the fewer number of children playing in the playground and riding their bikes past her home on the way to school.
“It’s the heartbeat here,” Bunker said of the school and the activity that takes place there. “It’s like being abandoned in a way. I feel the difference in it … with not seeing children running by.”
Herman Savage, a former Great Cranberry resident who now often travels to the island to tend the homes of summer residents, said he believes the school will some day close, and consequencely the remaining year-round residents will eventually move off island or die with no one left to take their place.
“When that school goes this island is going to die,” Savage said the day before the Wedge boy’s graduation. Savage, who served 6 years on the school committee before he moved to Southwest Harbor, said he saw the beginning of the end for the small school when the committee allowed parents to send their children elsewhere to study. Now, he said, the last of the students willing to attend the island school are leaving and the chances of large families moving here are slim.
Slim because there is little employment on the island, especially in the winter.
“There were several more fishermen around here then,” Savage said of the island when his family first moved there in 1948. He spoke as he pruned bushes along a road leading up to a home he has tended through three generations of the same Ohio family. “There was herring weirs to be built, and everybody just waited for spring to open up to get back to work.”
But as finding work grew harder and property values went higher and higher, Savage said leaving for the mainland became the only sensible option for he and many others who faced hard winters on the island. “There was 100 people year-round 13 years ago,” Savage said of the year in which he left. “Now there’s about 28.”
And it’s going to take an influx of large families, Savage said, to bring the school, and the island, back. “They’ve got to incorporate some families here with some kids,” Savage said. “That is a must right now if they’re going to save this island.”
Saving the island
Saving the island was the driving force behind the town’s decision to keep the school open administratively. Howard Colter, the school’s superintendent, said the school committee believed keeping the framework of the school in place will help draw new families.
“The voters at Great Cranberry have consistently said they want to keep the school open,” Colter said the morning of the school’s graduation. “Once a school closes it’s often times the signal of the end of a year-round community. If we close down the school it’s just more likely that door is going to close completely.”
Closing the school, Colter said, means a tremendous amount of effort to reopen should a family or two move onto Great Cranberry. “Once a school is closed it can be more difficult to open than it may appear,” Colter said. “What’s even more challenging is trying to revitalize the school. You lose a certain amount of momentum.”
And without a school, Colter said, it’s very difficult to draw families to a community. “If people move onto an island and there isn’t a school it’s a detractor,” Colter said.
Cindy Thomas, chair of the school committee which oversees the Longfellow school and a two-room schoolhouse on nearby Little Cranberry Island, said she believed keeping the school open was the only chance for Great Cranberry to remain a strong, viable community.
“I don’t want to see the island die,” said Thomas who lives on Little Cranberry. “It’s in the best interests of the community to remain open. So I figured if we could keep it open administratively then we could be up and running if somebody with children moves on the island. The first thing a family moving on asks is: `Is there a school?”‘
It may seem like a tremendous dedication of resources, time and energy for the possibility of educating one or two students, but education and children are top priorities on the islands.
“That’s the way it is here,” Thomas said. “Every single student makes a big difference. Out here we really care about what our students want. It’s almost as if every student is our family.”
Island schools elsewhere
The dozen island schools of the Maine coast are facing a fate similar to that of GreatCranberry’s Longfellow school. Enrollment is dropping, work is scarce and year-round populations are dwindling. The islands are challenged with balancing the attractiveness of the unique quality of life found off the coast against the lure of the “bigger is better” philosophy permeating other corners of the world.
Stefan Pakulski, director of the Island Institute’s community initiatives department, said Maine’s island residents know the future of their schools is in jeopardy. “It’s not a rosy future by any stretch of the imagination at this point.”
“[Island residents] are left asking what’s happening within their community and why are families not able to remain there?” Pakulski said. Saving their schools, and their way of life, Pakulski said, means that island communities as a whole have to reexamine the social, economic and quality-of-life factors involved in moving to or from there.
Doing so, he said, is critical to the life of these isolated communities.
“A school is a central, critical facet within all of these communities,” Pakulski said. “It’s the focus of their investment in their own future. It’s almost impossible to calculate the depth of the impact on a community. It may or may not be the ultimate indicator of a community’s survival, but it certainly is central to that.”
Great Cranberry, Pakulski said, is dealing with the problem as well as can be expected. To lose the school entirely, he said, could wipe out its distinctive character.
“This is one of those institutions within a community which makes it a thriving community,” Pakulski said. “When a community loses that school, they’ve lost the ability to attract other families to that community … to educate and nurture their children … to address educational issues.”
“They lose a piece of their own pride,” he continued. “They’ve lost a connection with their past. Now that heritage is something that’s going to be confined to their past generations.”
Today the heritage of Great Cranberry Island remains for those with a little time and bit of interest. Most of the year-round residents received their K-8 education at the small island school and speak fondly of their days there.
Polly Bunker recalled that the two room schoolhouse was divided according to age, with younger children prohibited from studying and playing with students in the older grades. Yet, she says, the proximity of the two age groups kept both aware of what the other was up to.
“You know, hearing the older students in their classes was a help,” Bunker continued. “It really helped. I can remember hearing some of the older kids practicing studies, and you learned from it. Our teacher did all 8 grades, teaching arithmetic and geography … the three Rs you know.”
Bunker also remembered the school as the island’s source of entertainment through sporting events, skits and plays. “I can’t believe we did all that,” Bunker said, throwing another stick to her happy canine.
“The funny part of it is we didn’t spread ourselves around the island at all. We’d play with the children at the school grounds, but we may not see them again until the next day,” Bunker said. “We all had some good times.”
Herman Savage said he remembers his school days as no nonsense, largely because a misbehaving student was likely to be met with a cuff behind the ear. He also said the education was excellent, especially because the teacher was able to spend so much more individual time with students.
“I think the quality of education here was as good as the other schools,” Savage reflected, resting his rake against a shrub and folding his arms across his chest. “Probably better than the big schools because you got more one-on-one time. The teacher actually worked directly with you… you weren’t copying something down from the blackboard.”
Today the Longfellow school faces an indefinite future, without any guarantee of ever educating another student. The playground is home to a faded recreation area and a large bike rack without any Schwinns or BMXs. Five empty swings quiver slightly in the sea breeze — the grass green and untrampled beneath them — along the lilac-lined main road.
There are no sounds of children laughing and giggling here. The occasional bleat of a nearby sheep or the rumble of a passing car breaks the silence.
The main classroom is home to a round table with two chairs, a teacher’s desk, markerboard and two computers. Books suitable for all ages line the shelves that run around the room. The vacant classroom looks to be used for storage, the desks and displays long since removed.
No one seems to be quite sure how long this island has educated its students in small one and two-room schools. “Oh, a hundred years or more I guess,” more than one elderly resident replied.
Signs of hope
While most on Great Cranberry agree that they face an uncertain future, they do hold out hope that a family or two will choose to move and educate their children here. A grant from the Maine Community Foundation has helped the residents here prepare two homes for just that purpose.
The money is used to repair the homes’ roofs, set them on foundations and drill wells and install septic systems. Both homes are owned by the Cranberry Island Realty Trust, which will lease, and possibly sell, the homes to anyone willing to come to the island.
It’s an effort that has to be made, according to former selectman and retired Navy Captain Richard Beal, to prevent the island from becoming a permanent summer community.
“Right now we’re trying to get the homes going with a modest rent to help out the families just getting started,” Beal said. “Not everyone can afford to live on an island.”
Beal said Great Cranberry residents can get a sneak peak at their future: it’s just a short trip across the water to neighboring Sutton Island where year-round life gave way long ago to summer getaways.
“It’s drastic,” Beal said. “The makeup of the island has changed a lot. The majority of the land out here belongs to non-residents. We have seven acres that’s available, that’s town property. The rest is in private hands.”
And the more land that is purchased for summer homes, the more the property values go up and drive away local working people, Beal said, who noted that a five-acre parcel of land on the island is currently for sale at $350,000.
“This type of atmosphere isn’t very conducive to having locals come out. You have to beg and borrow to find a place to live. It’s slowly becoming the case where those who remain are becoming caretakers for the out-of-staters.”
Beal said the town has received a query from one lobsterman who hopes to bring his family to the island, but cautioned that everything is up in the air at the moment. However, he hopes the lure of island life will draw some people to move there.
“We all band together,” Beal said. “It’s really a tight-knit community, and it’s a hell of a nice life.”
To get a sense of how close this community is one need look no further than the school graduation.
Wednesday evening, most everyone on the island, as well as friends and family from the mainland, turned out to witness Keith Wedge graduate from the small school and prepare to venture to Mount Desert Island High School. Keith, and his brother, Heath, may be the sons of Deborah Wedge, their mother, but they are also clearly the island’s children.
Residents, many elderly and gray, packed into the small island church in support of the boy. The community outpouring shocked the boys’ teacher, Timothy De Schiffmot.
“Has anybody ever seen a crowd like this in this church?” De Schiffmot asked the crowd as he began the ceremony.
“As a community, you’ve seen [Keith] grow from a little baby,” De Schiffmot said. “And that’s what this is. It’s a big celebration.”
Judith Cox, curriculum director for the school union encompassing the Longfellow School, presented Keith with his diploma, and lauded the community for helping the Wedge boys through the years.
“The community has provided these boys just plain support in their lives,” Cox said. “And the school is open … it’s ready for anybody to come here. I consider that a sign of hope, it’s also a sign of hope for the community. In some odd way, even though we won’t have any children in the school, you have faith here because you aren’t closing the school.”
Last to speak was the graduate himself, who seemed nervous to be the sole focus of attention during the brief ceremony. “I just wanted to say thanks to the community and thanks to all my teachers,” Keith Wedge told those who turned out to wish him well. “And I want to say thanks to my mom as well.”
After the graduation the crowd crossed the street to the fire station, where a reception was held in honor of the young boy. Fishermen talked of the lobster season and the condition of moorings in the harbor. Others spoke of the condition of an elderly resident who was recently taken to the hospital. They remain a community for now, together and concerned for one another — as well as their future.