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Postcards tell story of Bar Harbor’s past

By Aislinn Sarnacki, BDN Staff

BAR HARBOR, by Earle G. Shettleworth Jr., June 2011, Arcadia Publishing, $21.99, 127 pages.

Two couples stand in the shade of a tree in front of a stately white building bordered by rows of ionic pillars. The black-and-white postcard had no date or description when it passed into the hands of Maine historian Earle G. Shettleworth. But he easily recognized the Building of Arts built in Bar Harbor in 1907, and the famous violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler holding his wide-brimmed hat at the far right.

“What a fascinating process it was to unravel the background behind that postcard,” Shettleworth said in a recent phone interview.

Shettleworth searched the New York Times online archives that date back to 1851 to find an article including the summer music schedule for the Building of Arts. Kreisler and pianist Ernest Schelling performed three Beethoven concerts in August 1915. They’re standing outside the building with their wives.

“What it is, really, is the story behind the postcard,” said Shettleworth. “The postcard is there for a reason. It meant something to people at the time it was made. But 100 years later, no one is there to tell us. So as historians, we have to find the rest of the story.”

Shettleworth uncovered the stories behind 228 postcards to write “Bar Harbor,” the newest addition to Arcadia Publishing’s Postcard History Series.

Since Bar Harbor’s first summer hotel, Agamont House, was built in 1855, the town has thrived as a summer vacation destination. Bar Harbor’s growth is captured from the town’s first chromolithographed watercolor postcard in 1898 to the crisp photographs of Willis H. Ballard of Southwest Harbor in the late 1900s.

Steamship was the way to reach Bar Harbor from the late 1800s to 1930. Steamships brought visitors from Rockland, and from 1902 to the 1930s, the Bar Harbor Express provided the fastest train service from New York City to Mount Desert Ferry in Hancock.

Shettleworth has served as the director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission since 1976, and was on the original board of the commission when it formed in 1971. He’s also author of “Victorian Augusta,” a book of photos dating from 1865 to 1880; and he co-authored a book about Mount Desert Island, Seal Harbor, Gardiner — his town of residency — and Portland.

“Bar Harbor” features many never-before-published postcards from the collections of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, the Bar Harbor Historical Society and Penobscot Marine Museum.

In their photographs, the establishment of libraries, churches, banks and bike paths are recorded, as are popular hangouts such as Mary Jane Family Restaurant, open from 1926 through the 1990s. While many of the buildings commemorated in the postcards have since been demolished or burned down, it was the rich architectural history of the town that initially drew Shettleworth to write a book on Bar Harbor.

“Whether public or private, many of the buildings were being built by famous or wealthy individuals, but also many of them were designed by the most prominent American architects of the time,” said Shettleworth, who made a point to include the architects’ names and building construction dates in many of the postcard captions.

Several of the buildings shown in the book were designed by Fred Savage (1861-1924), one of the most influential architects in the development of Mount Desert Island, who designed more than 300 buildings.

One of Shettleworth’s favorite images in the collection is of President William Howard Taft playing golf at the Kebo Valley Golf Club during his visit to Bar Harbor in July 1910. A New York Times article published July 22 states that Taft played golf three times at the golf course during his two-day stay.

Local newspapers in Bar Harbor, Ellsworth and Bangor also were a wealth of information to Shettleworth and his staff while searching for background to the images.

“Newspapers are the great accumulated memory of a community, and we’re lucky to have them,” said Shettleworth, who also used guidebooks in his research.

The ban on automobiles in downtown Bar Harbor ended in 1913 when automobile travel became more popular and the current Route 1A from Bangor to Bar Harbor became known as the Bar Harbor Road. The transformation from horse to automobile is best shown on page 33 of the book, with two photos of Cottage Street — one a quiet scene in 1916 with a few horse-drawn vehicles and the other the busy 1940s Cottage Street, lined with cars and trucks.

Income taxes and the Great Depression forced many vacationers to abandon their island mansions, which usually were demolished.

Before the automobile, Bar Harbor was an island destination, a place to travel to by train and then steamship and then stay for a month or the entire summer at a large resort. But when the automobile became popular, even many of the wealthy people wanted to travel the transient way and spend their vacation in a variety of places along the Maine coast.

“What I was trying to do with this book was to tell, with that chapter, a part of history of Bar Harbor that has not yet been fully developed,” Shettleworth said. “After the gilded age was over and the automobile became the supreme form of travel, that had a significant impact on not only how people traveled but also where they stayed.”

The automobile also gave the middle class an opportunity to travel at a low expense, and motels and neighborhoods of small, simple cabins ($1/night in the early 1900s) began replacing some of the grand resorts and mansions.

A severe drought brought forest fires to Maine in the fall of 1947 and devastated Mount Desert Island. Between Oct. 17 and 18, 1947, the island battled a fire that burned 17,675 acres in Bar Harbor alone. The luxurious Belmont Hotel burned in the 1947 fire, as did St. Sauver Hotel, the Malvern, the DeGregoire Hotel, and many others — and postcards were made from photos of the rubble.

“In many ways it was the final death knell to the great cottage way of life,” he said. “So many of the great houses were destroyed during the fire.”

A 1950’s postcard of Frenchmans Bay Boating Co. (displaying signs offering “the best and fastest sightseeing boats” and “deep sea fishing parties”) included in the book was printed not long before 9-year-old Shettleworth enjoyed his first trip to Mount Desert Island in 1957 with his sister and parents.

At the water’s edge, young Shettleworth would have seen the 40-room Bar Harbor Hotel (now Bar Harbor Inn), just opened in 1950 and one of the symbols of the town’s rebirth after the disastrous fire.

Shettleworth will hold a book signing 1-2:30 p.m. Saturday, July 30, at Mr. Paperback in Ellsworth, and 3-5 p.m. the same day at Acadia Shop in Bar Harbor.

“Bar Harbor” is available at local retailers, online bookstores or through Arcadia Publishing at or 888-313-2665.

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