If the winds are blowing southeast, as they were Tuesday morning, chances are that when the Laura B. leaves Port Clyde Harbor on its daily 7 a.m. summer freight run to Monhegan Island, the vessel is leaving in a sheet of fog, according to its deckhands. As the boat pulls away from the dock, the space between fills with the morning mist and sight of the shore instantly is lost.
It’s an 11.9-mile trip from Port Clyde to Monhegan Island — one hour and 15 minutes on the Laura B, Monhegan Boat Line’s mail boat. However, the trip through weather conditions reminiscent of “The Twilight Zone” could have taken passengers anywhere, and upon arriving on Monhegan’s dock it’s hard to determine exactly where you’ve landed.
With only dirt roads and a handful of ramshackle trucks to move people and supplies, the 4.5-square-mile island seems tropical, with its laid-back mode of functioning. The island is home to 45 year-round residents, most of whom make their living from the sea. The island’s K-8 school has an expected total enrollment of five students for the 2015-2016 school year. And with no island option for high school, teenage residents are forced to move to the mainland to attend high school, making it difficult for the island to maintain a consistent year-round population.
“We’ve certainly been on the edge of sustainability as a community for a long time,” Jackie Boegel, a year-round resident on Monhegan since 1977, said.
But there are two things that provide Monhegan Island with a sense of security in its future as a viable island community. The summer influx of residents is one of them. Between the three inns on the island and privately owned summer cottages, the island has accommodations for up to 500 people. According to Town Assessor Tara Hire, that capacity is almost reached during peak summer months of July and August.
It’s just through the village’s main road where the second pillar of security sits: an American flag flying outside a small cedar-shingled office. A sun-faded sign reads “U.S. Post Office. Monhegan. ME. 04852,” the island’s only reliable year-round connection to the mainland.
For many Americans, trips to the post office are being replaced with scrolls through the email inbox, but for island communities such as Monhegan, having access to a post office is critical to sustaining a year-round community and serves as a village community center.
For an island that only recently acquired DSL Internet capability, reliance on the U.S. Postal Service isn’t a nostalgic notion. It is a necessary service for individuals and businesses alike, allowing them to maintain financial, communication and resource connections with the mainland.
“The post office means security for the year-round population, in the sense that we have our lifeline to the mainland,” year-round Hire said. “It’s also a social piece, especially in the winter, when sometimes you have no reason to leave the house except to go get your mail. So you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s a big event’ — go get your mail and maybe you’ll see someone and you’ll chat about the day and what’s going on. It’s nice. It’s really nice.”
Federal service with community spirit
For an office dispensing a federal service, the Monhegan branch of the U.S. Postal Service seems anything but bureaucratic. Most noticeably informal is the wall of old-fashioned post office boxes, secured with combination locks instead of locks with keys, the majority of which are left open, mail exposed.
According to Postmistress Emily Carver, this casual habit of mail storage is partly because of residents’ desire to be able to walk in and grab their mail without fussing with a lock. But it’s also because the majority of residents don’t remember the combination to the lock on their box.
Hire herself leaves her post office box open.
“It’s just ease,” she said. “I’m not worried. No one is going to take my mail.”
On an island with no paved roads or established addresses, mail delivery is not an option. Instead, taking a walk to the post office to get the mail becomes a routine, and most islanders embrace this as an aspect of community connectivity.
“You don’t know who you’re going to run into,” Hire said. “There aren’t a lot of gathering places for us, except for the post office.”
With a table and chairs tucked in the corner of the post office’s small lobby, Carver and the post office become a center for communication through the village.
On the afternoon of July 14, a helicopter was seen circling the island, and word quickly spread that it was an emergency LifeFlight. As one woman tucked her head into the post office to express her concern, island native Chris Rollins was making his weekly visit to the post office. He told the woman it actually was a Coast Guard helicopter checking on the lighthouse.
Rollins, whose grandmother Elva Brackett held the longest tenure as postmistress on Monhegan with nearly 30 years of service, remembers when the post office was even busier on the island.
“When I was a kid and the post office was down the road, you couldn’t even get in there. It was a mob scene when the mail boat came in,” Rollins said.
While the post office doesn’t meet “mob scene” standards today, its presence and operation continues to serve more than just a means for mailing and shipping; it’s symbolic of the tight-knit community that thrives on Monhegan. Carver greets every person as though she knows their whole family, because for the most part she does. And customers treat her with the same neighborly spirit.
Keeping Monhegan open for business
The island’s librarian, Mia Boynton, makes a daily trip to the post office to send out the day’s interlibrary loans but on Tuesday also came back to bring Carver lunch. For Boynton, this act was out of gratitude for the service Carver and the post office provide for Monhegan. As the village librarian and a partner in a vacation rental company, most of Boynton’s daily business revolves around being able to use postal services. From ordering library supplies to sending rental contracts and deposits, her businesses vitality is dependent on reliable mail service to the island.
“[On the mainland] you take it for granted, because you can go out and get something. You can’t go out and get something here. It all has to be sent to you. Everything has to come on the boat,” Boynton said.
For the last century, Port Clyde’s Monhegan Boat Line has been providing the boat Boynton speaks of, committing itself as a boat line of service for the residents of Monhegan and as a means of transport for summer visitors. In 1914, Monhegan Boat Line began its postal contract with USPS and since has been the sole source of mail delivery to Monhegan.
Although the Laura B. and the Boat Line’s passenger-oriented ferry, the Elizabeth Ann, make daily trips to Monhegan from May to October, the only incentive for the boat line to maintain service to Monhegan through the winter is its obligation to the postal contract.
From Nov. 1 to April 30, the Laura B. makes a 9:30 a.m. trip to Monhegan on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to deliver mail. It also brings freight to the island, including food, firewood, water, laundry, machinery and other items not attainable in the depth of winter for a community at sea.
“In the winter, if it’s really bad weather [and] if they didn’t have their postal contract, they wouldn’t be coming out,” Boynton said. “There would be no way for people to live here year-round if there wasn’t a boat. The only people who would live here would be fishermen. Without our boat, we would not have all the different businesses here. We would not have our school.”
Even in the summer months, when the trip from Monhegan to Port Clyde is less treacherous, business owners such as Boegel, who owns Monhegan’s Lupine Gallery with her husband, rely on the Postal Service to keep their business functioning.
“I don’t think we could exist as a business without it. We use the post office all the time. We have to ship paintings. We receive all of our supplies [through the mail],” Boegel said. “We do our banking through the mail. We have deposit slips here because we can’t get to the bank every night to make a deposit.”
Because of Monhegan’s seclusion, the USPS has said it would be very unlikely for Postal Service to the island to be discontinued entirely. Between 2012 and 2013, the Monhegan post office and nine other island post offices lost their full-time operating status, becoming “part-time” offices, open for only six hours a day Monday through Friday and four hours Saturday. This USPS decision was made to cut costs at these lower volume postal offices and to give the islands a sense of security in the future of their post office by not closing them altogether.
Despite the insistence on the part of USPS that closure of the office is unlikely, Hire says “it feels like there’s a threat of losing [the post office] all the time.”
This skepticism is partly because finding a postmaster to run the office is a difficult role for island communities to fill. Carver is in the process of leaving her position as postmistress, because — like the many things made more difficult by island life — finding consistent child care for her three young children is challenging, though her island neighbors have helped out.
“Why do you think they’re so good to me whenever I don’t have a baby sitter? One day I didn’t have a baby sitter, and [my neighbors] were coming and getting my kids all day long, taking them on walks, taking them home for a nap, helping me because they want the post office to stay open,” Carver said.
Carver’s last day at the post office is Friday. She said it will be a “sad day,” though she knows leaving her position will be beneficial for her children. There isn’t a replacement lined up to fill the vacant position, and while USPS will send out temporary postmaster relief to run the office while a candidate search is conducted, Carver hopes the position will be filled from within the island community. She would take comfort in knowing the position is being filled by someone who understands its community importance.
All day Tuesday, Carver reminded post office patrons to come in and see her before her last day. While she will remain a summer resident of Monhegan, without her job she no longer has the incentive to stay on the island year-round. Like the Boat Line with its postal contract, maintaining a livelihood and a community on Monhegan is dependent on having an incentive that will keep you traveling the 12 miles out to sea, regardless of the wind direction.