When I was a child, I heard that if someone straightened out Maine’s craggy coastline, it would stretch nearly 3,500 miles. By 1960, at age 8, I realized the only number that really mattered was 144, the distance from Bangor to Old Orchard Beach, a favorite family destination best reached by coastal U.S. Route 1. In those days, the route was a grab bag of lobster shacks, a Freeport “desert,” tidy white churches and a state prison.
The annual ritual began around 1958 when Dad came home one day and asked, “Who wants to spend the weekend in Old Orchard?” Apparently, he and Mom fell in love with the town’s 7 miles of white sand beach and glittery wooden pier before they fell for each other around 1940. So they knew OOB in its heyday when Glenn Miller and Frank Sinatra performed to sold-out crowds, and a Coney Island-class roller coaster rumbled long into the night.
Getting to Old Orchard was half the fun. At the crack of dawn, my parents, two siblings and I would pack our suitcases and pile into the station wagon, only to spend one night – always a Saturday – in that York County burgh. A summer road trip in the late 1950s involved hearing the wind blow through open car windows (no air conditioning), and jotting down the names of roadside landmarks to keep our young minds occupied.
Around 9 a.m., we always seemed to catch our first glimpse of Penobscot Bay, an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean’s Gulf of Maine, at the junction of U.S. Routes 1A and 1 in Stockton Springs. A half hour later, we passed Perry’s Nut House in East Belfast, then headed across the old Armistice Bridge before Dad nosed the orange Plymouth up the steep hill and onto Belfast’s main street.
Before noon, when we always stopped for a picnic at Brunswick’s aromatic Bowdoin Pines area, we had passed Rockland’s fish plants, Thomaston’s Gen. Henry Knox mansion and the Maine State Prison, Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro and the abandoned schooners, the Hesper and Luther Little, in Wiscasset. Still to come was a glimpse of the latest ship being built at Bath Iron Works and the Fat Boy Drive-In across from the Brunswick Naval Air Station.
After lunch, we hit Freeport’s concrete divided highway before passing through Portland’s city limits, where Mom always claimed she could smell beans cooking in the B&M factory. We passed Baxter Boulevard’s fine homes and the Baxter School for the Deaf, stopped for hot potato chip samples at Humpty Dumpty’s Scarborough plant, then breathed the salt air of Scarborough’s marshes. Old Orchard Beach was only minutes away.