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.
By 1:30 p.m., we were back in paradise, cruising through Pine Point and past OOB’s beachfront cabins, motels and diners. Always, Quebec French innkeepers, who flocked to the town every summer, would line the road, soliciting our business with signs proclaiming, “Bienvenue! Stay with us!!”
John Bishop, a Quebecois with a big belly and a shock of gray hair, always found accommodations for us in his Bel Mer Cabins. I think we were like family to him. Our cabin reeked of leaky propane and its floors shook when a train passed by, but this was our special home for the next 30 hours.
Long sandy beaches, bustling amusement parks and vacationing couples losing their libidos seemed foreign to my family and me, having grown up in eastern Maine where things were different. This was a strange land waiting to be explored.
My family’s memories could have filled a magazine, and I’m sure mine might someday merit a book. There was the day we three Shaw children took a mule cart into the coal mines, part of the town’s amusement district that included a fun house called Noah’s Ark. When the mule stopped and wouldn’t move, we slapped it on the rump to get it going. To the SPCA, I offer my sincere, if belated, apologies.
Old Orchard’s glorious food, all of its artery-clogging junk, was so tempting in those pre-statin days. The french fries were swimming in grease, and the cheese on the ubiquitous pizzas always smelled like someone had hurled onto the dough, but eat it we did. And we returned for more.
Some memories are much darker. There was the afternoon in August 1962 that Dad’s transistor radio brought home distressing news that spread like wildfire across the sprawling beach. Marilyn Monroe had been found in her Brentwood apartment, dead at 36. Even at age 10, I remember thinking that the joy had been sucked out of our night at the town’s amusement park. A shining star had just left the building.
Sunday found us returning to a much quieter downtown for breakfast, followed by one last stroll on the beach before bidding Old Orchard goodbye. It was strange how different U.S. Route 1 looked in reverse after we had left paradise. But we always had next year’s return trip to look forward to.
Old Orchard Beach today is a different place, with condominiums juxtaposed with the old tourist attractions. Route 1 has changed, too, not so much the main highway as a way to get from town to town. Moody’s Diner and the Desert of Maine still draw visitors, but I wonder if they know what they missed in those simpler days when getting there was half the fun.
This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s June/July 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.