In the summer of 1933, accompanied by her close friend Lorena Hickok, Eleanor Roosevelt embarked on a history-making road trip. Her husband, Franklin, had been president only four months when the women set out for Quebec in the first lady’s Buick roadster convertible.
The 49-year-old Eleanor, initially awkward in the White House, had cut a deal with the Secret Service before escaping the Washington fishbowl. She wouldn’t have to travel with an armed auto escort if she packed a revolver in her handbag for protection. The unique arrangement, unthinkable today, involved Mrs. Roosevelt taking shooting lessons and keeping a low profile while behind the wheel.
After visiting the family cottage in Campobello, New Brunswick, and other Canadian locales, the pair encountered dense fog on U.S. Route 2 in tiny Dyer Brook, south of Houlton. They were en route to Lakewood Theater in Madison, where they were to attend a play the following evening. Unable to travel another mile, the women pulled into the modest Ellis Farm tourist court (no motels back then), where they spent the night like ordinary people.
Maine’s past is brimming with similar oddball vacation stories featuring visitors “from away” on the loose in Vacationland, a nickname that first appeared on license plates in 1936.
E.B. White wrote essays about Vacationland. In 1960, John Steinbeck penned his classic 10,000-mile chronicle, “Travels with Charley: In Search of America.” With a standard poodle by his side, Steinbeck guided his camper around the nation, eventually arriving in Deer Isle with a police escort when he became lost while searching for a friend’s home.
Steinbeck was told never to ask a Maine native for directions. “Why ever not?” he asked. The reply came: “Somehow we think it is funny to misdirect people, and we don’t smile when we do it, but we laugh inwardly. It is our nature.”
You could argue that our region’s first vacationers were explorers with foreign names such as Estevan Gomez and Samuel de Champlain, who, in the 16th and 17th centuries, respectively, explored our coastline and sailed up the Penobscot River to the future city of Bangor. But they may have been too busy keeping journals and charts to fully enjoy the experience.
Fast forward to the 19th century, when Maine, a state since 1820, became a place worth visiting. Entrepreneurs touted the beautiful and mysterious land that bordered two Canadian provinces and only one other state, that had islands nobody had ever visited, and that was almost as large as the other five New England states combined.
“Tourism in Maine really boomed after the Civil War,” author Sanford Phippen said. “Particularly in the 1880s, steamboats were faster and rail lines were improved. That drew visitors from throughout the nation.”
State historian Earle G. Shettleworth Jr. has written about this era of expansion, especially along the Maine coast. And in 1982, Phippen helped produce a video titled, “A Century of Summers,” which chronicles the mix of seasonal and full-time residents in his home town of Hancock Point. Some married each other, creating a mashup of cultures and classes.
“People with names like Sheehan, O’Meara and McKernan, the ancestors of future Maine governor, John R. McKernan Jr., of Bangor, owned cottages here,” Phippen said. “It was a bustling place, where millionaires and common folk passed through Mount Desert Ferry, a nearby steamboat hub that provided access to Bar Harbor, which lacked railway access to the mainland.”
Henry Ford scored points with the steamboat crew, Phippen said, as he hung out in the engine room, while fellow millionaire and seasonal Mount Desert Island resident, John D. Rockefeller Sr., sat stone-faced in first class, a sure way to rub rock-ribbed Yankees the wrong way.
Painters, poets and musicians known as “summer rusticators” built seaside cottages at “The Point,” as well as in Blue Hill, Bar Harbor and Northport. Many still stand as reminders of the Gilded Age, when the best way to make friends in Maine was not to flaunt one’s affluence.
Mammoth hotels in Poland Spring, Rockland and Kineo, on Moosehead Lake, began luring visitors from Boston and New York. Many spent the entire summer playing golf and “taking the air.”
Jim Harnedy, a Machiasport author, recalled a long, but rewarding, drive in 1940 from his family’s home in Brookline, Massachusetts, to Capen’s family farm and sporting camps on Moosehead’s Deer Island.
“A trip to Maine’s great north woods region was a two-day trek,” Harnedy wrote in “Forgotten Tales of Down East Maine,” published in May by The History Press. “The first leg of the trip was a six- to seven-hour drive from Brookline to Augusta. … The next morning we were on the road again by 7:30 a.m. It was still a long drive of more than 150 miles from Augusta to Greenville, where the road ended. …”
In 1947, the first section of the Maine Turnpike linked Kittery with Portland. By the mid-1950s, the Turnpike Authority had extended the highway to Augusta, greatly improving highway travel. Eventually, I-95 would stretch north to Houlton.
By then, Maine had the twin gems Baxter State Park and Acadia National Park to lure travelers and a growing network of mountain and seaside trails. Not to mention state-operated picnic areas, many of which have vanished from today’s changing landscape.
Now, travelers had another option aside from the old U.S. Route 1 as they visited the midcoast meccas of Wiscasset, Boothbay Harbor and Rockland, the Casco Bay islands and Old Orchard Beach, which boasts a seasonal Quebecois population. It is also the place where Joseph Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald fell in love before marrying in 1914.
Peter Dow Bachelder wrote about Old Orchard’s past in the 1998 book, “The Great Seal Pier: An Illustrated History of the Old Orchard Beach Pier,” where vacationing couples danced to the music of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey.
Today, families probably wouldn’t spend the entire summer in one big hotel, as their ancestors had done in a simpler time. There are cruise ships to board, time-share units to visit, and Twitter and Facebook to monitor back at home.
But the Pine Tree State is still Vacationland. A new sign at the Kittery border, inspired by Gov. Janet Mills, proclaims “Welcome Home.” The Maine Tourism Association works hard to get visitors white water rafting at The Forks, downhill skiing at Sugarloaf and antiquing in Hallowell. And there is always the legacy of George and Barbara Bush to inspire a visit to Kennebunkport.
This is still “The Way Life Should Be,” and promises to stay that way for generations to come.
This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s August 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.