Two weeks ago, for the first time in more than 93 years, a baby was born on the Maine island of Islesford.
Azalea Belle Gray is the sixth child for Aaron Gray and Erin Fernald Gray and the newest addition to the Fernald family, which goes back several generations on Islesford. Azalea’s great-grandfather Warren Fernald, a lifelong lobsterman on the island who died in 2005 at the age of 77, had been the most recent baby born on Islesford, in July 1927.
Islesford is also known as Little Cranberry Island and is part of the town of Cranberry Isles.
The birth of Azalea at the Grays’ island home on Sept. 26 does not in and of itself have a direct impact on Islesford’s year-round population, which has risen in recent years, because Azalea still would be considered an island resident whether she was born on the mainland or in a boat. But her birth on the island, which like many other Maine islands has been fighting to preserve its year-round community in the face of decades of changing demographics, is being welcomed as the latest sign that its fortunes are improving.
“It’s exciting,” said Denise McCormick, Cranberry Isles’ town clerk.
According to U.S. Census data, the number of people who live year round on the town’s Little Cranberry and Great Cranberry islands increased by 40 percent between 2010 and 2018, from 101 to 142 residents. For many years, older people have consistently far outnumbered children.
In 2019, total enrollment at the town’s two K-8 schools was 23 students, McCormick said, up from an average of about 16 over the preceding eight years. In 2017, at the Longfellow School on Great Cranberry Island, a student graduated from eighth grade for the first time in 17 years. Children from the islands attend high school on nearby Mount Desert Island.
“We had a little baby boom, so that’s a good thing,” McCormick said.
Erin, 40, said her five other children all were born off island — two at mainland hospitals and three at a home she and her husband own (but now usually rent out) in Northeast Harbor on MDI, which is connected to the mainland by a bridge. The Grays own and operate Pine Tree Market in Northeast Harbor.
The decades-long decline in home births has not been unique to island communities, where goods and services typically are harder to come by. Nationwide, the percentage of births at home dropped sharply throughout the 20th century before beginning to increase in 2004, according to the National Institutes of Health and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But Gray said she didn’t set out to be the first woman to have a home birth on Islesford since Calvin Coolidge was president. She knew it had been a while since a baby was born there, instead of in a hospital or somewhere else on the mainland, but wasn’t sure how long it had been. There was at least one home birth on neighboring Great Cranberry Island nearly 20 years ago, she noted, and figured the same was probably true for Islesford.
Gray and her husband had contingency plans to go to MDI for the birth if they needed to, and in fact went to their home in Northeast Harbor as Hurricane Teddy approached Nova Scotia in late September in case the weather got too rough for them to make the trip. After the storm subsided and she still had not gone into labor, she said, they decided to head back out to the island.
“I don’t think I would have done that if it were January,” she said. “But the logistics worked out just fine.”
Only after Azalea was born did she find out that the last birth on the island had been her grandfather’s.
“That is the last one all the old people can remember having heard of,” she said.
For several decades, declining populations were the chief threat to Maine’s dozen or so year-round, offshore island communities, where affordable housing and jobs other than lobster fishing historically have been scarce, said Suzanne MacDonald, chief community development officer for the Rockland-based Island Institute. Two fairly small island communities in particular, Frenchboro and Isle Au Haut, continue to struggle to survive, each having lost well over half their populations from 2010 to 2018, she said.
The availability and affordability of education, transportation, broadband internet access, medical care for older residents and heating fuel and electricity also have been factors that generally make living on islands more challenging, MacDonald said. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, she added, has not made things easier.
But several island communities, Cranberry Isles among them, have become more active in recent years in addressing these issues head-on by boosting broadband access, acquiring and reserving housing for year-round residents, or providing more direct support to local ferry services, among other things, she said.
The investment in broadband internet access in particular has helped many island residents better support themselves financially, she said. It also has connected island schools with online education programs and with each other, and has made telemedicine more readily available to older residents.
More broadly, the availability of broadband has lessened the sense of isolation many island residents have felt that deterred others from moving to islands.
“Every one of these communities has a broadband focus group,” MacDonald said. “This stuff doesn’t happen on its own.”
In the case of the Grays, who mostly homeschool their children but often have them participate in the local school’s music, art and physical education programs, Islesford’s strong sense of community is one reason they wanted a home birth for Azalea. Erin said they knew their neighbors would help them or their midwife Julie Havener with whatever urgent need that may have come up around the baby’s arrival.
She said with a laugh that she is not sure she and her husband will have another baby. But, she added, she would be happy if another expectant mother has kids on the island who grow up as friends with her children.
“It’s a tight community,” she said. “I hope someone else has a baby out here.”