Frenchboro, Maine | Here in New England
Look at the photo of the children in the one-room schoolhouse in the town of Frenchboro, Maine. Frenchboro is on Long Island in Blue Hill Bay, eight miles of rough seas south of Mount Desert Island.
It’s the only populated place on the island, with nearly everyone living within sight of Lunt Harbor. Look at the faces: The youngest is a preschooler, the oldest a sixth-grader. These faces tell one of the most remarkable stories I know on the Maine coast.
Once more than 300 Maine islands held year-round communities, where residents fished and lumbered, built boats, and survived together, but today there are only 15. If I were writing about Frenchboro 25 years ago, it would have been about how one more island was sliding inexorably into decline, about a population that over time had dwindled from nearly 170 to 43, with most of those growing aged. But today 68 people call Frenchboro home through winters as well as summers, and 22 of them are children under the age of 12. I don’t know how much of their island’s past the children understand, or of the present they’re changing, or of the future that one day will depend on how deep they plant their own roots. They’re just children right now, kids who call a wild and beautiful island home. But I’m guessing there are few places in America where children matter more than here.
The math is simple: Communities need new blood to stay alive, and in Frenchboro, cut off from the simple luxuries most of us take for granted — grocery stores, movies, doctors, pharmacies, recreation — strangers don’t usually seek out what can be such a rugged, hard, and at times dangerous life. Islands are more often places where generational blood calls out to blood, where your own name is seen again and again on cemetery stones.
Then of course, there’s this: Maine islanders don’t have a history of welcoming newcomers. Traditional fishing grounds are protected, to each his own. So three times in the past two decades the islanders of Frenchboro saw their school reduced to one teacher and a single child. The fragility of the school’s population was not for lack of trying. In the 1960s, islanders petitioned the state to give them foster children; they’d give the children families. The hope was that these children would fall in love with the land and its people and come back after high school and settle. But those were lean fishing years, and the children saw the islanders struggling. When the foster children finished school, they left; two returned for a while, and then they, too, went to the mainland.
In the early 1980s, an even more audacious plan took shape, fueled by ingenuity, tenacity, cooperation, and sheer courage to try what had never been tried. Frenchboro’s people would go against the grain of nearly every island community in Maine: They would not only put up with people from away, they would seek them out and ask them to stay. Even more, the fishermen said, We’ll let you fish our waters, though you’ve done nothing to earn our trust except ride a ferry to our shores.
To lure newcomers, they’d build seven houses on a hillside — six for the “homesteaders,” one for a teacher — and they’d let the world know what they were up to. The houses would give newcomers a start, let them rent for half of what they’d pay on the mainland, and in a few years they could buy their houses. They’d be islanders, too. They’d have children: new blood squared. The David Rockefeller family, which owned hundreds of acres, donated a chunk of land for the house lots. Working with the then-fledgling Island Institute, the Frenchboro Future Development Corporation was born. Funding was obtained, and by 1988 the new three-bedroom homes rose on the hill. The media had done their work: Frenchboro drew inquiries from more than 3,000 people. Island leaders spent months culling the applications, and finally invited a handful of families who knew fishing. On a December day in 1988, everyone gathered at the town dock to watch the ferry unload the first families.
Danny Lunt, a ruddy eighth-generation islander, remembers the feeling on the island then. “If this hadn’t worked out,” he says, “we knew we’d have only one or two of us fishing; the rest would be summer people. It was either embrace this change or see the island dry up and die.”
Everything was in place for the experiment to work — except that nature, natural and human, had other plans. First, the lobstering grounds hadn’t yet recovered from the devastation of a violent storm a few years earlier; a hard economy had become harder still. And then there were the lonely wives.
“Coming at the start of winter was a mistake,” Dean Lunt says today. He lives off island now, but his history of Frenchboro and Long Island, Hauling by Hand, is a classic study of how geography and people shape each other. “It’s much harder to fit in during winter.”
“If a wife is unhappy, the family will be unhappy,” Danny Lunt’s wife, Linda, says simply. “The women came from all different places. They’d be home alone all day long. Where do you go to hang out? And it can be scary not knowing how things are done. There aren’t any signs that tell you how to help at the fall dinner fundraiser for the church — you just know what to do. There was all this effort to help the men fish, but who put in the effort to help new women fit in?”
Within a few years, all but one of the newcomers had left. Now and then a reporter would do a follow-up about the failure of the homestead project. Then something interesting happened: The spirit of the islanders who had welcomed strangers began to work like a magnet to pull in young people, many of whom had family ties to Frenchboro but had moved away years before. The houses helped, sure, but even more, the word was still out there that here were island fishermen who would help you get started.
This time people stayed. They had children. A preschool began in the church. Islanders learned from the mistakes of years earlier and tried harder to assimilate everyone. People learned that here’s what you need to know to live here: Buy every little kid a present at Christmas. Don’t go off island on Halloween.
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