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Life on Matinicus Island

Life on Matinicus Island
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Walking the length of the island–two miles, an easy hour’s walk–the main thing you feel is the stillness. Even on the softest, sunniest midsummer afternoon, with a stiff little breeze and the lupines in full color on either side of the road–the way it was the day I first walked it–there’s something desolate about the place. The gravel road, the island’s spine, runs its dusty, almost unbending course through the old-growth spruce interior: from the tiny dirt airstrip in its clearing at the northern tip (shorter by 50 feet at high tide, they say), past the empty church and schoolhouse, the sad little pile-of-stones monument to the island’s first white settler, Ebenezer Hall (“Killed by Indians, June 6, 1757″), and the two dozen or so hardy, mostly modest homes that cluster at uncertain intervals at the intersections of dirt side roads. The day I walked it, the only movement I saw was a woman feeding an animal at her back door.

The yards are large and flat; a few have small gardens. In many of the rest, scores of green or yellow lobster traps are stacked head-high, sometimes alongside the scraped-clean hulk of an old boat or dory. Fish crates, firewood, and rope coils are piled about. Lobster buoys hang like Christmas balls from the branches of a spruce. Old pickups sit in driveways, their six-year-old license plates bearing witness to their last presence on the mainland–which some here call “America.”

A mile and a half down, past all but the last of the houses, where the island starts to narrow and you begin to think you can smell the ocean again, you come to the cemetery. It’s larger than you’d expect, and more formal: probably two or three acres, a fenced-off square of grass and old granite, with its tiers of headstones–several hundred–giving way to a small, shaded bench in the rear. The dates begin in the early 1800s, though most are later, between 1850 and 1910, growing fewer with each decade after that. Some of the newer stones are engraved with a lobster boat.

More than half the graves belong to the same eight or nine families, the island’s anchor names, which I’d come to know by this time: Ames, Young, Philbrook–the three surviving “alpha families,” as one islander calls them–as well as Hall, Condon, Bunker, Tolman, Crie. Not all are grouped together; a cluster of Condons might be resting in a corner among Youngs. It’s hard to guess what order was applied.

“There’s a sense of history here like nowhere else,” a lobsterman’s wife, Lisa Twombley-Hussey, had said to me weeks before. As a child, she spent her summers on this island and now has returned here with her family. “It’s all around us, layers and layers of it. ‘This is Aunt Belle’s house,’ [someone will say]. ‘She was a Ripley, she had a store here once, she was married to an Ames.’ It goes on and on: this person, that house, this husband, that wife. Memories, connections, personal histories. All those generations. It’s always been that way here. You don’t see that other places. Not anymore, anyway.”

The shooting happened over lobster traps: who has a right to them, and where. But the deeper causes had more to do with other things: pride, greed, progress, family, what it means to claim a place as home.

Matinicus is one of a vast necklace of islands, more than 3,000 in all, spread out along the Maine coast as far north as the Bay of Fundy. A century ago, 200 or more of them were fishermen’s communities; today, only 14 are inhabited year-round. Of those, Matinicus is the most seaward, and the most indigenous. It is also, by an accident of topography–its distance from the mainland, which makes for less freshwater runoff, plus the mix of shoals and deepwater channels that surround it–the site of the richest lobster grounds on earth. “They’re the best there is, hands down,” says Marty Malloy, who’s been buying lobsters for a living since he got out of the Navy 10 years ago. “There’s no runoff, the water’s colder, the trenches are deep around the island. If I’m buying for my own table, I guarantee you, they’re going to come from Matinicus.”

There was a time when that wouldn’t have mattered much; 50 or 60 years ago, with an island population just shy of 200, there were other ways to make a living here. You could row out in the harbor and catch as many cod as you wanted; there were cattle here then, and horses, geese, and pigs. A few families raised potatoes; almost everyone had a garden. Lobstering was a tougher business in those days: The boats were slower; you couldn’t set your traps more than a few miles out from the island; and you had to haul them up by hand. Two hundred traps, maybe 250, were the most a man could manage. Enough to make a living, but never much better than that.

Then the big trawlers came, with their drag nets and sonar, and depleted the groundfish–so that was the end of that. And the land got farmed out. And the old gasoline engines got traded in for diesels; the boats were faster now, so you could set your traps twice as far out. And with the new hydraulic trap haulers, all you had to do was twist a handle and up they came. Five hundred traps was now a manageable load. Some men began to do well.

By the early 1990s, at least a few were getting rich. With the cod and haddock now gone as predators, the Maine lobster harvest had more than doubled: from 20 million pounds a year to close to 50 million. A two-man boat would come in with a three-day haul of 4,500 pounds, worth $14,000 or more. Matinicus boat owners began wintering in Florida, or buying second homes on the mainland. Some traded up to 600-horsepower diesels that could make it to Rockland in an hour or less. They began buying their groceries there–and the island store, open a century, went under. Whole families moved away entirely, but still showed up to haul their traps. It was somewhere along this cycle that the first real damage was done.

Please Note: This article was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

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