*Belfast, ME: From Poultry to Poetry.

In the mid-‘80s I sailed into Belfast, ME, aboard the Tortoise, a 26’ Albin motorboat.  Four of us cruised the coast of Maine for a couple of weeks, our accommodations, less than half of the Jolly Swag.  The most remarkable thing about the trip was that we were all still the best of friends at the end.

Belfast was a hardscrabble town.  We tied up at a wooden working dock that wore the scars of big tides and bad times, of inclement weather and icy winters.

I recall a man came down the dock lugging a wooden box filled with mud and clams. He asked if we wanted to buy any.  Two bucks a dozen sticks in my mind, but I don’t have any memory that we were tempted.

Today, it is hard to spot any evidence of the fishing village that lived in my memory for over a quarter century.  I was able to find a few locals to help me jigsaw together the evolution from ailing to thriving.

Thirty years ago poultry was the big industry.  Several buildings were devoted to processing chickens.  The seven-foot tides disposed of tons of chicken guts.  But when poultry processing moved south, the Belfast plants could not be sustained.  The town fell on hard times.

The Maryland National Bank came to town and provided some jobs and is remembered for being a good corporate citizen.  They bought many of the chicken processing buildings, tore them down, and created a patchwork of parks. 

One recent emigre to Belfast, citing her expertise as someone who used to hustle real estate in a major East Coast city, tells me that artists are the shock troops who initiate the revitalization of sinking towns, and indeed, it seems so here. Always in need of cheap real estate, artists seek housing at the intersection of Scenic and Cheap.  They have trickled into Belfast steadily, and today the galleries, the shops selling local arts and crafts, appear to be the leading industry.  They seem to be prospering, although my observations of a couple of sunny weekends in summer don’t qualify as a scientific study.  

I speculate that the art community influences the personality of the town.  There is not a single national franchise in the old town.  The grocery store is the oldest coop grocery in Maine and employs 80 people.  This part of town has only indie businesses.

The Front Street Shipyard is the newest, most modern facility serving yachts that I’ve ever seen.  My yachting buddies will confirm that a self-propelled Travelift designed to lift and move yachts up to 165 tons is an impressive machine.  More so when the operator can perform all the lifting and driving maneuvers wirelessly, using a hand-held console the size of a loaf of bread.  The rig is capable of lifting vessels up to 120’ and driving them into a building.  Awesome.

In the years since I visited Belfast, it became a cruise-ship port.  OK, the Independence is not one of the queens of the sea, but it is a showstopper on the Passagassawakeag River and for the ship’s 150 passengers, it is posh as it need be.

I’ve run into my daily word count limit.  One or two more Belfast Blogs to come:  The Bridges of Belfast and the Belfast Bearfest.

8 Responses to *Belfast, ME: From Poultry to Poetry.

  1. Colleen Rae says:

    Thanks, Al. Fascinating history of the town. I’d never heard of Belfast, Maine until you blogged about it. Thanks for educating me on the origins of the banjo.

  2. Dave Bauer says:

    Thank you, Al, for calling attention to this interesting part of the country. How the locals have been handling economic changes by attracting the artistic community is intriquing, and the Travelift is not only of an impressive size, but it is certain to attract more of the yachting crowd.

    An appealing aspect of Belfast for me is that Belfast appears to be due west of Harborside, ME, which is where Scott and Helen Nearing set up their second homestead after their initial venture near Stowe, Vermont. The Nearings are credited with being the first to stimulate the back-to-the-land movement in the 1960s and among the first in the US to practice organic gardening. Scott Nearing died at age 100 and Helen was killed in a traffic accident at age 93.
    Today the Nearing tradition is being carried on by organic gardener Eliot Coleman and his wife Barbara Damrosch who own and operate The Four Season Farm. See the following URL for more on this fascinating operation: http://www.fourseasonfarm.com/index.html.

    Harborside may be worth taking time to visit while you are in Belfast.

  3. David L says:

    Chickens in Belfast – wonder who’s idea. Seems a strange industry for a seaside locale that reaches 20 or so below in the winter, one that appears has turned away from its natural resource- like raising Pandas over an oil deposit in Texas. And the Travellift seems a contrast to the artisan influx. Of course you see more that you show and perhaps it all fits together nicely – a collage as opposed to a homogeneous mix. I am waiting to be told next that the town is populated by Catholic Tibetans in grass skirts with a small enclave of southern Norsemen over to the West.

  4. Colleen Rae says:

    Re David Bauer’s entry, I remember the Nearings from my hippie days in Berkeley in the 1960’s/70’s. They were indeed role models for many of the early organic farmers in CA.

  5. Dave Bauer says:

    Colleen: Having been around with the hippies in Berkeley in the 1960s and 70s, you may be interested in knowing that writer Melissa Coleman provides a fascinating view of the back-to-land movement based on her experience of the rewards and hardships of being reared by disciples of Scott and Helen Nearing in the 1970s. The book is titled This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family’s HeartbreakI found it to be an interesting and, at times, poignant read.

  6. Pat Moss says:

    Al, Are you in Belfast NOW? I moved here from Ft. Lauderdale about six years ago.. Let me know and I will send you my number. I am a short walk to downtown.
    Pat Moss

  7. Sally Juarez says:

    Fascinating. Another good read, Al. You are such a talent with words. I’ll look forward to your next entry. Stay well and happy!

  8. Lew Levenson says:

    Interesting how the Nearings provide connections for several riding along with Al.

    Billie Russell was my connection with the Nearings. Bill moved in to a spare room in my Sudbury house, being known – and recommended to me – by my daughters, Lisa and Marcia. His folks lived in Sudbury, too. So here I was, a no-longer-married but custodial parent of two girls, hosting a teenage boy. Even in the ’60s, that was kind of gutsy.

    The Nearings came into it as Bill would take off a lot of weekends to get to the Nearings in Maine, becoming one of those who may turn up in some of the group pictures at the Nearings’ who got to listen to them, learn from them, and probably somewhat motivated to arrange their lives the way the Nearings did.

    I don’t know where Bill Russell is today. He’s one of the now 60ish characters that I would be curious to see how the Nearings helped him to navigate the last 50 years of life.

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