For twenty years, I lived on the beautiful coast of Maine. From my front yard, I could see the scattering of islands just outside of Boothbay Harbor. One of them has a light and the light keeper’s home on it. Some are just knobs of grass surrounded by stony beaches and ledges. But one of them, Damariscove, caught my interest in particular.
I’d read the history of the islands of the Maine and how there were communities of Europeans living on those islands fishing the teeming waters and salting their catch to be shipped back to hungry Europeans. The islands were a natural place for the Europeans to set up their fishing camps – protected to some degree from the native Americans by water, and easily accessible for the big ships from Europe. In the journal of Henry Winslow, a pilgrim who had come north to beg for food when the little settlement at Plymouth was starving and in need, he mentioned that there were thirty ships of sail in that harbor and that the good people of Damariscove had given them four hundred pounds of food. Later I read an account of how Capt. Henry Mowat of the British Royal Navy had been given orders to harass the communities along the New England coast to discourage them from joining the patriot cause just before the Revolutionary War broke out. While carrying out those orders, he put in at Damariscove and commandeered seventy sheep to feed his crew of sailors and Marines, then the following day set sail for Falmouth, now known as Portland Maine, and burned the little port city to the ground. During the War of 1812 the men of Damariscove were able to watch the sea battle between the British ship Boxer and the American Enterprise from their own shore. And there are even stories of a pirate coming ashore to hide his treasure in the pond.
Until the mid 1950s there was, like on many Maine coastal islands, a vibrant community of fishermen and farmers living on Damarsicove Island. There was a school, a lobster buyer, stores, a post office, a community hall and church services. For a number of reasons, including government interference in the lobster industry, as well as the changing dynamics of rural life and suburban development, families who had lived on those islands and fished their waters for generations began moving ashore and finding new careers. Eventually the schools and shops closed and one by one, the islands became deserted. Damariscove was one of those islands.
From my front yard I contemplated what I could see of this now treeless little island, and I was taken by the desire to explore it. We sailed out there on a beautiful sunny summer day, anchored in one of the coves and rowed our dinghy ashore. There are a few buildings still standing. The coast guard life saving station is kept maintained, although no one mans it any more. Folk interested in the history of the island have created a little museum of sorts in what’s left of a tiny house with bits and pieces of the past displayed for any who happens to wander ashore.
As I stood at the high point of the island and gazed back toward the harbor that Captain John Smith had once described as a busy place, I considered the ghosts who are supposed to haunt this place. A headless man named Pattishall and his faithful dog, a woman with long flowing hair who has been seen walking into the pond. There are others, I’m sure. But as I stood there, balanced on the edge of an old foundation with nothing but a carpet of grass and daisies spread out below my feet, the thought came to me: What if I slipped and fell into this old cellar hole? And what if I hit my head and was knocked unconscious? What if when I woke up, there was a roof over my head? What then?
That was how my book, Iain’s Plaid came to be. It’s not been published yet, but it will be one of these days. From a fascinating, yet little known island on the Maine coast with a long and storied history came a really fun tale of a woman who sailed out there just like I had, who did fall into that cellar hole and woke up in 1775.
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