Harpswell, an appreciation

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At some point in the future, the newspaper
business is going to end. Before it does, I plan to transition into something far more secure and write books.
I’m not sure what they’ll be about, but one of them will definitely take place in Harpswell – or a fictitious place that will just happen to resemble Harpswell.
You’re probably thinking: “Harpswell? Now there’s a fast track to self-publication.
But only people who have never been there would say that.
Until I began covering the town a couple of years ago, I was one of those people.
Since then I’ve been consistently amazed by the incredible things that happen there.
My first trip to Harpswell – and “trip” is definitely the right word – was to a Board of Selectmen meeting.
Driving there was like visiting a marine Eden (Harpswell has more than 220 miles of coastline). It was gorgeous.
First impression: The real Maine.
But I’d heard that the town’s idyllic scenery belied the citizenry’s propensity for strife. In 2006 there were reports of bomb threats during a town vote over a proposed liquefied natural gas terminal. A reporter at another paper compared the town to some lawless western outpost.
My first experience wasn’t like that. Not quite.
The agenda was short, but the meeting ran long. And it was tense, a lot of angry words over seemingly small issues. It was like walking into a room where everyone had just fought but were pretending nothing had happened.
After the meeting, Kristi Eiane, the town administrator, told me, “I think you’ll find a lot of interesting stories out here.”
Last May residents endorsed a resolution against attacking Iran.
Nine months later, at last Saturday’s Town Meeting, voters renewed a border dispute with Brunswick. The issue was supposedly settled by the state in 1998, but last year some plucky Harpswell natives uncovered documents from 1738, back when Harpswell was North Yarmouth, Maine was Massachusetts and America was a British colony.
Fittingly, proponents of the border action invoked Colonial rhetoric. Resident Gary Anderson, who at one point channeled Charlton “cold, dead hands” Heston by refusing to shorten his presentation (“You’ll have to remove me,” he told the moderator), said giving up the fight with Brunswick would be like settlers giving into King George III. Or worse, Maine remaining a Massachusetts territory.
Anderson said it was scary to imagine a friend driving with Massachusetts plates on his vehicle. The audience thought he was joking.
He wasn’t.
“It’s not funny,” Anderson said.
The crowd fell silent.
An outsider might dismiss border disputes and anti-war resolutions as symptoms of a fiercely parochial community.
There’s probably some truth in that analysis. After all, people from Harpswell rarely say they’re from Harpswell. They’re from Bailey Island, Harpswell Neck, Great Island, Orr’s Island or Cundy’s Harbor.
Some residents take their affiliations seriously. Dave Chipman, a former selectmen, once told me that it would be nearly impossible to consolidate Harpswell’s three volunteer fire departments because the town would lose too many firefighters.
“Because there are some folks on Harpswell Neck who couldn’t imagine working for a chief from Bailey Island, or vice versa,” Chipman said.
But provincialism doesn’t quite explain the Iran resolution, which was more befitting of a community like Berkeley, Calif., a place where I’ve lived, and one that shares almost no parallel with Harpswell except one – an active citizenry.
Last Saturday’s Town Meeting lasted more than eight hours. Eight hundred of Harpswell’s 4,000 voters elected three town officials by secret ballot, while 426 cast floor votes during the business meeting. That’s 20 percent and 11 percent, respectively, of the eligible voters – pretty impressive civic participation for a modern-day town meeting (Standish, in contrast, has been known to conduct town meeting not in hours, but in minutes).
It’s hard to begrudge such strong interest in town affairs, no matter how strange those affairs might appear.
In fact, the stranger, the better. Books need strange, as do authors who’ve had active imaginations atrophied by years in the newspaper business.
Of course, a good book needs strong characters. Thankfully Harpswell has provided a few of those, too.
My favorite is Sam Alexander, the former Board of Selectmen chairman and a Harpswell native.
Alexander is a fierce critic of state government. He mutters “Augusta” and “Legislature” like curses. When he was chairman, Alexander prefaced comments about state decisions with sardonic phrases like “in their infinite wisdom” or “the powers that be.”
If Alexander were hip to current vernacular, which he definitely is not, he’d probably call state government The Man.
He doesn’t much care for the press, either.
Before taking this beat, the previous reporter left me phone numbers for town officials. Next to Alexander’s name she wrote, “Who cares … he’ll never return your calls.”
She was right.
Not returning calls can create bad blood with the media. But for some reason, Alexander’s refusal never bothered me. Maybe that’s because I never got the sense he was wihtholding during public meetings.
Right or wrong, you always know where he stands.
The same can be said for Harpswell.
Steve Mistler covers Brunswick and Harpswell for The Forecaster. He is known to complain about folding metal chairs and long meetings – among other things. He can be reached at 781-3661 ext.123 or smistler@theforecaster.net.