Welcome back, Bill Cotter: Reflections on Orr’s Island life

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HARPSWELL — The evening of Sept. 1 was darker and chillier than usual, as if it was leaning forward into autumn.

But at the Orr’s Island Island Library, longtime resident Bill Cotter was turning back the clock.

For an hour and a half, Cotter, 82, who grew up on Orr’s Island in the 1930s and ’40s and retired there 16 years ago after 50 years away, regaled a captive audience of listeners with stories of island life nearly a century ago. His memory – nearly as sharp as his wit – depicted a childhood that was limited, but liberated, and a community bound tightly by size and spirit.

“We had nothing … but we had everything,” Cotter reflected on the simplicity of life 80 years ago, which often lacked the modern conveniences of electricity, personal telephones, and even cars, but brimmed nonetheless with activity.

Setting lobster traps, hunting for birds with a shotgun, swimming in the ocean: these rituals are not entirely unfamiliar to today’s Orr’s Island resident, but Cotter’s descriptions elevated them to the forgotten status of importance they had in the absence of computers and television sets.

“We lived with a thumb going back and forth to Brunswick; anywhere we went, we had to hitchhike,” Cotter recalled in a characteristic detail that gestured to the state of the wider world, but located itself in Harpswell’s secluded island setting.

Though Cotter rarely drew explicit comparisons between the past and present, his memories made frequent references to the changing state of Harpswell’s marine life.

“I’ll talk about tuna fish,” he said, recounting the swarms of tuna he used to see everywhere off the coast. “Now if you catch one, it’ll be a miracle.”

Cotter said he has noticed a similar decline in mackerel, porpoises, and heron.

Also absent from the coastline is the number of fishermen who live there. He attributed that to a reversal in the residential habits among people of different a socio-economic background.

“Most fishermen don’t own shore property anymore,” he said. “Years ago, nobody wanted shore property (and) it wasn’t taxed high. Everyone wanted to live (on the main road), where you got plowed out.”

He said if the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust hadn’t bought up large portions of shore-front property, Harpswell might be headed for a fate that put a worried look on Cotter’s face.

“This place could turn into Kennebunkport,” he said. “Who wants that?”

Not all of Cotter’s stories glimmered with nostalgia. Some of them cast shadows, like the memory of a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan that established itself on the island in 1920.

A photo of the chapter, which Cotter said included up to 70 men, hangs in the Maine history room of the library.

“I can recognize a lot of faces because I was a kid (then). They aren’t around anymore,” Cotter said. As to his recollection of their activity, “They weren’t against the blacks, they were against the French Catholics.”

The Harpswell chapter of the Klan disbanded in 1930, according to the Harpswell Historical Society.

Cotter remembered the KKK alongside the existence of minstrel shows, which put on racist performances without guilt or shame; he also highlighted the oppression of women by a patriarchal society, wives who “were probably treated like slaves” in the household.

“Now the men are slaves,” he added with a laugh.

In fact, Cotter laughed heartily throughout the evening; if ever nostalgia was confused for a sad feeling, he made a strong case against it.

“After all these years I was away,” he said as the night came to a close, “this was all I could think of.”

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Bill Cotter delighted a captive audience Sept. 1 with stories of his childhood on Orr’s Island. His talk was part of a speaking series hosted by the Orr’s Island Library that takes place every first Thursday of the month.

A photo of the Orr’s Island chapter of the Ku Klux Klan hanging in the Maine history room in the island’s library; the chapter existed from 1920-30. Bill Cotter, who grew up on the island, remembered the presence of the Klan during a Sept. 1 talk.

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Reporter on the Brunswick/Harpswell beat. Proud Bowdoin grad that you can find reporting on municipal, school, and community news, or inside the many coffee and sandwich shops around the Midcoast. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100.