MONHEGAN ISLAND, Maine — On a tiny island known for its laid-back ambience, a place where the few roads are unpaved and police don’t exist, the 45 year-round residents uncorked a two-day party that ended with the bang of fireworks Wednesday night.
It’s not every year a 400th birthday bash comes along.
The official reason for the party, which included Maine’s two US senators and a congresswoman, was the 1614 arrival of Captain John Smith, the English explorer rescued by Pocahontas in Virginia.
But the unofficial reason was a grateful thank you that Monhegan Island, a stunning protrusion of weather-lashed rock 12 miles off the coast, has remained a place apart.
“It represents something more profound than crashing surf on rocky shores,” said US Senator Susan Collins, a Republican who delivered a short speech beside a schoolhouse that serves five pupils, from kindergarten to eighth grade.
The islanders agree.
From its lobstermen, to artists who flock here for inspiration, to hundreds of summer day-trippers, Monhegan represents a marriage of community, beauty, and self-reliance often in dwindling supply in mainland America.
It’s a place that can soften even the jaded.
“You can tell people who are straight off the boat. They will ignore you, but two days later they will say hello,” said Carson Schnell, a 78-year-old resident who first visited Monhegan in 1961. “The reason is this place is sublime, and everybody realizes that.”
Thousands of mainlanders apparently feel the same way. The quadricentennial attracted about 800 of them to ramble the one-square-mile island and walk its towering cliffs. They gawked at the simple homes and rustic gardens that have helped make Monhegan a painter’s mecca since the 19th century.
But unlike many American retreats where commerce has overwhelmed history, the influx of “summer people” has not altered the island’s essential ambience, year-round residents said.
“It’s not our island; it’s the island,” Schnell said.
First assessor Tara Hire, the island’s top elected official, nodded her head in agreement, saying that Monhegan welcomes everybody who respects its natural beauty and live-and-let-live values.
“It’s a spiritual home for a lot of people. It doesn’t matter how much time you spend here,” Hire said.
No cars are ferried to Monhegan from the three Maine ports that serve the island. There is no night life, except perhaps for board games and chitchat. And electricity is not a given; one longtime inn uses oil lamps. There is a microbrewery — actually, a large shed set in the woods — but its “tasting room” closes before dark.
But somewhat surprising for its size, Monhegan has a library, the wooden schoolhouse, and a hill-crowning museum with hundreds of artworks from Monhegan-drawn luminaries such as Edward Hopper and George Bellows.
The painter Jamie Wyeth, adorned in knickers Wednesday as he watched a homespun parade, explained part of the reason.
“There is an amazing sea light out here,” Wyeth said just before a float, adorned as a “400-year-old lobster,” lurched past.
Many of the floats were commandeered from the island’s small caravan of beat-up pickup trucks, which the lobstermen and other year-rounders brought here years ago — sometimes, decades past — to cart around their tools and supplies.
The quadricentennial was modeled on the 1914 party. The celebration reprised an art exhibition held at the museum then, staged another parade from Lobster Cove to the schoolhouse, and featured a series of speeches from the same spot where islanders extolled their history for the tercentennial.
“It’s important for us to think about the people whose shoulders we stood upon,” said US Senator Angus King, an independent who paused before his speech to take a panoramic picture of the several hundred people gathered on the lawn before him.
“This is going directly to the NSA,” King joked. “I’ll send you one.”
There also was a ball held on a wooden platform erected on the lush lawn outside one of the island’s inns. Some wore black tie and top hat, others came in kilts, and Tom Moulton of Rye, N.H., a 58-year-old businessman, arrived in a toga.
“It’s an island,” Moulton replied when asked about his minimalist attire. “There’s not much to choose from, and I found a bedsheet.”
The ball was rocking — the playlist included Sinatra, the Beatles, and stomping line dances — until the middle of the floor collapsed and the revelers were ordered off.
Not to worry. Chris Smith, a 44-year-old lobsterman, grabbed a flashlight as he flopped to his stomach to crawl under the stage in his “Sunday best,” a nice shirt and pants instead of his oilskins.
Smith, who helped build the stage, found the weak point, and a new block was installed so that the revelry could begin anew.
“You never know what’s going to happen here,” Smith said. “Tomorrow, you might be pulling your neighbor out of a ditch.”
Chuck Paine, a 69-year-old artist AND YACHT DESIGNER from Tenants Harbor, watched the impromptu repairs with admiration. “Nothing happens on this island without Chris,” Paine said.
Edward Deci, the museum director, said the island is working to expand its population. Maybe a bit of farming, the dominant industry decades ago, will make a comeback, ISLANDERS said. And perhaps the high prices for fuel and bait that afflict the lobster fleet will abate.
“This is a place where the winter community is open to welcoming people who are open to them and want to make the island work,” Deci said.
In some fashion, Monhegan has “worked” since at least 4500 BC, when ancient Native Americans used the island for fishing, Deci said.
Six years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, Monhegan found new life as a fishing station as Smith led the first Europeans ashore. During that time, as the explorer charted the surrounding waters from Maine to Cape Cod, he gave the region a name: New England.
For Schnell, the attraction of Monhegan is a sense of contentment he said he feels nowhere else. Over a long career with the National Security Agency, Schnell said, he needed only a few days off to find a reason to drive through the night from Washington, take a boat to Monhegan, and “kiss the ground.”
Now, it’s home.
Even if he dies somewhere else, Schnell said with a smile, “my spirit will come straight to Monhegan and wait for further instruction.”Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.