Back in the 1970s, I recall, Maine history books generally came in two rather distinct forms: scholarly and popular. There was a tendency for the former to be rich in information and dull as dirt and the latter to be as colorful as a Roswell event and just as substantive.
Times change. Now a variety of people, with a wide grab bag of interest and backgrounds, are producing historic commentaries by the score. Many are hardly worth a look, some are informative in parts and others are first-rate.
Two curious volumes have recently come my way, and they could not be more different.
Andrea M.P. Vasquez, who grew up in South Portland and graduated from Bowdoin and the Stonecoast MFA Program, is a skilled journalist, writer and not a bad researcher. Furthermore, she has chosen a reasonably good format in “American Chronicles: A History Press Series,” which has more text and less space than other prefab titles.
In “Remembering Westbrook: The People of the Paper City,” she offers some expected history, including the tale of Col. Thomas Westbrook, the city’s namesake pioneer; crooner Rudy Vallee; and the 19th century sculptor Benjamin Paul Akers.
She also introduces numerous biographies such as Sister Therese Grondin (1909-2004), who served as a teacher with the Maryknoll Sisters in China from 1935 to 1951, and Alice Lemieux Jacobsen (born 1921), the sole stewardess on the first around-the-world passenger flight on Pan Am in 1947.
The volume ends with a brief, touching account of the late Beverly Jensen (1953-2003), whose excellent novel, “The Sisters of Hardscrabble Bay,” was reviewed in this paper in August.
As an author, Vasquez has run her plow through the history of Westbrook, she uses footnotes and presents a good bibliography. Even in places where her research is not particularly up to date — and in an area known very well to this reviewer, such as the sculptor Akers — she manages pretty well and delights with a photo of the artist’s birthplace.
For the purist, though, “Remembering Westbrook” is not a true town history but a series of simple chapters that can be connected by the reader.
“A History of Harpswell, Maine” by the late Richard R. Wescott (1932-2006) — published by Blackberry Books in collaboration with the Harpswell Historical Society and Brunswick’s Curtis Memorial Library — joins all the dots.
Although perhaps not as tangy a read as “Remembering Westbrook,” Wescott’s survey of Harpswell covers and connects the high points, from the Ice Age to 2000. It also deals with colorful individuals, including John Harmon, an early frontiersman and Indian fighter who spent as much time battling in the Bay State Courts. He represented the Pejepscot Proprietors successfully against the Harvard College Grant and an earlier attempt at risk management and petitioned the General Court for loss of his fishing vessel to hostile Indians.
The whole settlement pattern from southern York County and elsewhere is told in a true and forthright manner, much different than Wescott’s solid but dull “New Men, New Issues: The Formation of The Republican Party” (Portland 1986).
In relatively few pages, the author follows the planting of various families on the rocky peninsula and 40-odd islands in eastern Casco Bay. Indeed, his focus is bedrock stuff — not surprising for a Maine native, graduate of the University of Maine, professor of American History at Monmouth University in New Jersey and longtime resident of Harpswell.
In this history, he introduces local farmers, the fishing community, storekeepers and occasional celebrities such as minister and popular writer Elijah Kellogg (1813-1901). They all come alive within the text and make Harpswell glow as an “America in miniature.”
The book is divided into four parts, including the pioneer and Revolutionary period to statehood, the town from statehood to 1920, and development and change from 1920 to 2000.
Using serious data — including jack-of-all trades Charles I. Stover’s wonderful journals — plus school, town, shipping and farming statistics, the interested reader is made aware of a town of multiple settlements and fairly healthy populations that began to decline on many fronts after the Civil War. Indeed, there were fewer citizens in 1920 than there had been in 1820, and they were hard up and without the optimism of their ancestors.
The Great Depression made things worse at first, but even though it was resented, federal money built the bridges that ultimately connected the island settlements to each other. It also brought jobs and medical and dental assistance to local children.
Not so to the schools, which remained staunchly in local hands, badly funded and indifferently run. Indeed, it was not until after World War II, as the town’s population swelled as a suburb, that pressures forced a change. This was similar in many Maine communities, and that left a bad feeling toward people “from away” and big government at a time when traditional jobs, including farming and fishing, were disappearing.
Although not footnoted — and this is explained in the introduction — the interested scholar probably can track most of the sources. Wescott’s “Harpswell” is a real present to Maine’s historical community, and those organizations responsible for publishing it deserve applause.
William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored five books including “Tate House: Crown of the Maine Mast Trade” and the novel Pyrrhus Venture. He lives in Portland.