In the late 1970s my father, Barney, took a leap of faith. He quit his job and bought a neglected restaurant and store, complete with a motel and cabins, on a pond in West Pittsfield.
Not one to embrace labels (he often lectured us on the foolishness of buying anything with a company name on it), he called his new business Barney’s. Simple. Easy to remember. A branding genius.
In the months that followed, I watched my parents turn this Route 2 roadside dump into a quaint country store and a 60-seat restaurant.
The whole operation sat next to a pond with a small beach. Area residents used the beach for swimming and launching boats. I remember two fat ladies who swam, mostly floated, every afternoon.
Always looking for a way to do something for nothing, Dad furnished the restaurant with antique tables and chairs from the transplanted homesteader turned antique dealer three miles away and decorated it with watercolor paintings from an artist who lived on a nearby island. Everything was for sale, including the personalities he collected around the pot-belly stove.
Barney curated an atmosphere of quaint, authentic and not quite perfect retail.
A hipster, if you will.
The farm-to-table movement had not made it to central Maine in the late ’70s, but my dad found it more interesting and more convenient to buy produce from the farmers up the hill. Lettuce, corn, tomatoes, strawberries, blueberries and anything else in driving distance was purchased and then sold in the general store or served at the restaurant.
My mother, Ann, had a full-time job as a writer for the local newspaper. She, however, was in favor of anything that kept my father busy, so she willingly created a second job for herself as the restaurant hostess starting each day at 5:30 p.m.
My brother, who seldom saw eye-to-eye with my father, became his partner. In peak season, he made almost daily runs to the coast for lobsters and steamers and worked shifts in the store.
The rest of us traded off the duties of waitress, dishwasher, lobster-shucker, maid and, sometimes, even assistant cook. Meanwhile, my youngest sister, who was 10 when Barney’s started, lived a feral cat existence. Fed, clothed and kept from drowning, she announced to me one day that she had “given up chocolate” because she knew that it wasn’t healthy to eat seven or eight candy bars a day.
When this column runs, I will be five hours north with my four siblings celebrating our parents’ 60th anniversary. This column reflects my memories only. I will take the necessary beatings as required when I see the others.
Standoffs between father and child, then boss and employee, occurred regularly over things like not remembering to throw out the dead flowers. (Does anyone really care if the flowers are fresh when they are eating a piece of delicious Maine blueberry pie?)
In the midst of one colossal screaming match with my dad in “his” store in front of several old men, he declared, “This is not your stage, Jolene!”
“It’s all my stage,” I thought. Finally, he said what I was waiting to hear: “OK, I’m sorry.”
Calm is what I felt and then I exited stage right.
I remember glorious summer evenings waiting on so many people that I started to hate them. And then, the restaurant would close, the sun would come up and, Sadie, our beautiful 75-year-old retired baker, would arrive.
By 8 o’clock she had put out a variety of breads, cookies and pies. My breakfast of champions often included a couple of slices of Anadama toast, date-filled cookies, coffee and maybe a dinner roll or two. If I was feeling a bit chubby, I’d skip the baked goods and rustle up a three-egg omelet made with a hunk of butter and a fistful of cheese.
Today, as I donned my bathing suit for the first time this year, I was slapped with the reality that I will never look like my yoga teacher. And just as I had decided to skip my outdoor swim at the Kiwanis pool, I remembered those two fat ladies who swam every afternoon, rain or shine, at Barney’s.
Pride stuffed, I grabbed my bike and went.
Jolene McGowan lives and works in Portland with her husband, daughter and dog and has no plans to leave, ever. She can be contacted at: