WOOLWICH — The faintest trace of sun lightens the horizon as Gena Kilkenny hops out of her car and removes the chain across the entrance to the Montsweag Flea Market.

A truck whooshes past on Route 1, breaking the early morning silence, as Kilkenny roots around in her car for a list of table reservations. A van pulls in behind her and she turns, waving to the driver.

“Hey Doug,” she calls out. He heads for his usual table and Kilkenny rushes off in search of a clipboard.

It’s almost like any other first day of the season for the Montsweag Flea Market, but this one feels extra special for Kilkenny.

It marks the 40th anniversary since Kilkenny’s mother, Norma Hunnewell Scopino, opened the flea market in the field next to the home where she raised her only daughter. And it’s the fifth year that Kilkenny has run the market since her mother died of an aggressive form of brain cancer, leaving behind a heartbroken daughter and a grieving flea market family.

“This is Mama’s flea market,” Kilkenny says. “I’m only baby-sitting.”

The market started with 10 tables and has grown to more than 10 times that size, along the way developing a loyal following of sellers and buyers who consider themselves part of the family. Montsweag, open on Wednesdays and weekends from Mother’s Day weekend to Columbus Day, is believed to be the oldest open-air flea market in Maine.

As sellers pull their trucks and vans onto the field, Arthur Bailey of New Harbor arrives. He sells a few antiques here with Kilkenny, and works for her around the market. This morning, he directs people to their tables, collects table rental money from sellers and deals with a health inspector who stops by the snack bar.

Bailey waves to a seller as Kilkenny rushes off to her office, this time in search of a flashlight. His wife, Cheryl, leans into the car to pet Naace, a spaniel with long ears, big eyes and a name that’s an acronym for Kilkenny’s five grandchildren. Kilkenny has had a nervous stomach since she woke up, but that gives way to excitement as the sun rises and she greets friends with hugs. Nearly everyone comments on the new Montsweag Flea Market sign she had installed this month.

“My mother would love it,” she says.

LAND USED FOR GENERATIONS

Scopino grew up in Woolwich, where her father ran Hunnewell’s IGA. In 1968, she bought the family home next to the field where she would later start the flea market and lived there the rest of her life. The land had been used by previous generations as a working farm in the early 19th century, and the barn later housed the town’s first auto garage. Scopino was the fifth generation Hunnewell to run a business here.

“This was all a field with horses, cows and ponies when I was little,” Kilkenny says. Her mother would sometimes walk those ponies to a parking lot down the road and give kids rides.

Scopino worked for many years as a bookkeeper and cashier before opening the flea market in 1977. A friend suggested that the field would be perfect for one, but Norma wouldn’t move forward with the idea until she knew another local flea market wasn’t reopening. She didn’t want to hurt their business.

Gena Kilkenny waves to a vendor at the Montsweag Flea Market on opening day. The market, which sits in a field near her family home, was started by her mother Norma when Gena was 16. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Kilkenny, now 56, had just gotten her driver’s license when the flea market opened.

“I lost my weekends and, as a 16-year-old, I was not a happy camper,” she says. In the early years, she’d sit inside by the phone in case anyone called trying to get a message to a vendor. When a call came in, she’d run down the hill to the field to find Mama.

“She’d be sitting on the back of someone’s pickup truck, her legs just swinging away,” she says.

Scopino would walk through the market, a mechanical pencil in one hand and her paperwork in the other. She was methodical with the management and upkeep of the market. The grass was always freshly trimmed and the small vendor buildings in good repair. The mother and daughter applied water seal to the tables before every season, slopping sealant from a big bucket and spreading it with rollers.

Kilkenny, no longer a teenager longing to spend weekends at the beach, came to treasure the days she worked alongside Mama. Many seasons, she would run the snack bar or sell ice cream while Scopino “ate, slept and drank” the flea market.

Scopino seemed to know everyone by name.

“She had an intuition about her,” Kilkenny says. “She knew who needed help and who was there to make ends meet. She would befriend them in some way or another and give them things to sell so they could make extra money. She had a knack for being able to do that for people.”

In the winter, Scopino headed to Florida, where she searched the beach for shark teeth and tried to relax.

“She’d say to me halfway through the winter, ‘I miss my people,’ ” Kilkenny says. “She was missing her family. She just loved it here.”

Scopino never planned to retire, even when the headaches came and didn’t stop. By the time she went to a doctor, her brain was covered with tumors.

She died Feb. 26, 2013, with Kilkenny at her side. She was 81.

A few months later, on Mother’s Day weekend, Kilkenny stood at the entrance of Montsweag and opened the market for the first season without Mama.

“I was on this field greeting her vendors for another season of selling. It was her strength channeling through me, I swear,” she says. “It was her day. I managed to get through it.”

MILESTONE 40 YEARS IN THE MAKING

It’s cold and raw on the first day of the 40th season, but the rain holds off. Kilkenny pulls the cuffs of her jacket down over her hands and occasionally sits in her car to “warm my buns.” Under her green L.L. Bean windbreaker, she wears a special T-shirt she had made to mark the anniversary. It features a picture of the rock next to the entrance that reads, simply, “Montsweag Flea Market, established May 1977 by Norma.”

The early pickers have come and gone, but more buyers trickle in as Kilkenny and a friend chat about the turnout. It’s a nice start, they say, but a little slow because many people are down at the Brimfield Antique Show in Massachusetts. More regulars – including the Doughnut Lady, who has brought warm doughnuts to Montsweag for all 40 years – will join the market in the coming weeks.

Vance Stuart of Norway was one of the first vendors to arrive for the day, chatting easily with his neighbors on the field as he unloaded antiques from the back of his minivan. He came to the flea market during the first season and has now been coming regularly to sell for the past 15 years. He always sets up next to Sue Connors of Farmingdale, a relative newcomer to the market who brings breakfast sandwiches and lunch to share.

Stuart was fond of Scopino, who he says was constantly friendly, outgoing and caring.

“She’d always try to help you out,” he says as a shopper stops to look over the antiques on his table.

Tucked away in a corner of the field, just beyond a row of small buildings that sellers rent for the season, Gerry Maxim of Hallowell arranges tools, oil cans, fishing items and old photographs across three tables. He’s been coming here for more than 35 years. He retired from his job at L.L. Bean six years ago and now has more time to pick estates and yard sales for antiques.

During all his years at Montsweag, he grew to be pretty good friends with Scopino. Kilkenny, he says, seems to be following in her mother’s footsteps.

“I think (Norma) would be pretty much proud of her,” he says.

It’s mid-morning when Kilkenny finally sits down on a folding chair at a table near the snack bar, a fresh cup of coffee steaming next to her. Naace sits on a nearby chair, making doe eyes at everyone who passes and enticing most people to stop and pet her. Behind them, Scopino smiles from a photo pinned to the door of the office.

A seller stops by to ask if he can have a specific table on Saturday – it’s one of the best, he says – and Kilkenny promises he can if the vendors who have reserved it for the rest of the season don’t show up.

She shuffles the papers sitting on the table in front of her and thinks aloud about the things she has to do. She still needs to call the phone company to find out why the flea market line isn’t working and figure out what’s wrong with the ATM she had installed last year.

But first she sits back, sipping her coffee and finally eating some breakfast, and looks across the field. Buyers pick through items on tables and chat with sellers. A few more cars pull into the parking lot. Kilkenny looks past them to an apple tree, the only old one left standing in the field, and talks about being there with Mama.

During their last season together, they’d walk through the empty field, past that old apple tree and up the hill to the house. Kilkenny still takes the things Mama said on those walks to heart.

“She said to me, ‘How the heck did your roots get so deep in this land?’ ” she says. “I say, ‘Look who raised me.’ ”

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @grahamgillian