November 10, 2013

Book Review: ‘Kennebunkport: The Evolution of an American Town’

Joyce Butler’s history – with a foreward from George and Barbara Bush – is completely engaging.

By William David Barry

At the outset of 1921, President Warren G. Harding received a letter “calling his attention to the advantages of Kennebunkport (Maine) as a summer capital.” This brazen pitch by the town Board of Trade came to nothing. However, ideas seem to have a life of their own. In August of the same year, Dorothy, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. George Herbert Walker, married Prescott Sheldon Bush at St. Ann’s-By-The-Sea. That event set off a slow-motion chain of events that would bring the wished-for K’port vacation White House to reality in 1989.

This is but one of the amusing, little-known facts that sparkle and entice throughout Joyce Butler’s new book, “Kennebunkport: The Evolution of An American Town, Volume One, 1603-1923.” In an era when readers are deluged by all shape and quality of local and regional publications, “Kennebunkport” stands as a monumental study, masterful in organization and as good as a town history can get. It has a readable text that runs coherently from start to 1923 . I cannot say definitive since Volume Two, which will run from 1924 to the present, is planned for this fall, but I have no doubt it will be equally instructive.

Few community histories can boast a serious “Foreword” by a former United States president and first lady, but George H.W. and wife Barbara Bush are integral to the ’port, and responsible for bringing more attention to the town than anyone so far. They are also representative of the generations of the summer folk or people “from away”, who have combined with American Indians, early Yankee farmers and fishermen, a scattering of African-Americans and eventually the variety of ethnic background and creeds that formed a unique miniature-America. By the end of Butler’s first volume, we experience the creation of the community up from European settlement to colonial wars and the American Revolution and Civil War through World War I. Though everything is well explained, my one suggestion would have been line maps showing town’s relation to Wells, Kennebunk and the present Arundel (North Kennebunkport).

Butler begins with an updated abstract of Charles Bradbury’s 1837 history and indeed, why not start with the best and build from there with 14 chapters and delightful illustrations?

Few contemporary historians would have chosen painter Abbott Graves’ 1920s mural of Martin Pring’s vessels Speedwell and Discoverer as a cover image. While Pring was the first know European to visit, the painting is not an accurate 17th century document. It is bold, brave and celebratory and has been part of the Lewis T. Graves Memorial Library since it opened. That mural goes to the heart of what makes K’Port K’Port. Not only a gifted painter (who strove to capture the “yankeeness” of his townsman in many images), Graves was a booster, patron and heartbeat of the place. Together with the ubiquitous locals, including the Chicks, Nunans (who built up the Cape Porpoise Grand Banks fishing fleet) and wealthy visitors (hotels and cottages came to provide a powerful economic engine in the post-Civil War era). The town was divided socially and economically. Witness summer cottager A. Atwater Kent who, wishing a larger lawn and garage for his cottage, ended up destroying part of an 1812 fort and taking out a pioneer graveyard. As the author notes; “ …most townspeople did not approve of the relocation of the graves,” earning the radio pioneer the nickname “Gravedigger’’ Kent. Nationally known writer Booth Tarkington apparently fit in far better among the locals.

The Kennebunkport Welfare Association (1919), which was founded by summer cottagers and real estate interests, sounds rather benign but was created “to prevent the port’s splendid reputation as a high-grade resort from being tarnished.” This was code for not selling or renting to Jews and Catholics. Butler handles this fear of supposedly objectionable strangers head on and with sensitivity. Though part of an national attitudinal trend, names are named, and in the 1923 cliffhanger, final page, 800 Ku Klux Klansman were happily assembled in town hall.

The real threads that weave this history together are everyday social, religious and political events. As Richard D’Abate puts it so well in the preface, “History is inexhaustible, all around us, and significant from top to bottom, regardless of where we start or look.”

Joyce Butler follows the lives of townspeople through the centuries and gives us one of the best Maine books I’ve read.

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored seven books, including “Maine: The Wilder Side of New England” and “Deering: A Social and Architectural History.” He lives in Portland.

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