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Mount Desert Island: Shaped by Nature

Basketball: From Rivals to Teammates

Text by Vince Messer

Basketball Comes to MDI
During most of the last century high school basketball played a distinctive role in Mount Desert Island’s social history. Island high schools competed vigorously in intra-Island competition and in games and tournaments throughout the state. For Islanders high school basketball was more than a game and more than entertainment. It was a source of self-regard and town reputation.

Northeast Harbor Basketball Team, ca. 1921
Northeast Harbor Basketball Team, ca. 1921

Item Contributed by
Great Harbor Maritime Museum

In 1900 when the YMCA opened in Bar Harbor (in a building that is now the site of the Abbe Museum) the organization introduced basketball, a new and increasingly popular sport, to MDI. Basketball caught on quickly, and by 1908 Bar Harbor High School had an organized team which played at the Y’s gym against local teams. However, basketball had not yet made its way to the other Island schools. But it was catching on, and almost anywhere there was a space big enough -- a barn, a warehouse, or a boat house -- it was likely someone had hammered a basketball hoop to the wall. Although more people were playing the game, it does not necessarily follow that they all played it well. The Bar Harbor Times, in 1968, reported a story about a sports dinner at which Jay Whitmore and Byron Robinson, members of Pemetic’s first basketball team, told about their basketball memories, particularly the team’s first game in 1917. They lost to Ellsworth 84 to 4!

Gillman High School Boys Basketball Team ca early 1930's
Gillman High School Boys Basketball Team ca early 1930's

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Mount Desert Island Historical Society

Basketball Takes Hold and Rivalries Grow
Well into the first half of the twentieth century, the towns on MDI were quite isolated from one another. Poor roads, few motor vehicles, and no snow plows made travel difficult. Later when travel became easier, the towns remained insular. MDI had several principal high schools before they all consolidated into Mount Desert Island High School in 1968. Bar Harbor and Pemetic in Southwest Harbor served their communities until consolidation. The name "Mount Desert High School" has a more complicated history. The school was located in Somesville until 1941, then merged with Gilman in Northeast Harbor until 1950. From 1951 until 1968, the school in Northeast harbor was known as Mount Desert High School.

Neighborhood House in Northeast Harbor
Neighborhood House in Northeast Harbor

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Mount Desert Island Historical Society

Former state senator and Mount Desert High School star, Dennis Damon, reported that when he was growing up in the 1950s his family only went to Bar Harbor once or twice a year, mostly to buy school clothes. Yet, there was one reason nearly everyone wanted to travel between towns. Basketball! When Island teams competed, it was a big deal. Townspeople and players would journey in mid-winter weather from Southwest Harbor to Northeast Harbor to see the Pemetic Indians take on Gilman at Neighborhood House. They would journey to Bar Harbor to see their town’s boys take on the Sea Siders. MDI boys’ high school teams were now competing with town schools throughout Hancock County, and every home game was well attended. But the rivalries among the MDI town schools were what mattered most. The competitiveness was intense, the teams’ players were local heroes and models for younger kids. It was all about town spirit and bragging rights.

It was often difficult for the school teams to find a place to play. Because basketball was a new sport, few buildings, schools included, had space big enough to accommodate a regulation basketball court. Southwest High School (later Pemetic High) played in the old Masonic Building until 1927 when it burned down. According to a paper by Southwest Harbor resident Simon Sklar, after that fire “Sports died in [the] town on the schoolboy level for close to five years. The 1927 yearbook had a drawing of the death of basketball, born in the season of 1912-13 and died in A.D. 1927.” After five years without a team, the Southwest boys played in a hall in Manset until 1938 when the new Pemetic High opened. Bar Harbor High School was built without a gym. Initially, the Sea Siders played at the YMCA on Mount Desert Street and eventually moved to a building on Cottage Street called the Casino. Gilman High played in Neighborhood House. When the new Mount Desert High School opened in 1950, their team, the Mustangs, had a real court to play on.

Casino and Bridge Street, ca. 1901
Casino and Bridge Street, ca. 1901
This is the Casino that was located on Cottage Street in Bar Harbor, where high school basketball was played.
Item Contributed by
Jesup Memorial Library

Bar Harbor High Brings Championship Basketball to MDI
The Island’s passion for basketball rose to a new level in the mid-1950s. Over the years, Island high schools had deployed some very good teams to play county and state rivals, but the first state championship didn’t come to Mount Desert until 1955. That season the Bar Harbor Sea Siders lost only two games and eventually beat the team from Paris 52 - 46 for the state championship. Despite the aggressive competition among Island high schools and the towns, the people of MDI were proud of the Sea Siders’s accomplishment and saw it as a boost for the Island’s reputation. On the front page of the March 10 Bar Harbor Times was a letter from Gerald Rich, the president of Pemetic High School’s student council: “The students of Pemetic would like to congratulate you on your recent award of State of Maine Basketball Champions. We were cheering for you all the way! We are hurt, of course, but very proud to have been beaten by the State Champs!”

Consolidation - One School One Team
In the late 1950s and into the 1960s leaders of the towns on MDI discussed consolidating the Island’s high schools. Consolidation meant financial savings for the towns and bigger programs and better opportunities for MDI students. It also meant the end of intra-Island basketball competition, which disappointed many fans. However, other fans saw a golden opportunity in consolidation. MDI boys’ basketball teams had been so strong for several years, and bringing together the best of the best could turn the new MDI Regional High School into a basketball dynasty. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. The last time any MDI boys’ team won the state championship was when Northeast Harbor did it in 1965. Although in 2012 the MDIHS team made it to the Eastern Regional finals but lost to Medomak 56-50.

For a decade after that first state championship, MDI became a basketball powerhouse. From 1955 to 1965 boys’ high school teams won six state championships. In 1956, Pemetic High played its way to the final game of the state championship tournament but lost that game to Lincoln. The next year they lost only one regular season game and took the state championship, beating Bar Harbor High by two points in the playoffs along the way. Because they lost so many key players to graduation, 1958 was not a good season for the Indians. But it was a great one for the boys of Mount Desert High School. They won the state championship that year and became the greatest basketball powerhouse in MDI history. The Mustangs won repeat state championships again in 1959 and 1960, and they won it all again in 1965. The gymnasium at the consolidated Mount Desert Island High School is named for the coach of these championship teams, Bernard Parady.

The MDI Trojans became the Island’s team. But, at least initially, it had mixed results uniting the students from the various towns. Early in his career, Dennis Damon taught at the new high school. He remembers that for the first few years MDIHS students ate lunch at cafeteria tables according to what town they were from and associated with one another by town groups. Breaking down these provincial barriers was difficult, and athletics led the transition to a larger, more unified school community. In the early years of MDIH, just as today, when the basketball team went to Bangor, Ellsworth or anywhere else to play, the fans from the Island towns cheered as MDI.

Stetson Grammar School 1926-1927
Stetson Grammar School 1926-1927

Item Contributed by
Mount Desert Island Historical Society