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Mount Desert Island: Shaped by Nature

Economic History of Main Street, Northeast Harbor

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A TALE OF BOOM AND DECLINE

Text by Brook Ewing Minner and Hannah Stevens, with additional research by Parker Brown

Images from the collections of the Northeast Harbor Library and the Jesup Memorial Library

Main Street, Northeast Harbor, ca. 1917
Main Street, Northeast Harbor, ca. 1917

Item Contributed by
Northeast Harbor Library
Main Street, Northeast Harbor, ca. 1980
Main Street, Northeast Harbor, ca. 1980

Item Contributed by
Northeast Harbor Library

Northeast Harbor was one of the last villages on Mount Desert Island to develop a business center. However, the trajectory of the rise and decline of its Main Street is representative of the ways in which island life has evolved.

Like the other villages on Mount Desert Island, Northeast Harbor once had a thriving, if small, business center. Until the late-20th century, residents and visitors could shop for food and other supplies, fill a prescription at the pharmacy, watch a film at the theater and generally take care of their daily needs without having to leave the village.

As the town evolved and fewer people live here year round, many businesses closed. Today, much of the Main Street business district is devoted to summer visitors and tourists. There remains one grocery store but the theater, the pharmacy, and other services have all closed.

Beginnings

Dock at Northeast Harbor, ca. 1903
Dock at Northeast Harbor, ca. 1903

Item Contributed by
Jesup Memorial Library

Daniel Kimball opened and operated the first store, and the only store for many years, on Clifton Dock Road. At the time, what is now Main Street was Daniel Kimball’s pasture with a private road leading to his home. Between 1880 and 1890, the pasture was transformed into what we now know as Main Street. Mary Cabot Wheelwright (1878-1958) recalls, “I can remember quite well Mr. Loring Kimball’s father’s fascinating old marine store, near the cove at the South of the present wharf, smelling of all tarry seafaring things…” Kimball’s story sold hardware, dry goods, flour, marine supplies and sundries.

Between 1880 and 1910, Northeast Harbor grew to resemble the village as we know it today. Eight hotels were built. They included the Asticou Inn (1883), Indian Head (1887), Kimball House (1886), Rock End Hotel (1884), Roberts House (1883), Harbourside Inn (1889), Clifton House (1885) and Gaynor House (1902). Also, during this period, the Fire House was constructed (1903), The Neighborhood House (1906) and the Northeast Harbor Library and Reading Room (1882).

Other businesses opened to serve the growing population. Jerome and Belle (Smallidge) Knowles opened a law, real estate and insurance office at the head of Main Street in what had formerly been a boarding house. Nearby were the Hillcrest Market, Robert Ash’s shoemaker’s shop, the Herrick family’s hotel/boarding house, and Mr. Herrick’s livery and blacksmith shop that was know for Mr. Herrick’s fine wrought-iron work, both practical and decorative. There was a second livery in Northeast Harbor, owned by Mr. Atwood and Mr. Burr.

Kimball House, Northeast Harbor, ca. 1890
Kimball House, Northeast Harbor, ca. 1890

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Maine Historical Society

There was a plumbing shop operated by Sylvester (Ves) Brown. The shop, now a hardware store, is still owned by the Brown family. Emily Manchester operated a hand laundry business in the back of her home. She employed several workers to wash and iron the rusticators' clothing. Erlrie Holmes operated a clothing store and lived in the back with his family.

Across Main Street was a drug store, originally owned Mr. Lemont, and a dry goods shop owned by Adelma Joy. The Kimball block housed Harrison Kimball’s grocery store. Reminiscing about the village in 1901, Emily Phillips Reynolds said that the store was “a very swank establishment…as he catered to the carriage trade. How deliciously the place smelled of freshly ground coffee and of course nothing less than S.S. Pierce’s Mocha and Java. The big red coffee grinder stood near the entrance.”

Dr. Jay Grindle had an office on Main Street and is credited for saving many lives in Northeast Harbor in the influenza outbreak during the First World War. Mr. Totten owned a china shop. Lucy and James Bain had a variety store. There was even a hotdog stand owned by “Cheese” Burr. There was another meat market and grocery store owned by Merritt Ober. Above the store, Miss Coburn operated a beauty shop that catered to the rusticators.

Asticou Inn, Northeast Harbor, ca. 1901
Asticou Inn, Northeast Harbor, ca. 1901

Item Contributed by
Northeast Harbor Library

Arthur Gilpatrick owned a recreation hall with a bowling alley, pool tables and a snack bar. The first dry cleaner in town was owned by Mr. Zeltin. Georgia Tracey’s dry goods store sold clothing, fabric, stockings, and more. There was a barber shop operated by Lyman Haskell and a fish market operated by Dan McEachern and Nick Stanley. The photography shop of Isaac T. Moore was on Main Street. Emily Phillips Reynolds tells the humorous story of Jessie Monohon and Linnie Stanley, two young women who worked at the laundry, deciding to dress up in some of the fancy dresses they were supposed to be washing, and having their picture taken by Mr. Moore. The picture turned out very well and he displayed it in his shop’s window. When the owners of the clothing saw the photo, the “girls had quite a time getting out of that fix.”

Main Street looking west, Northeast Harbor, ca. 1900
Main Street looking west, Northeast Harbor, ca. 1900

Item Contributed by
Northeast Harbor Library

Percy Hill had a jewelry and optical shop and his wife millinery shop next door. The Pastime Theater opened in 1913, near the corners of Main Street and Summit Road. On Sunday evenings, the Pastime was used by the Sunday Evening Club, a local discussion series attended by both summer and year round residents. In the winter of 1966, the Bee Block, the Bain Building and the Pastime Theater burned to the ground. In 1904, wooden sidewalks were constructed on Main Street. They were designed to allow shop owners to add hitching rails for their patrons’ horses if they wished.

In her memoir, Down Memory Lane, Emily Phillips Reynolds recalls the Ober Grocery Store in 1901. She says,

“This was an old-time country store. Canned goods from S.S. Pierce lined the shelves, and they carried nearly everything on could think of. Flour was sold by the barrel, and molasses came from a big hogshead kept in the back room. There was also a big kerosene barrel, and customers came with their five-gallon cans to be filled…Otis was usually sitting in his rocking chair by the big pot-bellied stove in the middle of the floor and didn’t move around very fast.”
Reynolds also describes Elisha Salisbury’s meat market in the Knowles Company building. She says, “There was a pickle barrel near the doorway, and we kids would often run down from the schoolhouse at recess to buy one of those big sour cucumber pickles, a penny apiece.”