In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Mount Desert Island: Shaped by Nature

Economic History of Main Street, Northeast Harbor

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

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

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.

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.

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.”

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.”

Main Street in the 20th century

By 1910, Northeast Harbor had four groceries, one fruit stand, two dry goods stores, four stables, three blacksmiths, three building contractors, three plumbers, one masonry contractor, three granite quarries and a boat builder. There were two pharmacies, two barbers, two clothiers, four tailors, six dressmakers and one shoemaker. There was a photographer’s shop, a restaurant and meals being served in the various hotels. There was a physician (three in the summer), two dentists, an attorney and an architect. There were also two billiards halls and the Neighborhood House.

During the 1920s, as the village grew, business on Main Street changed hands and the buildings themselves were transformed. Additions were constructed, new entrances were added, and the small side streets could no longer adequately handle the traffic. Over the years, there were various proposals backed by the Village Improvement Society to change Main Street. In 1927, the society, along with the town engineer, proposed razing numerous buildings on Main Street, replacing them and widening the road. The proposal did not pass. In 1928, the Village Improvement Society proposed to create a park that would stretch from Main Street to the harbor. This was also rejected by the people of the village.

During the 1930s, Northeast Harbor’s economy was not immune from the Great depression. Numerous hotels closed and only three remained open by 1940. However, some new businesses opened including a Ford dealership at the corner of Neighborhood and Rock End Roads. During World War II, the Crobb Box Company operated an ammunition case factory on Neighborhood Road.

Northeast Harbor was spared the devastation of the October 1947 Bar Harbor fire. However, the village has been far from immune to the impact of major fires. In December 1966, a fire erupted at Wallace’s Garage on the corner of Main Street and Summit Road. Five major buildings, and several smaller ones, burned. Wallace’s Garage, the Pastime Theater, the Hillcrest Market and Mrs. Flye’s Sandwich Shop were all lost.

In 1989, the bicentennial of the town of Mount Desert, Robert R. Pyle noted that “Northeast Harbor faces a graver threat today than in all its history…It is dying as a residential community.” In 1989, there were still two grocery stores in town but their stock was significantly reduced. There was only one gas station in Northeast Harbor, down from four. The last barber left town in the mid-1970s. The pharmacy closed in 1989. By the village’s bicentennial, many of the people who worked year-round in Northeast Harbor could no longer afford to live in the village.

21st Century Decline

In 2008, a fire erupted in the Colonial’s restaurant on Main Street and spread to the Wingspread Gallery and the Joy Building, on either side of the restaurant. Although the restaurant has been rebuilt, as of 2013, there are still empty lots on Main Street as a result of the fire. On January 23, 2009, the Tan Turtle Tavern burned to the ground, leaving Northeast Harbor with one less business in an already dwindling business district.

In the 21st century, these trends have been exacerbated. In 2000, the overall town valuation was $2 billion. Northeast Harbor has been called “one of the richest villages in America” and yet, its year-round population and business options continue to decline. In 2011, there were approximately 350 year round residents, down from a high of 900 residents.

The types of business in the village of Northeast Harbor slowly have shifted from trades and professional business to retail and hospitality. Parker Brown’s 2012 study of businesses in Northeast Harbor clearly shows this trend. In 1899, 42% of the businesses in Northeast Harbor were trade-based and 9% were hospitality-focused. In 1910, 40% of businesses in the village are trades and hospitality-focused businesses have grown to 10%. By 1933, only 21% of businesses in Northeast Harbor are trades and hospitality accounts for 11%. This trend continued slowly until 2010 when 21% of the villages businesses are trades-based and 23% are hospitality-focused.

At the same time, the overall number of business in the village peaked in the mid-1980s, then fell dramatically. In 1899, there were about 67 businesses in town. In 1910, there were about 80. By 1980, there were 90 businesses in the village but in 2010, this number has fallen to just under 50.

The Future

That Northeast Harbor is in economic decline, there is no doubt. The question is how far will it fall? Will Northeast Harbor go the way of other island villages, like Somesville, with only an art gallery and a convenience store? Or will it descend to resemble the ghost villages of Sound and Center – once thriving island villages that have no commercial businesses at all? Perhaps we should accept that the automobile and online commerce have supplanted the old model of the village center, and that the island is now one big village with people commuting via automobile to Bar Harbor and Ellsworth or via the internet to New York or Beijing.

Sources Used

Down Memory Lane by Emily Phillips Reynolds
Mount Desert: A History by George E. Street
Northeast Harbor: Reminiscences by An Old Summer Resident