Tripping Over History Every Day

text by Kaitlin Webber
originally published by The Working Waterfront

Photo courtesty of the Swan's Island Historical Society

Tintype of Solomon Barbour, 1815-1896. Barbour moved to Swan’s Island in the early 1800s and was a baker with his own shop.Photo courtesy of the Brad Ames Collection, Swan’s Island Historical Society.

One of the tougher aspects of being a newcomer to an island is keeping track of who people are. Decades of connections are at play. These facts are so obvious to everyone else that you feel like an idiot on a daily basis. My strategy after week two was to nod and pretend that I had it all under control.

The person in charge of that group is so-and-so’s mother? Ah, yes. I should interview your aunt’s son-in-law? I’ll get right on that. Then you just have to run off to ask a trusted confidant what on earth you agreed to do.

I’m sure I’ve heard juicy gossip about someone and then chatted with them in the store the next day — with no clue that they were the ones that did that thing that time. Basically I can never say anything about anyone.

Newcomers also have a heck of a time getting around. I have yet to be given directions to any part of the island without the direction-giver making reference to at least one person’s house or since-vanished landmark. The standard format is “Across from Dexter’s,” or “Over by Mertic’s old airstrip.”

It’s an added bonus if the person is still alive — place names often get stuck in an older generation. I’m in a better position than most since my historical work means I’m more likely to know who lived somewhere 70 years ago than who lives there now.

Confusing as it may be, I do love this aspect of island life. History is built into every day of the present. Walking on the shore of Cottle’s Cove, you think back to the man who puttered around the islands on his traveling shoe repair barge until it finally beached for good.

Dead Man’s Beach gets its exciting name from the story of a washed-up corpse. It was a nameless man in a suit with a few gold coins — respectfully left undisturbed — in his pocket.

Mill Pond still bears the marks of an old industrial site, once the location of Colonel Swan’s timber and gristmills. The footprint of Swan’s mansion — known as “The Big House” in the years when new island families squatted there — is still visible as a rectangle of stone-bordered grass. It was supposedly built with the same plans as Montpelier, the Knox mansion in Thomaston.

Elsewhere along the shore you find the black globules of tar left from the days before synthetic fishing rope, when lines were covered in the petroleum product to preserve them. Carved wooden buoys live a second life as yard decorations. Walking through the woods you see old quarry sites, house foundations, and wells that have filled in over the years.

There are many such remains in the area around Irish Point, named for the wave of workers who camped there to process timber in the late 1700s. Heading up from the beach you see the footprint of the Idyll Wild, a hotel popular in the age of “rusticators” seeking nature and recreation. There’s a little cemetery inland that holds the few early families that made their year-round home on that harsh part of the island.

With only two years on Swan’s Island, I don’t stand much of a chance. I live in Johnny and Lenora Wheaton’s place and it will remain their place long after I pack up and leave. I’ll just keep picking things up bit by bit — and keep on nodding.

Kaitlin Webber is an Island Fellow with the Island Institute serving on Swan’s Island.