Jonesport Historical Society strives to preserve local history

Charles Alley, a lifelong lobsterman and the Jonesport Historical Society’s vice president, possesses a wealth of information about Jonesport-Beals island area and its people. PHOTO BY RACHEL TAYLOR

The Jonesport wharf bustled on a foggy summer morning. Pickup trucks packed the parking lot, a sure sign that the Washington County town’s lobster fleet had gone to sea with the sunrise early that morning.

Donald Woodward and Charles Alley know the scene well, having grown up and raised their own families in Jonesport.

“This has always been a fishing town, and it hasn’t really changed,” noted Woodward, who heads the Jonesport Historical Society. “Everything is dependent on mostly lobster fishing.”

Alley, a lifelong lobsterman who is the society’s vice president, echoed that thought.

“If we didn’t have lobster fishing,” he said, “we wouldn’t have Jonesport.”

The four-story Sawyer Building, overlooking Moosabec Reach, houses the historical society. The landmark once served as a general store, ship chandlery, custom house and bank.

Both Alley and Woodward are intent on documenting and sharing their coastal community’s rich maritime history.

On this summer day, the two are with the historical society’s membership and data manager, William Plaskon, in the Sawyer Building that once served as a general store, ship chandlery, custom house and bank. The landmark now is home to a collection of artifacts and documents dating back over a century.

The three gentlemen are among the society’s historical book committee members who produced the newly published “Jonesport America a History Preserved in Pictures” in celebration of the society’s 15th anniversary.

Given to the society by John Vassar Sawyer II in 2011, the former D.J. and E.M. Sawyer Store was built by brothers Daniel James and Edward Mansfield Sawyer in 1896. The four-story structure overlooks Sawyer Square and Moosabec Reach. The channel separates Jonesport and Beals Island.

“This is the present-day Jonesport marina,” Woodward said while gazing out the old store’s waterfront windows. Then the retired merchant mariner points out photos nearby that show how the town’s maritime industries have evolved and changed over the last 100 years.

Turn right and visitors will meet John Vassar Sawyer. It’s a life-size, cardboard figure of the retail grocer, who is reading the newspaper at his desk in the office.

At one time, Jonesport boasted three sardine-packing plants in the 1950s and ’60s. The last closed in 1973. Overfishing, globalization and other factors led to the herring fishery’s collapse.

“At one time you could buy a diamond or a fur coat in Jonesport,” Woodward related, referring to those boom years. “You can’t do that anymore.”

A period advertisement touts the Stevens dish-washing machine’s ability to save “two to three hours per day of disagreeable work and prevent the destruction of her hands.”

Both Woodward and Alley can remember hearing the canneries’ whistles blow. Each packing plant’s whistle had a unique sound. One long and three short blasts summoned the packing crew to work.

“When those whistles blew the sidewalk was full of people,” Woodward recalled. The summer he graduated from high school in 1963, he packed sardine cans at the R.B. & C.G. Stevens Sardine Factory. “For every 100 cans that I picked up in 1963 and put in a box, I got a nickel.”

Still a hard-driving fishing town, where lobstering reigns today, Jonesport also is known for its inhabitants’ wry wit and humor.

During the 1930s, Americans got a slice of life in Jonesport over the airwaves from radio personality Phillips Lord. Lord created the radio character sage “Seth Parker,” inspired by his own grandfather Hosea Phillips, and regaled listeners with funny stories about a Jonesport family.

One episode featured Jonesport’s 1928 American LaFrance fire truck and its actual horn being blown and “heard coast to coast,” Woodward said.

The hit NBC show sparked the book “Seth Parker & His Jonesport Folks: Way Back Home” and the movie “Way Back Home” starring Lord and Bette Davis.

An ornate cash register is among the relics on display at the historical society.

As the morning fog burned off, Plaskon and Alley went for a spin around town and pointed out the fishermen’s co-op, sights from the Moosabec Mussels shellfish company to watercolorist and decoy maker Charlene Nelson’s gallery.

During the drive, the tour guides exchange waves and nods drivers and people on the street. A truck hauling a boat passes, and spying the enterprise’s name on the cab door, Alley notes, “Oh, my brother-in-law is driving that.”

Suffice it to say, these gentlemen know pretty much everyone. And, Alley, Woodward and Plaskon and other society members’ local knowledge and passion for preserving their seafaring town’s past have paid off. Plaskon has amassed a database of 14,000 photos, 25,000 pages of documents, newspaper articles, video interviews with locals and thousands of genealogical records.

Visitors from all over the country have visited the society to trace their family’s Downeast roots. They also can get a glimpse of their ancestors’ lives through the society’s collection of relics and exhibits in the Sawyer Building.

“We put life back into the building,” Woodward said.

Charlie Alley, William Plaskon and Donald Woodward are among the society’s historical book committee members who produced the newly published “Jonesport America a History Preserved in Pictures.”

The Jonesport Historical Society is located at 21 Sawyer Square in Jonesport. Visits are by appointment in the fall. To get in touch, call 497-2395 or 497-2828 or email [email protected].

“Jonesport America a History Preserved in Pictures” costs $20 per copy and can be purchased at the historical society or at Moosabec Video & Variety (245 Main St. in Jonesport.

The book can be purchased for $20 Moosabec Video & Variety. Proceeds benefit the historical society.