WINTER HARBOR — It’s blowing over 20 miles an hour from the northwest as Pearl Barto points out a fish house. The cedar-shingled dwelling, perched on timber pilings, was once home to her great grandfather Sewell W. Myrick and his four siblings on Big Moose Island in the late 1800s. The isle, with a spruce-fir forest and windswept headland called Schoodic Point, nowadays is linked by a causeway to the mainland section of Acadia National Park.
Sewell’s mother Eleanor B. Myrick raised five children on the remote, mostly uninhabited point exposed to the North Atlantic. She later ran the family’s hardscrabble farm after her husband, Jabez, drowned on one of his offshore fishing trips. The soil was poor — rocky and worn away by ocean waves. Pine and spruce trees were felled and the logs shipped by sea to the Midcoast port of Rockland to fire the lime kilns there. Sheep were put off to graze on verdant islets.
This is where Barto begins her historic walking tour of Winter Harbor — the story of her multi-faceted hometown — just south of Acadia’s Schoodic District and about 20 miles east of Ellsworth. In summer, donning a modest frock and wide-brimmed straw hat, she assumes the character of her distant cousin and the Myricks’ granddaughter Anna Myrick Weston.
“She was born into this hardscrabble subsistence,” Barto says of her …cousin. “Her family managed to survive at the end of the world out there.”
A retired schoolteacher, Barto leads the tours on behalf of the Winter Harbor Historical Society. The town is turning 125th birthday this year. She encourages visitors and local residents to check out the hand-lines used for catching cod aboard schooners, guest registers from the stately Grindstone Inn and other relics and family heirlooms on view in the former Winter Harbor Grammar School building (Hammond Lane). The society is open to the public from 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. Free pamphlets of the society’s historic walking tour, which singles out 19 points of interest, is a fun way to discover the seaside community and how it has changed in over a century. Copies are available at the society and in a kiosk at the corner of Main and Newman streets.
“I am trying to promote pedestrian rather than car traffic,” Barto said. “I think our little town lends itself to being walked in!”
Winter Harbor is named for its sheltered port, which never freezes over, and where mariners can safely ride out storms. The town was once
part of neighboring Gouldsboro, but the two split over property tax revenue spending, road upkeep and other issues in 1895.
Roads remain a hot topic 125 years later.
“It hasn’t changed much,” Barto quipped. “We are still talking about roads and the cost of their construction.”
Rounding the corner, Main Street swings into view. The quiet downtown contrasts starkly with the period (1935-2002) when Winter Harbor was home to a U.S. naval base straddling 26 acres. A giant, ring-shaped antenna array — nicknamed the “Elephant Cage” enabled the detection of foreign warships and provided coordinates for U.S. vessels, equipped with cruise missiles, to track and target them.
A hard right on Main Street leads to one of the nation’s few surviving five-and dime stores — the Winter Harbor 5 & 10 — where storekeeper Peter Drinkwater stocks everything imaginable from fishing boots to embroidery floss.
Just a few doors down is Artisans and Antiques (963-2400) that sells antique pieces from a marble-topped peddler’s box to needle-felted wild animals and high-relief tiles of Maine flora and fauna by local artists.
Next door, Nib & Thimble features oil-pastel seascapes, hooked-rug pillows, hip leather shoulder bags and other locally hand-crafted creations.
Directly across the street beckons J. M. Gerrish Café (963-7000), where you can swivel on a chrome-plated red stool and sip a chocolate milkshake at the soda fountain in the century-plus ice cream parlor/sandwich shop.
Farther along Main Street, Barto notes the imposing Hammond Hall, a Colonial-Revival structure, where live concerts, plays, art shows, contra dances and other events are held year-round by Schoodic Arts for All. The handsome hall, with its three-part Palladian window, was financed by a Winter Harbor-born lumber baron and developer Edward J. Hammond who saw the Schoodic Peninsula’s wild, unspoiled beauty as a summer haven for artists and wealthy Philadelphians and other East Coast families seeking an alternative to the congested scene across Frenchman Bay in Bar Harbor. The three-story Hanover Hotel already had been built. Hammond added a casino, Casa Marina, and the 150-room Beacon Hotel (367 Main St). Stores, laundries and other services surfaced to serve the summer colony. Boarding houses provided inexpensive lodging for the cooks, handymen, chambermaids and other seasonal workers.
Main Street teemed with people.
“It was a literal army of people coming to work, carrying their lunch pails,” describes Barto, briskly heading southwest on Main, down and around the corner to Sand Cove.
Across the shallow bay, vestiges of the summer colony’s former, opulent bathhouses are visible at low tide. Called the Grindstone Pool, the inner cove was partially enclosed and a warmer option for those summer residents uninclined to venture into the frigid, open ocean.
It was John G. Moore, born and raised in the Downeast town of Steuben, who built a turreted mansion, “Far From the Wolf,” and spurred Winter Harbor’s summer colony on Grindstone Neck. The financier had made a fortune directing Chase National Bank, the Manhattan Trust Co. and Western Union Telegraph in New York.
Moore also owned and preserved large tracts of undeveloped wooded land and shorefront on the Schoodic Peninsula. In the 1890s, he had the foresight to build a carriage road, skirting the scenic western shore and crossing the salt marsh to Big Moose Island, where Jabez and Eleanor Myrick and their five children had lived, farmed and fished.
On Big Moose, Moore’s road leads to the bold, pink granite promontory where local residents and visitors now and long ago have flocked to watch a storm unfold and surf shoot into the air.
Barto, who runs Winter Harbor’s MainStay Cottages & RV Park with her husband, Roger, likes to send “from away” guests to Schoodic Point to relax and get their bearings before embarking on their vacation.
“I ask them to go and find a piece of granite and stay there until the tide changes,” she says. “This is an opportunity to slow down in life and enjoy being by the water.”
For information about Pearl Barto’s walking tours, email [email protected].