Tourism Transforms Chebeague (2010-2011)

The Transformation of an Island Community

The people of the State of Maine have a love/hate relationship with the concept of tourism. On one hand they love the tourists’ dollars that flow into the State, but on the other hand they often seem disgruntled at the byproducts of tourism such as crowded roads, buses and boats. Stereotypes and generalizations persist, as Mainers see more and more of the State being bought up by affluent people from away. But despite the seasonal disruptions and cultural differences, deep relationships exist between many summer visitors and the people who call this “special” place home.

Over the years the Chebeague Island Historical Society has found that these interpersonal connections are deeply rooted in a meaningful connection to place. Some summer families have been returning to the island for more than a century. Their ancestors are buried in the island cemetery beside the long time island families. Many of these summer folks can be counted on to generously contribute to island fundraising, and some say that their annual pilgrimage to Chebeague has been the one constant in their otherwise mobile lives. The tourist stereotypes begin to fade as we learn more about these people. How did their families discover Chebeague and what made them keep coming back generation after generation?

In 1988 the Chebeague Island Historical Society sponsored the first of several programs to delve into the subject of tourism. It was at that time that Donna Miller Damon coined the phrase Summer Native to describe summer families with deep island roots.   The summer people loved the label and happily participated in the programs. White haired men and women retold the stories that they had heard from their parents and grandparents. Traveling to the island via trolley, train, steamship, and island steamer, staying at the hotels, participating in fishing parties, picnics and ball games were just a few of the topics that were shared. Their voices quivered as they fondly recalled childhood memories of summers on Chebeague. After attending these programs some islanders began to look at summer people in a new light.

This exhibit is in part, the story of the Summer Natives, but it is also the story of how Chebeague Island and its people were impacted by the introduction of summer tourists into what had been a middle class Victorian community. Many islanders reaped economic benefits by selling cottage lots, housing boarders, operating and working in hotels, stores, and ice cream parlors, building cottages, maintaining gardens and yards, running tour boats, conducting livery businesses, doing domestic chores such as laundry and cleaning, and selling produce and seafood. Some islanders even rented out their homes and moved into tents or sheds to accommodate the tourists who were looking for a summer respite.

However, with employment opportunities came cultural interaction. The popular media of the day frequently depicted the Maine coast as a place apart from the rest of the world. Article after article stereotyped the “natives” and inferred that although they were of a hardy stock, they were isolated and lacked social and educational essentials. We know from diaries, account books, photographs, and other material culture that most Chebeague Islanders were in fact well educated, well read, well travelled and well dressed! On the other hand, some writers and illustrators depicted the tourists in less than flattering ways. While tales abound about the negative encounters, stories have also been passed on about close relationships that developed.

Some of the stories in the exhibit describe cultural conflicts that may be difficult to understand at a time when the community appears to be relatively cohesive. Many people think of islanders and summer people as one community, but in some cottages and year-round homes, the negative stereotypes still exist. Judgments continue to be made by some of the summer people about islanders the vice versa. After viewing this exhibit, visitors may leave having a better understanding of how Chebeague’s past has shaped the community we know today.