In early June I went to Eastport, Maine, to help my mom do some research on our family. My great-grandmother, Amy Frost, grew up in the area with four sisters and two brothers. Her youngest sister, Hilda Mitchell, ran a small variety store with her husband in Eastport through the mid-twentieth century, and after they retired, they still lived above the store that overlooks a former sardine canning plant right by the water. As a young woman, my great-grandmother worked there, waiting for the whistle to blow to call them to work. These days, the sardine industry is closed, but sardines have made a permanent mark on the town’s culture. Each New Year’s Eve, a giant sardine is dropped from the roof of the Tides Institute and Art Museum downtown.
For many years, I’d hoped to see where my great-grandmother’s family had lived. It’s the only side of my family I really know anything about. Eastport’s current population is about 1,322, and the town was known as a significant port in the nineteenth century. A fire wiped out the business district in 1886, and my great-grandmother was born there in 1898 during the rebuilding effort. In 2005, my mom and I compiled what family history we could into a heritage cookbook, including snapshots of my great-grandmother’s handwritten cookbook, what few family photos have been salvaged over the years, with a collection of recipes. I formatted it in QuarkXpress and printed it on lovely handmade paper. A print run of about twenty, it was given to close friends. It was a wonderful project, but we soon realized it was insufficient. Our current goal is to revive the project and publish it under the Her Raven Domain imprint. It’s in the early planning stages, but we’re looking forward to working on the revised edition.
Our research efforts were hampered by bad weather, but fortunately, online resources will help us find out more about our family. I assumed I’d take a few pictures, find a few family records, maybe find homes where family lived (we did find one home, that of Hilda, but without more resources available at the time, that was it). I never considered myself the type to draw inspiration from family history. No plans for memoirs lie in my future. However, inspiration came when I learned Eastport was a hotbed of smuggling and espionage during the War of 1812. If I can only find out how far back my great-grandmother’s family goes in the region, I suspect there may be some colorful characters in the family’s past. Unfortunately, the Fort Sullivan Barracks Museum was closed while we were in Eastport, but perhaps someday, I’ll have an opportunity to visit, or at least do research remotely.
As I strolled the streets of town, I was struck by its rustic beauty. I could still see what my great-grandmother must have seen decades ago. Yet, Eastport strives to foster an artistic community, and I was surprised by how many galleries and artsy locales lined the streets (and I was also surprised to find Eastport was home to an art school back in the 1920s—a tradition I didn’t expect to find!). We stayed in an apartment above an artists’ coop, The Commons, run by a group of innovative women doing their best to help the town grow. In addition to the building we stayed in, they recently bought a nearby warehouse to be converted into businesses and residences. We ate at a Greek restaurant called The Liberty—seriously—some of the best Greek fare I’ve ever had. May it live long and prosper.
Eastport is known as the easternmost point in the continental US, and it is the first to see the sun rise each day (though some contest that the nearby town of Lubec is). It was well worth my while to get up shortly after 4:00 am to see the sun come up over the horizon. A fierce rain storm impeded the view for two days, but even the rainy weather created a moody atmosphere that seemed essential for me to understand how to write about the town.
Over a meal, mom told me a family story that stuck in my mind and haunted my nights. An idea grew—and I spent hours thinking about how this story could be placed against the backdrop of the War of 1812. And who knows how this will evolve as I do my research…another historical novel has been added to the works in progress list (making the grand total 18, with two published: guess I ought to get to it!).
I know for my mom, this trip was an important pilgrimage. It was for me too, I just didn’t realize how powerful it would be. I do hope to maintain that connection with the past and see what comes of it.
(Originally published June 2013)