Museum explores tourist trade

Oh, them 'Summer Folk'

By Dagney C. Ernest | Jun 13, 2012
Photo by: Dagney C. Ernest Jim Wright, a Penobscot Marine Museum docent who claims Summer Folk status himself, interacts with the recreated lobby of the former Searsport House hotel.

Searsport — Seasonal tourism has been an economic and social force on the Midcoast for more than a century, and we are just getting into another summer's worth. This year's seasonal exhibition at the Penobscot Marine Museum explores the phenomenon as it is reflected in the museum's broad collection of artifacts, photography and art.

"We're a museum of the history of Penobscot Bay and have a lot of artifacts with which to celebrate and illustrate this part of that history," said Bob Holtzman, the museum's communications director and membership coordinator.

Holtzman said work on any year's major exhibition usually starts towards the end of the previous season. The museum, located on a walk-around campus that fronts on Main Street/Route 1, is open to the public Memorial Day weekend to a couple of weeks past Columbus Day every year, with occasional events taking place in the off-season as well. In the case of "Summer Folk: The Tourists of Penobscot Bay," curator Ben Fuller worked with collections manager/curator Cipperly Good to create the exhibition and related schedule of events, as well as tweak the museum's other exhibits to tie-in as they can. The other 2012 show, "The Art of the Sea Battle," is a selection of marine paintings chosen to commemorate of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.

"Summer Folk" is drawn primarily from the museum's collection, which cover boats and buildings to art and ephemera, and it addresses tourist lodging, transportation and recreation. A few artifacts, mostly pond yachts and lawn game equipment, have been borrowed for the show; and a carpenter was brought in to create an recreation installation.

The latter is the first thing that greets the eye entering the Fowler-True-Ross House. The front parlor has been transformed into the lobby of the Searsport House, a hotel that once stood on the corner of East Main and Pike streets. The counter includes the hotel's actual registry, with guest names handwritten on the left and printed advertisements for local businesses on the right. The rest of the house, which usually is shown as an example of a China Trade seas captain's home, has been re-dressed as a guest lodging house, which much of the Midcoast tourist housing consisted of in the late 19th- and early-20th century.

Southern Maine had the large, grand hotels, while the Midcoast featured many small guest houses, people's homes that were opened for lodging in the summer months, Holtzman explained. The museum's Admission Center on Main Street has images of some of the larger hotels, including Rockland's Samoset or, at the time of photograph, the Sam-O-Set. Also in this portion of "Summer Folk" are paper ephemera including programs from Temple Heights, the seasonal spiritualist camp still going strong in Bayside, and another bit of Northport religious tourism, a Methodist camp meeting; maps, tour guides and steamboat schedules; and posters from Belfast's Colonial Theatre and Drive-in. A croquet set and ring toss game share a wall with photographs and examples of pond yachts, detailed small versions of larger sailboats; another wall has a vintage Old Town Canoe just crying out for a white-linen-clad woman and her ukulele-playing swain.

The museum's rich photography archives have been cherry-picked for the "Summer Folk" exhibit on the second floor of the Merithew House. Images range from lawn games-in-progress to opening day of the original Waldo-Hancock Bridge, pictured with a passenger steamer passing underneath it.

"The opening of the bridge opened that part of Penobscot Bay to automobile access, which really signaled the beginning of the end of the age of steam," said Holtzman.

A small room off the photography gallery offers paintings by summer tourists, professional and amateur. Included are several by George Savary Wasson, a painter and writer of vernacular stories. A boat made by Wasson is in the museum's boat barn, shadowed by a shelf of newly acquired vessels that comprise a somewhat unheralded piece of the exhibition — vintage vessels associated with the summer folk of North Haven.

Outside the boat barn, two newly crafted dinghies are displayed for sale, the result of a collaboration with Searsport District High School and master boatbuilder Greg Rössel. The green space between Church and Reservoir streets also will be used during the several Game Days the museum has planned as part of "Summer Folk." They will include croquet, badminton, lawn bowling (bocce), board games and cribbage, which should belie the tourist pitch for relaxed recreation.

"I think it will be viciously competitive; the core will be a local cribbage club," Holtzman said.

Game Days are set for Saturdays, June 23, July 14 and Aug. 25 from noon to 4 p.m. Other "Summer Folk" connected activities include a contra dance Saturday, June 16 at 7 p.m. in Union Hall; and a lecture series co-sponsored by, and at, Belfast Free Library. The museum has established a Summer Folk Trails website with interactive map that allows for self-directed tours of Penobscot Bay tourist trade-related sites. These include both historical and 21st-century stops, the latter featuring many a lodging and eating establishment offering some kind of "Summer Folk" special.

"There might be a recipe from the 1890s or an item on the menu with a 1960s-era price," said Holtzman.

The Summer Folk Trail site is SummerFolkMaine.com and is linked to the museum's regular website, visit penobscotmarinemuseum.org. The exhibition season runs through Oct. 21. Penobscot Marine Museum is open daily; for more information, visit the website or call 548-2529.

Courier Publications' A&E Editor Dagney C. Ernest can be reached at 207-594-4401 or dernest@courierpublicationsllc.com.

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