September 1977. The sun’s rays streamed in the east-facing window of my room at Harry and Ellis’ beautiful home in South Portland. The seagulls swooped around the lighthouse, so close I felt I could almost reach out and touch it. Harry had already left for the hospital. Ellis was up and had a light breakfast prepared for me. It was my first day on the Maine Town Meeting circuit. I pulled on my jeans and long sleeved sport shirt and my red and black plaid lumberjack shirt which I wore every day that fall. I had driven up from Boston on Sunday night so I could get an early start and have a full week of calling on townsfolk before making the drive back to Boston Friday night. I chatted briefly with Ellis as I gulped down orange juice and coffee and inhaled a hardly chewed piece of toast. I was ready.
Jumping in my trusty rusty green Nova, I headed out “downeast” as true Mainers would say, and with my AAA map on the seat next to me, came upon my first town that looked like a likely prospect, York, Maine.
I had passed by York on the way to Portland and was struck by its rugged beauty, set on the ragged Maine coastline, which I would see a lot more of and come to love. York County is the southern-most county in Maine. The county seat town is Alfred, a little ways inland from York.
Alfred, Maine Town Hall & York County Courthouse
I thought it might be a little easier to find my way around there, so I stopped at a gas station to ask where I might find the Head Selectman’s house. I got the typical New England directions:
“Ya go down past the Dunkin Donuts and take the fork to the right, then when ya come to the schoolhouse there’ll be a roundabout and ya go all the way around it to the last road, then you’ll go a ways and come to a 3-way stop. After that ya take the first right after and when ya come to the graveyard ya take the first right after and Janet’s house is about the 5th one on the left. It’s a big white one but ya can’t see it from the road, so if ya go past her driveway and come to a dead end, ya’ve gone too far. Turn around and stop at one of the farm houses and ask where Janet lives. They’ll tell ya.”
I did have to stop and ask a farmer and discovered what my colleagues had told me about Mainers. I found him out by his machine shed and told him who I was, why I was there, and that I was looking for the Town Head Selectman, Janet. “Two driveways up that way on the right.” I thanked him as he turned on his heel and headed around the back of the building, leaving me standing. I thought I hear a faint ‘A-yeh’ as he turned. So that was a good lesson for me in a nutshell. Mainers are not unfriendly, just no-nonsense folk who go about their business and don’t spend a lot of time chit-chatting, at least until they’ve decided you are not there to waste their time.
I found Janet and gave her my letter of introduction from the Governor of her state and asked a few questions about Alfred, being careful to mention a few things I’d picked up about the history and uniqueness of York County. I was a little surprised and then delighted when she expressed interest in having one of the 16 community forums as part of Town Meeting ’76 in Alfred. She said she would talk to the other 2 Selectmen and some of the other community leaders, but thought they would be interested. This was more than I could have hoped for. Janet was the right person. I had been lucky. We would not always approach the Selectmen first, because we emphasized that the forums were not to be political gatherings but a chance for townspeople to meet to celebrate and give voice to their concerns, hopes and dreams for their community. Our usual strategy was to ask “Who is the one person in your town who, if you want to get something done, you go to?” Often you would get “Oh, Josie Adams, the chair of the annual town picnic” or “you need to see Rev. Johnson at the Congregational Church.” We would usually get 3 or 4 names to begin our approach. Then we’d go to the first person and say “Rev. Johnson, we were talking with Josie Adams and she said if you were for doing this in your town she’d help and get the word out and organize the food.” Then we’d go to the Selectmen and say “Josie and Rev. Johnson think this is a good idea for the town and if you’ll support them, they’ll do all the work on it.” And so it would go until we got enough support to make it public, get flyers up and get it in the local paper.
Now I had the first of 16 already scheduled, on my first day. “This is going to be a breeze.” I went back to my South Portland B & B and reported to Harry and Ellis at dinner on my successful day, after calling Linda and reporting to the House and the Strike Force leaders of course. I couldn’t wait to get on the road to the next town.