O U T H E R E I N T H E R E A L W O R L D
Rockin’ in the Old Days
by Eva Murray
Should a notice have
been put up somewhere
that a piano was to
be demolished in the
dooryard with a fire ax.
We hear the following from time to time, when visitors come to this island:
“In the old days it must have been so hard. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to live here, stuck on this tiny little island, you know, especially back when they didn’t have electricity or the Internet. It must have been a lonely, boring life.”
Not really. They imagine a lifestyle a lot like now, with 30 or 40 winter hangers-on, but without the technology that makes what luxury and communications we have possible. They imagine a bare rock, and a few homes without television or telephone, silent perhaps but for the wind, and no fun. No store, no church, nowhere to hang out and gossip, hardly any kids in school.
That is not accurate. By all accounts, in the “old days” there was considerably more to do around here. At the very least, there were more people. According to Island Historian Suzanne Rankin, before World War II there were roughly 250 year-round residents of Matinicus. When I did some research a few years back for an article I was writing, I found newspaper clippings mentioning 300 island residents in the first decade of the 20th century.
Rather than many of the homes sitting empty all winter, most island homes kept the beds full, with little kids, grandparents, and teenagers all over the place. There were dozens of children in school. Socializing was easy. Even back a mere 29 years ago, when I first moved here, any community event—a school play, a church supper, a graduation or a toddler’s birthday--resulted in a full house (and enough food for several thousand).
The closest thing to a thorough history of this community, referred to by locals as “the Matinicus book,” is “Matinicus Isle—Its story and its people,” a work of history and genealogy published in 1926 by Charles A. E. Long (known around here as Gene.) Everybody here nods deferentially toward the book, original copies of which—if they are to be safely left in summer places--must be secreted in the bindings of Moby Dick or hidden in volume 3 of the Funk and Wagnall’s. Most copies in libraries have already been stolen. A reprint was issued 15 or 20 years ago by the Higginson Company, if you need one.
Gene Long’s delivery is a bit starchy, but to be fair, it was 1926. His description of island social life and recreational activity sounds carefully measured to appeal to little old ladies of impeccable morals and high-buttoned collar; he tells us nothing about any noisy fish-house revelries, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum and such like. Instead, we read how:
“In years past, the school-house has been the scene of many ‘plays’ produced by home talent, in which not a few of the participants were of no mean histrionic ability. Here at the school-house also, the old-fashioned ‘singing-schools’ have caused the air to vibrate with diversified sounds, harmonious and otherwise.”
Gene also mentions spelling bees, chopping bees, and with his characteristic love of quotation marks, “parties.” He also remarks on the popularity of dances, where there would be need of—yes, with quotation marks again—a “fiddler.”
There certainly were dances— generation after generation of dances! People still living here talk about learning to dance “The Lady of the Lake” from other islanders. I am told that back when Criehaven was a hopping place, a dance on that island would bring a few boatloads of Matinicus folks, and a hoe-down on this side of the gut could expect to host a contingent from Criehaven. Those who have lived there long enough to know can confirm or deny this.
These days, dances or informal concerts tend to be on the wharf, when Nat Hussey and some of the other local musicians tool up for “Rock the Dock” on summer Saturday nights. Occasionally there is music coming from guitarist Dennis Young’s trap shop (attracting one large segment of the population, with beverages,) or in the elementary school, with imported musicians delivered aboard the vessel Sunbeam (a different segment, perhaps a nerdier group, and without beverages). Still, Rock the Dock isn’t a dance in the old-time sense, like a contra-dance with actual dance steps and well-known set pieces; we just fool around and shimmy and twirl. It’s all good.
Let me mention that you can hear both Dennis’ band and Nat’s band from time to time in venues in the mid-coast area, by the way.
1909 was a big year on the island, for at that time two august associations were formed here: the Knights of Pythias, and the Matinicus Band. The Knights of Pythias built an actual meeting hall on the island, with kitchen in the back and large dance floor, which was appreciated for quite some time beyond the limited tenure of the actual Pythian membership. These days, even though the building has been completely remodeled into a three-unit apartment block for summer visitor, itinerant carpenters, and occasionally homeless schoolteachers, it is still referred to by everybody as “the KP Hall.” Sadly, it no longer has a dance floor.
Celia Philbrook Emmons published a small book in 1960 entitled, “Highlights of Life on Matinicus Island,” which is often found together with Long’s book, as it continues the genealogy after 1926. Emmons includes an interesting list of “Firsts and Lasts,” among them that the last dances held at the “K of P Hall” were during the summer of 1952. By then I assume the dancers had moved down to the school, although the population was by then beginning to shrink.
After the new schoolhouse was built on Matinicus in the mid-1960’s, with indoor plumbing and everything, the old one-room school building (and attached outhouse) was available for a couple of decades for random community events including the occasional dance. One local wise-aleck says “dance” was just a euphemism, but to be fair, it wasn’t Prohibition any more (more on that another time). These days, the old school is the municipal office, so rowdy dancers aren’t so welcome, although we do have a meeting of what Gene Long called the “Bean Barrel and Soap Box Club,” a doughnut feed, a hand-spinning demonstration and an extremely small hot-dish social for the ballot clerks twice a year on Election Day.
A dark, blurry photograph of the Matinicus Band in Long’s book proves the presence, a century ago, of drums, trumpets, at least one trombone, and several euphoniums (surely it’s euphonia). Smallish tubas were here, anyway. I do not know where they went.
Speaking of musical entertainments, there is evidence to suggest (if not confirm) that at some point a traveling player-piano salesman came through, and convinced a half-dozen or so of this island to shell out for that latest of in-home entertainments. Player-pianos were a big fad for a while in the pre-WWII days. It also seems to have been the case that some years later, an antique dealer specializing in the guts or player mechanisms of such machines made an appearance, and left with the same, rendering a half-dozen or so inexpensive pianos of the ordinary variety which were, with our humid weather, drafty housing stock, and lack of local talent in these matters, completely un-tunable. By the mid 1990’s people were chopping them up with axes. That is not the same as a “chopping bee,” although given the tendencies around here, should a notice have been put up somewhere that a piano was to be demolished in the dooryard with a fire ax, people would undoubtedly have come, and likely they’d have brought doughnuts.
And that requires no mean histrionic ability.
Next time, more fun from the old days: Box suppers and “time for our meeting!”