If you were from, say, the Midwest or Colorado or some other state or country and had never seen the Maine coast, you might look at the Maine quarter and say, “Oh, that’s nice.” But if you either live here, have seen the Pemaquid lighthouse, a towering pine or spruce, or were on the state’s coin selection committee, you might be inclined to roll your eyes in disbelief. The design of the Maine quarter is a perfect example of how politics and bureaucracy can mangle design.

It started as a pleasant, feel-good idea under President Clinton: each of the fifty states would submit designs for a state quarter and the U.S. Mint would produce the winning design from each state. School kids as well as professional artists could participate and coin collectors would have 50 more coins to collect, swap, and sell. The 50 State Quarters Program, a ten-year undertaking, began in 1999. Each state would have its quarter produced in the order in which it joined the Union. Maine, which became a state in 1820, was number 23; the coin would be issued in 2003. Consequently, four years ago then-Gov. Angus King began to plan for gathering and selecting three to five coin designs for his approval.

Kathy Ann Shaw, who was then Contemporary Arts Associate for the Maine Arts Commission, ran artists’ programs. Gov. King chose a small advisory committee of artists and a selection committee made up of artists, historians, politicians, media representatives, and various VIPs. The Maine Arts Commission solicited designs for the coin by holding a competition and advertising it through its artists’ directory and in schools, newspapers and the Internet.

“It was fairly easy to winnow out probably two-thirds of the submissions,” said Michael Mahan, of Mahan Graphics in Bath, who was on the selection committee. “I think a lot of the submissions, particularly from the kids, were probably a sort of civics lesson for the third grade class, something like that. Then there were about 20 or 30 very competent, good ideas.” He added, however, “fairly early on in the process, I became aware that the decisions would be pretty much made by the people with political connections.” Somewhere along the way, those representing the arts community were notified that they weren’t voting members, merely advisors, he said, “which sort of dimmed the enthusiasm for these people to go to these three-hour meetings. A lot of people stopped going.”

Then the non-artists started changing the designs. “We heard plenty of concerns, and everyone had an opinion on what should represent Maine,” Shaw said, putting the matter as delicately as possible. “It’s like the license plates. We knew right away not to even start with the lobsters.”

She continued, “The prevailing thought was that the concept of the nation’s first light, which was involved in two of the four designs, was something that the group was most proud of and excited about.” The other lighthouse that was heavily lobbied-for was West Quoddy Head, partly because it’s colorful and partly because it’s supposedly where the sun hits first in this country, although people from Mt. Desert claim that first daily ray hits Cadillac Mountain.

Brian Kent, of Kent Associates Planning and Design, a land-use consultant in Gardiner, figured a lighthouse would end up on the quarter. “How inappropriate,” he recalled thinking. “It should be Katahdin, representing all of Maine and Native Americans.” So he made a coin design showing Katahdin with a pine tree and a moose in the foreground. “I sent it off,” he said, “and got a call saying, ‘you’re one of the finalists; however, the committee would like you to replace the moose with a canoe with a Native American in it.'” He made the change, and sent it off.

State Treasurer Dale McCormick, who survived chairing the selection committee, took up the story, explaining, “The Mint does not want actual designs. It wants concepts because they like to do the research and they like to determine – they kind of have an agenda. They want to represent the whole country.” She said Kent’s design came back from the Mint with what her office referred to as Ozzie and Harriet. “It came back with Katahdin all messed up, and a man paddling a woman and two kids in a canoe. (The Mint people called it a nuclear family.) Our original design also had Katahdin [spelled] the Indian way, Ktaadn, and, of course, the Mint couldn’t handle it. They thought that was a misspelling.” She said she felt the committee gave up on that concept too easily. One of the purposes of the quarter program is to show or depict or teach something new about every state.”

“Mt. Katahdin was half the size I’d shown it,” Kent said, adding that besides messing up the canoe, the Mint people added foliage on both sides. “Everything was totally out of scale. The pine tree didn’t look like a pine. It was a disaster.” Furious, he wrote Sen. Susan Collins and Gov. King, saying he wanted nothing more to do with the project and did not wish to be associated with it. Not a problem, as the Mint was never going to credit him with the design.

It should be added here that according to Kent, the artist who designed a scene of Lewis and Clark in a mist on the river for the Missouri quarter was so outraged at the Mint’s change to a depiction of twelve people in a bateau, he printed his original design on paper like a page of self-adhering stamps, and sticks it over every quarter he can find. He also made a four-foot replica of his design, took it to Washington, and rolled it down the Mall all the way to the Capitol. He paid for his hotel room and other expenses with his version of the Missouri quarters. Kent said that until someone called them off, the FBI involved themselves, thinking the artist was defacing the coins, which, of course, is against the law.

Mahan said, “There are a lot of people who think the whole process is bogus.”

Maine ended up with a coin designed by numismatic designer Daniel Carr, of Colorado, who also designed the coins for two other states. Tiptoeing around accuracy, the U. S. Mint on its website states that the scene represents “a depiction of the Pemaquid Point Light atop a granite coast. … The schooner resembles ‘Victory Chimes,’ the last three-masted schooner of the Windjammer Fleet.”

The 170-foot-long Chesapeake Bay Ram schooner VICTORY CHIMES was built at Bethel, Delaware, in 1900 and christened the EDWIN and MAUD after the first captain’s two children. She is one of only 127 vessels to be designated a National Historic Landmark.

Aside from showing a lighthouse that bears little resemblance to that at Pemaquid, a pitiful little fir tree that in no way resembles a white pine, the VICTORY CHIMES properly portrayed only because Gov. King and others raised such a ruckus about the two-masted brigantine or square rigger that came back from the Mint, and terrible proportions overall, you might think the Maine quarter is pretty nice. After all, over 100,000 Mainers voted for the design the state sent to the Mint, though Jane Guild Cutter, daughter of Capt. F. B. Guild, who brought the VICTORY CHIMES to Maine back in the fifties said, “We all voted in Maine. Of course, my kids voted early and often.”