When John and Barbara Morton opened the Harbor Gawker restaurant on Vinalhaven in 1975, it was a small take-out window occupying the former Bodwell Granite Company’s pay station. These days the restaurant occupies a much larger building with plenty of seating, and the menu is bigger than one might imagine possible on a small island. But 35 years later, at least one thing at the Harbor Gawker has remained the same; it is still a family affair.
John and Barbara’s daughter, Valerie Morton, worked at the Gawker, as it is commonly known, as well as their son, Lance Morton, and their grandson Chris Clark. “I think it was part of the family,” said Valerie, who spent 20 years working there. “It was everybody’s life for so long. A lot of good people worked there, so you could have fun there.”
Both John and Barbara are deceased, but the history of the Gawker lives on through their children. According to John’s son, Lonnie Morton, when it came to naming their business, Barbara wanted a name unique to the island. In the village of Vinalhaven, there is an inlet that leads from Carver’s Harbor, under a Main Street bridge, to Carver’s Pond. At one time there was no bridge there. People who lived on one side of the inlet were called “harbor gawkers” because they had a good view of the harbor. Those who lived on the other side were known as “overcrosters.” Barbara and John’s new restaurant was located on the harbor side, so she decided to name the restaurant the Harbor Gawker. “We always have to repeat the name on the phone,” said Lonnie.
In 1994 John asked Lonnie if he and his wife, Kathy, were interested in buying the Harbor Gawker. At the time, Lonnie and Kathy lived in Warren. While Lonnie was born on Vinalhaven, his wife had never lived on an island and swore she didn’t want to start. After one summer though “I loved it and I didn’t want to go back,” Kathy said. Lonnie and Kathy bought the Harbor Gawker the following year, and they have kept the tradition of the family-run restaurant alive. Lonnie and Kathy’s daughters, Amanda and Jana work at the Gawker. Their son, Landon, and sons-in-law, Adam Browne and Cody Roberts, all help out with various after-hours chores. Their granddaughter, Brianna Bartlett, 11, also helps out sometimes. She is the fourth generation of the family to work in the restaurant.
Perhaps the most revered of the Harbor Gawker traditions is Free Ice Cream Day. Beginning in their first year, John and Barbara gave free ice cream to all their customers on the first day of business each season. Now that the Gawker opens earlier in the spring, Free Ice Cream Day is held the first Saturday of May. According to Valerie, “it started as a good will thing for the school kids.” The school bus would make a special stop at the Gawker after school so all the children could get their free ice cream cones. This year the Mortons gave away 402 free cones, the most ever. “I would never stop that,” said Lonnie. “I like to give back a little. The community is very good to us and I appreciate them,” he said.
Ice cream has always been a cornerstone of the Harbor Gawker’s business. One of Clark’s earliest memories is of ice cream at the Gawker when he was four years old. “I remember my grandmother giving me a soft-serve ice cream cone with an American flag in it,” he said, “and I thought ‘God, I live in a really great town!'”
Clark worked at the Gawker throughout his teenage years. “As a kid I used to watch John catch fish in the harbor, bring them over to the Gawker, clean them up and put them in the freezer,” he said. “Just being able to witness that, an old school thing that nobody witnesses anymore, was pretty special.”
There aren’t many family-owned businesses that stay in business as long as the Gawker has. Any business owner will tell you it takes dedication. “For Kathy and I it is being here all the time, 12-14 hours days,” said Lonnie. “It used to be seven days a week, but we realized we couldn’t do it. Now we are closed on Sundays, but we still have to come in on Sunday,” he said. “We take pride in what we do. I see everything that goes out. I may not know everyone’s name, but I know what they eat.”
The Harbor Gawker has become an island icon, providing 35 years of memories to, literally, thousands of islanders and summer people alike. It means something different to everyone, but according to Lance, for its founders, John and Barbara, “it meant independence. It meant the fulfillment of a dream for my folks,” he said. “It meant they could remain self-employed.”
Lance feels that his parents “wouldn’t be too surprised” at the continued success of their restaurant. “They were pretty sure they were giving it to someone who would do a good job with it,” he said. Apparently, they were right.
Kris Osgood is a freelance writer who lives on Vinalhaven.