John Bird, a Rockland native, educator and businessman, has written and published a book that chronicles the “renaissance” of Rockland, as the phenomenon of transformation of Shore Village from a fishing capital to an arts center is often called.
Bird starts with a timeline tracing the city’s history from George Weymouth’s first exploration of the midcoast area in 1605 to the 2011 completion of the breakwater lighthouse renovation. The early part of the timeline is adapted from Shore Village Story: An Informal History of Rockland, published by the Rockland Bicentennial Commission in 1976.
Paul G. “Gil” Merriam, Rockland native, educator and local historian, contributed the Foreword, entitled “The Shore Village,” which offers a concise history of the city from its days when rocks (granite), lime and the building of the boats to transport those commodities were its primary economic engines. Then Merriam takes the tale through Rockland’s next heyday, as a commercial fishing port—often boasting the largest landings in the state.
Bird’s book takes up the tale when fishing and fish processing collapsed, telling the individual stories of the contemporaries—entrepreneurs all—who launched the Rockland Renaissance through their individual visions for reviving and renovating historic buildings on Main Street, opening innovative businesses, or in one case, saving the Lobster Festival.
Many of Bird’s chapters appeared in the Herald Gazette/Village Soup as columns prior to publication of the book. Bird interviewed the subjects and invited others who knew them and their work to comment on the importance of their projects to the city.
Chapter One is a general comment by Bird on the changes. Chapter Two chronicles the 1990 announced closure of the Lobster Festival, and the subsequent phoenix-like comeback when local folks decided not to let it die, and instead the festival broke all attendance records.
From there, Bird goes to the harbor itself and shows how hiring a harbormaster, and a good one at that, turned the harbor into one where fishing and recreation were in balance—a home for schooners, a showplace and a profit center for the city.
Not just the harbor, but the lighthouse on the breakwater, came in for a facelift and renovation. Here Bird relays the story of the Island Institute’s creation of the Maine Lights Program (Bird is a trustee of the Island Institute). This led to the Friends of the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse, who raised the $500,000 in funds needed to renovate the historic lighthouse.
Part of Rockland’s not-too-distant past, during the peak of fishing and fish processing, the city was also known as a very smelly place. Everyone knew “Camden by the sea, and Rockland by the smell.” Between the fish processing plants and the fishwaste processor Sea-Pro, the air could get pretty funky.
During downtimes in fishing, Sea-Pro operated a steel fabricating plant called Steel-Pro. Spun off in 1983, five years before the fish-rendering plant shut down, the fabricating business has been a success story.
From there, after setting the stage for the entrepreneurs, Bird takes the reader through the changes wrought by the O’Hara family—once owners of the biggest fishing fleet in Maine—and how they adapted their Tillson Ave. properties and businesses to meet changing times.
The expansion and improvements to the city’s library and the historic Farnsworth Museum are next—some of the changes due to the largesse of the credit card company, MBNA, as well as other generous donors.
After the Farnsworth’s expansion came the galleries. The ground-breaking Caldbeck Gallery opened in 1982. It would take until the ’90s before other galleries ventured into the city, but then they came in droves. At one time, there were 15 galleries on and around Main St.
Rock City began as Second Read, a used books and coffee place that was an immediate hit as a local hangout. Now in its third location on Main St., the business continues to grow and offers music three nights a week.
The bookstore is now a separate business, still adjacent and now called Hello Hello Books. Several years ago, Patrick Reilly and Susanne Ward added a coffee roastery on South Main St. Bird dedicates the book, in fact, to the late, beloved Patrick Reilly, and to the late Matthew Simmons, another of Bird’s “local heroes” documented in the book.
Simmons, among other things, bought and restored the Strand Theatre to beyond its original Art Deco glory. The theater, a Rockland landmark since the ’20s, had been operated by generations of the founding Dondis family. Besides first-run, “small” and foreign films, the Strand now offers live HD broadcasts of Metropolitan operas and London plays, as well as well-known live music and comedy acts. Simmons also launched the Ocean Energy Institute just before his sudden death in 2010.
To learn about the rest of the contributors to the Renaissance, read the book. But a hint about what you’ll find if you don’t already know Rockland: the proliferation of world-class restaurants; the Penobscot School—a language school that brings people from all over the world to Rockland; more about the Island Institute (which publishes The Working Waterfront); the windjammer fleet; the legacy of MBNA and several other “local heroes.”