When I was a kid, my friends and I went to great lengths to pick a secluded spot where we might misbehave, but the parents in this little island town were a troublesome bunch, alert and conspiratorial, and we often found our clandestine activities woefully transparent. 

One day in 1958 we snuck a pack of Camels from the Cascade Lanes, lifted a bottle of vanilla extract from E.G. Carver’s, scored a bottle of Haffenreffer from Tibbs, and headed down the little alley between L. R. Smith’s and Mary’s Restaurant to enjoy ourselves.

Cascade Lanes was O. V. Drew’s very busy bowling and pool emporium. L. R. Smith was a bustling clothing store. E. G. Carver’s was one of four very busy Main Street groceries. Tibb’s was kind of a grocery but only in a charitably inclusive sense. It was more like today’s convenience store with candy, snacks, lots of beer and soda, a few necessities—milk, butter, eggs and it stayed open later than the bigger groceries to serve the needs of the disorganized, the procrastinators and those who only ventured out after dark.

It was the late 1950s and Vinalhaven was jumpin.’ Served by a wooden ferry that only carried two cars and made two trips a day, it could hardly be otherwise. There was little point in going off island to do shopping; neither was there a need. This community of 1,200 or so, captive because of logistics, was thriving because it was captive.

We had four gas stations. There were little stores like Tibb’s everywhere. Each neighborhood had one. The town sported three full service automotive garages—this before there were even many vehicles—twine and net shops, several barbershops, a casket store, two cobblers, a tin knocking shop, another pool room, four bakeries, two drug stores with companion soda fountains, a newsstand, two lumber yards, three hardware stores, a five & dime, a dry goods store, three other restaurants, a tobacconist, movie theater, fishing gear supply, a firewood business, photography studio, two maternity homes and a mortuary. 

Upstairs over the clothing store was the telephone exchange. A team of local ladies, all mothers, and each among the most well-informed of the conspiratorial parents, handled every phone call made by anyone to anyone. Our number was 356. Walking by on the sidewalk one floor below one might easily have heard an incoming call run its course:


“Hi Mabel. Would you ring Cal for me?”

“Cal’s not home, Phyllis—she’s down to Isabel’s knitting nets. Want me to call there?”

“Sure, thanks Mabel.”

Mabel plugged Phyllis’ 646 into Isabel’s 497 and Isabel passed the phone to Cal.

“Cal, I thought we was gonna get together to play cards today.”

“No Phyllis, that’s tomorrow down to Lucy’s after I get done baiting trawl for Luther.”

“Oh goodness, that’s right.  I thought Luther was already gone seining.”

Mabel, always eager to remain in the many island loops and so reluctant to relinquish a connection, offered, “Land sakes, Luther’s boat was gone at sunup.”  

On this day, however, we’d have heard, had we paused long enough to listen, first the sound of 356 ringing, then my Mom’s voice.


“Pat, this is Mabel down to the switchboard. Phillip and Jo-Jo just headed down to the carriage house, and Phillip was smoking and carrying a bottle.”

“For goodness sakes, Mabel, will it ever end? I’ll send Bud right down.”

Fifty years later the island is served by two big steel ferries. One carries 16 or so vehicles, the other 22 and together they make six round trips a day. The newsstand is for sale. The only remaining hardware store closed a few years ago. There is one grocery, no clothing store, no cobbler, no drug store, no soda fountain, no dry goods store, no movie theater, no five & dime, no conventional retail.

There are several nice restaurants, one spectacular gallery, a couple of sweet gift shops and a wonderful jeweler, but downtown is no longer the retail environment of a working community. It’s a leisure market.

This is certainly not to say Vinalhaven is a leisure community. We are home to the busiest and most profitable lobster fishing fleet anywhere, and that critical element represents about 50 percent of the town’s income. The other half comes directly or indirectly from those dependent on the seasonal economy, an equally hardworking population but most of us jump on the ferry when we need to, run around on the mainland getting all sorts of things done, come back with a car full of stuff or simply sit down at the computer and order whatever we need, with hardly any exceptions, online. Excepting groceries, what’s left of downtown serves those with more money to spend than needs to fulfill. 

Phil Crossman owns and operates the Tidewater Motel on Vinalhaven.