An old-fashioned Fourth

Even in the small towns of New England, the tradition and shared memories that make July 4 a kind of community birthday party are fast disappearing. However, thanks to its island setting in northern Maine, Stonington is one that has managed to hold commercialism at bay and keep the spirit of the Fourth unspoiled.m

Every year the town of Stonington gets together with its neighbor, Deer Isle, to celebrate Independence Day. But if one day is good, how much better three must be, so this July 4 is going to be stretched to fill a whole weekend.

It won't be just the mandatory parade with bands (held in Deer Isle this time) and antique cars and floats (you should have seen last year's paper tiger in a paper cage), but a lobster race (the boats, not the seafood), a road race, a tug of war to test the strength of men and women from the various towns scattered around the island, and a lobster-with-all-the-fixings feed. You can guess the etceteras - dancing in the street, children's games, fireworks.

But Stonington is worth visiting any day of the summer. A ghost town since the '60s, when nearly all the stone quarries were shut down, it is two bridges and a causeway away from the mainland, about 20 years away from the rat race, and light years removed from Disneyland. Main Street follows the line of the island-filled, fishing-boat-crowded harbor. Handsome Victorian houses climb the surrounding hills. And on the June day I was there, I met an outsize sheep resting among the lobster pots.

Lilac bushes, chestnut trees, and apple trees heavy with blossoms, deep-blue drifts of wild lupins, birch trees, lobsters, and hunks of granite all flourish here. And so do men and women who would look at home on a Norman Rockwell poster.

The people are a good mix: fishermen, sardine packers, boatbuilders, artists (the light is superb), summer people (around July the population doubles to between 3,000 and 4,000), and very few tourists. The Billings boatyard, a family business established in 1928, is one of the few that still build wooden ships, which partly explains why the Mayflower II sails up here in the spring to be overhauled (the Billings reputation has a lot to do with it, too). In March a fire did thousands of dollars worth of damage (not covered by insurance) and destroyed many boats, but it left the spirit of the yard intact. Dick Billings will be the parade marshal this year.

Once the quarries were so busy that every night the streets were lined with men. There were so many of them that the hotel on Main Street (now the Cornerstone Pizza Parlor) was equipped with hundreds of tiny, cell-like rooms to house them. Stone from here went into the Brooklyn Bridge, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, and the Capitol building. Henry Bray, who owns the Fisherman's Friend restaurant, says granite his father cut went into the Kennedy Memorial in Washington. You can still see one hunk of granite, abandoned as it was about to be blasted out, with a row of holes ready for dynamite to be implanted.

Mary Cousins, town librarian, can remember her father's distress whenever he saw a badly cut piece of granite. With careful planning and proper use of the grain, he'd maintain, ''you can cut it like butter.'' Nowadays, stone quarrying is done by burning, not blasting.

But make no mistake about it, just because the ever-present sea makes time seem unimportant and the town historian jeered when I automatically locked up my car, Stonington is not behind the times.

Not even storekeeper Henry Freedman, who boasts he displays his stock of clam boots and yellow slickers just the way his father did, can hold back the '80s. Computers are coming to the small (but excellent) local newspaper, according to Nat Barrows, editor of Island Ad-Vantages. And although there is practically no city-type crime (''Everyone knows who everyone is here''), there has been some drug abuse.

A new fish pier is about to be built, and the fishing boats are all equipped with radar. (''The lobstermen are noble, really noble,'' said one summer person, who'd had dealings with them and imagined they were being criticized. ''They are concerned about each other,'' she said.)

''People forget,'' Edward Coan of Village Electronics told me, ''that fishing is still a dangerous job.''

But electronics do more than protect. He pointed to a nautical chart covered with finely printed numbers that allow lobstermen to pinpoint the location of their pots. They can harvest them in fog or the dark of night.

Whether the town is right up to date or not, it isn't hard to get the people to talk about the past. Despite the stereotype, Mainers aren't reserved - they just don't go in for talking when they've nothing to say. And many of them are shy.

''We was up to the ball field,'' remembers one man (''he comes from a story-telling family,'' his friends say), ''and the kids had a pie-eating contest and a watermelon-eating contest. So there was two fellows settin' right up on the top of the bleachers talking to one another. And one had a white shirt on and somehow or other they got this blueberry pie that one of the kids was goin' to. . . . Well, anyhow I got this pie and give it to this fellow on over the face. He thought the fellow he was talking to had give it him, because I was behind the bleachers.

''Then they went at one another with the pie, a handful here and a handful there. The last I see'd them they were down at the brook cleaning one another off. They never knew 'twas me.''

Carley Webbe has just retired as Stonington's fire chief. He reminisced about one July 4 when they had a firefighters' competition:

''We decided we would put this fellow upstairs on the second story. We was going to rescue him, see. He had a mask on - I don't know why, some reason or other - and the mask got turned 'round and he couldn't see out the eye holes and instead of putting his feet down on the ramp, he went through the ramp and through the big plate-glass window of some store.

''We didn't make money on that deal by the time we had replaced the window. We won first prize, though.''

Then there was the parade when one man wore a pair of those outsize clown feet:

''I was guiding the lead (fire) truck, and I stopped right on his shoes and he was hollering blue murder like I'd run on his toes and of course he had on long shoes and he was pulling them off.

''I can remember back in the old Model-T days when they used to pull cars against one another. Back to back. And tug 'o wars and greased pigs, and we always had a baseball game.''

For a very different kind of memory, historian Clayton Gross told me about a very commanding, buxom lady who once stopped a July 4 celebration with a shotgun.

Elizabeth Haskell kept the Ark hotel in Deer Isle (now the Pilgrim's Inn) - the kind of establishment that had a porch filled with ladies in rockers. That year, 1912, celebrators really entered into the spirit of the thing, firing off a good-size cannon late into the night. Mrs. Haskell donned her slippers and kimono and reasoned with them. They ignored her. She picked up a loose plank and threw it at them. They dodged it. Then one of her guests, Mrs. Sneider, was rather alarmed to have her landlady knock at her bedroom door, walk in, and take a shotgun out of the closet. The sight of the armed landlady didn't faze the revelers, but when she started loading it - then they took off. Peace was restored and the residents at the Ark slept.

Altogether it was an appropriate display of independence. Like the Founding Fathers, she had only picked up a gun after reasoning had failed.

So on Saturday morning wise celebrants will skip breakfast, remembering that ''the old-fashioned, celebration-priced lobster feed'' begins at 11:30; contestants will line up for the boat races; and some men and women will spare a thought for the extraordinary men who 207 years ago decided to plan a nation of ideals.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.