Raymond H. and Alice M. Barker bought the cottage on Deadman's Cove on August 6th, 1929. Five years later, they planned and began to build a second cottage right above the water. Grandma and Grandpa Barker's legacy has been cherished by five generations of the Barker clan, who know and love Monhegan because these adventurous Midwesterners were so enchanted with the Island themselves that they decided to buy and build and spend their summers here, despite the Depression that struck just months after they closed on the property and the death of Raymond while the lower cottage was still under construction. Their portraits preside over the living room in what became "Grandma's Cottage", and something about the proud, direct gaze in each of them pierces the veil between their time and ours.
Maybe that is because on Monhegan - in the Barker cottages at any rate - it is always 1939. There are stacks of Good Housekeeping and Better Homes and Gardens from that year by the day bed in the Upper Cottage, while a remarkable map on the stairs leading to the second floor, printed in August 1939, shows an expanded Germany poised to invade Poland. The piano, an unusual table-shaped behemoth made by the defunct Arlington Piano Company of Boston, holds sheet music for 1930s musicals and the marching songs of the Great War. There is gas light only, and an old hand crank Victrola with a stack of 78s, and the books that line the unfinished walls are Jack London and Sabatini and stories of shipwrecks and sightseeing in Europe between the wars.
Even seemingly minor changes become the stuff of family legend, like the time my mother's cousin thought the wooden lobster buoys handing from the rafters could use freshening up with new designs, unaware that he was painting over the original color schemes of generations of Island lobstermen. This happened in the early 1970s and is still a sensitive topic after all these years. The wind rattles the casements and the gray cedar shingles weather and fade much as they ever have, and one would be forgiven for assuming that time has stood still in this place and will always remain so.
Of course, this is not Brigadoon, though at times it may feel its close relation. There are significant changes afoot, both in the Island community and for this specific piece of Monhegan that our family shares. There are perhaps a dozen year round island communities left in Maine; in 1900 there were 300 such islands. An influx of summer residents and visitors has been a part of Monhegan since the 1880s, but their impact is more deeply felt today. When my grandfather would come here for a few weeks in the summer, the locals would come and visit the "Boston doctor" and the Barkers and Islanders knew each other rather well. Many visitors do not enjoy the same relationships today (although there is still no reliable medical care on the Island). The fishery that sustained the year-round population for generations is greatly diminished and the question of what makes a sustainable community is a matter of intense debate and considerable contention among Island residents.
Then there are the challenges of compliance with the requirements of modern regulations. Monhegan is one of just two Island communities in Maine where overboard dumping of sewage is still permitted. Living on solid rock with precious little topsoil makes it difficult to provide septic systems and leech fields, but now the Island is on notice that plans need to be made by each property owner to replace the pipes to the sea with alternative waste disposal systems. For those of us who have thus far chosen not to electrify - there is now a central diesel generator and power company on the Island - there is no option that will allow us to comply without at least some power, because the lower cottage is so close to the water that waste will need to be pumped uphill. It is time to make this change - environmentally the current system cannot be justified and the State of Maine, while understanding the challenges Island property owners face in complying, has made it clear that change we must.
But once that socket is in place, will television and dishwashers and -gasp - the Internet and all the electronic clutter of modern living also intrude on the solitude and slow pace of life we prize so highly on Monhegan? I, for one, know that if my laptop were to join me on the Island, something more precious to me than connectivity would be lost. We rise and go down with the sun and leave the maddening world on shore when we come to the Island. I don't want my work and usual entertainment to come with me.
Fortunately, the extended family that stewards this place has given time to its members to share what Monhegan means to each of us and how we want to approach the weighty questions of electrification, and user fees, and how we want to manage the changes that will come. We are in microcosm dealing with the same issues of sustainability and community character that towns across America struggle with today. Smart growth on Monhegan with its 70 year round residents and 1,200 daily summer visitors presents unique challenges, and so do the 3rd - 5th generations of this family who now enjoy and cherish the legacy of Raymond and Alice Barker. There is hope for us because we know that it is not enough to save the family property if we lose the family in the bargain. This is not merely an anonymous timeshare. Each of us leaves our mark here and knows we connect to those who have come before and above all the two that made it possible for us to know and love a place where time, if it does not stand still, still moves in slow eddies outside the main stream.