The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, is one of the most well-known WPA projects. Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included recommended tour routes as well as essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. This post, following a suggested tour in Maine, is the third in a series of articles based upon the guides.
Exploring Route One is not all sweetness and light. The route was the main highway during colonial times and it remains heavily traveled today. Even in 1937, the Federal Writers’ Guide described long stretches of abundant ugliness:
“Though US 1 runs through many attractive areas, its roadside for long sections, as on other express highways of the country, is depressingly ugly, being characterized by hideous shacks, enormous signs, dumps, and raw cuts.”
But I encountered no ugly areas just off Route One in Friendship, Maine. It remains very much as it was when the guide’s writer described it:
“A fishing village of small neat homes, is at the end of a peninsula. Local travel here being generally by boat, small floats or wharves appear at the ends of the side streets, which slope sharply down to the shore. Pride in the building and care of small boats is traditional in Friendship, as evidenced by the large number of well-painted craft in the bay.”
Friendship’s fishing village character still remains today. The WPA writer would recognize exactly what I saw this week. The houses are modest, 19th century wood-frame farmhouses and fisherman’s homes.
The streets still end in wharves jutting into the harbor. And the boats offshore are lobster boats and dinghies. Not a single luxury sailboat in sight.
Fishing and boat-building are still the mainstays of the economy. Lobsters and shellfish abound and charter boats are still available for deep-sea fishing. It is just as the Guide says:
“Salt-water fishing, from both sail and motor boats, is the chief pastime in the vicinity of Friendship, the coastal waters offering many kinds of fish. Casting for mackerel has become popular, but heavy catches are often made by trolling in the early morning and in the evening; these fish are as lively and agile as trout.
Gunners, excellent pan fish 12 to 15 inches in length and up to 1 pounds in weight, are usually caught on the incoming tides, with sharp hooks on straight poles baited with worms, clams, or periwinkles.
Pollock, gamey as salmon, are caught with a fly rod, by trolling bright flies in a swift current, or with herring attached to a colored spinner. The silver hake, which when fresh is one of the most satisfying foods for a hungry fisherman, can be caught from small boats near the shore.
As at other points on the Maine coast the skipper who takes parties out for deep-sea fishing is generally an entertaining fellow who knows the fish runs, as well as many fish stories; he furnishes tackle and good advice, and cooks a tasty chowder.”
I couldn’t find a fisherman to cook me a “tasty chowder” but the local lobster shack did it quite well.
The next town, Seabrook, New Hampshire, is of historic colonial lineage dating even farther back than Friendship. Seabrook was likewise a small fishing village in 1938. In fact, it remained so isolated that the names of some of the original settlers had persisted for the intervening three hundred years: among them such names as Byrd, Peavear, Boynton, and Bachi.
“Seabrook (1,666 pop.), a village with limited accommodations, is Old Worldish in appearance and atmosphere. Its landscape has been unchanged for three centuries; cocks of salt hay still dot the wide sand dunes beyond it as they did in Colonial days. A part of the people of Seabrook speak a language reminiscent of rural England, and at times almost unintelligible to a visitor. The names of some of the original settlers have come down for almost three hundred years, among them such names as Byrd, Peavear, Boynton, and Bachiler.“
Some remarkable traces remain. For example, the White Pages still lists 87 Peavears, 412 Boyntons, 108 Bachilers, and 1034 Byrds living in Seabrook today.
So, too, The First Meeting House in Seabrook, beautifully restored, still sits directly on Route One today.
But today’s view across the street is radically altered.
Driving on Route One, any additional traces of the old village have been completely obliterated and, instead, the road is lined with strip malls, as ugly as the guide suggests.
Other sights have been altered as well. One cannot access the “wide sand dunes” anymore. The road that would take you there in 1937 now leads directly into the parking lot of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant.
I drove it on a Sunday. There was no one in the guard house, no one outside the main entrance. The only indication that it I might be unwelcome or that it might be unsafe to visit was this sign:
Unless you are fascinated by strip malls or want to participate in an anti-nuclear protest, I’d recommend giving modern-day Seabrook a pass.
Fern L. Nesson May, 2019