Monthly Archives: June 2011


Missing: Fifty granite pillars

Granite in the garden

Granite chunks edge my gardens, the foundation of the house is granite fieldstone, I make paths with flat granite slabs, and whenever I dig into the back yard, I strike granite rubble. Scratch the surface anywhere on Mount Desert Island, and you will find granite.

Acadia National Park draws millions of visitors each year to climb its granite mountains and admire the steep rocky coast. Postcards feature warm pink granite edged by the white foam of the Atlantic. Frederic Church’s painting, Otter Creek, Mt. Desert, is of the cove behind my house and the granite notch I pass daily. In the mid-1800’s and early 1900’s granite was big industry on this island, and the first commercial quarry was here in the village of Otter Creek. Granite is the substance on which our lives are grounded.

I have been moving granite lately. Granite steps now separate the level grassy patch where the dining table is from the sloping hill to the woods. A crude wall has been built around the summer bedroom and constrains the pine needles strewn on the ground. I used crowbars and a dolly, and moved hundreds of pounds of rock. Each rock was touched, stroked and examined. The right shape and size was essential to fit the stones for the steps. One would be laid, and then another, and then an awkward space appeared. I removed them and tried again. Eventually, stone by stone, the puzzle was solved, and the steps created with a random pattern of about thirty pieces of granite.

Building with stone puts one in the moment. As I composed my steps, I would survey the collection of rocks I had hauled from throughout the yard and dumped in a pile. I appraised each one for the right fit. I would feel its edges, and ponder it from different angles. One wedge-shaped rock seemed too pointy, but rotated and inverted it was just right. Each rock when turned revealed different contours. I became mesmerized by the individual forms. There they were, odd shapes, sizes, and thicknesses. But which one would sit snug against the last rock I had placed? Just as I was convinced I’d have to go hunting for more rocks, that not one of them that would fit the next space, my perception would shift and with a satisfying sense of recognition a stone would stand out as right.

Granite slabs behind the house

The grain and color seemed as varied as the shapes. It is, of course, all granite from Otter Creek, but not necessarily Otter Creek granite. A common rock, granite is a major part of our continental crust and is composed of quartz, feldspar, mica and other minerals. The color ranges from pink and gray to deep rose, blueish or almost black. The grain can be coarse with large individual pieces or so fine it appears to be almost all one color. It is color and grain that identifies granite. In Maine, Calais granite is dark gray and even-grained, the stone that came from the Thornberg Quarry in Addison is almost black, and Otter Creek granite is deep orange-red with a large, bold grain. The Maine Granite Industry Historical Society Museum in Mount Desert has a map of the island, with a piece of polished granite for each of the dozens of quarries on Mount Desert Island. Founder Steven Haynes can pick up a piece of stone, hold it in his hands, and by osmosis, bonding, knowledge and magic tell you which quarry it came from.

Jimmy's Wharf, Otter Creek

In the 1800’s quarrying in Otter Creek was a thriving industry. There were three different quarries in the village. The first was founded by Cyrus J. Hall in 1871 and operated about eight years. Roads were terraced into the hill and supported with granite coping stones. Oxen were used to transport the stone from where it was cut to a large granite wharf, the first product of this quarry. Jimmy’s Wharf is what it is called, although there is no sign, it is written on no maps, and no one seems to know who Jimmy was. At high tide a schooner would sail in to the wharf and load up. Four men, two oxen and a handful of tools produced eleven cargoes of stone. It was then shipped to Belfast where it was polished prior to delivery to its final destination. Some of those destinations were the Board of Trade building in Chicago, the American Baptist Publication Society building in Philadelphia and a bridge at Back Bay Fens in Boston, as well as libraries and public buildings. There is also a tantalizing mention in a local paper of fifty granite columns shipped to New York for a church. No other information given. How tall were those columns, what church do they grace, are they inside or out? Where are they now?

Drill holes waiting one hundred years to split granite, abandoned at Jimmy's Wharf in Otter Creek, Maine

My husband’s great-great grandfather Jules lived in Otter Creek in the late eighteen hundreds within walking distance of the quarries. We wonder if he might have worked them, or helped build the roads. Whether he did or not, his great great grandson worked at the last producing quarry on the island. At nineteen years of age Dennis Smith worked for Joe Musetti in Hall Quarry and burnt rock with kerosene and compressed air to prepare the surface for the quarrymen to work. He was there only six weeks, during the last days of the quarry, as a small crew completed a contract and then shut the quarry down for good. With the introduction of Portland Cement the granite industry had come to an abrupt end.

Tailings from Otter Creek quarry, Drosselmeyer the cat likes to play there.

In Otter Creek, the stone wharf still stands, but has fallen into disrepair. A causeway has blocked the entrance where the large ships once entered the cove. Massive stone slabs with telltale wedge marks along one edge lie abandoned in the woods. We walk the roads, still clear but slowly narrowing, that had been built for those oxen to haul their heavy loads. And somewhere in New York City is a church with fifty granite columns from Otter Creek, Maine.

The quarries of Otter Creek

Pine needles and granite edging by summer bedroom

Nature Log: We gathered and ate the last of this season’s oyster mushrooms, watched a snapping turtle lay eggs, and lifted a piece of granite to reveal a garter snake. The stone was gently replaced.

Day to day

Puttin’ on the dog

The Queen's well-trained attendants pour wine for her guests

The Queen's attendants pour wine for Her guests

Their royal majesties Queen Victoria and Prince Albert graciously hosted a dinner party in the neighboring town of Bar Harbor and we were fortunate enough to be on the guest list. Since commoners are perhaps not appropriate dinner companions for royalty, we were elevated for the evening, and attended as Sir Samuel and Lady Florence Baker.

I had never heard of Lady Florence, but a few minutes research brought her to life. She lost most of her family in the Hungarian revolution and escaped to a refugee camp with her father when she was four or five. She was taken from the camp by a slave trader and raised to be a harem slave. Sir Samuel Baker, after the death of his first wife, travelled with Maharaja Duleep Singh and saw Florence in a Bulgarian slave market. He was unable to out-bid the Ottoman Pasha, who wanted her, and so he bribed Florence’s attendants to release her, and they fled the country. She traveled with him, at times dressed as a man, at times on a camel, throughout Africa and Asia for the next twenty years. Fluent in five languages, she was his assistant, interpreter, and eventually wife.

Lady Florence Baker

Lady Florence Baker

What a great role to play, and of course dress for. Dress up, fun when six or eight years old, has never lost its appeal. Dress up is very different from dressing up, which is also well worth doing, but dress up usually involves costumes, props, and a bit of acting.

Playing Lady Baker I had a feathered straw hat, crocheted gloves, an ivory fan, soft leather pumps and a mutton-sleeved, high-waisted gown. I also had a Zsa Zsa Gabor accent. While not all at the dinner had put on the dog–an archaic phrase for making a ostentatious display–there were glitzy necklaces, a few tuxedos, shawls and bonnets, lace and velvet. Roles were played, fake British dialects assumed, and we all stepped out of ourselves for a bit. That is the appeal of dress up.

Lord Nelson chats with Florence Nightingale

Lord Nelson chats with Florence Nightingale

In our mundane lives we have, well, lives. Responsibilities, jobs, homes and family are always present. Lady Baker, dead almost one hundred years, on this occasion had nothing to worry about except dinner and her manners. Other guests shed their everyday lives, too. Lady Idina Sackville, a.k.a. a gallery owner, amused the company with her outrageous remarks, Lord Nelson flashed his sword, and the Queen and Prince were amply toasted.

Dress up is not to everyone’s taste, but those who enjoy it invariably end up with an attic full of gowns and accessories, and can pull something together at fairly short notice. A polka dot scarf is a cap for a serving wench, or a sash for a pirate. There are some dressers who specialize in an era or character, but I am happy as a gypsy, a witch, or a lady-in-waiting. There is always a bit of research, and finding appropriate props, language and accessories is educational, or at least I claim that in an attempt to justify my passion for costume. When I am a pirate I practice my talk-like-a-pirate phrases, and when I was a gypsy fortune teller at the local fair ground, I learned a bit of Romany, and walked with a sinuous gait and a jingling belt. Running the trebuchet at a Medieval Fair, I curtsied and Mi-ladied convincingly for hours, and learned the physics of the this large weapon and a fair amount about warfare. Halloween, needless to say, is a favorite day. One year I played an alien, with a throat box that turned my voice into a creepy synthesized inhuman sound. Walking in jerks, each movement robotic, not fluid, I approached young trick-or-treaters asking for help getting back to my planet. Curiosity and suggestions vied with wide-eyed stares and calls to mommy for help.

There are random chances for dress up: I have been asked to tell fortunes at fund-raising seance, have dressed as classic French maid for a friend’s dinner party, and been a mummy at Halloween haunted house. Then there are organized events: SCA, the Society for Creative Anachronism, hosts many dances, classes, revels and wars, and since their era ranges from 600 to 1600 and is global, there is plenty of opportunity to dress. As a member I have worn a Renaissance swordsman’s outfit, and of course learned to fence. New Year’s Eve and Mardis Gras frequently have masked ball opportunities, and I have gladly donned tux and top hat a la Marlene Dietrich when hostess for a fundraiser.

Great Northern War, SCA, Maine

Great Northern War, SCA, Maine

Is there a dress up gene, or is it acquired? I will beg out of this argument, but present as evidence a photo of myself and my two sisters, dressed as the angels we surely we not. My mother also made me into a miniature Zorro, and one sister into a talking giraffe, with a two-foot tall neck and head, eyes peeking out of holes in the throat. Both my sisters and I wore our father’s navy uniform and his drum corps outfit. With a friend in grade school, we won the clown contest as a two-headed three-legged clown at the 4H fair. We spent a day wandering the fairgrounds perfecting our three-legged stride in a costume my mother made for us.

While we rarely saw our parents do fancy dress my dad would don a wig for his high school reunions and mom was always eager to help bring our costume fantasies to life. It was with great delight that I finally saw my parents dress up to attend my SCA events. They donned the clothes and much to my astonishment played the game. Mom exchanged medieval and ageless household tips, dad chucked axes and showed us all up.

In favor of genes, my sister had a high school job as Mr. Peanut, for Planter’s peanuts, and stood at a traffic circle offering samples and encouraging people to stop in and buy. Following in her footsteps, my niece’s first summer job was dressed as a coffee cup, advertising the coffee shop she worked for. Dress up runs in the family.

Being someone else for a night gives a freedom the everyday does not offer. It was exciting to be Florence Baker, a rescued slave, abolitionist and explorer, and to share tales of my travels to the source of the Nile. The evening eventually draws to an end, but once home I procrastinate taking off the gloves and gown, and washing out the ringlets. The return to reality is hard. After dress up I never want to stop playing my role and go to sleep, because I know when I wake up the world will have moved through space and time and be normal once again.

The fan, feathers and dress go back in the attic, I stop frightening those at the post office as I practice my Hungarian accent, and meekly return to work. But a secret pleasure adds flavor to the day, because no one knows that yesterday I spoke five languages and rode camels.