Small towns are gems anywhere, but here Downeast, they’re real special

We all can remember the home we grew up in and what life was like back then. Whether it was in a large city or in the rural countryside, the word “home” always evokes a special feeling. The life we eventually make is always touched and shaped by our memories of the place where we grew up. And in movies, books and song there are those unique reminders of home, such as the jubilant shouts of George Baily at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, to the bejeweled heel taps of Dorothy whispering, “There’s no place like home.” But when home is in a small town, I believe there is even more to appreciate and a unique essence that makes it more special than anywhere else.

I was born and raised on the south side of Allentown, Pennsylvania. It’s a whole lot bigger now than it was back then, or since Billy Joel sang about it. To a small boy, it was a big place. Multiple high schools, four junior high schools and plenty of elementary schools dotted the cityscape; houses and churches everywhere, stores and the beginnings of shopping malls from one end of the city to the other, and plenty of noise, traffic and people, lots of people.

After marrying and having two children, my wife and I moved to a small town at the foothills of the Pocono Mountains. Though only a 35-minute drive from the city, the change was dramatic. This was our first small town. We were in Palmerton, a town with a friendly feel and showing it from shop to shop, house-to-house and porch-to-porch. With its diagonal parking on the main street running through town, the small schools, owner-operated shops and a center green with the classic white bandstand, it wasn’t Mayberry, but it sure felt like it. During summer months there were Sunday concerts in the park and over the holidays its perimeter would welcome in the season with a string of large colored lights. Yes, this place still holds a special spot in our hearts, and we look forward to visits there throughout the year.

       Photo, Lynn Shupp

Now here Downeast, that small town feel again is present. In addition to the memories it sparks, there are plenty of new ones being discovered every day. Many I have already written about, but some I will keep for myself. But the one thing that runs true, especially here, is the sense of the person living within a support system coming from both inside and outside of the town, and all of it happening in a very family forever setting.

Photo, Ryan Malagara

Drive in any direction and the small towns quietly invite you in as you pass from one to the next. The shops and services seem to all meld together, miraculously appearing when one is needed, such as gas, food or rest, and the businesses work together rather than in competition. If one shop does not have what a customer needs, a polite suggestion of a place that can assist is made. I have had this happen numerous times.

Photo, Ryan Malagara

Machias is the county seat and, as the largest of the towns, certainly shines bright for residents and visitors to Washington County. But it’s the small towns that dot its perimeter that makes it shine even brighter and allows Downeast life to work. Like fingers outstretched on a hand called community, the interconnectedness of it all simply works. Towns like East Machias, Whiting, Cutler, Machiasport, Roque Bluffs, and others, contribute in their own quiet sort of way.

As you drive across boundary lines, the towns seem to merge together, becoming one. I know each has something distinct about them in addition to their own spots of natural beauty. Many of these attributes are quiet, known only by the residents living there day after day. To the visitor, these attributes gently come together and provide the towns their essence, making the visit and the visitor welcomed and happy to be Downeast.

Machiasport, our second small town and the place we now call home, is comprised of four villages set on a large piece of land segmented by the Machias River. Bucks Harbor, Larrabee, the East Side and Starboard, where we live, are places punctuated with islands, coastline and bluffs overlooking some of the most beautiful scenery Downeast has to offer. Founded in 1763 and incorporated in 1826 when it separated from Machias, Machiasport is a place of fishermen and clammers. With no essential services available, the drive to Machias is often taken out of necessity, but the scenery and people living here easily makes up for that inconvenience.

Photo, Ryan Malagara

Never have I been somewhere, where the essence of family and community is so overwhelming. Why is this? I answer it this way to friends back home, “We are in the middle of nowhere and all we have is each other.” Now, that’s an exaggeration, but not too much of one. There is always the distance to contend with for essential services, and the planning that goes into the simplest of drives into town is little more involved than a trip to the supermarket. But those inconveniences are easily forgotten when the people here share of themselves and are always there to help, much like our Palmerton days.

Photo, Ryan Maker

Life here is challenging and you always tend to be preparing for something; call it the calm before the storm feeling. It pervades the area, but that’s OK, we know we have friends and neighbors here and in the other towns that will lend a hand if needed. There is no George Baily or Dorothy here, but there are plenty of hand waving, smiles and of course the Downeast dipped salutation, “Well, hi there, deeah” to make it all OK.

RJ Heller

About RJ Heller

Having arrived here from Pennsylvania over four years ago, there has been plenty to learn and even more to observe. This place is different, but I mean that in a good way. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, I am a college graduate with a teaching degree, a business founder and seller, and a father of two children with my wife Stephanie; life has been full and somewhat adventurous, but finding Maine remains a high watermark in my life.