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Big Ships Are Gone, But the Sea Remains

In Maine seaside village, the only squawks, other than from gulls, are of summer crowds, lost mail

JUST after lunch in this small, harbor town on craggy Deer Isle, the weather is warm and windy coming out of a piercing blue sky. Dazzling yellows, reds, and siennas explode from the fall trees around the harbor.

But quicker than two sea gulls can squawk over ownership of a cracked mussel, thin fog from the west puts a layer of cheese cloth over the harbor. Along Main Street tourists put on their sweaters.

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The weather can change that quickly here. But Stonington, population 1,400, is culturally anchored in what makes Maine indefatigable: a legacy of hearty, frugal people who know the fickleness of the sea and coastal weather, and love to be in the midst of it. Here a man sells firewood and calls it ``Wicked Good Firewood.''

And unlike the economies of many small towns in Maine, the job emphasis here hasn't changed too much, just the degree. Aside from the usual complaints - lost mail, political dunderheads, and boats going too fast in the harbor - economic and sea tides are not out of sync here.

According to the Department of Labor, the unemployment rate in the Stonington area is 2.4 percent, tied for lowest in Maine. Fishermen still pull lobsters, crabs, scallops, mussels, and sea urchins out of the cold waters near dozens of inlets and coves. European families started fishing here in the 1780s. Lobsters during the Civil War sold for two cents each. Today $3 a pound is low.

The ship-building industry, employing 40 to 50 people working on yachts and fishing vessels today, is doing well even if it isn't what it used to be at the turn of the century.

Then, 100-foot-long brigs and barks were built, and sent to the West Indies. By the turn of the century 900 men were building yachts of all sizes.

And the rock quarry on Crotch Island gives up slabs of pink granite as it did 100 years ago.

Island granite is in the Brooklyn Bridge, Rockefeller Center in New York, and President John F. Kennedy's Memorial in Arlington Cemetery.

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WHAT is different these days, according to local natives, in addition to a new pier, is an increase in summer crowds.

``Not the day trippers,'' says a town leader who didn't want his name used because, ``I'm reluctant to sound like I know everything.'' Rather it is the non-natives buying old houses here either for retirement or for summer homes with flowers and big windows.

When the fog lifts later, a stroll down Main Street reveals some craft shops, a bed and breakfast, the Downtown Diner, a coffee shop, a hardware store, an antique store, and a small supermarket.

Across from the market, on a lawn is a small replica of the town in miniature built by Everett Knowlton. Nineteen little buildings, about the size of fireplugs, are placed around the lawn. When Mr. Knowlton passed away, the little houses were bequeathed to the town. Donations for unkeep are welcome in a box next to the sidewalk.

In the coffee shop a visitor from the British Isles is overheard to say, ``In England we have boundaries to our gardens. Where are the hedges and fences here?'' she asks. ``Why aren't all the people in the gardens?''

Up the street, just past the point where the road veers off to become Highway 15, there is a long low building with pink, red, green, yellow, and blue garage doors.

A sign over one door announces, ``Greenlaw's Marine Musitorium.'' Under that in block letters, ``No one knows what goes on behind closed doors. Invited guests only, please.''

All you can do is guess.

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