You don’t have to drive around much of Maine before concluding that we haven’t done many cities in the 300 or 400 years we’ve been building things in these parts. We’ve cut down a few billion trees and built lots of boats. We’ve moved millions of yards of sand and gravel and built thousands of miles of roads. And we’ve also built a lot of small towns and quaint villages. In fact, some Maine towns insisted on having three or four quaint villages within their borders just for the quaintness. But like I said at the beginning, we haven’t done many cities.
In fact, people from away often find it hard to believe that Portland – the largest city we’ve managed to build so far – only has about 60,000 residents, give or take a few. And, not to change the subject, but if you’re in the mood for “taking,” there are probably more than a few of those 60,000 souls that Portland’s police chief would be more than willing to give away.
But I digress.
I was talking about Maine cities and the fact that we’ve built so few so far. Some might wonder why that is and others would say they couldn’t care less.
Those who try to explain Maine’s status as an urban-challenged region of the country come up with reasons like: Well, you have to understand that Maine has never had enough people to make for a decent-sized city. Indecent ones we can build, decent ones we can’t.
They say in the 19th-century just when our population was beginning to grow and large cities were a distinct possibility here in Maine, our farmers began to hear about all the dark, rich farmland in the mid-west that was available for the asking so close to half our farmers packed up and moved to the mid-west so they could ask for some.
For generations, Maine farmers had been tilling our hilly, rocky fields and had little to show for their efforts but miles and miles of picturesque stonewalls and stacks of unpaid bills. In fact, in those days Maine merchants used to say there were two types of Maine farmers: the slow pay and the no pay.
Now, under normal circumstances, those poor Maine farmers would have moved to Maine’s cities and swelled their populations considerably. But when that midwest farmland and became available, many of our farmers left.
What’s more, many poor city dwellers decided to pack up and leave, too, so our small Maine cities got even smaller.
The only good thing that resulted from all that packing and moving was that as our towns and villages got smaller and they became even more quaint. All that quaintness created places like York and Yarmouth and Boothbay Harbor and Camden. Further Down East, all that overflowing quaintness helped make Bar Harbor, Milbridge and Jonesport.
Once word of those quaint Maine towns began to spread, the first people from away started arriving and they started buying up as much local color and Maine quaintness as they could afford.
Turns out most of those land buyers from away came from our neighboring state to the south – Massachusetts, the state that used to own every square inch of land around here until we broke away in 1820 and became an independent state.
With all this Maine quaintness being snapped up by people from Massachusetts it was feared that they’d end up owning us again after buying us back, one house lot at a time.
And that is why we don’t have any big cities in Maine. It’s all Ohio’s and Indiana’s fault. The rest of the blame – like much of our land – belongs to the people of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
John McDonald is the author of six books on Maine, including his latest, “Moose Memoirs and Lobster Tales.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.