You don’t have to drive around much of Maine before concluding that we haven’t built many cities in the 300-400 years we’ve been building things.
We’ve cut down a few trillion 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 good measure. But, like I said, 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.
Some visitors might wonder why our cities are so few. 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, our farmers began to hear about all the dark, rich farmland in the Midwest that was available for the asking. Close to half our farmers packed up and moved to the Midwest 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 stone walls 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 – whatever they are – those poor Maine farmers would have moved to Maine’s cities and swelled their populations considerably. But when all that Midwest farmland became available, many 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, they became much more quaint and all that excess 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, one house lot at a time. And that is why we don’t have any big cities in Maine. It’s partly Ohio’s and Indiana’s fault. The rest of the blame – like much of our land – belongs to the people of Massachusetts.
John McDonald is the author of five books on Maine. His latest, “John McDonald’s Maine Trivia: A User’s Guide to Useless Information,” is now in bookstores. Contact him at email@example.com.