Since the boom years of the post-Civil War era, Prouts Neck in Scarborough has been a mostly private, seasonal enclave, where generations of the same families come back year after year to enjoy summertime activities on the Maine coast.
From boating to swimming to the customary Prouts Neck sings, the traditions of the neck are still carried on today, nearly 150 years after the area first attracted upper-middle class families seeking an escape from the summer heat and pollution in cities from Massachusetts to New York and Connecticut.
While other coastal communities in southern Maine have become home to more and more year-round residents, Prouts Neck has kept to its roots as a place where families come just to spend the summer months. Now, through the relatively new Prouts Neck Historical Society, it’s working to preserve the rich history surrounding its beginnings for future genearations.
The high season starts around the Fourth of July and runs through the end of August, according to Seth Jackson, an intern with the Prouts Neck Historical Society.
“There’s always lots of activity” from summer camps for the kids, which include youth sailing and tennis programs, to the Prouts Neck Bathing Association, the Prouts Neck Country Club and the Prouts Neck Yacht Club, Jackson said.
In addition, the neck still has its own seasonal post office, library, general store and church, St. James Episcopal, which was built in 1890 on land donated by the family of famed American artist Winslow Homer.
People also still mostly get around by bike or walking, Jackson said.
While new people are moving in, the neck is still populated by the various clans that have grown up there through the generations. When houses do come up for sale, the asking prices are typically in the lower millions.
Many who summer there consider it home, even though they live out-of-state for most of the year, Jackson said.
The first European to settle the area, originally named Black Point by the French explorer Samuel de Champlain, was Capt. Thomas Cammock, who settled on what’s now known as Prouts Neck in 1631.
Indian wars and the poor conditions for farming led to a period of very little settlement until Capt. Timothy Prout purchased most of the Cammock Patent from Samuel Checkley in 1728.
However, it wasn’t until the late 1870s when the Libby family, who then owned most of the neck, began selling off lots for development that people began to build summer cottages and organize a variety of social clubs, many of which still exist today.
Some of the activities of those early days included theatricals and moonlight sails, according to a book on Prouts Neck history published by the historical society.
Until Dr. Benjamin Cotting built one of the first cottages in 1880, however, most of the summer visitors lodged at one of the many hotels that sprang up on the neck.
Although the Black Point Inn, originally built in 1878 as the Southgate, is the only remaining hotel, there once were nine, with the two biggest being the Checkley and the Joceyln. The Jocelyn burned down in 1906 and the Checkley closed in 1945, after the Canadian trade dried up due to WWII.
Rodney Laughton, a Prouts Neck Historical Society board member and president of the Scarborough Historical Society, said that people first began summering in Prouts Neck “because of its physical beauty and also to escape the pollution and heat of the cities.”
But, he said, Prouts Neck might not have become so popular without the railroads, which, in order to boost the number of its passengers, touted the neck as a great location to spend the summer. In fact, Laughton said the railroad “made all this possible. It really made Scarborough a destination.”
The Prouts Neck Historical Society was created a couple years ago as the community realized it was losing its older members, who carried a lot of institutional knowledge about the traditions and history of the neck, Laughton said.
“People really just decided there was a need to preserve the history” of Prouts Neck, he said. So far the historical society has published two hardcover books detailing some of the history and people of the neck, with the second book coming out this summer.
However, the historical society’s archives are almost exclusively digital, with Jackson spending most of his summer internship scanning photos, letters, postcards and other ephemera of historical value. In addition, the historical society also now puts out a monthly e-newsletter.
What Jackson, who just graduated from Scarborough High School, is learning this summer, he said, is how grand, worldwide events had an impact on Prouts Neck, like the submarine tower built in WWII to watch for German U-boats.
He will attend the American University in Paris in the fall where he will study international comparative politics. But Jackson said he was drawn to the internship with the Prouts Neck Historical Society because, “I’m really interested in history and never had the chance to dig deep into local history.”
Jackson worked for Laughton at his Breakwater Inn in Higgins Beach last summer, and it was Laughton who suggested that he apply for the internship with the Prouts Neck Historical Society.
“Talking with Rodney really interested me, and I live on Black Point Road” not too far from Prouts Neck, Jackson said.
Jackson said the historical society’s goal is to “raise awareness of the area and its history.”
He added that after the death of Chip Willauer, a well-known Prouts resident, who died in 2013, people on the neck began to realize the “time is now to preserve our fragile history and memories (because) it’s really such a small, enclosed community.”
Phil von Stade, executive director of the Prouts Neck Historical Society, could not be reached for comment before deadline.
A view of Western Beach and the Prouts Neck Country Club.
A summer home perched on the ledges at Checkley Point.
The Prouts Neck Yacht Club was originally formed in 1925.
The cliff walk at Prouts Neck offers sweeping ocean views.
People playing tennis on the grass at the Checkley Hotel, circa 1900. Tennis is still a favorite pastime of Prouts Neck residents.
An overview of Prouts Neck as it looked in 1929. The large structure in the front is the Checkley Hotel.
This traditional Prouts Neck cottage has a distinctly Victorian feel.
The bathing club and beach at Prouts Neck.
The rocky coastline of Prouts Neck made famous by artist Winslow Homer.
A closer look
The Prouts Neck Historical Society can be found online at www.proutsneckhistory.org. The organization is always looking for new content, from old photos, to family letters and more.
The studio where Winslow Homer painted some of his most dramatic seascapes.