May 26, 2019

New town fills coffers selling T-shirts

Maine’s newest town didn’t appear to have changed much since my last visit a summer ago.

Seen from the upper deck of the ferry, it looked as fresh and lovely as ever, a lush green mound surrounded by bobbing boats on a shimmering sea. The narrow, winding roads, cracked and sand-swept, were still perfectly suited to strollers with their beach gear, kids on bikes, and those sputtering comical wrecks that pass for cars on this island in Casco Bay.

The little cottages sprinkled about the place were the same, too, in their ageless charm. And the unsinkable Mary was there, as she has been for decades, hauling baggage, newspapers and snippets of essential information from one end of the island to the other in her rattling old station wagon.

But the community of Long Island had, in fact, changed dramatically while I was away. It had become a town of its own, and the proud people who worked so hard to make it happen were quietly celebrating their first summer of independence.

On the crowded bulletin board at Clarke’s Store, the simple wooden building around which all island life revolves, an old poster announced a picnic that was held on July 1, the day Long Island’s secession from Portland became official. A newer poster, decorated with a child’s drawing of the bottom of the sea, invited everyone to turn out for the big summer festival later this month. There would be music and food and helicopter rides from the old ballfield, the poster promised.

Inside, taped to the cash register, was a notice that explained that breaking away from Portland after so long meant coming into existence “as naked as a baby.” It meant having its own board of selectmen, a school board, a dump to run and a town treasury without a dime in it until the next tax payments came due in September.

Yet despite some uncertainty about Long Island’s future, being its own town also meant pulling together in a way that these 176 year-round islanders had never known before.

“We’re determined to make it,” said Shirley, one of the two women who run the store with a boundless supply of cheerful efficiency.

As she rang up an order — two lollipops and an ice cream cone for one small boy — Shirley pointed behind her to a gray T-shirt hanging in the window. Printed on the front of the shirt was the proud message “Long Island, est. 1993.”

Faced with the problem of running a town that was temporarily broke, the islanders resorted to selling the T-shirts to pay their bills, Shirley told me. Visitors from throughout Maine stopped at the store to say they had read of Long Island’s decision to secede because its tax burden to Portland had become unmanageable. The visitors all wished the town well in its new life, and showed their support by buying a T-shirt or two. When the story appeared in The New York Times, orders for T-shirts began coming in from all over the country, along with letters of congratulations to the hardy band of Yankees.

“Everyone got behind the little guy,” Shirley said with a big smile. “Most of them had never been to Long Island, Maine, and probably never would, but they just wanted to help our cause. We’ve all been riding a real high since July 1.”

Later that night I dropped into The Spar, the only nightspot in the newest town in Maine. Local folks and summer people alike jammed the small room overlooking the harbor and danced the night away to the music of an island band called Plan B. Shirley was there, too, moving through the crowd with two luminous stars bobbing on springs from her headband. For the people of Long Island, this was more than just a night out; it was a toast to the future.

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