A Community Thrives in Brooklin
Inside the quiet, bookish, boat-loving town on the tip of the Blue Hill Peninsula
Wedged between Deer Isle to the west and Mount Desert Island to the east, Brooklin is surrounded by some of the premier sailing waters on the East Coast. It might be best known for its picturesque bays and waterways—Blue Hill, Herrick, Jericho, Eggemoggin—and its harbors filled with locally built wooden crafts. The view from these waters offers an important perspective on the downeast town. By boat, one can see points and inlets unreachable by car, as well as evidence of Brooklin’s robust summer community in the grand cottages, quaint Capes, and old stone homes tucked away on private dirt roads. One can also watch fishermen starting up their motors, riggers assembling masts, and painters prepping yachts for fresh coats of varnish at the beginning of a busy day.
Because so much of the town’s economic activity is oriented toward the water, the village, slightly inland, is decidedly quieter, composed of a modest collection of old buildings and homes clustered around the juncture where Route 175 meets Naskeag Road. You’re not likely to catch a crowd unless you drive by during the Fourth of July parade or early in the morning, when locals gather for coffee and conversation at the Baptist church—a temporary meeting place until their beloved Brooklin General Store is rebuilt. Across the street is another community staple: the Friends Memorial Library, which has the highest circulation in Maine for a town of this size. This is a point of pride here, and partly a result of the town’s rich literary history, which more or less began in 1957 when author E.B. White and his wife, New Yorker fiction editor and writer Katharine White, moved permanently from Manhattan to an eighteenth century farmhouse on Route 175.
In a town of 850 residents (2,800 in the summertime), people do without certain conveniences in favor of peace and quiet and a strong sense of community. To do their banking and grocery shopping, residents drive the 10 or so miles to Blue Hill. The few businesses in Brooklin include Betsy’s Sunflower on Reach Road, where Betsy Doherty has been selling home goods, garden supplies, books, and gifts since 2009, and a handful of inns: the Lookout on Flye Point Road, Mountain Ash House on Mountain Ash Road, and the Brooklin Inn on Route 175, where Chip and Gail Angell also offer fine dining on the first floor and casual fare at the Irish pub in a basement that opens onto a garden checkered with raised beds for vegetables, herbs, and wild flowers for the tables. “You often see the same people at coffee in the morning, and then at coffee break, lunch, and then they might come into the pub at night,” says Chip. In such a tight- knit community, “people help each other out in times of need. One of my long-term waitresses had to have an operation, so the bartenders decided to hold a special event for her. They raised $3,000 in one night. When oil prices were high, the town raised over $7,000 one winter night for people who couldn’t afford to heat their homes.”
Despite the solitude, there is a lot of significance here. Yacht designer Joel M. White (son of E.B. and Katharine White) took over the Brooklin Boat Yard in Center Harbor in 1960. Now his son, Steve White, owns the Yard, which employs more than 60 people and offers wooden, fiberglass, and composite boat design, construction, repair, maintenance, and restoration services. Last summer, the company finished building a 74-foot German Frers– designed daysailer, Foggy, for famed architect Frank Gehry. WoodenBoat magazine opened its editorial offices here in 1974 and the affiliate WoodenBoat School in 1981, which, through its intensive week- and two-week-long courses, welcomes as many as 800 students to Brooklin every summer.
“Even though it’s pretty geographically isolated, Brooklin isn’t as insulated as many people think it is,” says Steve White, who works with clients from all over the world, some of whom come to Brooklin specifically to sail. “There are a lot of interesting people living on this whole Blue Hill peninsula, with a fairly diverse set of interests and professions. If they’re not working for WoodenBoat or fishing or lobstering, many are working for themselves or working from home for large—often global—companies, and they bring in that outside perspective.”
Brooklin’s arts community is also distinguished. In the summer, the town is home to several renowned American authors, including Roger Angell (the son of Katharine White and stepson of E.B. White), Michael Chabon, Ayelet Waldman, Ben Marcus, Heidi Julavits, Jonathan Lethem, and Peter Behrens. When a local writer publishes a book, Doherty holds signing events on the front lawn of Betsy’s Sunflower. “It’s really fun, and humbling, for me to look out at the combination of talents in my yard,” she says. “In what other small town would that happen?” There’s a unique creative energy in Brooklin, she adds—a symbiotic relationship between the craftspeople at work in the boatyards, the writers at work at their desks, and the artists painting en plein air on the roadside. Behrens, a Montreal native who spent his childhood summers in southern Maine, feels it too: “The Brooklin Boat Yard is important and inspiring to me because I feel they are doing the same kind of work I’m doing: turning an idea into a thing, step by step, piece by piece, line by line.”
When landscape artist Tom Curry and his wife, children’s science book author Kim Ridley, moved from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Brooklin in 1995, he was immediately transfixed by what he calls the “nebulous craziness” of the unspoiled natural environment, the minutiae of the tides and light, and the way phytoplankton turns the water into an uncanny cerulean green. He devoted himself to studying these endless shifts in nature in a series of portraits of uninhabited Chatto Island in Eggemoggin Reach. “In places like Walden Pond in Massachusetts, I always felt like every square inch had been stepped on already. But here, nature is powerful, intact. It has this sense of itself.” And while in the city he was always leaving to escape the crowds, in Brooklin he started to see people as a resource and to realize how important and sustaining relationships can be. “You feel like you’re all in it together,” says Curry, who loves the quirky parties and potlucks held throughout the year, particularly during the winter months, when a sense of isolation can get you down.
“I don’t think you just accidentally end up here,” says Doherty. Many people in Brooklin have lived on the tip of the Blue Hill peninsula all their lives, or continue to make an annual pilgrimage to a summer cottage that belonged to their parents, grandparents, and great- grandparents before them. And there are new people joining the community all the time. “People come for the WoodenBoat School, a temporary job, or a vacation and end up getting hooked.” Rich Hilsinger, who arrived in Brooklin in 1984 to attend a three- week workshop at the WoodenBoat School, is among them. “The fact that this welcoming little town on the coast also had all the wooden boats a person could dream of? It was like the Magic Kingdom for me,” says Hilsinger, who has been the school’s director for 26 years.
In his essay “Home-Coming,” White describes the sense of rightness he regularly felt upon returning to Brooklin. “Familiarity is the thing— the sense of belonging. It grants exemption from all evil, all shabbiness. A farmer pauses in the doorway of his barn and he is wearing the right boots. A sheep stands under an apple tree and it wears the right look, and the treeishungwithpuckeredfrozenfruit of the right color.” When it’s right, it’s right, the old adage goes. And so it is in Brooklin.