In Maine, an Island of Sweet Lobsters and Salty Humans
"If you are the child of a lobsterman, you're in," said Clayton Philbrook, 52, a bull of a man with four decades of lobstering behind him. "If you marry one of our daughters, you'll get in, too, but it'll take you a while. That isn't the law. That's just the way it works."
There's an unmarked ocean perimeter around Matinicus that lobstermen from other islands do not cross. If they do, a trap line might get cut. Or a boat might float loose from its mooring. At least one Matinicus lobsterman flies a black Jolly Roger flag on the back of his boat.
Philbrook ran a large hand across his gray-flecked beard and smiled. "Matinicus has, let me say, a reputation," he said. "Everyone knows that our ocean bottom is well-enforced."
It has ever been so. This island was named by the Wabanaki Indians, who fished and harvested it. When the first white man, Ebenezer Hall, set anchor and claimed the island in the 18th century, he burned their fields. The chief sent a letter to the colonial governor: If you don't remove him, we'll kill him.
The governor didn't, and they did.
Three families put ashore on the island in the 1820s -- the Ameses, the Philbrooks and the Youngs -- and their descendants still dominate the island. "There are no family trees," a lobsterman explained. "It's a wreath."
The island's population reached a zenith of 270 in the late 19th century. The harbor was a forest of masts, and 70 children crowded the school. "Birth control was unknown," noted an old book, "and children the principal crop."
Matinicus's weather -- the wind blows 60 knots in the winter, and "shut-down" rain can fall for days -- offered a bounty. Forty ships came asunder in the 19th century. "The islanders' first concern was after the safe rescue of the unfortunate sailors," Donna Rogers, a lobsterman's wife, wrote in her history of Matinicus. "But not too far in the back of their minds was also the rescue of useful items from these ships."
That's how islanders acquired calico curtains and grindstones and molasses and, best of all, rum. As Rogers noted: "It's a damn fool would spend hours on the water, in ass freezing cold, without a touch to warm the innards. And there have never been many fools on Matinicus."
The young sternmen, who live two or three to a room in the ramshackle gray wood buildings that sit on pilings around the harbor, are the most unruly of this lot. One sternman hurt himself badly a few years back but refused an airlift to the mainland because he faced an outstanding bench warrant.
For years, judges on the mainland offered wayward sternmen a choice: 10 days in jail or go to Matinicus.
Desperately Seeking Kids
The Matinicus eighth-grade graduating class consists of Stephen, 14. The fifth grade has three 11-year-olds, and the kindergarten is represented by little blond Isabella. That's the student body.
Pat Walchli, 52, who has the distant smile of a woman accustomed to keeping her own company, is the teacher. "I was kind of burned out with all the rules on mainland," said Walchli, who has lived in a dozen places around the world. "I knew if I was the principal, the nurse and the faculty, I wouldn't have to go to faculty meetings anymore."
The general store has closed. There is no doctor. The mail comes in, fog depending. Older lobstermen live off the island during the winter. The school represents the island's future, and last September, Stephen was the only student.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Clayton Philbrook, 52, has been a lobsterman for four decades. He said Matinicus lobstermen are known for being particularly independent.
(Michael Powell - The Washington Post)