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My uncle used to tell the story of a retired sea captain - Captain Billings - who lived in a classic Maine cape in the Knox County town of Tenants Harbor. The house had been built by Captain Billing’s great-grandfather - also a sea captain - and had been in his family for over a hundred years.
My uncle said the fine old family house sat on about ten acres of land that ran down to the harbor, where Captain Billings owned 300-feet of deepwater frontage.
One of the odd things about the house, my uncle would say, was that you couldn't see the water from either the large dining room or the big comfortable parlor beside it. Both rooms had large windows with views of the back field. But the land sloped up toward the back field, effectively blocking any view of the water.
Being nosy my uncle said he asked Captain Billings if there was a view of the water from any of the upstairs rooms and he simply said 'No, there isn't.” He added there was no view of the water from any window in the house.
My uncle said he was surprised by his answer, so after a polite pause he said he had to ask why he thought his great-grandfather would build a nice house on a big beautiful piece of land with water frontage and decide to put it in probably the one spot where he'd have no view of the harbor.
My uncle said Captain Billings gave him a glimpse into the mind of his 19-century forebears when he said, probably reciting an old family argument passed down from father to son: “You have to understand that back then Tenants Harbor was full of all kinds of vessels, large and small, that were coming and going some hauling passengers, some hauling granite, or coal.” Captain Billings said: “Today we have the Maine Turnpike to do all that hauling but back then it was all done by boats. My great-grandfather earned his living on ships and when he came home after a long voyage the last thing he wanted to do was look out onto a loud, busy harbor full of vessels. It's probably the same reason that people today don't want to build a nice place with a view of a busy exit on the Maine Turnpike.
My uncle thought Captain Billings made a good case.
My uncle said other waterfront towns in Maine, towns like Thomaston, whose Main Street was lined with fine old sea captain's houses, that didn't seem to have much of a view of the harbor, either.
After a while Captain Billings continued his explanation saying, In those days, if you wanted a nice place on the water you bought land on a lake, like Chickawaukie. On a lake you had no loud cargo vessels coming and going and no 12-foot tides to go out and leave behind nothing but seaweed-covered rocks, deep mud and the smell of clam flats.'
My uncle’s story made me realize once again how the views and values on Maine real estate had changed in just my lifetime, especially in Maine’s mid-coast area.
I remember as a kid hearing about small lots in St. George on the water - deep water frontage - that were being offered for sale for hundreds of dollars.
Back in the 1960s there was a house on a small lot near us that was offered to my father for $400.00 cash. Dad said he'd think about it.
Recently I was looking at the annual report of Tenants Harbor, where my uncle used to own a 4-acre piece of land on the water. According to the town's assessors my uncle's lot alone was now valued at over a million dollars. He had sold it in 1963 for $16,000 and thought he had made a killing.
Come to think of it, my uncle never had much luck with buying Mega Bucks tickets either.
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly throughout
New England. Contact John at mainestoryteller@yahoo.com or 899-1868.
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