Campobello Island

Campobello Island: Far from the Mainstream

The following transcription is reprinted with permission of Yankee Publishing. Copyright, September 1980. Subscriptions to Yankee magazine are available at 1-800-288-4284. Text by Stephen O. Muskie.

"Legally part of Canada but physically linked to Maine, Campobello has given its residents a
unique sense of place and a singular rhythm to there lives.

Campobello Island lies shrouded by the cool, blue mist of early morning that slowly evaporates
into the clean, bright air of midday. It's shore is shaped by continual pounding of the icy surf from the Bay of Fundy, and its air is tangy with the mixed scents of land and sea. Campobello has changed little over the centuries that man has known it.

The nothern and southern ends of the island provide a dramatic topographical contrast. The north, with its ledges, thin topsoil, and low hills, resembles the coast of Scotland. The south is luxuriant with ferns and flowers, culminating in the Fog Forest at Liberty Point, an errie, gray-green world of lichen-hung trees shrouded in the perpetual fog.

Campobello seems far away, and indeed it is: as the end of the cultural line, the technological line, the shipping line, the energy line, the financial line. It is a Canadian island, only a stone's throw away
from the United States, 12 miles by sea from the Canadian mainland. For years, because the only medical service in the area was in Lubec, Maine, just across the narrows, many Campobello babies were born in that Maine town, with the resultant right to choose there citizenship in the United States.

The first known settlement of the island by Europeans was in 1684; five years later, a census listed the island's inhabitants as four men, four women, eight boys, five girls, four horses, and seven horned cattle. But the island's recorded history really began in 1767 when it was granted to Captain William Owen by Lord William Campbell, the British governor of Nova Scotia.

Owen christened the island Campo Bello, partly punning on the name of the governor and partly in response to the island's beautty - "Campo Bello being, so I presume, the Spanish and the Italian equivalent of the French beauchamp or the British fair field" he wrote.

Owen and his descendants ruled the island for the next 114 years, according to one historian, "as a feudal fief of a dynasty of welsh seamen .... The Principal Propreitary was the island's lord, and the people were his tenants .... He performed marriages. He prepared sermons and preached them in the church that he had caused to be built. He was inclined to regard the island's militiamen as his private army."

The Owen era ended about 1880 when the widow of the fourth and last Proprietary decided to sell her rights to Campobello to a group of American businessmen. With a capital of one million dollars, they intended to develope the island into a summer resort, an escape for wealthy residents of Boston, New York, and Montreal. The resort community on the southern end of the island grew to include many spacious cottages and three large hotels, offering "a quiet and retired life, made wholesome by the soft yet bracing air, never too hot and seldom too cold."

Among the visitors to the island in 1883 were James and Sara Roosevelt, who brought with them their one-year-old son, Franklin. They liked the place so well that they bought 10 acres of land overlooking Friar's bay and erected a cottage of their own. Young Franklin spent his boyhood summers on the island, met his future wife, Eleanor, there and in his fortieth year contracted polio there. Because of his love for the island and its role in shaping his future, a tribute to his memory was developed on the island in 1964 - the Roosevelt Campobello International Park - to preserve FDR's summer home and help visitors to understand what made Campobello a special place for him.

A bridge to the mainland, linking Campobello and Lubec, Maine, had been opened in 1962, and many islanders complained that the island had lost its sense of independence and self-sufficiency. Yet, when the park closes and the tourists leave in mid-October the sense of isolation returns. The two seasonal motels shutter their doors for the winter; the restaurants and roadside hamburger stands also close. (The 19th century resort hotels have long since vanished.) There are no theaters, no museums, and no shopping centers, just two general stores. Entertainment revolves around Canadian televison, senior citizens' dinners, quilting parties, school sporting events, darts and bingo. Talk of the town turns to two huge energy projects that have been proposed but never realized - one is the possibility of building an oil refinery at Eastport, Maine, the only natural deep-water port on the East Coast; the other is a plan to harness the powerful tides in Passamaquoddy Bay to produce electric power. Both have the potential to alter the lives of the residents of Campobello considerably.

Yet the rhythms of daily life go on, more in keeping with the tides and with outside controversy. Most of the islanders work as fishermen or in the fish -processing plants. A few build boats, repair automobiles, gather evergreens for wreaths, or do carpentry. They seem to take their time and enjoy their lives. Their speech remains distinct and unique, with intonations that might come from the mouth of a Frenchman who had learned his English in Wales. A native of Campobello could recognize another anywhere, as soon as he heard him speak."

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