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I've been asked many times, many ways: What do you mean by 'Down East,' anyway? They ask, I guess, because I've been known to tell "Down East" stories.
These days Down East could mean anything, anywhere in Maine. You could have a combination internet café and kosher deli in Kittery called the Down East Internet Café and Kosher Deli and no one would question the name.
We have nothing against internet cafés or kosher delis, in fact, when I'm sure my personal physician won't find out, I duck into Portland's Full Belly Deli for some knishes or a pastrami on dark rye with mustard. I wouldn't question when Kittery went kosher. My only question would be - when did Kittery become Down East?
There's a lot that's still murky about the meaning of 'Down East' or 'Down East' as some would have it. Even at this late date we can't yet agree on whether Downeast is a single word, or whether Down East is a two-word phrase. And that's just the beginning of the problem with Down East.
A question you often get from summer complaints - or 'people from away' is: How come they call a place that looks like it's 'up-north' 'down east?'
It's a good question and I'm sure there are all kinds of clever answers we could come up with here (some of the cruder ones involving your mother) but for the time being we'll try and avoid the temptation to blurt out any of those answers.
Before we get down to answering the question of what we mean when we say Down East - I just want to say there's not a quick, suitable answer to the question: Why is Maine called Down East?
All that aside, to get the answer you have to go way back to the nineteenth century when most everything in and out of Maine arrived and departed on sailing vessels.
To sailors heading out of Boston - New England's major port - the easiest trip you could get was a sail to Maine, since the prevailing winds along the New England coast were most-often from the southwest to the northeast. If you were on a schooner sailing from Boston to Maine you could expect a pleasant down-wind sail to the northeast. To continue this, you could say that the least popular voyage for 19th century sailors was an up-wind sail from Down East to Boston.
When a sailor in Boston was asked where they were off to he might say he was heading to Maine. But rather than drag the whole thing out and say I'm taking a down-wind sail to the northeast - he would simply say I'm heading Down East. Back then any destination from Maine to the Maritime Provinces of Canada was considered 'downeast' to sailors heading out of Boston.
Even when I was a kid back in the sixties my grandfather would insist that if you were going to a ball game at Fenway Park you were going 'up' to Boston and when the game was over you'd leave Boston and come back 'down' to Maine.
Once we've settled what the words Down East mean there's the whole question of where Down East begins. I once asked a new arrival to Portland if they'd ever been Down East and they matter-of-factly stated: I've been to Freeport.
Now, most everyone would admit that Freeport has more claim to the designation Down East than Fryeberg but just barely.
Most people in Portland and further south agree that you're not really Down East until you get up to about Bath, the shipbuilding town on the mighty Kennebec. In Bath you might be told that you have to go beyond Thomaston to Rockland if you want to get the feel for Down East.
In Rockland they're likely to laugh right in your face and then tell you to keep on truckin' because you wont even get a good whiff of Down East until you get to the former broiler capital of the world - Belfast.
By now you should begin to catch on so you won't even stop in Belfast, you'll just keep going. In Searsport someone there will tell you that you're getting closer but you'll have to get east of Ellsworth before you're in the vicinity of Down East.
This will go on-and-on until you finally find yourself in the visitor parking lot at West Quoddy Head Light - the eastern most point of land in the United States. Then you'll scratch your head and wonder - as many have wondered before you - why is the easternmost point of land in the United States, the eastern most point of land in Down East, Maine called WEST Quoddy Head?
Let me know if you have an answer to that.
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly throughout
New England. Contact John at or 899-1868.
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