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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A Maine Island Struggles to Stay Afloat

Air Date: Week of
The Cliff Island Post Office. (Photo: Jack Rodolico)

The residents of Cliff Island, off the coast of Maine, breathed a sigh of relief when the Postmaster General decided to keep small post offices open, at least for the time being. But that might not be enough to keep their island going as a year-round residence. Jack Rodolico took the ferry to Cliff Island and has our story.


GELLERMAN: The bills at the U.S. Postal Service are stacking up faster than third class junk mail. These haven’t been red letter days for the USPS – it's been hemorrhaging 36 million dollars a day and a bail out check from Congress is definitely not in the mail.

The service considered shutting down 37 hundred post offices around the nation,
but now, it’s decided to hold off and cut back hours instead. Still, that may not be enough in savings so small communities like Cliff Island, off the coast of Maine, remain worried. Reporter Jack Rodolico took a ferry to 04019 where a single post office serves the one square mile island.


RODOLICO: Cliff Island is classic Maine – windswept evergreen trees, set back from the rocky coast, quaint little houses with wooden shingles. Most of the island’s residents live on the west side, which is closer to the mainland and protected from the open sea.


RODOLICO: On a brisk, sunny day, Chester Pettengill stands at the ferry landing waiting for the noon boat. He’s lived here all his life, 76 years, and he’s a descendent of both families who originally settled the island.

PETTENGILL: Well, one half of the island belonged to the Griffin family, and the other half was Pettengill. Of course, they intermarried because there was no choice. [LAUGHS].

Volunteer firefighters at the Cliff Island fire station.
(Photo: Jack Rodolico)

RODOLICO: In some ways the island hasn’t changed much since it was settled in 1813. All the roads are dirt, no one locks their doors. There’s a church, a grocery store, a one-room schoolhouse, and a small fire station. And today, as he does six days every week, Chester takes the island’s mail from the ferry…


RODOLICO: …to his car…


RODOLICO:…across the street…to the island’s Post Office.


RODOLICO:There’s not much happening at the Cliff Island Post Office.…no big rush of customers, just a slow trickle over the course of an hour. But for the 50 people who live on Cliff Island year round, getting the mail is an important daily ritual. Chester Pettengill says islanders would be lost if the post office closes.

PETTENGILL: It would be very inconvenient for everyone. It would be a hardship really.

ANDERSON: If you’re on the mainland you can eventually get to a post office. But here, you can’t.

RODOLICO: Norman Anderson is a 78-year-old lobsterman. He says social interaction, no matter how small, is essential to island life.

ANDERSON: For an island community to survive, there are certain things you need. School, post office, store are the basic things to keep year-rounders here. Without those, the island community tends to fall apart.

RODOLICO:That’s already happening. Many Cliff Island houses have been sold and purchased as summer homes. The church closes for the winter, and so does the grocery store because there’s not enough business. Only a couple ferries travel to and from Portland daily, so if you want groceries or anything else in town, you have to schedule your day carefully. Islanders save time by shopping online – prescriptions, clothing and food all come in the mail. And for this small island’s residents, the post office is a public gathering place, especially in winter. Norman Anderson fears it’s the end of a way of life.

Norman and Pam Anderson on the front porch of their home, which they've owned for 40 years. Norman's lobster boat is anchored just out back.
(Photo: Jack Rodolico)

ANDERSON: The future doesn’t look too bright for the island, to be honest with you. It will eventually be a summer community, I think. Looking back at my age, unless things start going in the other way, and I don’t see that happening.


RODOLICO: The recess bell sits on a plaque with the names of every teacher the school has seen since 1880. Five-year-old Sofie Lent gives me a tour.

LENT: And this is the center’s area. And this is an iPad and this is a computer but the kids can’t touch it. And this is the pull up bar.

RODOLICO: You have to be really strong to do that.

LENT: Yeah, I eat broccoli.

RODOLICO: Some twenty children between pre-k and fifth grade used to cram into this schoolhouse. Now there are four students, and only one is old enough to write. Island parents have a hard time convincing young families to move here. But for the kids who are here, island life is great.

Fourteen-year-old Samantha Crowley graduated from this school. At the kitchen table with her parents, she says island kids enjoy freedoms unheard of on the mainland.

CROWLEY: People come out and think it’s so cool that you can lie down in the road and no one will run you over. You don’t have to be worried about that.

RODOLICO: Despite the fun, there are also major inconveniences. When they graduate from the Cliff Island school, island kids have to commute to the mainland.

CROWLEY: I have three hours of boat a day, and I have an hour of bus a day. So I have four hours of just traveling a day.

RODOLICO: And Norman Anderson says there’s another inconvenience: rising property taxes.

ANDERSON: My tax bill is so darn high and that’s what will kill us, is the taxes. Oh we’ll get by, just maybe not out here.

RODOLICO: Norman and Pam Anderson may have to move out of the modest oceanfront home they’ve lived in for 40 years. Fishermen used to be able to afford waterfront houses, but as vacation homes have become more common in Maine, waterfront taxes have skyrocketed.

If the Andersons sell their home, chances are someone will buy it as a second house. Samantha’s mom, Cheryl Crowley, says year-rounders know there’s a price to rural living.

CROWLEY: There’s an idyllic vision of what island life must be like, you know? And there’s definitely that. I mean, look at what we get to look at and walk around to. But it takes work. It’s a commitment to a lifestyle.

RODOLICO: Crowley and other islanders say if the post office closes, it could push the community over the edge.

CROWLEY: I always feel like we’re in this fragile balance of working towards the greater good: keeping our population going. And, yes, all age groups, all people contribute in some way or another.

RODOLICO: Cliff Island is a sort of time capsule that holds the way small towns in America used to be. If your kids disappear for three hours, you can be sure someone will watch out for them. People know who’s driving towards them by the sound of the car engine. And Cheryl Crowley’s husband Dave says there’s no anonymity.

CROWLEY: There was an old saying that I always stick to that the nice thing about living in a small community is if you ever forget what you’re doing, somebody else knows.

RODOLICO: Dave has been here since 1975, but he considers himself a relative newcomer. He says he carries the weight of the island’s legacy.

CROWLEY: There are people that are five, six generation Cliff Islanders. And I still feel like we should be stewards of their island.

RODOLICO: When this Island was being settled in the 1800s, there were 300 year-round islands off the coast of Maine. Today, there are just fifteen. Islands like Cliff Island are isolated social ecosystems, and Cheryl and Dave Crowley believe they’ll need new blood to survive.

CROWLEY: If you lose the younger age group of population – I don’t mean just the kids but their parents – then you lose the people who do things like the rescue, fire and rescue. You know, who’s gonna jump in the fire trucks and ambulance? Who do you want picking you up off the floor?

CROWLEY: It snowballs. And then what happens is once there’s nobody to take care of them because there’s no fire department, no rescue, they tend to leave. And then the island dries up and it becomes strictly summer community. And the light goes out.

RODOLICO: The Postmaster General’s decision to cut hours and not close post offices is good news for Cliff Islanders. As they struggle to retain and re-build their population, the post office will remain a cornerstone for their small community, at least for now.
For Living on Earth, I’m Jack Rodolico.




Cliff Island website


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