The Mermaid Inn was not the best in town. However, it had the distinction of surviving an insurance fire staged by New York owners and abandonment in the Great Depression.
Having survived hardship, The Inn had acquired the crusty “knock me down, and I’ll get back up” reputation that locals admired because they saw it as among their best traits. It also had the distinction of being the summer residence of J. Paul Henry, a prominent travel writer of the era immediately following the Second World War. Mr. Henry was in “residence” from mid-June through mid-October when he decamped to his Key West home.
The annual residency was heralded by the advance arrival of Mr. Henry’s great walk-in teak travel chest. A local boatbuilder opined that those chests were made from enough old-growth teak and mahogany to get out at least two fast motor boats. The boys who handled the delivery always questioned the pronunciation of the travel stickers, tags, and posters that decorated the chests. Of course, the many retired mariners and Navy men in town knew the exotic locations, but these were the first accurate indication that those places existed for the boys.
Despite a years-long effort by the local Chamber of Commerce to persuade Mr. Henry to write about the town, he refused. It was perfect as it was, he insisted. Too many summer complaints, he stated, would ruin the place. Local business owners construed this to mean that Mr. Henry wanted to keep it a well-kept secret all to himself, something he did not bother to deny.
Then a travel writer from a competing ” New York Rag” came to town for a visit. He stayed at the newer Mountsweg Inn in the center of town. Unfortunately, his opinion of the locale was at odds with that of Mr. Henry. The coffee at the restaurants was consistently weak, the local boating club plebian at best, and the harbor overvalued as an attraction.
This screed, when published, had more of an effect on a weak local economy than the years of celebrated residence by Mr. Henry.
But time, and the recording of history, tend to forget many things once thought important, focusing attention elsewhere. So when a very oversized walk-in teak travel chest was bequeathed to the local historical society by the estate of Mr. Henry, it came as a surprise. It took a survey of older residents to recall who Mr. Henry had been. And then there was a minor crisis over where to put the walk-in travel chest; actually, what the hell they were going to do with it. Finally, the estate sent a warm note in Mr. Henry’s writing, glowingly recalling his time spent rusticating locally, the community’s wonderful residents, and the area’s gratifying natural beauty. This was all very well, but the Board of Directors of the Historical Society had to come up with a place to store the monstrosity while they decided what to do with it. A note of thanks went back to the estate executor that if a suitable amount of money was contributed, an exhibit on Mr. Henry could be mounted. The letter met with silence from the executor. They stored the chest outside under a tarp.
For years that was the fate of the chest; it was so solidly constructed out of old-growth tropical hardwoods that it seemed to shrug off the effect of the Maine winters and thrived under its layering of tarps. Who knows how long it might have sat there if not for the local boat club deciding to have a boat race open to all comers who’d enter the race in whimsical homemade boats. Prizes would be awarded for completing the course, being the most daring entry, and honorable mentions for most unique construction.
The Historical Society saw an opportunity for unloading, that is, making use of the large walk-in trunk; the chest might do for their entry. So they called upon my father-in-law, the Cap’n, and a well-regarded local boatbuilder Wallace Allen, to survey the chest, and determine what they could make of it.
The chest was solidly overbuilt. In its time, it had moved around the world on steamships to exotic locations marked on its surface with old travel posters. There were so many that, in places, they seemed to form a veneer over the teak and mahogany. An immersion test was done, and the vessel was declared tight and potentially seaworthy.
The Cap’n and the builder added a skeg for stability and some ballast. Sparring was selected, and renovations got made to allow for rigging. It would be a bastardized Catboat/Sloop with a tiny jib sail and a salvaged storm sail off a larger boat for the main. I was selected to be captain and crew.
The day of the race was also the first test of the rig. This wasn’t too much of a handicap because many other entries also saw water for the first time. Unfortunately, about half the entries sank before making it to the start line. Innovation in design did not necessarily equate with good sail characteristics, so the butterfly, the Batmobile, and the windmill boat went adrift very rapidly. We had named our vessel the J.Paul Henry, and our main competitor turned out to be the pontoon inner tube boat with Chinese Junk sails crewed by women from the Ladies Civic League. The only other boat that could keep to the course was a converted ice boat mounted on twin canoe hulls – the Ice Queen. Unfortunately, the Ice Queen had a mishap when the lashing holding it together failed. Now the race was between the Ladies Civic League and our boat. Despite shifting winds, we both made it around the course in good time and raced downwind for the finish. It looked like a dead heat until the main sheet on the Civic League’s boat parted, and she rounded up to windward and stalled in irons. The J Paul Henry smartly crossed the finish line, won first prize, and a photo in the local newspaper.
The only sour note was the scathing denunciation published by several local antique dealers the following week. They decried how a bunch of local heathen had cut up a historic teak and mahogany trunk, ruining its considerable value for a brief frolic. This letter appeared on page seven. On page two, there was another picture of the J Paul Henry, the Cap’n, and Mr. Allen. They would head up the committee for next year’s race. Since the race had been a great success, attracted lots of tourist visitation, and brought much attention locally, the Chamber of Commerce was thrilled that J Paul Henry had, at last, made a substantial contribution to the community.
You can guess which article received the most attention.