When I drive from my home in mid-Maine to the coast, I pass a dilapidated chicken barn that never fails to affect me. It's a gigantic wooden structure, collapsing in on itself, as if a tremendous shoe had stomped on the roof then given the wall a kick for good measure. If my mood is light, I think of the place as a marvelous wreck, but the first time I saw it - a day when I was weary of mid-Maine winter - the barn seemed a piece with the neighboring houses, places where, if I'd only stop my car and knock on the door, someone would cut my hair, or fix my small appliances, or sell me a fluorescent mobile in the shape of a cross. The impossible project of making a living! Who wanted to be reminded?
So I sped past the barn and drove to Belfast, which seemed the perfect antidote. A walk by the redbrick storefronts on Main Street took me downhill past bookstores, bakeries, antiques shops, art galleries, and diners. The street dead-ended at the water, where a playhouse, lined with church pews, offered community theater productions. Perhaps, I thought, this was a town where we might settle.
I did some calling around, and some people offered up this rhyme:
Camden by the sea.
Rockland by the smell.
And if you want to go to hell fast,
Then you go to Belfast.
Then they'd explain. Belfast used to be "the Broiler Capital of New England," and in the heyday of poultry production in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, 200,000 chickens arrived each morning at the doors of the two processing plants down on the shore.
As a girl, Marjorie Crowley used to summer in Bayside, a community just south of Belfast. "You could be downtown in July," she remembers, "and it was like a snowstorm," with the feathers raining down on you. Birds were always falling off the trucks and people snatched them up. "Everyone had a chicken, it seemed." Even so, there were birds to spare, "stray, disoriented chickens, wobbling around town." Locals raked feathers off their lawns like so many autumn leaves.
But it wasn't just the feathers that made the city, in the words of one resident, "a nasty, oily mess." The processing plants dumped blood and entrails into the bay. There was a greasy fat line along the water. You never knew when a chicken foot might bob by. You could fish, if you wanted to catch dogfish. No one went swimming. The town, quite literally, stank.
It's an unpleasant picture, and yet last summer the city celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Broiler Festival (now called the Belfast Bay Festival), even though the last relic of the industry, the old Penobscot Poultry processing plant, had recently been razed. Indeed, the business that now dominates town - the business that paid for the razing - is a newcomer: the credit-card corporation MBNA, a "clean" industry that is promising by the year 2000 to employ 3,000 people in a town of 6,500.
But the more I talk to people, the more things make sense. The celebration expressed, however obliquely, Belfast's hope for itself: to preserve the town's character in the face of change. "This isn't Camden," people like to say. What they mean is that Belfast isn't crowded or overly commercial. What they mean is that they're proud of Belfast's blue-collar roots, its tolerance for eccentrics, its "alternative" community, its messy, feathery past.
The first Broiler Queen was Betty Perry Blood, now of San Jose, California. "July 9," she writes of the day of her crowning in1947,"did make me a Cinderella....We were a very poor family, and I felt as if I had been picked up and dropped on a different planet." She also confesses, "When the judge asked me a question about Shakespeare, I told him I didn't know who he was. So I guess that part of the judging didn't add many points."
From the beginning, the crowning of the Broiler Queen was
the final event of a several-day celebration that included the world's biggest chicken barbecue - all you could eat for one dollar - as well as exhibits of the latest in poultry technology, fire-works, and a parade. In the 1950s and 1960s, retired English teacher Elsie Boynton remembers, the Broiler Festival was a glamorous event. Marjorie Crowley, who chairs the Broiler Festival's successor, the Bay Festival, agrees:
"It was better than Christmas."
Thousands of people came, tons of chicken was cooked. The crowds continued even after 1965, when the poultry industry stopped sponsoring the event. Now, in the City Park, where there once was a gigantic incubator with Henrietta the Hen laying eggs, there are crafters and carnival rides. The Broiler Queens are a thing of the past, though for the 50th anniversary, all the former monarchs were invited back to Belfast for a reception and commemorative ball.
Over wine and cheese at the Hiram Alden Inn, they recalled the Maine Maritime cadets who served as their escorts, their crowning by the governor, their preparations for the contest. Sue Conant, the 1969 queen, remembered drying her hair under a car vent. Many entered the contest for scholarships and were strangers to Belfast, chicken farming, and beauty pageants. Perhaps recognizing this, the judges' questions changed through the years. In 1959 judges asked Jean Gerry Collert: "What's your favorite chicken dish?" In 1973 judges said to Jan Bailey Bell:
"Do you think a man or a woman should run a household?"
Every month, Belfast locals gather at the town library to share memones with Jay Davis and Tim Hughes, who are writing a history of Belfast in the 20th century. The mayor comes, as do members of the historical society. The day I attend, Tim Hughes quotes from Kathleen Norris's book Dakota "How do you tell the truth in a small town?" He poses this question because he's come across some fairly hot gossip about two once-prominent citizens. Should he make use of it? No, everyone agrees. (How could they say yes? Peyton Place, that celluloid indictment of gossip, was filmed in Belfast.) And yet, as the meeting goes on, the talk turns to "characters": a fellow who used to go about town in a cape, a woman who dressed like a doll, a blacksmith who committed suicide. The point of all these stories, I realize, is that in the long run, Belfast is a forgiving place.
But in the short run? At Canterbury Tales, a well-stocked literary bookstore on Main Street, I chat with the clerk, who, it turns out, is also editor of the Belfast-based Feminist Times. When she learns that I'm writing an article on her town, she says, "Don't make MBNA out to be Belfast's savior.
All the talk in Belfast these days is about MBNA, and when there isn't talk, there's noise - the noise of derricks and bulldozers. MBNA is building down by the bay. It's putting in a ball field on Route 52 - to make up for the land they bought on Route 3. It's putting in a convention center. It's moving power lines from one side of the street to the other.
How Belfast came to be in need of a savior is the story of how the chicken industry failed. And that story - well, how do you tell the truth in a small town?
Belfast was always a one – industry town. In the mid-1800s it was shipbuilding. Later it was shoes. And then, because of three families - the Macleods, Mendelsons, and Savitzes - poultry. Initially the families bought local chickens and either processed them or trucked them, alive, to Boston and New York. After World War II the government pushed chicken production. The local economy needed a boost, and the coastal area didn't lend itself to dairy farming. Eventually the Farmers Home Administration financed the construction of hundreds of the huge, windowless, three-story aluminum barns that now sit, empty, throughout Waldo County.
What went wrong? "It wasn't the product," says Basel Bryan, who ran the crews that picked up the chickens from the state's network of growers. The quality of the birds was always "premium." But there was competition from the South. The older generation had trouble handing the business on to the younger. The industry failed to modernize. And then there was the pollution. Mike Brown, then editor of Belfast's Republican Journal, started campaigning against the poultry companies, trying to get them to clean things up. He even sued the processing plants in federal court and won.
But the industry was dying. By the 1980s, 1,000 people in Belfast were out of work; half the stores on Main Street were closed.
Looking back, Elbridge Weber, who worked as a plant manager for both of Belfast's processing plants says, "The poultry industry didn't leave big footprints here."
In a way he's right. Beyond the Broiler Festival and the outsize barns, what is left? And yet the industry did leave a mark. Ellie Daniels, midwife and co-owner of the Green Store, explains: "The poultry plant made Belfast a town that people with money looked down their noses at." As a result, land - even coastal property - was cheap. In the 1970s the back-to-the-land movement took advantage of the depressed prices.
According to Rick Kersbergen of the University of Maine Co-op Extension, the newcomers who survived grew up to become Belfast's alternative and arts community. "Living with little," Ellie Daniels says, "goes hand in hand with finding alternatives."
By the 1990s, when people were starting to speak of Belfast's renaissance, they were referring to this community's contributions. Certainly it was what I noticed on my first visit: the cooperative art gallery, the posters for holistic healing, the outlying organic farms.
By Ray Paul's estimate, there are only three or four chicken growers left in Waldo County. Ray is one of them, though he lost two-thirds of his income when the processing plants closed. Now he drives a tanker 40-plus hours a week. He doesn't raise broilers anymore but replacement hens for egg baron Jack DeCoster. "I don't know why I don't forget the whole business," he says. Then he answers himself: "It's just in my blood." Only one of his chicken barns is still in use. He uses a second for storage, and rents a third to a carpenter who is working for MBNA.
It occurs to me that, in my time in Belfast, I've done a lot of thinking about chickens, and I've eaten a fair amount of chicken, most recently at the Hideaway Diner, but I haven't seen a chicken. I ask Ray if he'll take me into his barn.
"You sure you want to?" he asks. "Those birds are kind of spooky." But I am sure, so he walks me over, even though he's in his dress clothes. Back in his house, his wife - a former Broiler Queen contestant - and relatives are getting ready for a senior prom. We step into the barn's stairwell, then Ray cracks open another door. Inside the lights are dim – birds grow faster in the dark, which is why chicken houses have vents and fans, but no windows.
I have a vague sense of some snowy, spectral shapes before me. Then my eyes adjust, and I see birds shying from the open door. When Ray said "spooky," he must have meant that the chickens are easily spooked. There are 11,700 of them, spread out before me, a carpet of white. They are - it is, honestly, the very last thing I am expecting to think - beautiful.
When I step back out into the sun, and even later when I drive home, past that wreck of a chicken barn, the memory of the hens haunts me. I don't quite know why. For days, I suppose it's their eerie beauty, then I realize that's not it at all. I'm simply haunted, like any person who's seen a ghost.
The Lines: Literal recalling
What was the previous name and focus of the Belfast Bay Festival? Why?
Why do people from Belfast like to say, “This isn’t Camden.”
What are the four industries that have been dominant in Belfast’s history?
What group of newcomers arrived in Belfast in the 1970’s?
Between the Lines: Interpreting
What is the difference between ‘blue collar’ and ‘white collar’ jobs?
What is the issue with being a “one – industry town”?
How does the type of major industry help to define the character of a town and its people?
Beyond the Lines: Analyze & Evaluate
What examples of the “ghosts” of Belfast’s past can still be seen today? Is it important to recognize or show any respect to these “ghosts” of the past?
What types of conflicts arose as Belfast’s industries changed?
Has MBNA been “Belfast’s savior”?