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Arts, laughter, relaxation make Peaks experience

Email|Print| Text size + By Judith Gaines
Globe Correspondent / September 11, 2005

PEAKS ISLAND, Maine -- Of all the islands in Casco Bay, Peaks has the largest population and the fastest, most frequent ferry service. Politically, it belongs to Portland, and many of its roughly 1,000 year-round residents commute regularly to the mainland, three miles away. You could think of it as an island suburb with its own separate and quirky personality.

It's a little island, just 720 acres, shaped sort of like a lopsided pear, with many diversely talented and cosmopolitan inhabitants. They include artists and musicians, the son of a Nigerian tribal chief, a couple trying to improve Romania's legal system, a hand digger (''Just say no to backhoes" is his motto), a lawyer working to restructure utilities in Eastern Europe, at least two professional clowns, and a woman who runs what she claims is the world's only umbrella cover museum.

''People think it's kind of nutty, but I like it because it's silly and entertaining," said Nancy 3. Hoffman, who owns the odd little museum and also may be the only person in New England to have legally changed her middle name to a number (prompted, she said, ''by a typing error I saw and liked").

Hoffman has collected more than 500 umbrella covers from 32 countries, including a bulletproof one, one with a bud vase attached, one made from gum wrappers, another of fishnet stocking material, and several ''orphans" found ''out in the street or in the gutter, abandoned, alone, and hungry," she said. Then she serenaded visitors with her accordion, singing ''Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella."

The Umbrella Cover Museum may be the most unusual establishment on Peaks Island, but Nancy 3., as she's known, has many kindred, eccentric neighbors who are notable, among other things, for their pleasure in socializing and their ability to make their own fun. Travelers willing to enter into the life of this community will find a packed calendar of events open to the public.

There are concerts and theatrical shows, talks, walks, and workshops; opportunities for kayaking, horseback riding, tennis, and sailing; poetry readings, home and garden tours, gallery openings for local artists, exhibits at the historical museum, crafts fairs, dances, and community cocktail hours provisioned by residents who vie, some say, to make the best appetizers. (One islander calls it ''competitive hors d'oeuvres.")

And there are more spontaneous pleasures as well, such as picnicking on the ''back shore," a scenic section of the island that faces away from Portland, or ambling along cottage-filled lanes with overarching trees and children playing in the open fields.

Most activities are coordinated to accommodate arrival and departure times for the Casco Bay Ferry, which makes 14-16 trips daily in summer from Portland to Peaks Island and back. Except for a more expensive water taxi and private boats, the ferry provides the only island access. Like Peak's own version of a metronome, it imposes its not entirely reliable order on island life.

The ferry also does something more: It filters visitors and residents alike, weeding out those who aren't willing to plan their lives around it and put up with its inconveniences.

''No one comes for job opportunities or convenience. They come for the inconvenience," said Jane Newkirk, who runs Gem Gallery, featuring local artists. ''And something else has to draw you here, like the community, the beauty of the island, the safety, the freedom, the fact that you can walk everywhere."

Because almost everyone takes the ferry, it also functions as a leveler. Retirees with limited incomes, struggling artists, wealthy newcomers who have built McMansions on the back shore -- they all mingle to some extent during the 20-minute passage.

Most food and durable goods that reach the island must come by ferry, too, including cars and other conveyances, clothing, furniture, appliances, produce. Trash is removed by barge.

In this context, recycling has reached the level of an art form (some would say an addiction). Locals swap flower and plant cuttings of all kinds; nearly every week brings yard sales or roadside giveaways avidly monitored by islanders; and ''dump dives" are encouraged at a special section of the community dump with free items anyone can take.

Some artists have made whole careers reworking Peaks Island trash. Several couples have furnished summer cottages almost exclusively from cast-off materials they found around the island. One man has built an entire business by reusing what others considered junk.

''Everything goes around and around and around," said Kathleen Beecher, a nurse, referring to the collective penchant for recycling. She said she and her former husband, Brad Burkholder, created a bicycle business ''after he found 43 semblances of bicycles on heavy pick-up day," the annual day when garbage collectors will accept almost anything, regardless of size. Burkholder converted the odds and ends into a collection of working bicycles (locally dubbed ''The Mothball Fleet") now available for public rental.

Other islanders have devised an array of amusing contraptions for getting around: jerry-built golf carts, go-carts, motorized pushcarts, motorized baby carriages, bicycles with small attached trailers, two-person bicycles, recumbent bicycles, even contrivances resembling rickshas. The speed limit here never exceeds 20 miles per hour, and local law allows almost anything that moves to be considered what is fondly dubbed a ''tit," or ''typical island transportation."

Something about the island has always lured creative, fun-loving folks to it. Unlike other Casco Bay isles, Peaks never developed into a site for farming, fishing, or boat building. Native Americans called it ''Utowna," meaning ''rockbound place," and apparently they never settled here, although they came in summer for clambakes and other festivities.

European colonists largely followed this model, using Peaks as a place for picnics and other summer pleasures. Residents were taking in seasonal boarders by 1830, the first summer hotel opened in 1850, and by the 1880s, islanders had created an array of entertainments that could have rivaled Coney Island. The amusements included three theaters offering everything from Shakespearean dramas to musicals and monkey acts, a rink with skating and roller-polo games, wandering minstrels, a five-story observatory, a dance hall, at least 16 hotels, many restaurants, a carousel, and several bird and animal houses, including a circular enclosure for prairie dogs.

Among the best-known performers were a Prince Leo, who rose 1,000 feet in a hot-air balloon and then parachuted out to the applause of his fans; and Professor Oldwie, who demonstrated a version of water skiing in which he tied miniature boats to his feet and showed how he could ''walk on water."

Civil War veterans particularly enjoyed vacationing on Peaks, where the Fifth and Eighth Maine regiments built large memorial halls as retreats for the soldiers and their families. The Fifth's building is now a museum of Civil War and island history; the Eighth's offers quirky, rustic accommodations to the public, largely unchanged from the days when soldiers spent summers here.

The Coney Island era faded in the 1920s, when the automobile's popularity carried tourists elsewhere, and most of the old hotels and theaters fell prey to fires or storms. Peaks rose to prominence again, however, in World War II, when Casco Bay became the northern base for the Navy's Atlantic Fleet. A military installation on the island's back shore included two guns weighing roughly 50 tons each poking through the beach roses and shrubs. They were fired only once, in practice, and have since been removed, but visitors can tour the area, known as Battery Steele and now a land preserve.

The island was rejuvenated again in the 1950s as an inexpensive residential outpost. For nearly the next half century, it was the sort of place ''where struggling young couples could buy starter homes and raise a family," said Avner Eisenberg (known professionally as Avner the Eccentric, ''the thinking man's clown," in one description). When he bought his home at the water's edge 20 years ago, ''nothing sold for more than $100,000," he recalled.

Lately, though, wealthy arrivees have built outsized homes and transformed simple cottages into summer chateaus, causing assessments and property taxes to rise dramatically. Some locals fear the community they love may not survive all the gentrification.

For now, at least, Peaks Island remains a tolerant, cozy, vibrant place where visitors can enjoy the idiosyncratic lifestyle, still distant from the turmoil of the mainland, though it looms just three miles away.

Contact Judith Gaines, a writer in Portland, Maine, at gaines@judithgaines.com.

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