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Maine's Historic Harbors: Cundys Harbor, Harpswell

Cundy's Harbor, the village, takes its name from William Condy, for whom the small harbor was named. Photo courtesy of Marina.com.

It takes quite a while to get to Cundys Harbor in Harpswell. First you turn off Route 1, head past the mall and assorted fast food businesses, then down Route 24 for what seems like a long time. You pass Buttermilk Cove and on the left is the Cundys Harbor Road, taking you over to East Harpswell. But you are not nearly there. Keep driving. Finally you come over a rise and there it is, a small harbor, neatly ringed with white houses.

Sebascodegan Island, on which the village is located, was part of the territory purchased in 1714 by the Pejepscot Proprietors. In 1733, the land barons leased the island for seven years to William Cady and associates, one of whom was William Condy. “Condy” soon became “Cundys” Harbor. According to a history compiled by the Holbrook Community Foundation, the rent charged to Cady and colleagues at the time was “twenty good fat geese, or in failure thereof £5 per annum….” The renters could build homes and plant crops, but the Proprietors kept for themselves the right to fish. Fishing was part of the Native American culture well before any settlers arrived in the area. Prehistoric shell middens and other records indicate that local people ate salmon and sturgeon as well as porpoise and many different land animals.

Holbrook's General Store in the early 1900s. Harpswell Historical Society Photo.

Harpswell and other coastal communities suffered during King Phillip’s War and subsequent conflicts during the 1600s and 1700s. Settlers left their lands, then returned, then left again. As the years went by, the conflicts ebbed. The United States became a country and, in 1820, Maine became a state. By the early 1800s, Cundys Harbor was a recognized fishing port; its residents largely took their livings from the sea. In the 1800s and 1900s, Cundys Harbor fishermen fished for cod, hake, haddock, pollock, cusk, swordfish, mackerel, menhaden, herring, sardines, and whiting depending on the season. Fish were salted and dried, canned, or shipped fresh in ice cut on Dingley Island. Fishermen also dug clams and caught lobster and shrimp. In 1920, according to the U.S. Census, nearly every house in Cundys Harbor was the home of a fisherman.

The town also became a destination for summer visitors. Since the early 1800s Cundys Harbor featured a number of hotels, most of which burned to the ground within a decade or two. But one hotel stood the test of time. The Union Hotel was constructed in 1862 by Daniel Weeks Simpson. Although the business failed a year later, it was revitalized in just a few years and continued as a hotel until the 1940s, when it became a private home.

The Holbrook Wharf is the center of Cundys Harbor. The wharf was first constructed in 1853 and soon after an adjacent store was established. In the early 1890s, the store and wharf sold salt fish and groceries to locals as well as residents of Phippsburg and Sebasco, who would come across the New Meadows river by boat to shop. The wharf and store had fallen on hard times by the 1990s. The structure, last renovated in 1945, was in need of substantial reconstruction. An offer was made by a private party to purchase the property for a residence, raising the eyebrows of local residents who worried about losing an integral part of the community’s working waterfront. In 2006 the non-profit Holbrook Community Foundation was formed to purchase the wharf, store and adjacent Holbrook-Trufant house. In 2009, Holbrook Wharf was rebuilt with support from Maine’s Working Waterfront Access Program. The wharf now accommodates commercial fishing boats while a new section provides direct access for trucks.

Holbrook Wharf and historical monument. Photo courtesy of H.C.F

Lobster is the primary species brought onto the wharf these days. Despite all the changes that have taken place over the centuries, Cundys Harbor remains what it has long been: a small harbor surrounded by white houses whose residents are tied inextricably to the sea.

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