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Maine’s small harbors: Jonesport

When you head off to the Downeast town of Jonesport, you are going to the only Jonesport in the United States, according to the town website. First inhabited by the Passamaquoddy, Jonesport was a part of the town of Jonesboro, which was granted a charter January 1, 1789. Jonesboro was part of more than 48,000 acres granted to John C. Jones by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as reparation for a sloop lost during a British siege of Castine. This initial parcel of land spans present-day Machias, Machiasport, Jonesboro, Jonesport, and Roque Bluffs. A distant landlord, Jones eventually met the first settler of Beals Island, Mainwaring Beal, who landed there in 1774. “Plantation Number twenty-two” was incorporated as a township in 1809; Jonesport became the 176th town in Maine in 1832. The first steamboat arrived in 1853. The small town consisted of a sawmill, shipyard, and mail terminal, which received weekly mail from Bangor. Highways, consisting of mud roads, were only passable when frozen over in winter, and travel on these routes was made on foot.

Tall Barney’s Restaurant, now closed, commemorated the strength of the famous Jonesport resident.

Jonesport has had several noteworthy residents. Its most famous is Barnabas Beal, a descendant of Mainwaring Beal known as ‘Tall Barney.’ Born in 1835, he stood 6 feet, 7 inches tall and weighed over 300 pounds. Of legendary strength, Tall Barney serves as Downeast Maine’s version of Paul Bunyan, except that this giant fisherman was very real. He and his wife Phebe had twelve children, but other details about Tall Barney tend more to the mythic. One story, attributed to great-grandson Avery Alley, involved Tall Barney being asked by a crew of fourteen fishermen to help roll over a scow which they were unable to do themselves. The men tested Barney’s strength by only pretending to help. Straining to move the vessel, Tall Barney sank to his knees in the sand, yet finally positioned the scow all by himself.

The Maine Friendship House in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Jonesport produced more dubious characters as well. “There was a minister who came to Jonesport and convinced about 150 locals to sell everything they had, get on a ship and colonize Tel Aviv, Israel ,” Jonesport Historical Society president Bill Plaskon said. The charismatic Shakespearean actor and Methodist preacher George Jones Adams had joined the Mormons but was quickly excommunicated. He then started his own church and in 1866 convinced many Jonesport residents that they could hasten the Second Coming of Jesus Christ by resettling the Holy Land. In Palestine, news of Adams’ “noble purpose” was positively received. The modest colony would consist of a few Maine-style wooden buildings just outside of the city of Jaffa, Palestine (modern day Tel Aviv). However, the colony was immediately beset by disease and crop failure in the radically different climate. “It turned out to be a disaster,” Plaskon said. “Mark Twain happened to be in the area and wrote about them.” “I refer to the ‘Adams Jaffa Colony,’” Twain wrote in the book Innocents Abroad. “The colony was a complete fiasco….” Today, the Maine Friendship House in Tel Aviv, one of the colony’s original buildings, is a museum about the colony. Joneport is also famous for a particular boat design, known as the Jonesport hull, developed by boat builder Will Frost. Originally produced in the 1920s as rumrunning vessels operating during Prohibition, these boats later became known as “Jonesporters” and are one reason why lobster boat races are a Maine tradition today.

In 1896, ship builder Daniel James Sawyer and his brother, businessman Edward Mansfield Sawyer, built the D.J & E.M. Sawyer Store. Overlooking Moosabec Reach, the four-story building has served as a chandlery, general store, bank, dental office, and U.S. Customs Office. The building was donated to the Jonesport Historical Society in 2011 and underwent restoration through 2013. Today, it still stands in the state-owned marina on Sawyer Cove. The first floor houses the historical society’s Jonesport Heritage Center museum and a restored version of the nineteenth-century Customs Office. A genealogy database attracts visitors from all over the country looking to trace their ancestry back to the first settlers of Jonesport. Jonesport’s first major fishery was sardines; in 1900, the state-of-art Underwood Sardine factory was built. It generated its own electricity and at the time was the largest in the world. Jonesport makes its living today principally from the lobster fishery, but also from scallop and quahog dragging, clam digging, urchin diving and dragging, periwinkle picking, sea worm digging, and elver netting. Additionally, “Moosabec Mussels produces the majority of all mussels consumed in the state of Maine,” said Plaskon. While small in size and population, the town of Jonesport and its people have garnered international fame for its diverse fisheries, characters, and boat races. Now the next time you hear about the town of Jonesport, you’ll know exactly where it is.

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