Copycat Kate Looks Back at Maine Summer Jobs

Kate Flora: Hanging on Kaitlyn Dunnett’s coattails, I woke up this morning thinking about Maine summer past, and some of the jobs that I had. As many readers know, I grew up in Union (on Route 17 between Rockland/Camden and Augusta) on a chicken farm. Agriculture is very much an up and down thing, with good years and bad years, and it was always clear that if I wanted new school clothes, I was expected to work in the summer.

At twelve and thirteen, the summer job was raking blueberries. We all raked blueberries. I remember my mother driving me down to the town center, which we called “the village” where we would climb on a truck and be driven to that day’s field. We’d rake the berries into baskets, then carry them to the winnowing machine, and get a check on the little card that kept track of how many baskets we’d raked. I used part of my earnings to buy a small transistor radio that got the best reception on a burner on the kitchen stove. Once my father turned on the burner, and ever after, the smart brown case had brown, burner-shaped scorch marks on the bottom.

When I look back, it seems like there must have been an awful lot of summers once I was old enough to work off the farm. The summer I turned fifteen, my friend Karin and I worked as cook’s helpers at the Pemaquid Seminars, a summer writing program located on the shores of a lake. When I had my birthday, they were shocked to learn I’d only been fourteen. The writers were thrilled when I made them all homemade bread, part of my 4-H training. Of course I’d grown up in a household where we made all of our own bread, and my mother was always developing recipes for her magazine articles.

In the downtime, we listened to Bill Cosby records. Once a week we paddled equipment and food down the lake and set up for a lobster bake on the shore.  It was a summer of revelations, the first time I’d lived away from home. The cook, Mrs. Moulder, was southern–something new to this small town girl. Once a week (as I remember it) we would go to see plays–Hedda Gabbler, A Thousand Clowns, and others, at the local summer theater, which must have been the Pemaquid Playhouse..

Blueberries coming off the belt

One summer I took courses at the University of Maine, in a program for talented high school juniors. Lived in a dorm, learned the ways of a college campus, took courses with college students, and contemplated skipping my senior year. Another summer, unless it was the same one, I graduated from raking blueberries to working in the processing plant. It entailed sitting for hours along a conveyer belt as blueberries rolled past, and it was our job to pick out the leaves, and clumps of dirt and sticks and spiders and bugs and bees and the occasional mouse. Again, it was agriculture, and if there was a large harvest that day, we stayed until late in the night, until all the berries were processed. There were no cell phones, of course, so I imagine those of us who didn’t have our own cars had to use the phone to call our parents to come and pick us up.

The summer before college, I worked as a chambermaid in Camden at The Whitehall Inn. At that time, it was a place where many of the guests returned every year for a week or more, while other guests had just come off a week sailing the coast of Maine on schooners. Again I lived away from home, walking back to where I was staying with one of my high school teacher’s families. I know that in August we did a staff show for the guests, and have vague memories of wearing a white nightgown, carrying a candle, and singing a song from “The Sound of Music.”

The next year, it was being upstairs-downstairs maid for an eccentric millionaire’s family

Pie from my Union blueberries.

out on Islesboro. They were very particular about how the house was kept, and we carried Brasso to keep things shiny, and an iron to smooth the sheets when we made the beds. The family had a number of untrained dogs and part of the job was constantly cleaning up after them before the lady of the house stepped in dog poo as she swanned about the place. That summer included my making a wedding dress for one of the other girls who worked there, taking the ferry back to compete for Maine blueberry queen, and my very first hangover.

Summer in Maine. Just thinking about it brings back so many memories. Even before I had jobs, there was always food to process, and a houseful of guests who’d come to Maine to escape the city heat. Many summer nights, we sat at the kitchen table and processed food that would be frozen or canned for what was always called “the long, cold winter.” It was a life so connected to the land and the seasons, and one quite unlike the childhoods of most of the people I later met at college and on my jobs.


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5 Responses to Copycat Kate Looks Back at Maine Summer Jobs

  1. kaitlynkathy says:

    Talk about fodder for mysteries! The “occasional mouse” cracked me up, but it’s the maid in the Islesboro mansion I can see stumbling over a body.

  2. John Clark says:

    One heck of a lot easier getting summer jobs back then.

  3. Brenda Buchanan says:

    I love the stories and photos of your childhood.

  4. kevin Wilson says:

    I think I just missed you at Whitehall. I worked there as a desk clerk summer of 1969.Not my favorite summer job by any means, due to shifts that rotated in an odd pattern.overnight shift really boring, but had to remember at 5 to light the gas ovens in the kitchen for the cooks.The owners then were new, David & Barbara Bell.
    remember the old fashioned switchboard?

  5. sandra neily says:

    That was GREAT Kate. Thanks so for soooo many anecdotes. Agreed, maid gig is too good to waste! (Loved the pic with the pie.) And the blueberry field work had to be serious physical work. Good for you! I started waitressing when I was 14 on the tour boat the Argo, Boothbay Harbor.. (Graduating to every summer at Fisherman’s Wharf all the way through grad school.) When the Argo would hit “confused waters” (rough) and we were serving the topside deck, Capt. Winslow would say on the loud speaker, “Heave it, girls” and we’d toss any hot coffee over the side to keep customers safe from burns. AHHHHH…..memories.

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