Liberty and an Island in the Lake

Yesterday, at a party, I met a woman named Liberty who lives on a tiny island in one of our town’s many lakes. The island is close enough to shore so that Liberty’s front porch winks at you through the pine trees that surround it, and in the late afternoon, as the sun sets, the island positively glows. It is one of those islands that draws your eye and captures your attention in a warm, welcoming way. Not all islands are like this. I’ve been on one that was downright spooky, and I couldn’t wait to leave. I guess islands all have their own mood, some good, some not so good.

Liberty is as warm and beautiful as the island she lives on—perhaps there is a connection?—and I spent quite a bit of time talking to her. In the course of our conversation, Liberty told me how she came to live on this island during the summer, and it’s a story worth sharing.

In the late 1920s, Liberty’s grandparents and aunts and uncles came to Winthrop, Maine, for their summer vacation. This was at a time when the journey was made by train to the lake and then by steamboat to a big hotel built especially to accommodate those summer visitors. The passenger train, the steamboat, and the big hotel are all gone, and in this day of cars and chain hotels, it really feels like a trip to the past to picture people coming to Winthrop by train and boat.

While on vacation, Liberty’s family canoed around the lake and came upon the island, which just happened to be for sale at a very good price. The family pooled their money together and bought the island, complete with house, in the summer of 1929, just before the stock market crashed in October.

“They bought it just in time,” Liberty said.

They certainly did, but what makes this story even more extraordinary is that Liberty’s family came from Harlem, and they were, of course, African American. Winthrop, like most Maine towns, was white as white can be, and with only a few exceptions, it still is. Also, during the 1920s and 1930s, the Klan was very big in Maine—only Georgia had a bigger membership.

Craig Hickman, who was at the party and who is also African American, said, “Just think, in the late 1920s, a black family bought an island in Winthrop, Maine.”

It is indeed amazing to think about, and although Winthrop has its share of problems and cranks—don’t get me started about how the school budget has twice been voted down—it is also an amazingly tolerant town. You can be pretty eccentric and different in this mostly meat-and-potatoes town, and nobody bothers you. In fact, the town’s people might even like you and invite you to parties.

“Maybe Winthrop has had a history of being tolerant,” my husband, Clif, observed.

Maybe it has. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to get into an in-depth conversation with Liberty about whether her family had to deal with discrimination in town. But Liberty has invited me to come visit her on her island, and as I don’t own a boat, she has even offered to fetch me. Perhaps I’ll take her up on her offer, if not this summer, which is fast coming to an end, then maybe next summer.