Aug

17

 I spent the Aug 8-Aug 13 week in Vinalhaven with my wife, son, and a friend's family of four. During that time I read the complete set of 130 years of their weekly newspaper, The Wind, I read the book Cities and Economic Development: from the Dawn of History to the Present by Paul Bairoch [link ], and the book Salt in Their Veins: Conversations with Coastal Mainers by Charles Wing [link ]. I resided at the Tidewater Inn, owned by Phil Crossman, who compiled the highlights of the local newspaper and just finished a three year walk and reminiscences of the 20 square miles of the town. I had occasion to interview Phil. I supplemented this with daily visits to the Surfside where local salts gather each day at 4 am to provide council on the byways of town life. In addition, I have the good fortune to be married to Susan Cole, who spent her childhood summers on the Island, has 100% salt in her veins, and whose mother born Norma Skoog lived on the Island and whose father is one of those salt in their vein boat builders so prominent in the building and heartthrob of coastal Maine. I supplemented this with conversations with Shawn Chilles, a local caretaker, descendant of a Skoog, (almost all the families on the Island are at least second cousins to each other ) and long term resident with many jobs. Although I am not a nautical person, I learned a lot from my visit and thought that my observations from the grandstand or from Mars might be of interest.

As background, Vinal is an island fishing village with a population of 1,200, covering 20 square miles, about the size of Manhattan. The density of Manhattan about 100,000-200,000 per square mile with visitors compares to Vinal's density of 60, a differential ratio of 1,500 to 3,000 greater for the City. There are 300 boats, 300 families, 550 households in Vinal, augmented each summer by about 2,000 summer people who come for the beauty, solitude, and vitality of the place. It's one of the coldest places in the US with average temperature of 48 degrees, 35-40 in the spring and winter, 64 degrees in the summer, a record winter low of -30. The town is said to capture the largest lobster catch in the world, perhaps 25% of the Maine Lobster catch of 120 million.

Vinal was once famous as the granite capital of the world, and in 1880 it had a population of 3,000, and provided the granite for such famous entities as the Brooklyn Bridge, the Chicago board of trade, and the Penn. Railroad. The granite industry and the rope industry, it's two majors at the time, have gradually withered away and the town is dotted with abandoned quarries and a rope factory or two, which the kids use as swimming holes and hideouts. The population has steadily decreased since then. Hardly a dozen retail stores still exist, and real estate prices have been in a decline for the last decade. As one walks down Main Street, which once had 3 grocery stores, 3 hardware stores, and a booming retail economy, one notes that almost every remaining store including its iconic restaurant, The Harbor Gawker, the paper store, the ice cream store, are for sale. The two or three restaurants remaining close are open mainly on weekends and close down after the summer.

 And yet, the town is vibrant. There are concerts every day. Volunteer organizations provide almost all the amenities of city life. There is little migration off the island. The locals are able to put on a big city vintage car exhibit. Many artists including the hermit Robert Indiana who lives on Main Street with boarded windows the whole year thrive, and there is a very active tourist industry during the summer months. Almost all the residents have salt in their veins, are self reliant, many have 3 or more jobs. The price of lobsters, now at an all time high of $4 a pound, provides a buffer of wealth that lifts up the spirits and economy of the town. My pleasure was enhanced by playing on one of the three soft court tennis courts in town, before being rained out, an opportunity that must exist only a handful of days in the year.

I found the town a great case study in the growth of cities and civilization from rural beginnings as its halfway between a hunting, fishing and gathering village and a city. The pace of life is slow (all the stores close down at 6.) There is outdoor recreation, mainly boating and kayaking, but there is hardly any indoor recreation on the island aside from a Peyton place locus of romance (the movie theater, and the bowling alley closed down, and there is no chess or checkers), except for drinking (Phil Crossman shrewdly owns the Island Spirits store). There is ample opportunity to reflect on the better or worse of Island Living, and how it relates to the more specialized life of information, trading, specialized professionals, finance, and city administration (police, fire, garbage, education et al) of the city.

The tyrannies of transportation costs, agricultural and fishing productivity, population density, heating costs, and change in life styles provides a nice foundation for appreciating the limits and potentials of life in villages versus cities, and augments one's understanding of day to day activities and markets. One of the first things to realize is that a fishing or hunting village can't sustain much more than 1,000 people, the minimum necessary for a city. Bairoch puts it this way: "The especially crucial point is the existence of true urban centers presupposes not only a surplus of agricultural produce, but also the possibility of using this surplus in trade. These possibilities are directly conditioned by the amount of ground that has to be covered in transporting it." There is an iron law of how much and how far a human can carry on his back. A good estimate is 75 pounds over 15 miles in a day. But a human needs 2 pounds a day for food. That's 4 pounds back and forth for 15 miles. And 40 pounds needed for 150 miles. Thus, he consumes 1/2 of his food by transporting his food, and this doesn't even take account of the needs of his family which say, adds another 1/2 to food needed, thereby taking up the entire weight of the good transported over 150 miles. But in order to have trade you must transport the goods.

You might say that horses and oxens and wagons extend the distance that a man can travel but it turns out that when you take account of the cost of roads, and the driver of the horses, and the food required by the beasts of burden, they don't add much to what can be transported. Indeed, camels seem much more efficient than cars or wagons throughout the Mideast as a man can drive four camels but usually not more than one horse.

Granted that goods can't be transported over large distances, what about the productivity of hunting and fishing. It's estimated that in primitive hunting or fishing societies without agriculture a man can capture about 10% more food than he needs to survive. There are 8,000 lobstermen in Maine and they capture 120 million pounds of lobster in a year. That's 15,000 pounds of lobster a year–revenues of 45,000 a year at a price of $3.00 a pound. Taking into account the cost of fuel, and bait and the depreciation on a $200,000 boat, to say nothing of the cost of a sternman if he wishes to increase his chances of survival, the average lobsterman is lucky to gain income of $30,000 a year, which is in line with the census figures for the average income of the working population of Vinal. That's close to the cost of food and housing for a family. Thus, no surplus is produced…no profitable trade is possible, and without a surplus the population can't grow and cities and civilization can't be born.

One notes again that there are some 20 square miles of area in Vinal, and with a population of 60 per square mile. It compares to France with a density of 100, US with a density of 84 and Israel with a density of 50 and 3 in Iceland. There are many cities in these other countries. Thus, the reason for Vinal's lack of growth and lack of urban activity is not population density. My colleagues suggest that the weather, location upstream to a river, and the proximity to wealthy enclaves might be the answer.

But the pace and quality of life on this island must be a matter of choice. The degree of happiness and satisfaction with life on the Island seems to the outside observer to be considerably greater than that achieved by most city dwellers. There is little migration from the island, and a high proportion of those that leave temporarily for such things as schooling and family seem to eventually end back where they started. A reading of the weekly newspaper reveals countless examples of inordinate benevolence and happiness at big gatherings that seem to dwarf the comparables in city life. While this is hard to measure, the inordinate satisfaction would seem to arise from the independence, self reliance, competence, and hard work that is required to survive in such a self contained community.

Self interest and local knowledge is the key to profitability. The lobsterman developed and strictly enforce a program of throwing back all female lobsters and those below a certain length thus ensuring that the population of their prey will be conserved and increase.

Perhaps in closing one should add some augmentations to ones business and personal life that one gained from a one week stay that has been grafted on 30 years of shorter enforced visits to keep the family at bay.

Everything on the island depends on nature. The working day starts at 4 am, with the rise of the sun. The lobsters are numerous in the morning, the bait is plentiful, and there is much ground to cover to net the say 150 lobsters that is required for a living. The activity varies by day of the week with a plenitude on Monday morning at 3 am as all lobstermen rush out to capture the prey in their traps who are active from Sunday when no fishing is allowed by state law. The tides are key to the efficiency of all activity and they wait for no man and they influence the profitability and safety of the hunt. The weather especially the temperature, the wind, and the fog determine the profitability of all activity. A city trader like myself receives a emphatic reminder that nature is key to market activity and ignorance of it leads to disaster.

No visitor to the Island can leave without a deep sense of appreciation for the wisdom, abilities, knowhows, and all around talents of the old salts that populate the island.

Vic adds:

I will point out that one indicator of the level of happiness of the Island is that there is hardly any crime. One policeman works part time on the Island coming over a few days during weekends. True, in the 1880s a curious incident occurred. A lawyer rowed in from the mainland at midnight and went directly to a local fisherman , woke him up and told the fisherman that he was the legatee of a a $500,000 inheritance. He asked the fisherman to sign off on the inheritance The fisherman refused saying there would be plenty of time to look into it after reflection. The lawyer rowed back the same nite. Apparently he wished to steal a much larger inheritance from the poor islander.

I added a few paragraphs about what the visit taught me about markets, especially the importance of nature, and days of the week. The tides wait for no man, especially on Monday, et al.

Rocky Humbert writes: 

Vic, very nice essay. I suggest you compare and contrast with Nantucket, which was a dominant whaling community, similar size island land mass, but has grown and prospered despite the demise of whaling. The population of Nantucket was fairly constant from 1880 to 1970 around 3,000-4,000. By 1980, it had grown to 5,100. It's now up to 10,200 in the winter and an estimated 20k in the summer. Median household income for year-round residents is $55k with per capita income of $31k. Median income for households (which includes part-timers) is $83k however. Largest single employer is the Town of Nantucket by orders of magnitude. Like Vinalhaven, it's accessible only by ferry, which restricts trade, commutation, and elevates the costs of everything.

Real estate prices on Nantucket often rank as the highest of any US county. Yes — more expensive than the Hamptons!

So the obvious question for the 21st Century (as distinct from the 19th century): How does a community with natural beauty become a summer haven? I suspect the answers include : (1) Proximity to wealthy urban centers; (2) Critical mass of residents which has a networking effect; (3) Weather; (4) Luck. (5) Rising sea levels (just kidding).

Steve Ellison writes: 

Before the invention of the railroad, travel on water was far easier than travel on land (one looks around 3 times for Mr. Jovanovich). Thus a settlement might be able to jump the hurdle and become a city by having favorable water transportation. One of the earliest examples was the Nile River, where the prevailing winds blew from the north, and the river flowed from the south, so travelers could use a sail in one direction and drift with the river in the other direction. Here is a map of the 146 counties that contain half the US population. Many are along rivers or at natural port locations on the coasts.

Jeff Watson writes: 

That reminds me, by a large factor, that the cheapest way to ship grain within the lower 48 is by barge.

Stefan Jovanovich writes: 

3 facts in support of the Mr. Ellison's observation:

1. The canal mania that began with the Midi [in southern France] and continued through the 1840s was based entirely on the productivity gain. A draft animal pulling a barge from a towpath could go 3 times farther and carry along its own feed AND have more than twice the useful life.

2. The railroads that made money from day 1 were the ones that chose the same routes as the canals or stayed close to the water. The Pennsylvania and Baltimore & Ohio and NY Central literally followed the routes of the earlier canals. James J. Hill made his money from the spur line that followed the Red River, not from the transcontinental route across the prairies.

3. Water transportation still has the greatest efficiencies - now because you can reduce the crew sizes literally to zero. The first driverless freight hauling will be done not on land but on water.

Once, we lived. Enjoyed life to the full, now we have all become slaves of the yields. We run and produce more quickly and in greater quantity, but we do not have the time to appreciate, valorize and enjoy life with the tranquility and the carefree of once. All running…who knows why…?

anonymous writes: 

[To understand Vinalhaven's comparatively low level of economic activity,] consider the proximity of Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and even Block Island to wealthy urban centers. Network density at work.

anonymous writes from San Francisco: 

The most recent rise in the price of housing in the Bay Area is not a function of demand; employment numbers for SF and Silicon Valley have been flat for over a decade. The rise is the direct consequence of the restrictions on supply through zoning and other land use regulations. Check the building permit numbers for new construction; they are remarkably unaffected by price changes because permission to build more units in the same spaces is almost impossible to acquire. This disconnect between housing supply and demand has been going on for half a century now, and there is no likelihood that the politics that have produced this result will change. Everyone who gets elected agrees that the environment must be protected at all marginal costs.


Comments

Name

Email

Website

Speak your mind

1 Comment so far

  1. Ed on August 15, 2016 9:29 pm

    Beautifully written, brings back wonderful memories. As a high school student, “Lost it” on a desolate island off the coast of Maine owned by the Wyeth family, among other things.

Archives

Resources & Links

Search