ROCKLAND, Maine — When John Bird moved back to his hometown nearly 30 years ago, this city was a different place than it was during his youth.
But from its beginnings as a hotbed for limestone quarrying and shipbuilding, to a harbor city known for its fishing traditions, to a gritty and sometimes dangerous place ― Rockland’s reputation has further evolved in modern times.
“People in Maine who’ve been around a long time have an image of Rockland as a gritty blue-collar place that you knew was an industrial town because you could smell it,” Bird said. “But that’s not true now. There is a ‘wow’ factor when people come here now.”
In his new book that explores the city’s history from its founding to the present day, Bird hopes those who held onto its past reputations will appreciate how Rockland has turned into a cultural destination over the past three decades.
Bird, 82, released “Rockland, Maine: Rise and Renewal” earlier this month through a partnership with the Rockland Historical Society and Maine Author’s Publishing. At just more than 500 pages, it isn’t an “exhaustive history” of Rockland, according to Bird, but more of a “broad stroke look” at the city’s 165-year history. It’s also one of the first books to record the modern history of the city.
Rockland was once part of neighboring Thomaston. The area where the city is located today was then known as Shore Village. But as vast limestone deposits were found, the village and its large harbor separated from Thomaston “and quickly outgrew it,” according to Bird. The city was named Rockland after its burgeoning quarrying industry.
The limestone industry ― and the shipbuilding that accompanied it ― would be the city’s first prominent industry. But around the turn of the 21st century, as new building material became more popular, the industry began to shrink until the last lime kiln went out in 1958.
The city rebounded with its booming fishing industry, including both lobstering and groundfishing, Bird said.
It was around this time that Bird left Rockland to attend Bowdoin College, never planning to return.
“This is my hometown. This is where I grew up,” he said. “But did I ever think when I left to go to college that I would ever write a book about Rockland? No. I just wanted to get out of town, go off and see the world.”
Bird had a family and started a career after he left Rockland, living in numerous places across the country. But every summer, he and his family returned there to visit. During the 1970s and 1980s, he said his hometown looked “rough.”
“Things were not great. Businesses were closing,” Bird said. “Maine Street was adrift. The harbor, the water was getting cleaner, but there weren’t any [pleasure] boats here.”
“Camden by the sea, Rockland by the smell” was a popular saying during those years, and the town gained a notorious reputation largely because of the stinky fish-processing plant SeaPro which closed in 1988.
It was a dark time for Rockland. But by 1990, when Bird moved back to the area, things were at a turning point.
In his book, Bird includes four newspaper headlines that signified events that made Rockland’s recent renewal possible. They included the opening of the Farnsworth Art Museum in 1948, the opening of the city’s industrial park in 1977, the closure of SeaPro in 1988, and the near cancellation of the city’s signature event, the Maine Lobster Festival in 1990.
Bird said the last headline was a wake up call for the city. Volunteers stepped up to make sure the event would continue. Out of that effort came a movement that would aim to ignite pride in Rockland, Bird said.
“Over the years, I watched the community slowly begin to show signs of new and slightly different life,” Bird said.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, this new life was popping up in the form of art galleries opening on Main Street in formerly vacant storefronts. Susanne Ward, founder of Rock City Coffee, and Chef Kerry Altiero of Cafe Miranda were some of the first to take a chance on the city in terms of starting a food scene.
Since these early signs of a revitalized Rockland, Bird said the momentum has only grown. Award-winning chefs, such as Melissa Kelly of Primo, now call the city home. The Center for Maine Contemporary Art opened in 2016 and has been met with accolades.
While history books typically stop about 20 years before present day, Bird felt it was imperative to include these modern events in the city’s history because they help tell Rockland’s full story.
“It’s a very positive story to tell,” Bird said. “All we’ve done is keep that trend going.”