The debate over what is and what is not “Down East” has always been a slightly fraught one. Some say it’s only Washington County. Some say it’s anything east of the Union River, or the Taunton River. Some say it includes all of Hancock County. And some say it’s just about anything north of Portland.
Who’s right? Who’s wrong? It’s hard to conclusively say. Colloquialisms have a way of not being easy to pin down. After all, “Down East” does stem from an 18th century term for how ships sailed downwind from Boston or Portland toward the east, to reach what is now eastern Maine.
But no matter where you are in Maine, as Bangor Daily News reporter Bill Trotter put it in a definitive essay earlier this year, “if you point toward the rising sun, you’re pointing Down East.” And in a poll that accompanied that article, more than two thirds of nearly 300 BDN readers said that, at the very least, Down East starts east of Ellsworth.
As proud Mainers, it can rankle us just a bit when people take the term Down East and apply it to things that not only aren’t located in Washington or Hancock counties — they aren’t even located in Maine.
Here are seven of the more controversial examples of people claiming a centuries-old Maine term for something that has little or nothing to do with that part of the state.
People love Amtrak’s passenger rail line from Brunswick to Boston, and as well they should — it’s an affordable, comfortable way to get from a number of towns and cities in southern Maine and New Hampshire into the heart of Boston. But the name “Downeaster,” while cute, was clearly not chosen because of where the train goes, which is no further north than Cumberland County. Even by the most liberal of definitions, Down East Maine doesn’t start for another 100 miles east of the eastern end of the line. Extend passenger rail north or east and then we can talk, Amtrak.
Down East Dickering
History Channel reality TV show “Downeast Dickering” featured a bevy of bargain hunters bartering their way around the state, laying on the thickest Maine accents possible while looking for deals in the pages of Uncle Henry’s Swap or Sell It Guide. The four pairs of “dickerers” were based in Minot, Poland Springs, Sangerville, Bethel and Portland. Last time we checked, none of those places are in Hancock or Washington County. The show was canceled after two seasons. If it was ever to be revived, the least the producers could do would be to find a cast member based Down East. There’s no shortage of colorful characters there, that’s for sure.
“The Downeaster ‘Alexa’” by Billy Joel
This paean to the hardworking Long Island fisherman written by one William Martin Joel puts a Downeaster-style boat — a lobster boat, essentially — at its narrative center. Aside from the fact that the song is set on the waters between Long Island and Nantucket, leading to a bit of confusion about whether or not it’s a “Maine” song (it’s not), there is some debate as to whether or not it is correct to call a lobster boat built or used outside of Maine a “Downeaster.” We’ll never know if Joel’s noble boat captain is piloting a proper Down East-built lobster boat, but he’s definitely not a Mainer — even in a song with “Downeast” in the title.
Downeast Clothing & Home
This clothing and home goods company is based in Utah. It sells slightly trendy and feminine clothing in pastel and earth tones, and furniture and home goods that would not be out of place on an HGTV home renovation show. It is perhaps the most egregiously non-Down East thing on this list. It seems like a nice enough company, but come on.
Downeast Cider and Downeast Coffee Roasters
Downeast Cider was started by a pair of Bates College graduates and Massachusetts natives who first brewed up their hard cider in 2012 in a warehouse space in Waterville. They chose the “somewhat boring” name Downeast Cider as a reference to their “Maine roots,” according to a 2016 Boston Globe article. By 2015, however, they had moved their operations to Boston.
Downeast Coffee Roasters, meanwhile, is a 70-year-old family business — based in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. It references Maine on its website, and there’s a cute little salty sailor on its packaging, but its beans are all roasted in the Ocean State.
Down East Magazine
We’re pretty inclined to give this venerable Maine magazine a pass, since it regularly writes about things in both Washington and Hancock counties, and it is at least based in Maine. But Down East’s headquarters are in Camden, which, despite being closer than any of the aforementioned examples to the real Down East, is still not Down East. We’ll let it slide, Down East Magazine.