An illustration by Richard Iammarino from “Rockland, Maine: Rise and Renewal” shows the city’s first major land divisions marked with family names.
An illustration by Richard Iammarino from “Rockland, Maine: Rise and Renewal” shows the city’s first major land divisions marked with family names.
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Near the end of “Rockland, Maine: Rise and Renewal,” a new comprehensive history of the city released this month, author John Bird distills the most recent transformation of the city to four newspaper headlines: The opening of the Farnsworth library and museum in 1948, the opening of the industrial park in 1977, the closing of the Seapro fish waste processing plant in 1988 — “within a few years, we’re no longer known for our smell,” he said — and the cancellation of the 1990 Maine Lobster Festival.

Bird was around for the last one. Having grown up here and graduated from Bowdoin, he spent his middle decades as an educator in the Midwest and returned just in time to see that the city’s premiere annual event had been called off. In hindsight, he said, it was a “wake-up call” that led to one of many upswings in what he calls “Rockland’s bumpy ride through the 20th century.”

The “rise” of Rockland, in Bird’s history, begins with the discovery of limestone, first in Thomaston, then in the “Highlands” around what is now Old County Road but was then known simply as the “County Road” from Thomaston to Camden. “All of this was wilderness,” Bird said recently, referring to downtown Rockland. Indigenous people came to the shore but aren’t known to have had permanent settlements as they did on other parts of the coast. From the quarries, commerce developed toward the shore — Limerock Street was built, as the name suggests, as an access road to move stone to the shore, where it was burned for quicklime, a binding element in mortar and plaster. Shipbuilding took off concurrently and “Shore Village,” as it was then known, soon overtook the inland as a commercial center.

“Lime was the rock they had in mind [when the city was named in 1850], but within 20 years the granite quarries took off,” Bird said. The granite itself was down the coast, but Rockland was the shipping hub. As the stone market lost ground to steel and asphalt, fishing took over as a driver of Rockland’s economy and went through a similar 50-year cycle of overreaching boom and protracted bust. Seapro was one of the last holdouts, and the stench it cast over the town “definitely led to Rockland having some image issues,” Bird said. The stinking factory represented employment, and in the mid-’80s the community was “somewhat divided” between those who wanted industry to remain and those who wanted a new kind of renewal.

In some respects, both sides got their way. Rockland’s business park saved local blue collar work by moving it inland — Rockland now has the third most manufacturing jobs in the state, after Bath and Skowhegan — while Main Street was remade as a cultural destination, with the Farnsworth Art Museum at the center.

“The community has a vibrancy that’s palpable to people who come here to visit,” Bird said. “It was other people who were saying, ‘Hey, Rockland is really a hot place.’ And we were getting all kinds of awards. Most livable city in Maine one year, the coolest small town in America by Budget Travel magazine. Just stuff like that was happening.”

Key characters in the city’s history get longer treatment. W. H. Glover, architect of many notable buildings and homes in the city, from the courthouse and library to the breakwater lighthouse and numerous large residences is recognized. Henry Knox is in there, as is Anna Coughlin, a beloved principal of Rockland High School. Bird treats the enigmatic Lucy Farnsworth as one of the city’s brightest lights for having left her $1.3 million estate to the city for the construction of a library in memory of her father. The gift became the Farnsworth Art Museum.

Bird gives space to the Wyeths and nods to peripheral luminaries, including Louise Nevelson — “she was in many ways a lot of hot air, but we’re all proud of her” — and Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose association with Rockland goes only as far as having been born here. “We’ll claim her,” Bird said.

There is no rise and renewal without humble origins and hard luck, and Bird doesn’t shy away from the low times. A series of side-by-side photos depicts various locations in the city in their best and worst hours. One of several poems in the book, “Maine” by Leo Connellan, who grew up in Rockland, describes the coast as a place that “draws sighs of erotic delight from tourists but ignores, betrays, kills its own.”

“Rockland, Maine: Rise and Renewal” is the first comprehensive history of the city published in more than 40 years. The last, “Shore Village Story,” was published in 1976 and reprinted without updates in 1989 despite significant developments — in a preface to the second printing, the authors acknowledged the changes but said it was too soon to add them to the book.

Bird has no bone to pick with “Shore Village Story.” He lists it among a number of local histories that served as stepping stones for his own work. “What I set out to do was complete that narrative,” he said.

The theme of revival, and the book itself, grew out of a series of columns Bird wrote for the Courier-Gazette in 2010–’11. These were later compiled in a book, “Rockland Maine’s Tidal Turn,” which is included, in its entirety, at the end of “Rise and Renewal.”

Bird hadn’t planned to write a history of?Rockland, and he stressed that he doesn’t want to be seen as someone who needed to see it done a certain way. It was more that he wanted it to happen and nobody else was doing it. “There are a lot of angles to pursue,” he said. “This is my angle. It’s how I’m approaching it. It’s not the end-all and be-all, and I hope other people will write about Rockland. I know they will, and that will be good.”

He passed over the thematic organization of “Shore Village Story” in favor of a fairly straight chronology and a single alphabetical index. He added illustrations and maps to make the book more approachable to non-history buffs.

“I wanted to tell the story of the rapid rise, the leveling off, the maturing of the community,” he said. “The fact that we had a bit of a dip, and then its coming back in different ways. What is that all about, why is it happening, and what does it mean?”

“Rockland, Maine: Rise and Renewal” is available for $54.95 through Rockland Historical Society, 80 Union Street, in the basement of Rockland Public Library. Office hours: Tuesday through Thursday, noon to 5 p.m.