Kennebunk, Maine, is the small town that molded my expectations for all small New England towns. It’s the type of town with a gazebo on the green, friendly locals that nod hello when you pass them on the cobblestone sidewalks, free downtown parking, and easy access to the beach. It’s also the kind of place where – if you happened to grow up there as I did – you might just wander into a shop and unknowingly strike up a conversation with your 8th grade science teacher.
When my husband and I took a day trip to my hometown of Kennebunk, Maine, recently, Parsons Beach was our first destination. Unlike the better known Kennebunk beaches that have a public roadway running alongside them, Parsons – a privately owned beach off the beaten path – is sheltered, making it the perfect place to take our four-legged traveling companion, Brewski, who had been confined to the car long enough to need to run. Dark clouds hung heavy in the sky suggesting our excursion might not be dry a one, but also worked in our favor as only a handful of people were out braving the weather, allowing us to snatch up a parking space.
The rules of the beach set forth on a large sign at the head of the path leading to the shore are quite simple: Respect. Respect the land, respect the wildlife, respect the landowners. With that in mind, we let Brewski romp in the surf, sprint across the long stretch of sand, and chomp on sticks until he was the wettest, dirtiest – and most likely, smelliest – dog on the beach. A wet, dirty dog is also a tired one, so with that task out of the way, we left him in the care of my parents and headed downtown.
We weren’t going to shop – though there are many independently-owned stores worth checking out – but to take a leisurely stroll past some of the town’s stately homes. In 1963, Kennebunk became the first town in Maine to set up a historic district, and the streets are lined with stunning examples of architectural styles that date back to the 18th century. I’d seen them many times before, of course. They were part of my childhood landscape: I’d trundled past them on the school bus, whizzed by them on my bike, and barely noticed them by the time I was driving. Today I would really look at them.
Had this trip happened later in the season, we would have signed up for a walking tour at the Brick Store Museum. Instead, armed with a copy of their guidebook Windows on the Past, we walked up Main Street to Summer Street, equipped to identify which of the mansions that once housed Kennebunk’s merchants and sea captains were classified as Italianate, Federal, Greek Revival and Second Empire.
The most famous of Kennebunk’s historic homes is the Wedding Cake House. It sits further down Summer Street than we were planning to walk, but, if you’re in the area, it’s certainly worth a look. Legends surrounding the origin of its ornate trim are plentiful, but just that — legends. While ship builder George Washington Bourne did indeed build this house for his bride Jane Jefferds, it was not a replacement for a wedding cake they were unable to eat before their ship set sail. Nor did Jane die as a young bride at sea.
Once past the main cluster of historic homes, we were lured down Trackside Drive by the promise of finding treasure at Old House Parts, an architectural salvage company that specializes in parts dating from 1730 to 1930. Part retailer, part museum, there’s plenty to see there including – but certainly not limited to – myriad antique doors, doorknobs, windows, fireplace mantels, a cat with the word “joy” swirled in his fur, and one of my favorite finds – a 2000 Yankee placard from when Old House Parts Company had been featured in the article, “3 Ways to Love an Old House.”
Old House Parts Company president Tom Joyal is a friendly guy with a ready smile and a crackerjack memory. As is the way with small towns, when chatting with Tom about how he got started in the salvage business, the conversation eventually turned to growing up in Kennebunk. When I told him the name of the street I grew up on, he thought for a moment, snapped his fingers, and came up with my last name. Impressive. Turns out he was a classmate of my sister’s, and that fellow with him behind the counter – my 8thgrade science teacher, Dick Beer.
After poking around the freight house and touring the workshop to see the beautiful, custom pieces Tom was creating from salvage, it was time to grab a very late lunch. A trip to the coast wouldn’t be complete without a lobster roll, so we returned to the car and made our way to the Landing Store. I was pleased to see that their lightly grilled rolls are packed with fresh meat and no fillers – lettuce being optional. After adding a whoopie pie to our order, we moved on to Mother’s Beach to enjoy the most casual of seaside dining experiences.
Before our day wound down, we managed to cram in a few more stops: to the Franciscan Monastery to walk the trails, Federal Jack’s for a beer, then to Cummings Market to pick up an Italian sandwich – don’t call it a sub – for dinner later that night.
A busy day in all – one that left us completely satisfied and blissfully dry. We’ll return to Kennebunk in summer to hit the bike trails, drop our kayaks in the water, lounge on the beach, and explore the other summer offerings.