Brian Armstrong and his wife, Rose, stand near the pier in Bar Harbor during a visit. Armstrong’s recently published book, “A History Lover’s Guide to Bar Harbor,” can be found at libraries on Mount Desert Island and Sherman’s Maine Coast Book Shop.  PHOTO COURTESY OF BRIAN ARMSTRONG

Author turns mother’s tales into book 

Organist Pearl Otto Wescott did the music for silent films in the early 1900s. In 1926, she was invited to play at a ‘musicale’ and tea in New York City for Mrs. Fredrick Vanderbuilt.   

BAR HARBOR —Even though Brian Armstrong has read every book about this area that he has been able to find, when putting together “A History Lover’s Guide to Bar Harbor,” much of it is based on the tales told by his mother, who grew up here.   

“It’s been something I’ve been working on in my head since I was about 17 (years old),” said Armstrong in a conversation with the Islander. “The book took about two years to write… The main core of it came from my mother’s stories.”  

With the help of Bar Harbor Historical Society’s historian, Debbie Dyer, who wrote the foreword to the book, and several other historians and longtime residents of the town, Armstrong was able to bring to life the tales of the women in Prohibition, some of the town’s popular dance and entertainment venues, the area’s only African American resident from the mid-1800s and legendary tragedies such as the death of three young adults after their car skidded off the icy town wharf in 1947.   

“Any time my sister and I see cars or anything on something like that, it puts fear in us,” said Armstrong, about how that story, and another of an uncle who floated out to sea on a large piece of ice, told by his mother affected him as a child.  “They’re the people I knew from my family.”  

At the beginning of the book is a map of the town that highlights the locations and buildings of the content inside.   

A photo of the Star Theatre, located at 101 Cottage Street from 1919. Currently located at the address is the store, A&B Naturals. PHOTO COURTESY OF BRIAN ARMSTRONG

 “My father was an architect, so I’ve always been fascinated by buildings,” said Armstrong, who highlights places such as the former Star Theatre located at 44 Cottage Street. “That one was a labor of love for me. It’s incredible that the building still exists in one form or another.”  

Learning about organist Pearl Otto, who did the accompaniment for silent movies at the theater, and Lizzie Ford and her daughter, Dr. Ada Bearse, who were in the center of the Prohibition scene in town, gave a different perspective of the town’s history.   

“I’ve seen stuff written about it, but they don’t talk about people like Lizzie Ford,” said Armstrong, who wanted to focus on strong women in the town’s history as an homage to his mother, Constance Ells Armstrong. “A lot of the guys who were involved in Prohibition, they didn’t live very long.” 
Details about the people Armstrong highlights were largely found by combing over the digital archives from the town’s historic newspapers.   

“The earlier newspapers had the gossip columns, which were a great resource,” he said.   

There was also much to glean from the daily records from businesses that were kept via written receipts.   

“I found that to be just an amazing treasure trove of history,” said Armstrong.   

Published earlier this year by The History Press, copies of “A History Lover’s Guide to Bar Harbor” can be found at Sherman’s Maine Coast Book Shop and libraries around Mount Desert Island.   

Sarah Hinckley

Sarah Hinckley

Former Islander reporter Sarah Hinckley covered the towns of Southwest Harbor, Tremont and neighboring islands.

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