GOULDSBORO — Crossing the Kittery-Portsmouth Bridge decades ago, many Maine-bound vacationers’ children leaned out the window and looked for the giant, booted fisherman towering over the north lane of the I-95 interstate freeway. The 40-foot-tall mariner, clad in a yellow sou’wester and matching oilskins, held a can of sardines that read “Maine Sardines Welcome You to Vacationland & Sardineland.”
Illuminated at night, the colorful wooden sign was an effective visual tool for promoting Stinson Canning, Addison Packing Co. and other sardine canneries in coastal Maine. But the Maine Sardine Council’s memorable sign also served as a landmark for returning Mainers as well as seasonal visitors signaling the start of their carefree days on the coast and at inland camps on ponds, lakes and rivers.
“Big Jim,” as some fondly nicknamed the wooden billboard, took a beating from the elements and eventually was reconstructed with metal framing. But the Maine Sardine Council, which ceased functioning in 1998, took down the iconic signboard in the 1980s. Big Jim’s whereabouts became a mystery for northbound motorists unless they chanced to visit Gouldsboro, where the same sign has fulfilled the same function greeting folks pulling into the public wharf and the former Maine Fair Trade seafood processing plant in Prospect Harbor village. It was Calvin Stinson Jr. who saved the sign from being demolished, seeing it as a promotional device to promote his company’s Beach Cliff brand of canned sardines.
Over a year ago, though, Norwegian-backed American Aquafarms has expressed its intent to acquire the Prospect Harbor property to process Atlantic salmon harvested from its two proposed 15-pen ocean sites in Frenchman Bay. The potential change in ownership has concerned the Gouldsboro Historical Society’s members, who see it as integral to the town where commercial fishing — whether sardines or lobster — has been the backbone of its economy.
“First of all, it is part of Maine and town history,” Gouldsboro Historical Society President Don Ashmall said late last week,” referring to the days when “Big Jim” greeted motorists pouring into Maine. On the Schoodic Peninsula, Ashmall says the sign — referred to locally as “the Stinson Man” — “has become a minor tourist attraction in its own right. It’s a connection to Gouldsboro’s maritime history. We face the ocean more than we face the land.”
Ashmall said the society is exploring different scenarios from persuading the property’s future owners to keep and maintain the iconic sign to offering to move it off site to another prominent location in town.
In the form of a letter, the society recently raised the issue with Gouldsboro Select Board members, who acknowledged the Stinson Man’s place in the local scenery. The next step, they said, is to consult American Aquafarms about its intent regarding the sign.
Built by E. T. Russell & Co. in 1906, the Prospect Harbor cannery has changed hands nearly half a dozen times over the years. In 2000, Canada’s Connors Brothers purchased the Prospect Harbor complex, but sold it to Bumble Bee Foods four years later. The nation’s last sardine cannery, the plant shut its doors in 2010. A year later, Live Lobster Co. purchased the property and began processing lobster there. Like the seafood-processing operation, the sign was changed accordingly. Instead of a sardine can, the Stinson Man became a lobsterman holding a wooden trap with red crustaceans crawling over it. A year later, the plant was sold again to Garbo Lobster Co. Maine Fair Trade Lobster, in a joint venture with Garbo and Massachusetts’s East Coast Seafood Group, processed lobster and other seafood there until two years ago. The facility has remained dormant ever since.
While it isn’t on the National Register of Historic Places, the Maine Historic Preservation Commission’s Historic Preservation Coordinator Michael Goebel-Bain says “Big Jim” or the “Stinson Man” — however it is called — is on their radar. From Maine, only a few signs have achieved federal status. Among them is Westbrook’s “Walking Man” sign on Route 302. Built in 1962, the cut-out sign promoted musician and television/radio repairman Al Hawkes’ shop. The Walking Man has the distinction of being one of the state’s first mechanical, moving signs. The repairman’s toolbox swings as he walks.
That Big Jim moved and eventually took on a different identity doesn’t necessarily disqualify the sign from being officially listed.
“Maybe that’s too much. Maybe it’s not,” Goebel-Bain remarked, referring to the Stinson Man’s switch from herring to lobster. All candidates, however, must be “over 50 years old and need to have historic significance.”