BAR HARBOR – The Bar Harbor (MDI) Rotary Club has been serving up seafood on the Fourth of July for decades, but its efforts have gone far further than lobster and clams.
The club is part of Rotary International, which has more than 1.2 million members in about 34,000 clubs. The organization funds efforts in health, education and peace around the world. Since the 1980s, for example, Rotary International has contributed $850 million dollars towards the eradication of polio.
The Bar Harbor club was the result of the “enthusiastic interest of 27 men in the early days of 1968 under sponsorship of the Ellsworth [Rotary] Club,” according to the club’s official history.
The initial elected officers of the group were President Edwin Smith, Vice President Donald Hobbs, Secretary Cary Swan and Treasurer Richard Libby. There were 30 members at the end of 1968.
Smith, who was a judge in Ellsworth and Bar Harbor at the time, was one of the most influential members of the young club and was paramount in recruiting the early members.
Swan, who had been a Rotarian in Dixfield for four years before moving to Bar Harbor, said he prodded the community to start a club and Smith, a Rotarian in Ellsworth, answered the call.
“I’m sure I wouldn’t have gotten all the business people because they didn’t know me,” Swan said, but “all I had to do was tell them that Judge Smith would be a member of our club.”
There was also the matter of the name. The members wanted to be the Mount Desert Island Rotary Club, but Rotary International required the club name to include a municipality. So the new club was the Mount Desert Island (Bar Harbor) Rotary Club, subsequently changed and abbreviated to Bar Harbor (MDI) Rotary Club.
Charter night for the club took place at the Tidewater Golf Club on Sept. 21, 1968. Former dean of Bates College Harry Rowe delivered an address and welcomed the club into Rotary International. Early lunch meetings were held at Mary Jane Restaurant in Bar Harbor, the Mast and Rudder restaurant in Northeast Harbor and in the vestry of the Bar Harbor Congregational Church.
At the time, the MDI club was part of a Rotary district that consisted of 50 clubs that stretched from Newburyport, Mass., to Quebec City. The district now has the same number of clubs, but it only encompasses an area from Central Maine to Quebec.
At the Seafood Festival every year, the club raises more than $40,000 for local nonprofits and its own service projects. In the morning, Rotary members serve a massive pancake breakfast. Just hours later, the Seafood Festival kicks off, serving steamers, lobsters and crabs to the hungry masses.
The festival wasn’t always an overwhelming success.
“In the enthusiasm of our early days, one of the first projects was the Lobster Festival, later called a Seafood Festival, in August of 1971 at the Bar Harbor Airport seaplane ramp,” the club history said. “Overly optimistic estimates of 6,000 picnickers led to thousands of leftover lobsters and ears of corn when less than 1,500 customers attended.”
The club had a trial run of the festival with a custom-built cooker to steam clams, lobsters and potatoes. The initial tests, held at Somes Sound, went perfectly. Swan said.
“We were all set for [the festival,]” he said. “‘Nobody can stop us now,’ we thought.”
Club members spent the night before the festival piling clay under the cookers to keep them level on the incline of the seaplane ramp, but it rained before the festival. While they worked to keep the steamers level, it was the steamers themselves that proved problematic.
“These two ladies holler at me ‘Sir, these clams, we open them up and they shut right back up,’” Swan, who served as the fifth president of the club, laughed. “They were still alive! I said ‘ladies, that shows that they’re really fresh.’”
The club switched to cooking the lobsters in barrels the next year and has done so ever since, Swan said.
“We learned lessons, however, from the experience and the $3,000 debt in itself served as a project for the next two years,” the club’s history continues.
Another initiative in the early days of the club was paying for dental care for children around Mount Desert Island.
“The club has done a lot in the past 50 years locally and internationally,” said Annette Higgins, past president and past assistant district governor. “Supporting other local nonprofits is also a big part of the club’s history, through monetary donations as well as volunteer service.”
Carrie Jones, who was nominated by fellow members to be the next president of the club starting on July 1, said she joined because she wanted to serve the community with like-minded individuals.
“It seemed like a perfect fit…solving real problems in our local community,” she said of the club. “All of that is rewarding to me.
“I’ve travelled the world thanks to Rotary and met cool people in Bar Harbor, all working to do good.” she continued. “Because of Rotary, I have friends in India, Norway, Nigeria, Panama, Belize, Turkey and throughout Europe.”
In addition to serving the local club, Jones works with the Rotary district and zone, an even larger area, as public image coordinator, helping clubs get the word out about their work.
Zone 24 includes 851 clubs in Canada, Alaska, Washington, Michigan and Maine. Jones is also usually the one in the lobster costume at the end of the Fourth of July parade before the Seafood Festival.
She will succeed Steven Boucher as club president. He said the club has worked against misconceptions that Rotary is exclusive and has strict rules. Really, he said, it’s “an open community group and you can be involved as much as you like.”
Last year, fourteen representatives from Bar Harbor and Ellsworth Rotary Clubs traveled to Panama and delivered 125 wheelchairs. The project started back in 2012, with the first trip to Central America coming in 2014.
Susy Del Cid-Papadopoli, a Rotary member here who is originally from Panama, described participating in the program as one of the most “important” times of her life.
“Being there in my own country with this club from the United States, not only helping the person, you’re helping their families,” she said. “I never thought I would do something like that…it’s one of the highlights of my life.”
The club works with the Interact Club, the high school version of Rotary, at Mount Desert Island High School. In recent years, that group has supported local nonprofits, raised awareness and funds to combat polio and human trafficking, and sponsored an annual “prom” party for people in the community with developmental disabilities.
Other local projects include an annual mini golf tournament that supports local cancer patients, Bar Harbor Kids Book Festival and scholarships for local studen
A major project in recent years was the Park Street Playground in Bar Harbor. The MDI (Bar Harbor) Rotary Club spearheaded the final push of a years-long, $180,000 project to update and revitalize the playground. It was opened on Sept. 16, 2017.
“It was very satisfying to see the results of our efforts to build the new playground,” said club treasurer Ron Wrobel. “It’s nice to be involved in the latest projects that our club is working on.”
Wrobel said Rotary has changed a lot in the 21 years he has been a member. There are now about equal numbers of male and female members and the average age has dropped. A big change was making one meeting a month in the evening since it was hard for many prospective members to get away from work at lunchtime.
“I tell prospective new members to give Rotary a try,” he said. It’s a great opportunity to give back on both a local and international level…and it’s a great opportunity to make local friends and meet people through local meetings and Rotary International projects.”
Members of the MDI (Bar Harbor) Rotary Club include Martha Abbott, Jane Adams, Donald Allen, James Ash, Clare Bingham, Arthur Blank, Sallie Boggs, Steven Boucher, Sharon Broom, Elizabeth Bryer, Lisa Horsch Clark, James Collier, Nancy Corliss, Richard Crawford, Patricia Curtis, Elizabeth Cutler, Jefferson De Lima, Susana Del Cid, Sherri Dyer, William Eisele, Virginia Farnsworth, Shaun Farrar, Barbara Fox, Richard Fox, Elise Frank, Robinson Fry, Liz Graves, Scott Hammond, Janet Harding, Annette Higgins, Aurora Hilton, Judy Holmes, Jenna Horton, Matthew Horton, John Jagger. Buck Jardine, Carrie Jones, Jennifer Jones, Susan Kropff, David Lewis, Joseph Losquadro, Michael Madell, Maryanne Mattson, Colleen Maynard, Benita McMullen, Jeffrey Miller, Alan Mogridge, James Mroch, Peter Nicholson, Alisa Nye, Terence O’Connell, Tommy Parham, Marc Perry, Robert Raymond, Dean Read, Robert Recholtz, Steve Redgate, Melinda Rice, Timothy Rich, Burton Richie, Ginger Shubert. Chadbourn Smith, Kenneth Smith, Cary Swan, Judith Swazey, Suzanne Sylvia, Bonnie Tai, Robert Theriault, Chris White, David Woodside and Ronald Wrobel.