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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives on the West End with his lovely wife Emily, where they watch all the movies ever made. When not digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: September 27, 2017

Documentary tells story of the fire that forever changed Mount Desert

Written by: Dennis Perkins
Jack Tracy was interviewed for "The Fire of '49" Photos courtesy of Peter Logue

Jack Tracy was interviewed for “The Fire of ’49”
Photo courtesy of Peter Logue

As its title might suggest, the new Maine documentary “The Fire of ’47” is about a fire that happened in Maine in 1947. But, as the film’s director Southwest Harbor native Peter Logue explains, the massive conflagration that swept over Mount Desert Island not only destroyed some 300 homes and businesses, it also changed the destiny of an entire region.

The 39-minute film, which will have its world premiere on Sunday at the historic Criterion Theater in Bar Harbor, sees Logue (with the assistance of the Bar Harbor Historical Society) pull together survivors of the catastrophic event to tell their stories, just in time for the 70th anniversary of the fire that changed their lives and their town. I spoke to him about the film, the fire and its lasting effects.

Here’s a clip:

Just how devastating was the fire to Mount Desert Island?

The whole island could have burned to the ground. That was a real threat. As it stands, MDI only burned from the head to Bar Harbor, not most of the island. A lot of that is due to some pretty phenomenal and heroic firefighting, where it was really all hands on deck. All the able-bodied men on the island and fire departments from 11 surrounding towns, volunteers, kids on bikes delivering sandwiches, women on the island working the telephones and running the canteen. It’s inspiring how the community came together in this dramatic scenario. In talking to people, you get the sense that no one panicked, that everyone stayed calm and cool.

To what do you attribute that attitude?

This was a traumatic event with major repercussions, just one of an epidemic of fires all over Maine in 1947, which was the driest summer in 200 years. At the same time, that classic Maine attitude prevailed. There was no sense of entitlement or self-pity, even among those that lost homes. Talking to people, it was just the sense that you have to go on with life. There’s no time to be sad about this, everyone has to support each other through this and move forward. The week after the fire, the Bar Harbor Times’ headline read: “Mount Desert Island’s worst disaster: Of course we will rebuild.”

How did you get in touch with the subjects of the film and were people receptive to talking about the fire?

Debbie Dyer from the Bar Harbor Historical Society knows everybody. When Debbie calls, people pick up on the first ring, and she knew a lot of the names. We had a list of people we knew, people who have given speeches about the fire at libraries. In the end, there are 22 people we interview in the film, some of whom were as young as 4 and evacuated from the island, others who were actually fighting the fire. For the most part, people were really excited to tell the story. Since this happened 70 years ago, these are people in their 80s and 90s, and once the camera was rolling, they just settled in to tell part of a story that’s become an important part of their lives.

How did the fire of ’47 change Mount Desert Island?

Roughly 220 local homes were destroyed, along with about 70 summer mansions. Plus Jackson Lab lost something like 110,000 mice that represented 30 years of state-of-the-art research. Overall, about 20,000 acres were damaged or destroyed. What the real effect was, though, is that the fire changed the identity of Bar Harbor. After the fire, they didn’t rebuild those mansions, people built hotels instead. It became a tourist town, which it mainly is to this day. People in Bar Harbor still refer to things as “before the fire” and “after the fire.” All of the locals rebuilt, and there was this strong, resilient feeling. But the area went from a summer colony to a tourist destination.

Apart from the interviews, what form does “The Fire of ’47” take in presenting the story?

Having grown up on the island, this is a story everyone here knows about, but there’s still not a lot of consensus. How the fire started is sort of controversial. So, in addition to eyewitness accounts, we got a lot of incredible archival footage from Northeast Historic Film and aerial photographs from the Bar Harbor Historical Society, all of which help bring the story to life.

Also, Seal Harbor native Steve Zirnkilton came on to do the narration — you’ll recognize his voice from the introduction to all the “Law & Order” TV series and a million other places. In a way, I didn’t feel I had the authority to make a decision about what actually happened, so the narration is pulled from the fire chief’s eight-page report, and that really forms the guiding narrative through the film.

“The Fire of ’47” will have its world premiere at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Criterion Theater in Bar Harbor. For tickets and directions, check out the Criterion’s website: criteriontheatre.org. And for more about the life and work of Maine native and Maine Arts Commission’s 2016 Multimedia/Film Fellow Peter Logue, check out his website: peterloguefilms.com.


COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
PMA FILMS
Friday-Sunday: “A Life In Waves.” This documentary about acclaimed experimental musician and sound designer Suzanne Ciani is followed by a hands-on exhibit called a vintage synthesizer “petting zoo,” which sounds worth the price of admission on its own.

SPACE GALLERY
Wednesday: “Rat Film.” Who doesn’t love rats? Well, most people, but this buzzed-about new documentary examines how the people of Baltimore have lived in uneasy proximity to the little monsters.

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