Howard Berkes, NPR
A makeshift sign welcomes a new era of self-government on Chebeague Island, Maine.
David Tyler for NPR
Moderator Herb Maine gathers votes at Chebeague Island's first town meeting since winning independence.
David Tyler for NPR
The first day of independence on Chebeague Island, Maine, began with a sunrise service.
The first day of independence on Chebeague Island, Maine, began with a sunrise service. David Tyler for NPR
Independence has new meaning to the 350 year-round residents of Chebeague Island, Maine, this Fourth of July. They've been independent just three days.
Chebeague Island became a self-governing town July 1, and islanders got right to work, holding their first-ever town meeting that day. They even suspended scheduled church services, so that they could devote the day to approving the town and school budgets, enacting ordinances and establishing town jobs. They're building a government from scratch after 260 years of being governed by two different towns across Casco Bay.
Islanders didn't leave faith out of the momentous day entirely. Many gathered for the dawn of independence, literally. They sang hymns, uttered prayers and listened to sermons, beginning at 5 a.m. Sunday. The sun, sky, and sea glowed red, even as light rain fell — a cleansing rain, as one islander described it.
Independence came after a two-year effort to secede from the Portland suburb of Cumberland. Chebeaguers complained that mainlanders didn't understand island life and needs. They point to a quiet proposal to move Chebeague elementary students to a mainland school as evidence.
"We had to look at the question of how we protect the school, and then [asked], do we need to secede from the town of Cumberland?" says Carol White, a geologist and mother of two. "We were very certain that if we lost the school, we would lose the year-round community."
Maine islands have a history of losing year-round populations when schools close or send most students to the mainland. Young families with children often move away.
But independence has its price: Chebeague will pay close to $5 million to the Town of Cumberland and the mainland school district for the buildings, equipment and roads that the island now inherits. Islanders also agreed to pay their share of the debt which the school district and town carry.
But self-government is worth it, says Mabel Doughty, an 85-year-old matriarch on Chebeague.
"This [island] is ours now," Doughty says. "We felt that those people on the mainland somehow owned the island. We're going to be our own people."
Doughty says she understands what the writers of the Declaration of Independence must have felt: "They fought so hard to get there, just as we have."