Publication: Seattle Times

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Bush Country

The president’s home is where his heart is: Kennebunkport, Maine

Publication: Seattle Times
By Larry Hansen

Special to The Times

KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine – The cold Atlantic water crashing against the rocky shorefront property is still as numbing as it was when “Little Pop” spent summers here in his youth. And the lobster trips in the cove behind the weathered three-story house continue to provide income for local lobstermen.
Yet this peninsula property named Walker’s Point is no longer the reclusive get-away that George Herbert Walker found when he came here 90 years ago. When Walker’s grandson, once nicknamed “Little Pop” after his grandfather, purchased the oceanfront property 10 years ago, Walker’s Point became much more than a summer home.
Walker’s Point, the only home owned by President George Bush, has become the town’s top tourist attraction.
The home where Bush played as a youth is now heavily guarded by Secret Service agents, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter and a circling helicopter. Like Reagan’s ranch near Santa Barbara, Calif., Carter’s farm in Plains, Ga., or Kennedy’s home in Hyannisport, Mass., Kennebunkport, is attracting a horde of tourists and camera crews who want to see the home of the president.
“A lot of people want to be able to say to their friends, ‘I saw the president’s house,’” said Roland F. Drew, town selectman. “But Kennebunkport is also a well-known tourist town. People come here for its beauty.”
The quiet beauty of Kennebunkport, population 4,500, is as much a part of Bush as politics. In his autobiography, “Looking Forward,” he remembers when as a child the Bush family “was never closer or happier than when we crammed into the station wagon each summer – five kids, two dogs, with Mother driving – to visit Walker’s Point” after leaving their home in Greenwich, Conn.
It is here in Kennebunkport that Bush, at age 9, and brother Preston, age 11, were allowed to take their grandfather’s lobster boat out to sea without supervision. It is here that Bush fell in love with boating, fishing and the sea.
And it is here in Kennebunkport where Bush proposed in 1943 to a young woman from Rye, N.Y., named Barbara Pierce.
“Part of what I really am is here,” Bush said to a Kennebunkport crowd during his Thanksgiving holiday here, his first trip back to Kennebunkport since the November election.
Kennebunkport has been Bush’s summer retreat throughout his life. As Navy pilot, Texas businessman, Texas congressman, United Nations ambassador, Central Intelligence Agency director, and vice president, Bush has lived in numerous cities, states and countries. Yet Kennebunkport always remained an anchor of memories that kept pulling him back.
He says he has come to Kennebunkport every year of his 64 years except one, during World War II. What he and his family find in Kennebunkport is a community that embraces them as if they were relation.
“He’s just part of the life here,” said Dr. Laman Bruner, friend and priest of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, where Bush’s mother and daughter, Dorothy, were married.
Life here in Kennebunkport, on the southern Maine coastline, is slow-paced. Many of the year-round residents moved from congested areas elsewhere to live a simpler life in this Maine village that thrives off of tourism and fishing.
One of Bush’s closest neighbors, Robert Dennis, left a hectic real estate business in Westpoint, N.Y., 10 years ago to move to Kennebunkport with his wife. Dennis, 44, now spends most of his time outdoors managing the town’s municipal parking during the summer. In the winter, he’ll pick up odd jobs or just enjoy the scenery from his oceanfront home.
“I think winter is one of the nicest times around here. “When it snows over the ocean, it is simply gorgeous,” Dennis said.
But living near this ocean beauty is not cheap. Within the last decade, the summer popularity of Kennebunkport has mushroomed and four-bedroom homes along the water have been up for sale for more than $1 million. Land is at a premium, as one real estate agent listed a one-half acre of land near the ocean at $275,000.
Ten years ago, Bush reportedly paid $800,000 for Walker’s Point, which includes the three-story main house, a few smaller buildings for guests, aides and Secret Service agents, a tennis court, and a 270-degree view of the Atlantic Ocean.
Many of those living in Kennebunkport only “summer” here like the Bush family. Some of those born here have remained to inherit homes passed down through the generations.
The Kennebunkport area, including neighboring towns Kennebunk and Arundel, is rich in family heritage. This area, depicted by historical novelist Kenneth Roberts in such books as “Arundel” and “Rabble in Arms,” includes descendants of the settlers from the early 1600s.
Residents take pride in their heritage. Zoning ordinances have retained a New England charm here. Neon lights are illegal. Clapboard siding and picket fences are predominant in the quiet neighborhoods. Two and three-story houses, many built during the shipbuilding era 200 years ago, remain as an authentic memory to life before the Revolutionary War.
Many residents still live off the sea. In Cape Porpoise, part of Kennebunkport, a small cove is filled with lobster boats moored off a small fishing dock. Here, customers can buy lobsters for $3 a pound directly from lobstermen.
Cape Porpoise, about four miles north of Kennebunkport downtown, is the “quiet” side of the town, according to Charlie Wright, owner of a local art gallery. He said that those who come to this cove area usually just wander through the art galleries and sit on the dock to watch the lobstermen bring in their day’s catch.
“This is the place to get philosophical,” Wright said.
While solitude of the Cape Porpoise cove may stir the soul, tourists are drawn to downtown Kennebunkport for different reasons – expensive clothing and unusual knickknacks. The one-block downtown area, located next to the Kennebunk River that flows into the ocean, has stores with items such as $280 goatskin pilot jackets, $275 sweaters from Uruguay and $135 cow stools.
Also in these stores, the political memorabilia from the November election still exists. Store windows, with T-shirts stating “Head to the Beaches of Bush Country” and “Dukakis is Good for America. South America,” clearly show that the town favored Bush, 4 to 1, in the presidential elections.
Kennebunkport residents like Bush. Though not all agree with his political views, residents here appreciate how George and Barbara Bush treat their neighbors during the three or four weeks they spend here every year.
“I’ve never heard anyone say anything bad against the Bushes,” said Ann Nunan, the 67-year-old owner of Cape Hardware, Kennebunkport’s only hardware store.
When the Bushes are in town, they “do what most anyone else around here would do,” said neighbor Robert Dennis. “They simply come here to relax and enjoy the area,” he added.
Kennebunkport, with a nine-mile coastline of sandy beaches and rocky shores, is a town for people who like to walk and enjoy the scenery. The Bushes are no exception. Often, residents see George and Barbara Bush taking the two-mile walk, with Secret Service agents following, into town to browse through the stores or have lunch at a place like the Lobster Claw Restaurant.
In the summer, Bush usually takes out his cigarette speedboat, named “Fidelity,” for a few hours of bluefish fishing or a spin along the coastline. On Sundays, the Bushes are regulars at the 10 a.m. service at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, said Priest Bruner.
But residents are concerned about how Bush’s term as president will affect the town. Most residents fear that Ocean Avenue, the town’s main road that leads to the Bush complex, will become clogged with camera crews, Bush watchers and political protesters.
And Secret Service agents will become more apparent, as protection for Bush is increased.
What residents fear most is a change in the Kennebunkport way of life. Though local merchants will benefit from the increase in tourism, many are afraid the town will become too commercial and congested. The town’s population already increases by nearly ten-fold in the summer.
Ann Dubay, a 51-year-old shopkeeper who was once held up in traffic by a television crew setting up cameras, believes the next four years will have a profound effect on Kennebunkport.
“George Bush and his wife are nice people. But I hate every minute of it (the town’s new popularity),” said Dubay. “We in Kennebunkport are used to a way of life. I think we have seen the end of that.”
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