Two weeks ago, for the first time in over 93 years, a baby was born on the island of Islesford, Maine.
Azalea Belle Gray is the sixth child of Aaron Gray and Erin Fernald Gray and the newest member of the Fernald family, which stretches back several generations to Islesford. Azalée’s great-grandfather, Warren Fernald, a longtime fisherman on the island who died in 2005 at the age of 77, was the newest baby born in Islesford, in July 1927.
Islesford is also known as Little Cranberry Island and is part of the town of Cranberry Isles.
Azalea’s birth on the Isle of Grays on September 26 does not in itself have a direct impact on the Islesford population throughout the year, which has increased in recent years, as Azalea would still be considered a resident of the island, whether born on the mainland or in a boat. But his birth on the island, which, like many other islands in Maine, has fought to preserve its community year round in the face of decades of demographic change, is being greeted as the latest sign that his fortune is on the rise. improved.
“It’s exciting,” said Denise McCormick, City Clerk of Cranberry Isles.
According to U.S. Census data, the number of people who live year-round on the city’s Little Cranberry and Great Cranberry Islands increased by 40% between 2010 and 2018, from 101 to 142. For many years, the elderly have always outnumbered children.
In 2019, the total enrollment at the city’s two kindergartens and 8 was 23 students, McCormick said, up from an average of around 16 over the previous eight years. In 2017, at Longfellow School on Great Cranberry Island, a student graduated from eighth grade for the first time in 17 years. Island children attend high school on neighboring Mount Desert Island.
“We had a little baby boom, so that’s a good thing,” McCormick said.
Erin, 40, said her other five children were all born off the island – two in mainland hospitals and three in a house she and her husband own (but now usually rent) in Northeast Harbor on MDI, which is connected to the mainland by a bridge. The Grays own and operate Pine Tree Market in Northeast Harbor.
The decades-long decline in home births is not unique to island communities, where goods and services are generally more difficult to find. Nationally, the percentage of home births fell sharply throughout the 20th century before starting to increase in 2004, according to the National Institutes of Health and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But Gray said she had no plans to be the first woman to give birth at home in Islesford since Calvin Coolidge was president. She knew it had been a long time since a baby had been born there, rather than in a hospital or elsewhere on the continent, but wasn’t sure how long it had been. Almost 20 years ago, there was at least one home birth on neighboring Great Cranberry Island, she noted, and thought the same was probably true for Islesford.
Gray and her husband had contingency plans to travel to MDI for delivery if they needed to, and in fact, they made their way to their home in Northeast Harbor as Hurricane Teddy approached Nova Scotia. Scotland in late September in case the weather gets too bad for them to make the trip. After the storm subsided and she still hasn’t given birth, she said, they decided to return to the island.
“I don’t think I would have done this if it was January,” she said. “But the logistics worked really well.”
It wasn’t until after Azalea was born that she discovered that the last birth on the island was that of her grandfather.
“This is the last that all older people can remember hearing about,” she said.
For several decades, declining populations have been the main threat to the dozen island communities off Maine, open year-round, where affordable housing and jobs other than lobster fishing have always been rare, said Suzanne MacDonald, community development manager for the Island Institute in Rockland. Two rather small island communities in particular, Frenchboro and Isle Au Haut, continue to struggle to survive, each having lost well over half of their population from 2010 to 2018, she said.
The availability and affordability of education, transportation, high-speed internet access, medical care for older residents, and heating fuel and electricity have also been factors that generally make life on the harder islands, MacDonald said. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, she added, has not helped matters.
But several island communities, including the Cranberry Islands, have become more active in recent years to tackle these issues head-on by increasing broadband access, acquiring and reserving housing for residents all year round. , or providing more direct support to local ferry services, among other things, she says.
Investing in high-speed internet access in particular has helped many islanders to better meet their financial needs, she said. It also connected island schools with online education programs and with each other, and made telemedicine more easily accessible to older residents.
More generally, the availability of broadband has reduced the sense of isolation felt by many islanders and which has deterred others from settling on the islands.
“Each of these communities has a broadband focus group,” MacDonald said. “This thing doesn’t happen on its own.”
In the case of the Grays, who primarily homeschool their children but often involve them in the local school’s music, art and physical education programs, the strong sense of the community of Islesford is one of the reasons they wanted a home birth for Azalea. Erin said they knew their neighbors would help them or their midwife Julie Havener with any urgent needs that may have arisen when the baby arrived.
She laughed and said that she wasn’t sure she and her husband would have another baby. But, she added, she would be happy if another pregnant woman had children on the island who would grow up as friends with her children.
“It’s a tight community,” she says. “I hope someone else has a baby here.”