BOOTHBAY HARBOR A few locals strolled into The Thistle Inn’s pub just before happy hour on a recent Wednesday evening. Anya Reid, who owns the inn with her husband, Dick, hurried over to welcome them.

“I’ve got to give you a hug,” Reid said to one of them. “It’s been a while.”

The inn’s pub and restaurant had re-opened the night before after four weeks of renovations. A fresh storm had brought a seasonal chill, and the pub’s regulars were eager to return to its rustic, warm interior for a drink and a little local gossip. Joslyn and Harvey Oakes, who usually come in a couple of times a week, settled into a large, newly reupholstered booth with three friends. They explained how sometimes people will plow a driveway or two during a snowstorm and then stop by the inn for a drink or dinner before going out into the night. Others start a load of laundry at home, then come here until the clothes are ready for the dryer. Sometimes, Joslyn Oakes said, the pull is simply, “It’s snowing. Let’s go to The Thistle.”

The Thistle Inn is typical of restaurants and pubs along the Maine coast that cater to tourists during summer and fall, then revert to being a hang-out for locals during the bleak winter months. When the streets are cold, dark and empty, and cabin fever sets in, the inn’s twinkling white lights beckon to locals hibernating at home.

AFTER THE TOURISTS GO 

Summer residents swell the population of the Boothbay peninsula to about 40,000, but in winter that number shrinks to 9,000, according to the Boothbay Harbor Region Chamber of Commerce. Only two or three restaurants in town stay open through winter. On some days, say Monday lunch, people resort to buying prepared foods at the local convenience stores, says Patricia Royall, who stepped down as the chamber’s executive director in late February.

The Thistle Inn is the only year-round restaurant in town that could be considered upscale, she said, but it also has a pub menu. The restaurant is known for its crab cakes and scallops, and is widely considered to have the best burger in town.

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People talk most about its food, but the inn is, indeed, an inn, with six guest rooms that are “just a very small piece of our revenue,” Reid said. There is no front desk; whoever is available on staff checks overnight guests in when they arrive.

In winter, the pub does twice the business of the inn’s three small dining rooms — the exact opposite of summer. But that doesn’t mean much since customers can order from either menu in winter. The Reids and their chef change the menus after the tourists go home to make it more affordable. Some of the higher-priced entrees disappear until summer rolls around again. If the price of scallops goes down, they drop the price of the dish as low as they can and still cover costs. Anya Reid said she’s had to have talks with younger chefs she’s hired about catering to local tastes. Forget about nose-to-tail cooking and pickling, she tells them. Boothbay Harbor’s year-rounders prefer generous servings of meat and potatoes over small bites of offal and sides of pickled cauliflower.

Thistle Inn co-owner Anya Reid talks to, from left clockwise, Clare, Sandy and Krissy O’Connell while they have dinner in the pub in late February. The O’Connells came to celebrate the life of Sandy’s husband, Krissy’s father and Clare’s brother, John O’Connell, who died recently. The family has been coming to The Thistle for years. “He would’ve wanted us to come here,” Sandy said. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

BABIES, AND BEAGLES, WELCOME

By 5 p.m., the pub is full — the large booth that can seat a half-dozen, a table for four, the two-tops lined up along the wall with counter-height seating, and the eight coveted seats at The Dory, the 18-foot boat-turned-bartop (donated by a local doctor in the 1960s) where locals can talk to the bartender or watch sports on TV. At the tables, the Oakes and their friends reminisced about the pub’s early years, in the 1960s and 1970s, when the customer base consisted largely of fishermen, scientists from the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, musicians (including Simon & Garfunkel), workers from a local shrimp processing plant, and airline pilots. (Apparently lots of pilots retire here. No one knows why.) The shrimp workers often brought in platters of free shrimp to share with everyone at the bar. The fishermen were just as generous.

“Guys would come in who had $10,000 days and throw the money on the bar, and buy (drinks) for everyone,” Joslyn Oakes recalled.

The Oakes have been coming to The Thistle Inn since they moved to Boothbay Harbor in 1976. Joslyn recalls stopping in with her husband on the way home from the hospital with their infant daughter. Other parents did the same, knowing the staff was always eager to babysit. “We’d come in with her and they’d say ‘OK, we’ll take her,'” Oakes recalled. “It was like a big family.”

Babies weren’t the only unusual visitors. Over the years, the inn has welcomed a pig named Blossom, two beagles named Angus and Bonnie who sometimes drank a nip of Scotch in a corner, and a rooster that walked back and forth across the bar. And, oh yes, there was also a resident ghost who is still stirring up trouble. They say he has sent rolls of paper towels flying; knocked things off walls; repeatedly opened and closed a baby gate the Reids put up for their son; and sent their toddler’s toy tractor chugging back and forth across the room on its own.

Reid says she wouldn’t exactly call her unseen visitor friendly, but, rather, tolerant. “I never feel threatened by any means,” she said, “but I think he wants you to know that this is his house, and you’re in it.”

HOUSE WITH A PAST

But is it his house? The inn was built in 1861 by Capt. Samuel Miller Reed. Two years later, after he was lost at sea, Reed’s heirs took over the taxes and at some point sold the place to another sea captain, Gilman Low. Low introduced a steamboat service between Bath and Boothbay Harbor, according to Hilary Bartlett,  a 72-year-old retired Bigelow scientist and Thistle Inn regular (she lived across the street from the inn from 1975 to 1981) who has written a book on its history due out in spring. Capt. Low died in the house in 1919, sparking at least some speculation that he is the irreverent ghost.

The house was sold in 1962 to T’Donald Booth Morren and his wife, Leonie Greenwood-Adams, who opened the inn the following year and in 1964 added the restaurant and pub. Greenwood-Adams had vacationed in Boothbay Harbor since she was a child, and her husband fell in love with the place because it reminded him of his native Scotland. He spoke with a strong brogue and always wore a kilt behind the bar. (Morren’s father had been constable of Edinburgh, Bartlett said, and was knighted by the Queen of England.)

Still affectionately remembered, Greenwood-Adams was a local character. She was known for showing off her legs — and, some unconfirmed stories say, occasionally raising her blouse. Joslyn Oakes recalls that every New Year’s Eve she’d climb onto the bar in a gold lamé dress. “She was a bright woman, though,” John Oakes added.

Before the restaurant opened, locals had to drive all the way to Wiscasset to enjoy a cocktail and a nice meal, Bartlett said. “For years — from ’64, when they first opened, to ’77, when McSeagull’s opened — the Thistle was the only show in town,” she said.

Mark Stover plays music with Paul Dalessio, right, at The Thistle in late February. Stover, a local, started coming to the inn as a teen. It’s that kind of place. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The atmosphere at the inn in those early days, she said, was “pretty lively,” a mix of rowdy locals and well-heeled diners who would “just ignore whatever was going on in the pub because the food was so good.”

A menu from 1964 shows martinis and Manhattans for 90 cents. A fish and chips dinner cost $2.50. Steak dinners and the restaurant’s specialty — T’Donald’s Scottish Lobster Pie — were both priced at $4.75. Portions were “immense,” recalls Pat Irish, who was a bartender at the Thistle in the 1970s and now works as its bookkeeper. Her favorite entree was the $14 Downeast steak smothered in mushroom sauce filled with chunks of lobster meat.

Back then, the pub was wall-to-wall people. Everyone knew everyone else’s business, Bartlett said, and if you went into the bar, it probably meant you were going to run into an ex.

Bartlett, who grew up in Liverpool, England, first set foot in the Thistle Inn in June 1975, when she arrived from the University College of London to do research at the Bigelow Laboratory on McKown Point. On her first day in America, her PhD supervisor, who was also working at Bigelow, took her to the inn for lunch. “That was where I had my first American beer, ever,” Bartlett said. “And I still go there.”

The Bigelow scientists had their own table, where they would draw graphs and equations on whatever scrap of paper they could find. “There were an awful lot of grants being written on the back of placemats,” Oakes said. The practice so irritated Greenwood-Adams that she had special paper placemats made up to look like graph paper from “The Thistle Inn Innstitute for Ocean Sciences,” and named herself “Proprietoress: Dame Leonie Greenwood-Adams Jenkins, B.S., M.S., PhD., D.Phil.” etc. The phony academic alphabet soup goes on and on.

The English scientists from the lab especially loved the Thistle Inn, Bartlett said, because it reminded them of pubs back home. Locals would gather around the player piano and sing, or organize tournaments at the dart board. Others played poker or 21 at a corner table. Sometimes fights broke out, like the time two tourists, one a Brit, got into an argument over who won the American Revolution.

OFF-SEASON BAIT

To keep customers coming in during winter, Leonie, as everyone called her, organized parties she called balls. There was a fairy ball, and in the 1970s a recession ball and a streakers ball. Irish recently came in for dinner at the pub with her husband Ted, and brought along old photos from the streakers ball. They are a little shocking, with lots of full-frontal exposure courtesy of some of the male partygoers, who seemed to be the only ones willing to shed their clothes. The cover charge for these special occasions, Irish said, was to bring back a glass that had wandered out of the bar on a previous visit. “Our crowd was a lot younger than they are now,” Irish said. “Then, there was no drugs. It was all drinking.”

A photographic record of Thistle Inn fun over the decades. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The bar became both the start and finish line for the town’s “Drunken Sailor Race,” which involved drinking a lot of alcohol, then getting into a boat with a beautiful woman. Anything that could float was fair game in the race, even a bathtub. The rules changed every year, Bartlett said.

The annual Fishermen’s Festival also got its start at the Thistle Inn, according to Bartlett, when Monhegan lobstermen challenged Boothbay Harbor lobstermen to a tug of war. The Boothbay Harbor lobstermen decided to get their Monhegan rivals drunk first to improve their own odds of winning. As the festival developed into an annual event, it came to include a Blessing of the Fleet, followed by an afternoon at the pub listening to fishermen’s tall tales.

T’Donald Booth Morren died in 1967. Leonie went on to marry twice more, five marriages in all. She split up with her fifth husband but never divorced him, according to local lore, so she wouldn’t be tempted by a sixth. In 1981, she sold the inn. She died the following year, at 59. After the Leonie Era, locals say, the inn went through a couple more owners — it was even a YMCA for a while —  and “a period of decline.” One owner tried to change things, another one tried unsuccessfully to bring the business back. “One of the owners let it be know he didn’t want locals,” Irish said.

Locals mourned the loss, and drifted away.

REVIVAL

When the Reids took over the business in 2016, Dick Reid stood on a bench in one of the dining rooms one night and made a speech welcoming the locals back. “And everyone cheered,” Bartlett recalled.

The Reids already had close ties with the inn. Anya Reid had worked at the inn on and off for 18 years, and lived there for a time around 2009, when she was the innkeeper and bartender. The couple held their wedding reception there. “I knew the business really, really well,” Anya said, “and I loved the building and the business and the history of it.” (The Reids do not own the building but hope to someday.)

Anya Reid, who co-owns The Thistle Inn with her husband, Dick, had worked there on and off for nearly two decades before the couple bought the business. They are returning it to its former glory as a community gathering spot over the resort town’s long winters. Buy this Photo

Their first winter, the couple maxed out their credit cards so they could keep the pub and restaurant open, employing about 20 people. “The community really stepped up and supported what we were doing,” Reid said. “We lose money or break even in winter, but we provide a service to the community, and keeping staff employed is really important to us.”

Other places have opened year round since then to give The Thistle Inn some competition — the Boathouse Bistro, which serves tapas; Brady’s, which serves bar classics and comfort foods, and hosts a popular trivia night. But the Thistle has its own niche, serving pub food and upscale dishes such as brandied lobster, filet mignon, and seared yellow fin tuna in a romantic room warmed by a woodstove and lit by candles and a cast iron chandelier.

There are more customers to go around now, as the fall tourist season has extended and Gardens Aglow, the annual holiday light show at the nearby Maine Botanical Gardens, always attracts a crowd. “For three weeks around the holidays in December, we’re doing comparable numbers to August,” Reid said.

The ghosts of the past still haunt the little inn on Oak Street, as well as that actual ghost, who most recently turned on a valve in a hard-to-reach crawl space and started a flood. (Upset about the kitchen renovations, maybe?) The sliding door that in the 1800s marked the entrance to the carriage house and stables now links the 20th-century pub to one of the dining rooms. Thistle Inn fans are once again enjoying a pint as they share memories  — and make new ones.

“I think we’ll see different lifetimes of the Thistle over the years,” Reid said. “I’m really looking forward to that.”


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