Small Maine isle savors its victory

by by Mary Corey, Baltimore Sun National Staff
Wednesday, February 5, 1997

Tradition:A Maine island's campaign persuades Nabisco to bring back the Crown Pilot, a 204-year-old New England chowder cracker it discontinued.

CHEBEAGUE ISLAND, Maine - Before it was over, they begged, badgered and cajoled. They wrote hard-edged letters and soft-hearted songs, ignoring those who ridiculed their cause. Yesterday, their passion paid off: The people of Chebeague Island saved a cracker.

Only a few residents traveled to Boston to hear Nabisco formally announce that it is bringing back the Crown Pilot - a New England chowder cracker discontinued last spring. Most of them knew that the place to savor victory was this snow-covered island about 10 miles north of Portland, where a national campaign to reclaim the snack began almost by accident.

At Doughty's Island Market, the hub for development in this food drama, the spot on the shelf below the saltines was still bare, but fisherman Andrew Todd glanced over that way and smiled, knowing the plain, flat, hard cracker was coming back.

"It's wonderful," says Todd, 40. "This is going to bring Chebeague back to life. We've been a little depressed around here since they took our cracker away."

For months now, Sylvia Ross has kept an empty box next to her bed. On one side, she has written the date: June 27, 1996. "That was the day I had my last Crown Pilot," says Ross, 64, a homemaker.

"Bring me a few Pilot crackers," she says, "and you'll see a tear in my eye."

While many communities take up causes, what made the residents of Chebeague (pronounced sha-Beeg) rally 'round a doomed biscuit?

Donna Miller Damon, whose article in a local paper set off the uprising last summer, says she never intended to launch such a widespread effort. Her story led to others in national publications as well as TV and radio appearances. Before she knew it, there was a Save the Nabisco Crown Pilot Web page on the Internet, cards and care packages arriving from across the country and 3,500 letters or calls logged in at Nabisco.

The company says it wasn't the volume but the feeling expressed that caused it to change course. "Piople didn't just call to tell us we'd made a mistake," said John Barrows, spokesman for RJR Nabisco Inc. "They talked about this being something as old as their earliest memories."

The people of Chebeague say the goodness of the product prompted the outcry. But there's a strong sense of loyalty to the past and an old-fashioned flavor to the island that helps explain how residents could feel such affection for a seemingly run-of-the-mill, 70 calorie cracker.

There are no stop signs here. A policeman works only three months a year, and that's during tourist season. There's a two-room schoolhouse, one general store and a doctor who still makes house calls.

At the Chebeague Orchard Bed and Breakfast, owners Vickie and Neil Taliento held a party to celebrate the island's cracker victory. By the fire, people commiserated over the substitute biscuits we've been using and swapped stories of how they like their Crown Pilots best: Crumbled in milk and served like cereal. Topped with peeanut butter as a bedtime snack. Floating in a bowl of fish chowder.

"The Pilot cracker has been around since I was born," says Ross. "our house was never without them. On Sunday nights, it was a ritual to have crackers and milk."

Jewelry artist Gail Miller wore the most envied accessory at the party - a brass pin, indented and rectangular, that resembled a Crown Pilot cracker. Former Councilman Gary Varney brought his guitar and sang his vitory song to the tune of "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean."

Everyone joined in on the chorus: "Brought back, brought back. They've brought back Crown Pilots to me."

Damon, a local historian, recalled being shocked when she tried unsuccessfully to help her parents find the crackers in the store. "It's part of the cultural cuisine of New England," she says. "I looked at it as more than losing a cracker."

Ross says, "For us, it was like doing away with peanut butter."

Many residents see this campaign as more than just an island pining for its culinary past. There are lessons in this quest: Ardor triumphs over indifference, old refuses to yield to new, David slays Goliath in the snack food aisle.

"I keep thinking if we could find something really important and have this much success, we could make a difference in the world," says Damon, 46.

Their success will make a difference in the life of ferry captain Linden Smith, who has been eating the crackers since childhood.

"Life hasn't been as good since they took them away," saysSmith, 53, as he steers the Big Squaw across icy Casco Bay. "The old-timers had pockets in their vests. They put Pilot crackers in one pocket and salt fish in the other."

The unleavended crackers were first produced by a Massachusetts baker who dubbed them pilot bread. Since they kept well at sea, they became popular with sailors. Nabisco considers Crown Pilot crackers, which are sold primarily in New England at $2.89 a box, its longest-running product, dating back 204 years.

But as with any good thing, this effort has had a downside.

"A lot of people don't understand the fuss," says Ross. "they say,'Why don't you just eat a soda cracker?'"

And not all the residents have been pleased with the attention They fear it may cause more people - more that the 100 families who live here - to visit or move to the island.

"If we could have done this and remained anonymous, it would have been better," says Beverly Johnson, 48, a plumber.

Others are happier in the limelight. Eighty residents are goint to a luncheon in Portland today, where Nabisco is donating $1,000 to Chebeague's historical society.

Some of those same people also attended the Orchard Bed and Breakfast party. Before that event ended, a crowd gathered in the living room for a group photograph.

They all smiled, but they didn't say cheese. The people of Chebeague said, "Crown Pilot."