The historic building of Old Company's Lehigh heating oil is a landmark in Belfast, Maine. But the cost of home heating oil is causing residents to lose sleep.

Photo by Tom Ross

The historic building of Old Company's Lehigh heating oil is a landmark in Belfast, Maine. But the cost of home heating oil is causing residents to lose sleep.

Tom Ross: Maine is nice to visit, but I wouldn't want the heating bill


Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or

Find more columns by Tom here.

Jaws were dropping up and down the rocky coast of Maine last week. Ethel Cunningham wondered, when she got the news, how two part-time jobs and her Social Security check would cover the bill. When innkeeper Marcia Markwardt opened the envelope, she immediately was struck by the possibility that she might have to give up the historic Carriage House bed and breakfast.

Everyone in the Yampa Valley has been feeling the pain of $4 gasoline this week. Just be grateful you don't live in New England, where many homeowners heat with fuel oil.

When the heating oil deliveryman arrived at the Carriage House on May 22, he handed Markwardt her bill in an envelope and asked her not to open it until he had driven away from her 137-year-old home.

The price of fuel oil in mid-coast Maine last week was $4.50 a gallon. Markwardt's bill, for filling the tank beneath the 6,000-square-foot house, was $2,000. That's one big gulp at the end of May. It will be an even bigger gulp next winter when she will have to fill the tank twice a month to keep a few guests cozy during the long off-season.

The Carriage House isn't old by New England standards. It was built in 1871 by sea captain John McGilvery. He employed his shipwrights to build one of the most solid structures in Searsport, or for that matter in Belfast or nearby Camden. The house sits on a foundation of granite blocks and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Much of its fame is derived from a more contemporary owner, the famed painter Waldo Peirce, who lived there periodically from 1948 to 1968.

Peirce was a lifetime friend of Ernest Hemingway and painted some of the best-known portraits of the great writer. If only Markwardt had found a Peirce painting in the attic of the Carriage House, she never would have to worry about a heating-oil bill, regardless how high the price goes.

Unfortunately, when the house was built, it was set up to be heated by wood stoves. I'm guessing, but I'll bet Capt. McGilvery's family heated cast-iron clothes irons on the stove and took them to bed wrapped in old sheets.

Today, the inn is heated by a boiler and radiators. But the ceilings are 10 feet high, and there are only two heating zones in the big old building. It's not possible to turn the heat off in vacant rooms.

Markwardt has only three guest bedrooms to defray the cost of heating oil in the historically significant structure.

Just as airlines are trying to figure out how to adapt their business plans to the new cost of jet fuel, you can bet that bed and breakfast owners across the Northeast are trying to figure out how to stay in business.

Cunningham's story is a variation on the theme.

I can't tell you her precise age, but she appears to be every bit of 78 years old. When I met her at the counter of All Small Antiques in Searsport, she was meticulously groomed and cheerful. She also was troubled by her fuel bill. She had just taken delivery of 238 gallons, and the bill was $1,033.

"That's more money than my Social Security check!" she exclaimed.

Fortunately for Cunningham, who is a widow, she has two jobs. After her shift at All Small Antiques, she planned to drive up the coast about 20 miles to Ellsworth (on $4 gasoline) to work a shift as hostess at the Sea Breeze restaurant.

Cunningham was a waitress for 38 years. First, she worked for Pete Millett at Millet's Restaurant on Verner Island for 26 years.

Later, she served chowder and fried clams for another 12 years at the Grand Mariner in Searsport.

As fate would have it, the Grand Mariner was in the same building that houses All Small Antiques today.

Those are some hard-working people on the coast of Maine, and I could almost see myself living there. But I would have to find a house with a good wood-burning stove and its own 20-acre wood lot.


eastboy 8 years, 11 months ago

Does anyone who is not "fairly well off" really doubt that we're NOT in for a serious depression when all these $$$$$$$ catch up to us?


bethgene 8 years, 11 months ago

As a resident of Belfast and a customer of Consumer Fuel that now occupies the old Lehigh building, I am well aware of the pain at the fuel oil pump. We winter in Arizona now but still are trying to maintain our home here. We heat our small home and also a 2 car garage with a small apartment over it with fuel oil and last winter nearly killed our budget and I'm sure this year may be fatal. Even with heat nearly off in the house for 7 months and the apartment at a minimum we use about 1800 gallons. We live on Social Security and the rent from the apartment for the whole year will probably not cover the fuel bill next heating season. Wow, what a challenge-anyone want to but a cute little house in Maine with 2 acres of privacy and a short distance from the ocean??????


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