Maine’s License Plate Saga

9 mins read
Sample ‘chickadee’ plate. (Maine Secretary of State)

Secretary of State Shenna Bellows’ recent announcement of a recall of profanity themed vanity plates is an occasion to take a look at the most prominent and enduring proclamations that decorate vehicles in Maine and elsewhere.

One expression, however, that Bellows will not be recalling and appears on all regularly issued – that is non specialty – plates in the state is Vacationland. It too, however, has by no means been free of ridicule.

“I think it is an asinine proposition and I believe that we will find in another year that on a great many of the plates that section of the bottom will be obliterated and the word ’Vacationland’ will be stricken off. I don’t think it lends anything to the dignity of the number plates nor do I think that it lends any dignity in the advertising medium of the state.”

So observed Senator Roy Fernald in the 1935 floor debate when “Vacationland” was under consideration as the plate’s motto.

One would have expected that Fernald’s view would have carried considerable weight. After all, he had been a college economics professor, had attended West Point, and in a feat drawing the attention of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not column the 33-year old Bangor attorney had already earned nine college and graduate school degrees from the likes of Harvard, U-Maine and Boston University.

Instead, the senate followed the leadership of Cape Elizabeth Senator Harold Schnurle, who argued, “We are trying to get people to come down here and take vacations in our state,” and that “We are spending our money to try and make people conscious of that fact and…ties in with our advertising campaign.”

Support for the measure in the House was so resounding that the bill’s sponsor, Moosehead Lake summer resort owner Frank MacKenzie, who championed its advocacy before the legislature’s Maine Publicity Committee, didn’t even have to deliver a floor speech before the House passed the bill without debate.

History has not been kind to the erudite Fernald’s misgivings. Maine now has the record for the longest running license plate motto in the nation, with roots more venerable than Illinois’ “Land of Lincoln,” which debuted in 1954, the 1969 advent of “Virginia is for Lovers,” and New Hampshire’s more controversial 1971 introduction of “Live Free or Die.”

The question of keeping the Maine moniker has been a recurring question, however. From time to time proposals are made to replace it. In 2019, for example, Monmouth legislator Kent Ackley sponsored a proposal to replace it with “Staycationland,”

“What we are after are those people who never really considered moving to Maine,” Ackley said.

Influenced in part by such observations as Maine Tourism Association spokesperson Chris Fogg that “Any message that could possibly give the wrong impression for them to stay in New Jersey or New York or Boston isn’t one that we would support,” the legislation failed to gain traction.

If the point of Ackley’s bill was to encourage visitors to make more than a cameo appearance in our own state other features since have emerged in the direction of such a mission. Policies including those in public health along with enhanced acceptance of working remotely that made the state more hospitable to those seeking to avoid the more densely populated and occasionally more dangerously contagious areas elsewhere has given rise to an influx of COVID ex patriots. They include those who once merely visited here but who have made the state a permanent residence. Surges from such sources have especially emerged in the Ogunquit, Boothbay Harbor, Rangeley and Sugarloaf areas to name a few.

It is of course recognized that the mere recitation of a single four syllable word on most license plates is only part of the means for sending a message that invites those to come to the state.

One of the most prominent PR professionals who has been working for some 35-years with a variety of clients seeking to draw people to Maine is Nancy Marshall. “Vacationland” or the more recent “Welcome Home” theme are, according to Marshall, part of a larger branding process.

“The effectiveness of tourism slogans is based not only on longevity but also on the marketing strategy behind the slogan.”

As Marshall explained one has to “build a story behind the slogan that connects with the targeted visitors.”

“A brand is how a place, a person, or a product makes people feel in their hearts and how they think about it in their minds. Maine has extremely strong brand equity and has a mythical quality that creates strong feelings in the hearts and minds of people who may have come to Maine as children for summer camp or to visit relatives.”

Each of the leading figures in the 1935 “Vacationland” debate had notable careers in its aftermath.

For Fernald, a hallmark was his leadership in a 1937 referendum about the state’s first sales tax, this on grounds that it would tax groceries. He became a leading – though losing candidate – in five campaigns for governor, the last one in 1948, losing to Frederick Payne. Payne, during his time in office put through a sales tax that responded to Fernald’s main objection in the 1937 proposal. That’s because Payne’s law shielded groceries from the tax, an exemption that endures today. This was in 1951, the year that Fernald died at age 49.

The 38-year old Schnurle would go on to become a two term member of the Governor’s Executive Council, later spend 30-years as a public relations vice president for Central Maine Power, and put in a term as president of the State Chamber of Commerce. He was 95 at the time of his death in 1993.

The bill’s sponsor, Frank MacKenzie, would soon leave his Moosehead resort to become manager of Bangor’s Penobscot Hotel and also to chair the Maine Hotel Association. Perhaps befitting a proponent of the vacationland theme, Maine for MacKenzie was neither his state of origin nor his retirement domicile. A native of Prince Edward Island, MacKenzie returned to its capital city, Charlottetown, where he spent some 20 years both in retirement and as a civic leader until his death there at age 81 in 1965.

Were Fernald, Schnurle, and MacKenzie to reconvene their “Vacationland” discussion today they likely would agree with Secretary Bellows decision to purge Maine’s license plates from extraneous epithets!

Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his historical understanding and analyses of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached at pmlls@myfairpoint.net.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email