By Paul Mills
With the advent of the summer tourist season now upon us it is time to take a look at how the indelible proclamation of “Vacationland” came into being.
It’s 1935. The man ordained by “Believe it or Not” as one of the world’s best educated human beings felt that even if his Maine Senate colleagues wouldn’t listen posterity would. After all, he had been a college economics professor who presumably knew a thing or two about tourism’s pocket book impact, had attended West Point, and in a feat drawing the media interest of his friend Bob Ripley’s “Believe it or Not” column, the 33-year old Waldo County state senator had already earned nine college and graduate school degrees from the likes of Harvard, U-Maine, and BU.
It was a bill that would make Maine alone among the states to place a tourist promotional expression on its plates and some regarded it as frivolous. The learned and accomplished Roy Fernald was one of them.
“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.”
Adding the expression to the plates of government leaders would expose us to even more ridicule, he warned. A plate reading, “Maine Council: Vacationland” might connote laziness for the officials whose cars displayed them, for example. Perhaps out of fear that Fernald might have been right (perish the thought of an elected official attending his duties!) legislative license plates do not bear this otherwise ubiquitous term. Those ordinarily issued to the rest of us do, however, and it’s now been 79 years since Governor Brann signed into law the bill that overruled Roy Fernald’s remaining protests. Today, “Vacationland” holds the world’s longevity record for a license plate promotional slogan. Only since 1954 has the Midwest’s most populous state, Illinois, used “Land of Lincoln” for example and only about 29 years ago did Utah’s proclaim “Ski Utah.”
Though the man who led the losing battle to keep “Vacationland” off the plates was probably the best educated ever to hold a seat in any Maine Legislature, the man who overcame Fernald’s objections to successfully sponsor the law was an obscure, inconspicuous one term representative from the northwest shore of Moosehead Lake, a place so small it was not even an incorporated municipality, West Outlet, near Rockwood.
Proprietor of one of two summer sporting camps in a township that boasted a mid-Depression year-round population of 56 (his legislative district took in a number of other Somerset County communities including Jackman, however) Frank Mackenzie was a freshman House member in 1935 who, like most solons of his era, paraded but for a single term across the legislative stage, went home never to return or be heard from much again. Then 51 years of age, he was one of nine legislators that year to have been born in a foreign country but like most Maine lawmakers of the time his educational journey – in striking contrast to Fernald’s – ended somewhere south of a college degree. In Mackenzie’s case this was the Prince Edward Island, Canada public school system from which he would embark to seek his fortune in the tourist sector of Maine’s economy.
Though West Outlet never had many long-term residents it did – thanks to the proximity of Maine’s largest lake – have the ability to recruit tourists. Just before the turn of the century the Canadian Pacific Railway – connecting the Maritimes with the rest of Canada by its direct route through northern Maine – helped usher them in. (It’s part of the railroad route later upended by the 2013 Lac Megantic tragedy.) By the 1930s the shift to automotive transportation was well under way and the entrepreneurial minded Mackenzie seized upon the newly advanced mode of transportation as the carrier of a succinct message to provide visual, if low key, encouragement to come, return, or even remain in Maine.
It’s easy to scoff at the idea that what’s by now a routine if not mundane moniker could be a meaningful stimulus to the $3 billion a year Maine tourist economy. Moreover, not even a mind as erudite as Roy Fernald’s were he so inclined, could generate precise data showing how much, if any, tourist revenue is generated. No poll, no focus group is likely to turn up a respondent who will admit the reason he spent a holiday in Maine was due to a more license plate suggestion.
But one need not be a Freudian advertising psychologist to know that the subconscious motivates marketing choices. Subliminal advertising has a reputation for hypnotic efficacy. Tourist decision making is of course a complex process but in the case of those who seek our own state as their destination the 9/16th of an inch high twelve letter word reposing at the bottom of the plate plays a persuasive if even immeasurable role.
When Frank MacKenzie stepped down from his brief, part-time career in public life there were no testimonial dinners, banquets, or other similarly grandiose salutations this columnist has been able to find.
He sold the summer camps in 1944. From there he moved to Bangor where he helped manage the Penobscot Hotel and a few years later returned to his native Prince Edward Island where he died in early 1965 when he was 81. He was never married and left no children.
Though the obscure write-ups on his death never commemorated his role in the “Vacationland” license plate and his passing occurred with very meager notice here in Maine, few one-term Maine legislators could claim to have been the mid-wife of such an expansive legacy as this unheralded protagonist of Maine’s “Vacationland” motto.
It’s one thing to keep in mind as we embark on yet another summer tourist season here in Maine.
Paul H. Mills, is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by e-mail: email@example.com.