After surviving a tragedy, two alumni make their lifelong dream come true.
by Terry Rayno
Paul and Liz Kelly Cooleen have learned to expect the unexpected. While he brokered bonds in New York City and she raised their three children on Long Island, they dreamed of moving to the coast of Maine and opening a clam bar. After Paul escaped from the North Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 (see sidebar on page 18), they stopped dreaming and decided to make that happen.
Before the terrorists’ attacks, the Cooleens had already spotted the building they wanted for a restaurant during one of several trips they took to Maine looking for property. “It was a big, old barn with a lot of character and charm,” they say. They bought the building in October 2002. It had been on the market for a while and needed work, but they thought the location in Woolwich, Maine, was just what they were looking for: it was on busy Route 1, before the Route 27 turnoff to Boothbay Harbor.
The building, known as Montsweag Farm, was originally a barn owned by the Sewall family, who converted the barn into a restaurant in the 1950s before closing it in the early 1990s.
Two months after buying the restaurant, the Cooleens and their children moved from Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., to Falmouth, Maine. Paul, Liz and their children were all born in New York. Asked what made them want to try a new business in a new place, both Liz and Paul said the answer is their children.
“Our kids were getting older and we figured this was as good a time as any to buy the place and make the move. I’d never been in the restaurant business before, but when we started considering moving to Maine, we realized there wouldn’t be jobs like we had in New York, so we’d have to create our own,” he says.
Their son Jack is 10 and twin daughters Katie and Brigid are nine. The three were born one year and one week apart. “We had three kids in one year! Believe me that was the busiest we’ve ever been except for opening the restaurant,” they add.
Paul first fell in love with the Maine coast when he was living in Connecticut. He was part of a youth sailing group headed for Bermuda that was forced to turn around after running into a fierce tropical storm. Rather than spend the week sailing near the coasts of Connecticut and Long Island, the group decided to sail along the Maine coast up to Bar Harbor.
“Every harbor we sailed into was just beautiful. I thought ‘Boy, one day I would really like to live here.’ In fact, before we graduated from Plymouth, Liz and I talked about moving to Maine after we graduated. Liz was going to teach and I was going to be a weatherman,” Paul notes.
Liz adds, “We both loved northern New England. I’ve always loved the ocean and being close to the water. We thought after we got married, we’d live in Maine or New Hampshire. But Paul was offered a job in the city, so he took it. But we promised each other we’d only live in the city for a year or so and then we’d move to Maine.”
“We finally did. It just took us 16 years to do it,” agrees Paul.
After the move, they began planning the changes they would need to make before they could open the restaurant. The building had its own history, which the Cooleens decided to incorporate into their renovations. The first step in the process was gutting the old structure and adding modern restaurant equipment.
The structure was built as a bank farm to sort and distribute apples from the orchards that surround it. Farm workers would bring the apples into the top floor where they would be sorted by kind, quality and size. They would be lowered to the bottom floor through doors in the ceiling and then loaded onto carts and hauled away to markets along the East Coast.
The Sewall family was very politically active and well known in Maine. Sumner Sewall was the governor from 1941 to 1945, and his grandfather, Arthur Sewall, ran for vice president in 1896 on the losing Democratic ticket with William Jennings Bryan. The best apples from the orchards were routinely gift wrapped and shipped from the barn to important senators and congressmen in Washington, D.C. The Sewall family still owns 190 acres of land behind the restaurant.
The Sewall family also owned one of the shipyards in Bath and their schooners were some of the most famous sailing ships of their era.
During the six months of renovations, Paul and Liz wanted to include some of that history into their restaurant. They stripped the paint from the beams and the ceiling to reveal the bare wood. In the upstairs bar, they used teak, holly and mahogany woods to give it the look of a schooner. Textured tin on the walls recalls old tin ceilings, and they have kept the drop doors between the two floors.
With Paul running the front of the house and Liz doing the bookkeeping and paperwork, they opened their new restaurant, Cooleen’s Clam Barn, in July 2003. However, they found the name made the place sound like a summer-time-only clam shack, which it wasn’t. So they changed the name to Cooleen’s at Montsweag Farm.
By restoring what was once a popular restaurant, the Cooleens garnered a great deal of good will from many local residents. “Since it was a restaurant for such a long time, people around here have very fond memories of the place. We have a lot of people who remember eating here on special family events like birthdays or anniversaries. They remember the governor’s desk that was here or the old lobster tank, the charcoal grill where they cooked the steaks, or the ship’s wheel in the middle of the restaurant,” Paul explains, continuing, “Other people remember working here as kids or going to barn dances when they were younger. We appreciate that built-in affection for the place and its history. We try to make sure we give them a good meal in return.”
A second generation of local people is helping the Cooleens make the restaurant go. One is Melissa Field, who now works as the bar manager at the restaurant. Her mother worked for years at the Sewalls’ restaurant. “Melissa hung out here as a kid while her mother was working. She was so happy we reopened it and she feels almost like it’s her home. We have a number of people who work here who have similar feelings,” Paul says.
There have been some surprises for the Cooleens in their first venture into the restaurant business. Despite their dreams of running a clam bar, they found many of the local people don’t eat much seafood. “They grew up around the fishing business. When many of them come here, they prefer to eat steak or pasta,” Paul adds.
Another surprise was the presence of a ghost who appears as a bright spot in a number of photos. Paul recalls talking to a customer and his son, a boy of about five or six. The boy kept asking the two men who the other person was. “We were walking up the stairs and the son asked me who was walking in front of us. I didn’t see anyone and neither did his father. We kept asking him to describe what he saw. He definitely saw something, but we didn’t.” They suspect the apparition may be the ghost of a former chef.
Yet another surprise was how early in the evening people eat in Mid-Coast Maine. “In New York no one started dinner before nine or nine-thirty. Here, they’re done eating by eight,” Paul notes. To extend the evening, the Cooleens have instituted comedy nights once a month where comedians from Portland’s Comedy Connection perform. They also feature live music on Saturday nights and are considering expanding the entertainment to Fridays.
Paul and Liz met in 1983 at a fraternity happy-hour party at Plymouth State. Paul wanted to study weather, but state colleges in Connecticut didn’t offer the program, so he applied to Plymouth and in 1986 was one of the first students to graduate from Plymouth with a degree in meteorology. Liz spent her freshman year at C.W. Post University, but she didn’t like the large size of the school. “I could walk around campus all day and not see anyone I knew,” she notes. After her mother told her that she wouldn’t be going to college in Florida, Liz started looking at smaller schools in New England and decided to apply to Plymouth. “I loved the smallness, the closeness. It was almost like a family,” she says. Liz graduated with a degree in math education, also in 1986.
After graduating they moved to New York City, where Paul worked briefly at Metro Weather at Kennedy Airport and Liz worked in a downtown insurance firm. Paul soon joined the brokerage firm of Garban ICAP where he spent the next 16 years.
Liz earned her master’s degree from Adelphi University and got a job as a nursery school teacher. “I found that was what I loved to do,” she says. After the Cooleens moved to Long Island, Liz continued teaching nursery school until their children were born.
They have found the transition from New York to Maine an easy one to make. “This is a much better environment for the kids to grow up in. New York is so crowded. This is much nicer,” Paul observes. “The kids have had no trouble moving from Long Island to the coast of Maine. That was the easy part. The hard part is running a restaurant and trying to make a living.”
Liz concurs, saying she is very comfortable with the Maine sensibility. “That’s why we moved. It’s a really good fit.”
Escaping the Tower
Most of us will always remember where we were at 8:45 a.m. (EDT) on September 11, 2001. Paul Cooleen ’86 certainly will. He was working at his desk on the 26th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower, when the first hijacked plane hit his building. His wife, Liz, was at their Long Island home.
Paul, then a government bond broker, recalls “At first no one knew what was happening. There was a strong whipping action. You could feel the building sway even on our floor. It felt like the building was going to topple over, it’s almost like the building stumbled and shook, but then somehow stayed up.”
His floor housed hundreds of stock and bond brokers. After the impact, many people rushed to the doors to get out of the building. When Paul and another broker opened the exit door near his desk, they found the hallway had twisted and collapsed.
Noting he was a member of the fire department while at Plymouth State, Paul says, “I don’t usually panic. I want to see what’s taking place. So I hung around and called my wife while everyone was rushing to the exit. I told her I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew it wasn’t good. We could see burning debris out the window. The televisions in the office came on and we could see the fire was above us, so then I knew we could go down to get out. My wife told me the news was reporting a plane had crashed into the building.”
It took half an hour to reach the lobby. “We were walking down single file while the firefighters were coming up the stairs. I remember seeing people who had been burned but were able to walk. There was the smell of singed hair and flesh. The odors were very intense,” he recalls.
Paul spent most of the day downtown, waiting for the crowds to leave the city. He eventually took the subway to Penn Station and then the Long Island Railroad to Cold Spring Harbor and home.
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