BY CAPTAIN D
Who's here? Jason?
No, not Jason. Definitely not Jason. But somebody about as scary. We're talking about Ape-Raham, an apparently ferocious lowlands gorilla, who is back where he belongs startling people as they enter Perry's Nut House on Route One in Belfast.
Getting Ape-Raham back represents a major advance in the campaign to bring Perry's back to its former glory. Ape-Raham (who, incidentally, is stuffed) joins an alligator on the ceiling and a giant albatross as recently re-acquired attractions.
Perry's is well on the way to re-creating yesteryear's wonderment, a celebrated place that over the years attracted such notables as Eleanor Roosevelt, Waldo Pierce, Fay Emerson, and Pierre Monteux. There was a time when Perry was compared favorably to promoters Ziegfield and P.T. Barnum.
The reclamation began six years ago when Kim's parents bought the business. She moved to Belfast from Chicago where she had been engaged in retailing. What attracted her to Belfast is anybody's guess. But it probably wasn't the nut house.
The former owner of Perry's had auctioned off many of the artifacts that had made Perry's one of Maine's premier attractions. Perry's had been closed for a year, and before that it had suffered from semi-neglect, drawing negative reviews from many critics. One wrote that the stuffed dead animals...were slowly falling apart on the second floor... some ears had been ripped off, others had patches of fur torn away or faces that have been smashed and badly reconstructed.
Now, thanks to Kim, her parents, and brother Kent, all that has changed. The place is bright and clean and appealing to the eye with surprises popping up everywhere. Perry's is ready to reclaim its place with L.L. Bean and Moody's Diner as Maine's most venerable roadside attractions.
The customers have been thrilled to see the old familiar items back again, Kim says. And new customers, including children, seem as fascinated as those regulars were decades ago.
It all got started in 1927 when Irving S. Perry first opened his doors to sell pecans and other assorted nuts. It is a classic case of turning lemons into lemonade (or maybe nuts into nutmeg). Perry had invested heavily in Georgia pecans, saw a bumper harvest, but then realized there weren't sufficient storage facilities to save most of the crop from rotting.
Never one to accept defeat gracefully, Perry shipped truckloads of pecans to his cigar factory on Route One in Belfast and began selling them there. To draw people in, he added curios and museum pieces he had accumulated on his travels. The venture took off big time. It was so successful that he had to move it to a large sea captain's home that would become Perry's Nut House.
Perry traveled over South America and Cuba and brought back more oddities. He started a nut collection that contained almost every species known to man including the world's largest nut, an unbelievable basketball- sized astonishment. The menagerie in his yard came to contain a life-size wooden elephant, stuffed alligators, ostriches, monkeys, trick mirrors, turtles and boxing bear cubs. Perry even got hold of the huge head of a water buffalo shot by Teddy Roosevelt and presented to William Howard Taft before these two men became political rivals.
Pretty soon Perry began carrying wild strawberry jam, homemade fudge, hand-woven baskets, scented pine pillows, more nuts, and ginger and guava jelly.
Perry died in 1940 (not, as local legend has had it, as a patient in a nut house), and the business came under the management of Joshua Treat III of Winterport. The 19-year-old Treat turned out to be a promoter who in some ways out-perried Perry. He added an elephant and rickshaw, a size 144 shoe complete with the old lady who lived in it, a life-sized wooden zebu drawing an authentic Oriental wooden-wheeled cart depicting a primitive way of bringing cashew nuts to market.
During World War II, Treat served with the Navy in the Pacific. When he returned home, he brought many believe-it-or-not artifacts with him, including a huge man-eating clam. Treat went on to add an albatross from the South Seas; a bantum bull from India; a genuine Egyptian mummy; a full-size gorilla from Africa; a gnu; gemsbok; and hartebeest.
In 1974 Treat retired, and Jonathan and Diana Bailey took over. They replaced the West Wing with more floor space, a new candy kitchen, and a new dipping room visible to the public. They salvaged the collection of mounted animals long stored in the barn next door, circus menagerie specimens that died on the job. They put these on display to make the Animal Museum upstairs. Old Hawthorne, the full-sized wooden elephant, succumbed to the elements and was replaced by Polly Esther. they added the Watts-Campbell Steam Engine which once powered a factory in Dover-Foxcroft.
This pretty much brings us back to now and the revival the business is experiencing.
In some ways, Kim is taking her time. She isn't trying to achieve an instant recovery. It's a work in progress. She wants things done right. But progress is evident. The wooden Indians, 30-foot python skin, and mountain lion are nicely restored and proudly on display. So is a large mural that had been sold at auction, returned by the buyer who insisted it belonged at Perry's.
The fudge counter is bigger and better than ever The award-winning fudge it contains is made with pure butter and cream ?no shortcuts ever. Some summer flavors include, orange cream, wild Maine blueberry cheesecake, and pirates fudge. Later on pumpkin pie and caramel apple pie fudges make their appearance, reminding us that the holidays are soon approaching. Popular Christmas flavors include divinity with walnuts, and eggnog (made with real eggnog). Of course, there are the traditional flavors for the fudge purists, such as chocolate, peanut butter, and penuche.
So if you're getting into Maine by taking historic Route One, stop by Perry's. Say Hi to Ape-Raham, get some fudge, check out the other attractions. Tell Kim Captain D sent you. It's well worth your time.