EASTPORT — On a recent foggy September morning, Kevin Raye put on a blue rain slicker, walked to the curb and arranged letters on a roadside sign.

Washington Avenue is the major thoroughfare into downtown Eastport and just about everyone who visits the isolated Down East outpost will drive past the sign and read its latest announcement: “Check out our new gift packs and travel mugs.”

The sign bears Raye’s name, as does the 109-year-old building directly behind it.

For more than a century, Raye’s Mustard Mill has occupied this quiet plot of land and served as de facto gateway to this town of about 1,300. More recently, the mill has become the cornerstone of the Republican businessman’s campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Small businesses represent the largest sector of Maine’s economy, and Raye says his firsthand experiences as a small business owner give him insight into its rewards and challenges.

And those challenges have grown.

“The past four years have been very difficult in this economy,” said Raye, Maine’s state senate president. “We feel very fortunate that we are where we are, and we’ve been able to grow, but we know it’s been limited by the economy. Like everyone else, we’re hanging on and hoping for better times ahead.”

For Raye, 51, this election is a decade-old rematch against Democratic incumbent Mike Michaud, who has handily defeated other Republican challengers since their original contest.

Over the last 10 years, Raye has become an influential state legislator and a successful small business owner — a combination that may convince voters in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District to give him another look this time around.

All in the family

Raye has given many tours of his mustard mill before, but he seems to enjoy it and his jokes land well.

It was a quiet Saturday last month. Customers were already filing into the gift shop, but the attached mill was dormant. Once or twice a week, the Rayes fire up an electric-powered drive shaft that runs the length of the building through the rafters high above. The drive shaft turns long flat rubber belts, which turn the grind stones and operate pumps.

“It looks like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory when it’s running,” Raye said.

Vinegar- and water-soaked mustard seeds are pumped from a holding tank through a series of four massive stone grinders — each the diameter of a wagon wheel. The grinders are made with two stones — a top stone and a bottom stone, with a paper-thin gap between them. The mustard flows into the space between and is ground into a paste, which grows progressively smoother as it’s pumped from grinder to grinder until it pours into a barrel where its aged before bottling.

Aside from a few tweaks to comply with evolving federal standards for food safety, the mill is virtually unchanged since the day it was opened in 1903 by its founder, Jay Wesley Raye.

“My great-great uncle — who passed away in 1948 — could walk in here today and fire up the mill and do the whole thing,” Raye said.

Four generations of Rayes have owned the mill, but it’s not a hand-me-down. In 2005, Kevin and wife, Karen, bought the business from Raye’s aunt at fair-market value.

The mustard is the real deal. Forbes Life magazine, for instance, added Raye’s yellow mustard to a list of the world’s eight greatest mustards. Martha Stewart sometimes hands out jars to her studio audiences as gifts.

Depending on the season, the mill employs between six and 10 people, including Raye and his wife. Three more employees are family members. Another three employees have worked at the mill for more than 20 years, Raye said.

Today, Raye’s Mustard is sold across the country — as far away as a Whole Foods Market in San Francisco. One hundred years ago, it had a much smaller market.

In the first half of the 20th century, Raye’s yellow mustard wasn’t packaged for individual sale, but customers from Eastport could walk to the mill with an empty glass jar and fill it with yellow mustard from a spigot for 5 cents a gallon. The overwhelming majority of sales, however, came from seafood canneries.

Eastport was known as the sardine capital of America. At the high-water mark, the island was home to nearly 30 canneries. Hundreds more operated all along the coast of Maine. J.W. Raye sold his yellow mustard in bulk to the canneries, where it was packed in cans alongside the tiny silvery fish.

By the end of the century, however, the canneries were long gone, Eastport had forever changed and Raye’s adapted.

The windshield tour

Raye drove slowly down Water Street giving what he called a “windshield tour of the greater metropolitan area.”

Water Street is the main drag in Eastport — home to restaurants, gift shops, galleries and the oldest ship chandlery in the U.S. The town was relatively busy for an off-weekend between Labor Day and peak foliage season, and Raye was enthusiastic.

“These are all small businesses. There’s no major conglomerate in here doing anything. This is all mom-and-pop,” he said. “It’s really grown in the past three years. This summer, you frequently couldn’t find a parking space downtown, and that’s awesome.”

Raye takes the opportunity to tout his endorsement by the National Federation of Independent Business — another cornerstone of his campaign. The association — a right-leaning small business advocacy group with 3,500 members in Maine — threw its support behind Raye in early September. Last week, the association purchased $11,000 in online ads for the candidate.

“I’ve been with the NFIB on every single issue of importance. At the same time, Mike hasn’t voted with them once,” Raye said. “It’s small business that makes this state tick. If you think of small business as a single employer, nothing else would touch it. It is the most critical part of our economy.

“That’s where I’m drawing a distinction between Mike and I — in terms of how we approach small business, how we view it and the importance we place on it.”

‘It’s the human aspect’

At the Liberty Cafe on Water Street, two older women were finishing up a late breakfast while light rain pattered on picture-glass windows overlooking Passamaquoddy Bay.

Nancy Kratky, 79, and Louise Leighton, 69, are part-time residents of Eastport, but they used to live there full-time. They both remember the days when they would bring empty jars to the mustard mill for five-cent refills.

Leighton, who moved to Eastport when she was a toddler, has known Raye since he was a kid, and he hasn’t changed much, even after all his years in politics, she said. When Leighton’s husband entered a veteran’s home in Machias, Raye helped her by providing contact numbers for VA administrators and checked in on the couple’s transition.

“He’s always been friendly and helpful,” she said. “Very, very helpful.”

Both ladies agree that Raye’s greatest accomplishment lies elsewhere.

“On Route 9 there were no rest areas. No places to stop,” Kratky said. “He finally got one put in.”

Later, when asked about the rest area, Raye smiled.

“People mention that to me all the time,” he said, laughing. “But, you know what? It’s the human aspect. There are so many people in Washington County who have to go to Bangor for medical treatment.”

Raye pulled the car into an empty parking lot and drifted to a stop. His voice grew serious and his eyes misty. He talked about the period in his life when his father was dying from prostate cancer, the times when he drove his father to Bangor for treatment on that long, straight, isolated road.

“My father was a very stoic man. Throughout his illness, he never complained. He was very tough — he faced death and the whole nine yards — but that trip to Bangor could reduce him to tears, because he had prostate cancer and there was no place to go to the bathroom. It used to make me angry.”

Raye was elected to the state Senate shortly after his father died in 2004. Shortly after, Raye took up the issue with a reluctant Department of Transportation.

“They fought it every step of the way and their estimate of what it would cost was outrageous, which really infuriated me. I went to the public meeting and said, ‘You give me that kind of money and I’ll buy you six houses and tear down everything but the bathrooms.”

The department acquiesced and the rest stop opened to the public in May 2008. Raye issued a press release saying the restroom would come as a “relief to my constituents.”

“And honest to God, of all the things I’ve done, more people will mention that to me than anything else,” he said.

Political prominence

In 1977, when he was 16 years old, Raye mailed a letter to Olympia Snowe, who was a little-known candidate at the time. Raye asked her where she stood on the issues.

“And lo and behold, she wrote back to me — a four-page, handwritten letter.”

In the letter, Snowe answered each of his questions. She also encouraged Raye to get into politics and said she would like to meet him someday a few months later, both came to pass.

Snowe called Raye’s house one night to say she was planning a stop in Eastport the next day, and wanted to meet him. Raye agreed and offered to round up other community members to meet the aspiring candidate. She said yes.

Raye took Snowe on the same windshield tour of Eastport and introduced her to the community. The next year, Raye became Snowe’s co-chairman for Washington County and his role continued to grow. While studying political science at Bates College, Raye took a semester off to help Snowe with her campaign efforts. Later, when Olympia was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1994, Raye joined her in Washington, where he stayed until 2002.

Snowe, for her part, has endorsed Raye in his latest bid for congress.

“In the history of our nation, it has never been more important to have voices in Washington who are willing to listen and respect the views of others, and to work in a bipartisan way to find solutions to the monumental challenges confronting our nation,” she said in a statement. “I commend Kevin for his leadership as president of the Maine Senate, where he brought people together to make the state Senate effective for Maine people, demonstrating the same skills, dedication and thoughtfulness he always brought to bear when he was my chief of staff.”

Raye’s fascination with politics is deep and long-lasting.

He remembers the presidential election in 1968, staying up all night to watch the returns for Republican Richard Nixon (whom he supported) and Democrat Hubert Humphrey. His mother, Frances, a first-grade teacher, let the 7-year-old Raye stay home from school the next day.

“He was tiny when he was interested in politics,” she recalled.

In fact, Raye recalls enjoying politics since he was a kid, and he’s not really sure why. There is one clue.

“My earliest political memory was sitting in a car with my grandmother outside the polling place in Perry. She sat in the driver’s seat watching people come to vote, and she would check people off the voting list as they would come in.”

A local candidate approached the car and asked who had been at the polls. When he learned that a large family hadn’t voted, the candidate drove off, and a little while later the family arrived and voted.

“I remember thinking, ‘This is cool,'” Raye said. “It was a competitive thing, you know what I mean?”

Ben McCanna — 861-9239
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