The Man Who Loved Wilderness

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A penny pincher who gave away millions, a governor who ordered the state’s flags lowered to half-mast upon his dog’s death, a lifelong bachelor who was the attentive escort of beautiful women, an animal lover who sent stray dogs to prison as companions for the inmates—Percival Proctor Baxter of Maine (1876–1969) was a true Yankee original. There is no evidence that he ever held any opinion mildly. He was also a visionary, a resolute one who had to buy his dream to have it realized. What this singular and complex man coveted was Maine’s highest peak, Mt. Katahdin, and the two hundred thousand acres of deep North Woods surrounding it that eventually became Baxter State Park, to be preserved “forever wild” for the people of Maine, whom he served as legislator and, from 1921 to 1925, as governor. The project took nearly half a century, and it cost him political support as well as a great deal of money, but it stands in America today as one of the shining milestones along the road of progress in conservation. As soon as you enter the vast solitary tract, you are aware of that utter stillness which is the surest test of unsullied wilderness. Enveloped by the silence, you may feel the distant, ancient stirrings of animal instincts, a sharpening of the senses, and a faint but unmistakable glimmer of fear. An early visitor to the area, Henry David Thoreau, called it “that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandselled globe. … It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth.” For the original Abnaki Indians, mile-high Katahdin was sacred; within it dwelt Glooscap, their mythic god with stone eyebrows who spent his time fashioning arrowheads to drive the white man from the land. Pamola, the vicious-tempered storm bird, hovered above the peaks to ward off any who attempted to climb the holy heights. The mountain was the realm also of Katahdinosis, the little boy who could kill whatever he pointed at, and of Wuchowsen, the spirit of the night wind. Katahdin today is what climbers call “a serious mountain,” subject to sudden fierce storms; once, after a climber was frozen to death in a blizzard, Baxter said to a friend, “Pamola will continue to claim her victims.”

 
 
 
 
 
 

Besides Katahdin, which looks higher than its 5,267 feet because it looms steeply from the plain south of it, the park contains 45 other mountains, about 140 lakes and ponds, and some 400 miles of brooks and streams draining into the east and west branches of the Penobscot River. It is a paradise for fishermen, nature lovers, campers, and mountaineers. Katahdin’s peak is the first point in the United States to catch the sunrise. From it, one overlooks an ocean of forest, rolling from Canada to the Atlantic, glittering with myriad lakes and ponds like a shattered mirror.

Near the end of his life Baxter compressed his dream, now realized, into a few words which are preserved on metal plaques in the statehouse at Augusta and at Roaring Brook Campground in the park itself: “Man is born to die. His works are short-lived. Buildings crumble. Monuments decay, wealth vanishes, but Katahdin in all its glory forever shall remain the mountain of the people of Maine.” The Roaring Brook plaque also records the conditions Baxter attached to his successive gifts of land from 1931 to 1962: ”… accepted by the state forever to be held in trust in its natural wild state for the benefit of the people of Maine for public park, public forest and public recreational purposes and as a sanctuary for wild beasts and birds.”

Not often does a millionaire devote prodigious effort to a project as unremunerative as Baxter State Park, the third-largest state park in the nation and the largest ever given by an individual. All his life Percy Baxter was engaged in the tending of wealth. His father, James Phinney Baxter (1831–1921: Baxters live long), perfected the technique of preserving food in cans, and had the Portland Packing Company in full swing at the time of the Civil War. Rich after the war, he turned to history, searched libraries in London and Paris for documents on the discovery and settlement of North America, and published them, along with laws and other documents of the colonies, in a series of thick volumes issued by the Maine Historical Society. He turned also to civic deeds, and was six times elected mayor of Portland. He was, moreover, a prolific sire: his first and second wives presented him with eight children who survived infancy. His second wife was a Proctor of Massachusetts, descended from the John Proctor whose execution in the witchcraft trials in Salem is dramatized in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible . Percy, who liked to boast that he was descended from a witch, was the only boy in “the second litter,” as today’s Baxters call the three children of Mehetabel Proctor Baxter; he would get the largest share of his father’s estate, James Phinney Baxter told his other children, because it was Proctor money.