- Historic Sites
The Man Who Loved Wilderness
The Passion of Percy Baxter—
June/July 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 4
The privacy with which Percy managed his fortune, enhancing it substantially through shrewd investments in Portland real estate and stocks and bonds, contributed a good deal to the air of mystery surrounding him, and the contradictory opinions held about him. There is an often-told tale about Percy that sheds light on his character. On a fishing trip to Maine’s Rangeley Lakes, his father offered him ten dollars a pound for every trout he caught over five pounds. Percy promptly landed an eightpound spotted trout, “all by my own efforts,” he wrote later in his memoir of his father. He went on, “There was rejoicing in camp (Indian Rock) that evening and the $80 was paid over to me with proper ceremony. To teach me a lesson of thrift I was advised to put this small fortune in the Savings Bank, where it has remained to this day.” “This day” was in 1921; the Trout Fund remained untouched for forty-eight years, and eventually, through the marvel of compound interest, became a bequest of over a thousand dollars to teach children about wildlife.
A retired supervisor of the park, Helon Taylor, remembers him as “the best millionaire I ever met” and describes how he once had to borrow Baxter’s car. “He took out his pocket notebook and wrote down the mileage. When I got back the next morning for breakfast he was waiting for me. He looked in the car at the odometer before he said good morning. ‘How far is it to Togue Pond?’ ‘Eighteen miles.’ ‘Thirty-six miles on the odometer. Right.’
“He sent me a thousand dollars for Christmas,” Taylor added. “I always put his bonuses and gifts in a separate account, and by the time I retired it amounted to $21,000. That’s what bought this house.”
Austin Wilkins, who was forest commissioner when Baxter died, once asked him how much the park had cost. He tapped his heart and said, “Only in here, Austin.” But he publicly gave $1,500,000 during his life to establish a perpetual trust, income from which was to be used to maintain the park; and the bulk of his estate, another $8,000,000, went to the trust.
Percy Baxter’s frugality with public money was as pronounced as his generosity, on large matters, with his own. His exercise of the veto on spending bills sent up by the legislature became legendary: sometimes three or four a day. No subject was too large (a state medical school) or too small (an act to purchase copies of a history of Aroostook County) to escape his considered disapproval. Sometimes it seemed that Baxter’s principle of governance was simply to avoid the expenditure of money. His frugality in small personal matters, combined with his pride, contributed to his retirement from public office. Running in the 1926 primary for the Republican nomination for United States senator, he refused to spend money on his campaign or to make speeches in Aroostook County, home of his successful opponent. “If the people of Aroostook County don’t know my record by now, a few speeches won’t make any difference,” he told his nephew John.
This was after his four years as governor, a post Baxter first occupied accidentally, then on his own. He had entered politics in 1904, following Bowdoin and Harvard Law School. He never practiced law; he kept busy managing his father’s real estate, and his father was the biggest individual taxpayer in Portland. The elder Baxter urged him into politics early. When Percy and a bunch of the boys from Bowdoin were arrested at Bath for disrupting a William Jennings Bryan rally, the others pleaded guilty, but James Phinney told Percy to fight: “You’ll be going into public life one day, and you don’t want a conviction on your record.” Percy charged false arrest, and won a settlement. At his suggestion, the judge awarded him half a penny. It is today the proud possession of one of his grandnieces.
Percy served first in the Maine house, was beaten for reelection, elected to the state senate, beaten again in the Democratic landslide of 1912, elected again to two more house terms, and once again to the senate, in 1920. This time he was elected president of the senate, next in line of succession for the governorship. The new governor, Frederic Parkhurst, collapsed on his first day in office; in February he was dead, a victim of pneumonia. The governor’s mansion had new tenants: Percival Proctor Baxter and his Irish setter Carry, in whose honor the state flags were later to be flown at half-mast.
Baxter had introduced a bill to purchase Mt. Katahdin for a state park in the 1917 house session. His feelings about the mountain were almost mystical; his feelings about what had been done to the Maine land were passionate. John McLeod, historian of the Great Northern Paper Company, which eventually sold much of the park’s land to Baxter, said recently: “I think what moved him to establish the park was a combination of the sight of the mountain looming out of the flat plain and his feeling of outrage about the old land sales, in the eighteen twenties and thirties, when Maine became a state and both Massachusetts and Maine sold land cheap to get money and encourage settlers. He was deeply incensed by them.…”
Few legislators in those days wanted to spend state money to buy a mountain deep in the woods, which could be reached only by (successively) train, river steamer, canoe, and foot, especially when the owner was one of the handful of giant paper companies which dominated Maine politics and did not want to sell. Despite Baxter’s persistence, the bill failed four times.