- Historic Sites
The Man Who Loved Wilderness
The Passion of Percy Baxter—
June/July 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 4
Just before becoming accidental governor, Baxter spoke to the annual meeting of the Maine Sportsmen’s Fish and Game Association on his favorite subject. He traced the history of the concentration of Maine’s wildlands into a few corporate hands, and ended with a splash of rhetoric: “Shall any great timberland or paper-making corporation, or group of such corporations, themselves the owners of millions of acres of Maine forests, say to the People of this State, ‘You shall not have Mount Katahdin, either as a memorial of your past or as a heritage for your future’?”
The legislature answered with a resounding yes. Great Northern and its lobbyists defeated Baxter again and again. They were aided by the power companies, Baxter’s second bête noire. Baxter the capitalist was outraged by what capitalists had done to “the People’s White Coal”—the hydroelectric power that flowed, and still flows, so abundantly from Maine’s rivers. In particular he was outraged by the repeated, and usually successful, efforts of the Great Northern and of the Central Maine Power Company to acquire dam-building rights on public lots without paying for them. Thus Baxter the capitalist, rentier , and apostle of frugal government became widely known as a socialist—a reputation which made it easier to vote against his Katahdin bills.
Only recently the historian of the Great Northern wrote: “After his retirement from the political scene, his socialist approach having failed, Percy Baxter had determined to try to make the Katahdin Park a reality all by himself, using good old capitalist money instead of votes.”
Epithets aside, this is precisely what Baxter did. After his defeat in the senatorial primary, he retired from public office but not from public life. He traveled the world, was close to Herbert Hoover, gave interviews on affairs of state, managed his Portland properties and investment portfolio, toured the Portland livery stables every Christmas Eve to give the horses a feast (and to report on bad conditions to the ASPCA), and buried a succession of Irish setters in the animal cemetery on Mackworth Island, the family’s summer estate in Casco Bay (today, by his gift, the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf—a place so beautiful that one would wish, if deaf, to be a schoolchild in Maine). Mostly, though, he worked—schemed and plotted are words that come to mind—to acquire Katahdin and the surrounding wild lands.
He waited stubbornly until his old antagonist Garret Schenck, the Great Northern’s president, had died, and then approached Schenck’s successor, William Whitcomb, with his proposal: $25,000 of his own money for the Northern’s share of most of Mt. Katahdin. It took a court order to secure clear title, always problematic in Maine; but in 1931 a laconic victory telegram went to Baxter’s favorite half-brother, Rupert: “ KATAHDIN MATTER SETTLED AFTER FOURTEEN YEARS WORK. P P BAXTER .”
Baxter deeded the land—5,960 acres, for openers—to the state, and the legislature not only named it Baxter State Park but renamed the summit of Katahdin, previously Monument Peakthe northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail—Baxter Peak.
Four years later Baxter bought Traveler Mountain, in the big-shouldered range that extends north from Katahdin. The land was not contiguous to the Katahdin purchase, but Baxter was beginning to put together his “picture puzzle,” as he came to call it. With money, cajolery, bargaining, swapping of land purchased far from the area for land near it, he eventually acquired eight full townships and portions of two others in the solid rectangular block that is the park today. (McLeod explains, “He started playing games, saying that if he could just get this one more piece to straighten out the border he’d be content. ‘It would look better on the map,’ he’d say.”)
The Northern sold Baxter 60,000 acres, finally; the other 140,000 acres came from another big paper company, the Eastern, from big landowners like Harry Ross, and from little landowners like the old lady in California who for years held out a parcel of eleven acres. The largest purchase came in 1959 and amounted to 23,000 acres. All told, there were twenty-five individual buys. When the park reached its present boundaries in August, 1962, the staggering total of 201,018 acres had been amassed by a single individual.
Baxter was interested in permanent land, not currently marketable trees; the paper companies had opposite interests. So some deals became possible on the basis of his giving the companies cutting rights for a fixed period of years after title to the land had passed. They sold the land itself at what McLeod calls “reasonable per acre figures”—two to two and a half dollars per acre, except for the first sale in 1931. Assuming (no one really knows the figures) that the individual owners charged more— say five dollars plus per acre—the park cost Baxter about a million dollars.
However, the big-ticket cost is maintenance, not purchase. Keeping up the park today takes all the income from the Baxter trust fund. User fees make up the balance of a budget that reached, in payroll alone in 1976, $300,000 for twenty yearround and thirty to thirty-five seasonal employees; another $300,000 went for goods and services.