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The Man Who Loved Wilderness

July 2024
11min read

The Passion of Percy Baxter—

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.

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.

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.

In his many deeds of gift, Baxter constantly reiterated his chief stipulations for the use of the land: 1) It shall forever be kept as a state forest and public park for recreational purposes; 2) The land shall be kept forever in a wild state, as a sanctuary for wild beasts and birds; 3) The use of firearms, trapping, and hunting, not including fishing, shall forever be prohibited (exceptions are two sections of the park open to hunting because of stipulations by landowners who sold to Baxter); 4) Aircraft are forbidden to land in the park.

The interpretation of these stipulations has been controversial, and shows no sign of becoming less so. A court case is pending on the proper method of fighting forest fires: is it legitimate to use bulldozers to clear blowdowns or make fire lanes in an area supposed to be “forever wild”? Should snowmobiles be allowed? Should there be spraying of spruce budworm, the scourge of the woods? Is traffic getting so heavy, both in cars on the perimeter roads and in hikers on the trails, that the ecological carrying-capacity of the park is threatened? If so, should Baxter’s deeds be interpreted literally, and only “the people of Maine” be allowed entry? (He never mentioned “citizens of the United States,” much less “people of the world.” This could become a constitutional issue.) Baxter successfully fought off an attempt to make the park into a national park in the 1930’s. A more formidable challenge today is a claim, actively pushed by Maine Indian tribes, to 60 per cent of the state, an area that includes all of the park. The outcome at this writing is uncertain, but the probability is that the park will remain intact, with compensation to the Indians.

Percival Baxter died in 1969 at the age of ninety-two, even at the end something of an enigma to all who knew him. Like a revolving, many-faceted cut of Maine rose quartz, a different side of the man’s personality was revealed according to where the viewer stood, under what illumination. No one knew exactly what prompted his monomania about Katahdin, although John McLeod’s guess seems likely: that majestic mountain looming out of the plain, and the rankling old sense of injustice over how the people of Maine had been deprived of their birthright in public lands. But it might have been a Canadian jay sharing his campfire breakfast, a flock of Canada geese awakening the sky, loons’ maniacal laughter across a darkened lake, a crushed lady’s-slipper, an injured fawn, sunrise on the peak seen from Chimney Pond.

A grandniece remembers Baxter’s last words to her, when he was in his ninety-third year: “Pray for me. It is not that I am afraid of dying, it is just that I have so much left to do.”

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