Voices from Bowdoin’s Past
Among the more than fifty orientation trips completed Saturday by the Class of 2022 were two hiking trips to Mount Katahdin, two-hundred miles to the north.
At 5,267 feet, Katahdin is small by some standards, but it is Maine’s highest mountain and the second tallest in New England.
If you haven’t been there yet, this is a trip you need to make!
Henry David Thoreau made his first journey to Katahdin in 1846.
He later observed that the lands around the mountain were “primeval, untamed, and forever untamable Nature,” but that didn’t stop some from trying.
One-hundred sixty miles to the southwest, a road was built to the top of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington—an even taller peak—and some in Maine envisioned the same for Katahdin; a place where easy access would bring hordes of people in carriages, then cars, with the natural environment giving way to roads and cabins and development.
It came down to the determination of one man to make sure that would never happen: Percival Proctor Baxter of the Bowdoin Class of 1898.
Percy, as he was known, could have easily lived a very different life than the one that would eventually earn him the nickname “Mr. Maine.”
His father—a six-time mayor of Portland—was a very wealthy man, having made a fortune during and after the Civil War with a new technology, a canning business that only two years before Percy’s birth had done $750,000 in business—about $17 million in today’s money.
So, Percy was set for life.
Luckily for all of us, Percy not only inherited his father’s wealth, he also inherited his love of nature, his intellectual curiosity, an appreciation for philanthropy, and a dedication to the common good.
Percival Baxter was an excellent student who made the most of his years at Bowdoin, graduating magna cum laude and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
He was editor of The Bowdoin Orient and one of the founders and the first editor-in-chief of the College’s literary magazine, The Bowdoin Quill.
And in stark contrast to his reputation as a soft-spoken, courteous young man, he once led a group of fellow students to nearby Bath, where they heckled and harassed presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.
Percy got himself arrested that day, with a Portland newspaper describing him as “a student of the long-haired variety.”
That was in 1896! I guess that would make me a dean of the short haired variety!
There are so many notable things to mention about Percival Baxter’s ninety-two years.
A graduate of Harvard Law School, he went on to serve in the Maine House and Senate and then as governor.
He was described as tall, rich, conservative, Republican, generous, honest, and as someone who thought highly of the press.
He loved animals, and once got into a very public spat with his preacher, who thought Baxter should be giving money to the hospital, not to the humane society.
“I realize…human beings must be cared for first,” Percival responded, “but more people are interested in working for humans…animals have so few friends that I want to help them.”
As governor, he would raise more than a few eyebrows when he ordered the statehouse flag to be flown at half-staff—when his Irish Setter died.
“The loyalty and unselfishness of a dog well may put most men to shame,” he explained.
Percival Baxter’s legacy includes taking on the KKK, donating funds and family property in Falmouth to create a school for the deaf, and working to protect Maine’s waterpower resources.
But he is best known for his foresight and unyielding determination to conserve the lands around Katahdin as a wilderness area for the people of Maine.
Percy first saw Katahdin in 1903 while on a fishing trip with his father.
By 1917, he had introduced a bill in the Maine House to purchase the mountain for a state park from its paper company owner.
The bill failed four times, and his future efforts to convince fellow lawmakers went nowhere.
That’s when Percy decided to take matters into his own hands.
“Out of defeat like that, good can come,” he later recalled.
Beginning in 1931, Percival Baxter used his personal wealth to do for the state what it refused to do for itself.
He bought six-thousand acres. Then another 35-thousand. Then 6-thousand, 14-thousand, 21-thousand, 16-thousand, 25-thousand, another seven, and more.
“I used to tell the paper companies that I made my last purchase,” he later recalled, “then I’d show up the next year trying to get more, and we’d all get a big laugh.”
With each purchase, Baxter would turn the land over to the state with the stipulation that it be “forever…be held in trust in its natural wild state for the benefit of the people.”
And all the while, he successfully fended off efforts to turn the land into a national park or to develop it in other ways.
“As modern civilization with its trailers and hot dog stands, its radio and jazz, encroaches on the Maine wilderness,” he said, “the time yet may come when only the Katahdin region remains undefiled by man.”
By the time of his final land purchase in 1962, Percival Baxter had amassed and donated more than 200,000 acres.
And in his will, Baxter left a trust of nearly $7 million dollars to make sure his vision for this land would endure.
Today, this land is Baxter State Park. It is still independently funded and receives no taxpayer dollars.
Seventy-five percent of the land is managed as a wildlife sanctuary.
The park is home to moose, white-tailed deer, black bear, and lynx, and to more than 800 species of plants, many of them rare and endangered varieties.
There are more than 40 peaks and ridges, and 220 miles of hiking trails, with Katahdin serving as the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.
And while about a quarter of the park is open to hunting and trapping, there is one exception: no one is allowed to hunt a moose in Percival Baxter’s park!
This semester, as we open Bowdoin’s newest building, the Roux Center for the Environment, it seems right that we remember this pioneering conservationist.
Upon Baxter’s death in June 1969, an editorial in the The New York Times noted his impact:
“As exploding metropolitan areas continue to erode shrinking open spaces, the nation needs more like Percival Baxter who will devote their energies and resources, in public and private life, to the preservation of the natural environment…[our] most precious heritage.”
I close with a verse written by Percival Baxter about what he once called his “magnificent obsession”:
“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 words of Percival Proctor Baxter of the Bowdoin Class of 1898.
Thank you for listening.