August 20, 2012

Parties mark 50th birthday of Baxter State Park

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — On Aug. 6, 1962, former Gov. Percival Baxter acquired his 28th and final parcel of land in northern Maine, fulfilling a lifelong dream of creating a park around Mount Katahdin.

Today, Baxter State Park boasts nearly 205,000 acres, 46 mountain peaks — including the highest peak in the state, Katahdin, at 5,267 feet — and 18 peaks taller than 3,000 feet, and 180 miles of trails.

On Wednesday, officials from Baxter State Park, Portland and the Maine Historical Society will gather to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Portland native's final land purchase for the park.

"It was one of the greatest one-man shows in Maine conservation history," said historian Herb Adams, an adjunct professor at Southern Maine Community College, who will help kick off Wednesday's events.

Celebrations will take place at several locations throughout Portland, more than 200 miles from the state park that bears Baxter's name.

The day begins at 6 a.m. at Sundial Park on Baxter Boulevard and includes a hike on Macworth Island in Falmouth, a visit to the Baxter family plot in Evergreen Cemetery and re-dedication of Baxter Woods.

The Baxter family has a long history of philanthropy in Portland, including donations that led to the city's first library and a 30-acre park, so it is only fitting that events be held in Maine's largest city, said Barbara Bentley, president of the Friends of Baxter State Park.

He was "quite a forward thinker about wilderness and preserving it," Bentley said. "He was ahead of his time."

On Thursday, the city will continue the celebration from 9 a.m. to noon at Portland Public Library.

Baxter's father, Portland Mayor James Phinney Baxter, is regarded as the father of Portland's park system, according to City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg. In 1905, he commissioned a report outlining his vision for a public park system. The report, "The Park System of Portland," laid out plans for Deering Oaks park and the Eastern and Western proms, among others.

James Baxter bought the area now known as Baxter Woods in 1921. In 1946, Baxter's son, Percival Baxter, donated 29.5 acres of the forested land to the city as a municipal forest in honor of his father.

James Baxter is buried in the family plot at Portland's Evergreen Cemetery, where state historian Earle Shettleworth will read exceprts read excerpts from letters penned by Percival Baxter, one of which was discovered in a tin box in the cornerstone of a World War II monument in Kittery.

Shettleworth said that letter was written in 1924 as Baxter was ending his term as governor and contemplates what he will do in retirement, saying, "with health, means, position and experience I ought to find some niche in which I will fit."

That niche, Shettleworth said, was the creation of Baxter State Park.

"This ultimately becomes his life work," Shettleworth said. "But in 1924, that had not yet coalesced and he's having this sort of soul-searching moment."

James Baxter built his family fortune with Portland Packing Co., which he founded on the Portland waterfront, Shettleworth said. In 1903, he took his son Percival fishing at Kidney Pond, in the shadow of Mount Katahdin. That's when Percival Baxter fell in love with the northern woods.

Baxter, who served in the state House and Senate before becoming governor in 1921, tried to convince the state to buy Mount Katahdin and the surrounding land, but was unsuccessful.

After losing the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate in 1926, he decided to use his family fortune to create the park.

Baxter, who graduated from Harvard Law School, began negotiating with paper companies and other private landowners. He made his first purchase of 5,960 acres, including Mount Katahdin, in 1930. Over the next 30 years, Baxter made an additional 27 purchases, including his final purchase of 7,764 acres in 1962.

"He had to use great tact, diplomacy and persuasion to get them to relinquish Katahdin and the land around it," Shettleworth said.

Baxter died in 1969 at age 92, leaving a $7 million trust fund for the park so it could be maintained without burdening taxpayers. The Friends of Baxter State Park raises money for the park and is responsible for advertising and marketing.

Adams said the Baxters both lost their re-election bids when opponents painted them as too pro-conservation. But in the end, it was the Baxters who had the last laugh.

"It was principle that won in the end," Adams said. "We have a grand park system in Portland. And we have a grand mountain preserved in northern Maine for all future Mainers."

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