Book details Baxter’s plans for state park

Posted Dec. 12, 2008, at 8:46 p.m.

Almost every Mainer today knows something about the history of former Gov. Percival Baxter and his gift of land to create Baxter State Park.

What most Mainers know is that Baxter bought the land, then gave it to the state to create the park. But, the story of exactly how and why he decided to bequeath such a generous gift has, thus far, been told mostly interpretively. In other words, the land purchases and his motives have been told by someone else, an author.

This year, for the first time, the general public can own a copy of every deed and read for themselves the enormity of the task that the governor faced to see his vision to completion. A new book, “Governor Baxter’s Magnificent Obsession,” published this year by Friends of Baxter State Park, documents all the deeds in their original form. Howard Whitcomb, a Professor Emeritus at Lehigh University, was charged with annotating the deeds and researching the formal communications concerning the park, which ultimately created the book.

As Whitcomb, now of Georgetown, said recently in a phone interview, “The Friends of Baxter State Park had no idea of the size of the project.”

The original documents were in three locations around the state. By the time all the deeds, attorney general’s opinions, legislative acts and correspondence was compiled, it filled four volumes. Primarily a research tool, it was published in 2005 and 44 copies were printed and are available at public and collegiate libraries and government agencies throughout the state.

This book is a condensed version complete with Whitcomb’s detailed annotations for every deed. In the annotations, Whitcomb has resisted the urge to interpret. Instead he simply explains the differences from one parcel exchange to another. As concisely written as the annotations are, it’s the history of how long it took for Baxter to fulfill his vision that comes through the documents.

It’s a complicated history and it’s all described in the book. Baxter created the board to manage the park first, then started acquiring the land and created a legislative tool for the state to accept the gifts he planned to make of the land through deeds of trust. Then, he created a trust fund that he personally endowed to pay for the park’s operation forever.

The book is presented in three parts plus an appendix with additional relevant documents like Baxter’s Fish and Game Speech in 1921 when he outlined his vision for a park with Mount Katahdin as its centerpiece. The entire documentary history of the park is there from Baxter’s first gift in 1931 to his last transfer of lands more than 30 years later in 1963.

Part one is a footnoted essay by Whitcomb titled, “Percival P. Baxter’s Vision for Baxter State Park.” Whitcomb describes the early influences on Baxter’s appreciation of Katahdin and the entire region surrounding the mountain. He writes concisely and the essay is a great introduction to what follows.

Part two is the detailed annotations explaining the deeds of trust sections, the deeds themselves as passed by the legislature and the formal communications between the former governor and more than 10 different legislatures.

Part three may be the most interesting because it deals with the land acquisitions transacted to the park after Gov. Baxter’s death in 1969. Especially relevant recently is the 2006 Katahdin Lake purchase and addition to the park. All the detail is there in the documents researched by Whitcomb, including legislative acts and votes.

The book’s appendices include the contents for the complete four-volume set of original documents, where those publicly accessible copies are located, and other relevant materials such as the act that then State Sen. Baxter introduced in 1921 to establish “Mount Katahdin State Park” and the board to manage it.

This book should be on everyone’s bookshelf if they are intrigued by the details of how one person could use his vision and determination through a lifetime of working with one goal, to leave something magnificent to the people of Maine. The book by Whitcomb is the most thoroughly researched volume to date. The author left no stone unturned in uncovering all the relevant materials.

It’s hard to imagine now that such gifts should have been difficult to make. But Baxter had to convince legislators, landowners and even the federal government that his vision for a park that “should be owned by the State of Maine for as long as the State of Maine exists,” was the best one.

He encountered people who said the expense would be too great. So, he funded it out of his own means. When he first presented the lands to the state they were cut-over, burnt-over and rarely visited. Now the forests, lakes, streams and mountains of the 209,000-acre park have been visited by hundreds of thousands of people over the years, Mainers most of all. It is after all, our park.

There are only a couple of bookstores that carry the book, including Sherman’s locations or the North Light Gallery in Millinocket. The easiest way is to order it from friendsofbaxter.org or write them at The Friends of Baxter State Park, P.O. Box 1442, Bangor, ME 04402. It’s $19.95 plus $4 shipping.

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