“Show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are,” wrote English poet Alfred Austin in the late 19th century.
Austin might have been speaking of the creation many years later of two of Maine’s most beloved public gardens. For more than 50 years, visitors have been discovering the delights of Thuya Garden and Asticou Azalea Garden on Mount Desert Island. To commemorate that fact the Mount Desert Land & Garden Preserve released in 2008 two companion books written by Letitia S. Baldwin, an editor at The Ellsworth American. “Thuya Garden: Asticou Terraces & Thuya Lodge” and “Asticou Azalea Garden: The Work of Charles K. Savage” detail the beginnings and evolution to the present of the two public gardens at Northeast Harbor.
Rich with historic detail that delves into the roots of the gardens’ beginnings, Baldwin’s writing brings forward and paints compelling portraits of the cast of visionaries who sought to create and preserve those special landscapes. She introduces the reader to landscape designer Joseph H. Curtis, who in the early 1900s pursued his vision of a mountainside park open to the public, at a time when Acadia National Park had not yet been created. It was Curtis who developed what would become known as Thuya Garden, and built Thuya Lodge, and who bequeathed the property to the town of Mount Desert.
“For many, Thuya Garden is a special haven, though unlike the small walled enclave in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ‘The Secret Garden,’ no key is needed to enter. Save for a small donation box and a few discreet signs, guests roam freely. At times, some find themselves alone in the garden; for a moment, they can imagine it is their own,” Baldwin writes in “Thuya Garden.”
Curtis’ work as a landscape designer was not confined to Mount Desert Island. Among smaller commissions he undertook in Maine are Silver Lake Cemetery in Bucksport and Coburn Park on the banks of the Kennebec River in Skowhegan, Baldwin writes.
Baldwin introduces the reader to artist and Asticou innkeeper Charles K. Savage, into whose capable hands fell the trusteeship of Thuya Garden and Lodge after Curtis died in 1928.
It was Curtis who led the effort to relocate plants — a trove of horticultural treasure — from renowned landscape designer Beatrix Farrand’s gardens when in 1955 she decided to level Reef Point, her longtime summer home in Bar Harbor.
With financial aid from John D. Rockefeller Jr., Savage marshaled forces to move yews, cedars, spruces, hemlocks and flowering shrubs, including more than 250 azaleas, 175 rhododendrons, native Maine shrubs and ground cover, to a property across from the Asticou Inn where the Asticou Azalea Garden would take shape.
“Devotion to family and to Mount Desert Island’s natural beauty spurred his [Savage’s] many artistic and civic duties. He served as a selectman, state representative and local library trustee. He helped found the former Mount Desert Larger Parish, comprising five churches, and presided over The Acadia Corporation, the private company that still operates the historic Jordan Pond House and several gift shops in Acadia National Park. … To him we owe the preservation of Jordan Pond House’s charming tradition of tea and popovers and the striking absence of billboards and unsightly signage throughout the town,” Baldwin writes in “Asticou Azalea Garden.”
In the 1970s the town of Mount Desert gave up ownership of the garden and entrusted it to the Mount Desert Island & Garden preserve.
“Today, entering the garden from the parking area, visitors still follow the crushed granite path through the main corridor. … There, they’ll encounter a 150-year-old apple tree,” Baldwin writes.
Both books are nicely illustrated with vintage photographs of Curtis, Savage and the gardens, and with stunning color photographs depicting various aspects of the gardens in all their blooming glory.
Baldwin has brought to life in her books a history which, when known to garden visitors, can only enhance and deepen the experience of being there.
The books also contain cameo stories of Augustus D. Phillips, who hand-hewed posts, beams and shingles for structures in Thuya Garden and who created a cedar fence and gates for the preserve; Timothy Taylor, who served as superintendent of Thuya Garden, Thuya Lodge and Asticou Terraces; Arthur Fennelly Coombs, who was entrusted with the task of retrieving Farrand’s botanical collection and with the maintenance of both gardens; and Joseph P. Musetti, who quarried and shaped granite and other stones used to build the Azalea Garden main bridge.
Each book is alive with personalities past and present whose work it was and is to carry on the legacy of the gardens. The books show readers where to find the gardens, what to expect when they get there and how the gardens came to be; that the gardens were the products of minds and spirits that loved the beauty of a place to such a degree, they strove to pass it on to future generations.
The books are available in libraries on Mount Desert Island and surrounding islands, online at www.gardenpreserve.org, seasonally at local bookstores, at Thuya Garden and in Acadia gift shops.
The gardens are part of a 140-acre parcel that includes the Asticou Terraces and a public landing on the eastern shore of Northeast Harbor. The Azalea Garden has been part of the garden preserve since 1973. Thuya Garden became a part of the preserve in 2000.
The gardens are open from late June through September.