David Gross grew up in Orono, graduated from high school in 1960, then went to college out of state. Little did he know that Maine would not be his year-round home again for 40 years. His love for Maine never diminished. The fact that he spent every summer on Hancock Pond in Bucksport certainly helped sustain the tie, but David’s connection to Maine goes deeper into his ancestry — two and half centuries deeper. Since moving back home in 2004, David has contributed to the land and people of Maine in a way that would make all of his ancestors proud, especially his father, Stuart Gross.
The town of Orland was founded by Joseph Gross, who fell in love with Maine in the 1750’s. His descendant, David’s grandfather, owned a farm in Orland. In the early 20th century they ran the farm, had a smokehouse, made bricks and fished the Grand Banks. One of their sons was Stuart Gross.
“Dad had amazing life,” David said.
As a teenager, Stuart was foreman of his family’s brickyard. Later he became an able seaman and sailed on a merchant ship to Spain, where he decided to live for a while. After returning home he went to college hoping to major in Spanish. Since his college offered no Spanish major, he left after sophomore year. Someone told him that he could major in Spanish at Stanford University, so in 1929 he hitchhiked from Bucksport to San Francisco with $40 in his pocket.
Eventually, Stuart and his wife moved back to Maine where they both taught Spanish at the University of Maine in Orono. Stuart and his wife purchased land around Hancock Pond and built a cabin.
“My mother was out stripping logs when she was pregnant with me,” David told me with some admiration.
David and his brother spent every summer of their lives on Hancock Pond. He remembers going to Wight’s Dairy and walking into the cooler to get milk. Customers wrote what they took on a piece of paper and settled up their account at the end of the summer.
David’s most important memories, however, revolve around spending time outdoors with his father. They hiked all around Great Pond Mountain, and David will never forget his father’s vehemence about the importance of beautiful, wild places in the lives of human beings.
“Dad had an almost spiritual feeling about it. To walk in a beautiful place … It is good for the soul.”
Stuart Gross became determined to protect and preserve the land around Great Pond Mountain for people to enjoy. “It’s fine to spend money on big tracts of land way up north, but we need something close by,” he told his son.
Stuart formed an organization called the Great Pond Mountain Conservation Trust in 1993. His work for the land became almost an obsession, David remembers.
“I can hear his voice saying, ‘We should protect this land. It’s a beautiful spot; the public should have access to it.’” There were 4,300 acres available for purchase, and he struggled to find a conservation buyer.
Sadly, when David’s father died in 1997 the organization had not yet been able to achieve their goal.
Meanwhile, David was in his fourth decade as a college English professor in Oklahoma. He was a member of GPMCT from afar, and felt heartsick every time he had to leave Maine at the end of summer break. He and his wife Stephanie, also a teacher, hoped that when David retired, she might find work closer to Maine than Oklahoma. When Stephanie landed a job at Husson College, it was “so sudden and wonderful and unbelievable!”
In 2004, David finally moved back home.
David joined the board of GPMCT in January of 2005. Later that year, a generous donation transformed the future of the Trust. With the donation, the board was able to finance the purchase of the $2.4 million property themselves. Suddenly, they were the stewards of the Great Pond Mountain Wildlands, a gorgeous stretch of mountains, paths and waterways open for public use year-round in Orland.
David has just completed a five-year term as president of the GPMCT, a position he never imagined he would have. He has given talks all around the state, and when he tells people the story of his father, it never ceases to fill David with pride, amazement and gratitude.
“I called it my Dad’s dream speech. I’d always end by looking up and saying: We did it, Dad.”
Robin Clifford Wood may be reached at email@example.com.