Last Saturday night, a group of Maine ghost hunters packed up their night vision cameras and other pieces of equipment and headed to one of their favorite destinations, Fort Knox.
On a normal night for 207 Paranormal, a non-profit group of paranormal investigators, they would roam the cannon batteries and granite corridors of the state historic site, perched majestically over the Penobscot River in Prospect, and search for any spirit that happened to wander by.
But on Saturday, the ghost hunters had their hopes set on one spirit in particular: that of Leon Seymour, the longtime director of the Friends of Fort Knox. Seymour, who passed away Tuesday, May 29 at a Boston hospital of complications from lung cancer, was a colorful character who was single-minded in his passion for the fort — so much so that it was hard for those who knew him to believe he would ever leave.
Even after death.
“He always said he’s going to come back as a ghost. He always said he’d mess with us,” said Amanda Curry, a member of 207 Paranormal and a longtime tour guide at the fort who said Seymour treated her more like family than an employee. “He was quite a character. He was always playing pranks on us when he was around the fort before. I can only imagine what he’ll do to us now.”
Spoiler alert: they couldn’t tell for sure on Saturday, but they did feel his spirit was there. That would be fitting, she said, for a man who had spent years flinging open the fort’s gates to all manner of Mainers. Seymour, who lived in Frankfort and is survived by his fiancee, Tina Axtman, two daughters and two grandchildren, also was instrumental in repairing and saving the fort. Before 1999, when he was hired to be the first executive director of the Friends of Fort Knox the structure had deteriorated to the point where large portions were unsafe and closed to the public.
“The roof used to be grass, but somebody had tarred it over. The tar caused so many leaks and so many problems. The hallways were urine-filled.” Chris Goosman, a member of the board of directors of the Friends of Fort Knox, said. “It was not up to par for a state park, a monument of that stature. He really has been instrumental in turning that around.”
The fort’s beginnings
The federal government started construction on Fort Knox in 1844, with the goal of protecting the Penobscot River against a possible future British naval incursion. It never saw battle and in 1923, the fort was purchased by the state. Huge granite structures are hard to maintain, however, and by the 1990s, large portions of the fort were closed to the public and its future was imperiled.
That’s when Friends of Fort Knox formed, with the mission of saving the fort. The friends raised $600,000 to help the state repair the roof, and then hired Seymour in 1999 to build on that accomplishment. He did so beyond their wildest dreams, according to Carol Weston, the chairman of the board of directors of the friends group. Seymour was creative, good at marketing and good at managing, she said. But perhaps most of all, he had a clear vision of what the crumbling granite fort could become.
“No one is going to come to see a hunk of granite. It’s what it means, the historical perspective, and the experience,” Weston said. “And people needed to know about it. People needed to know it was a historic gem. Leon said, ‘wait a minute, the fort is a great backdrop for all kinds of people.’”
So he started to invite them in. Now, the summer schedule for Fort Knox is crowded with events and festivals. It hosts psychics, pet shows, Civil War reenactments, medieval recreation groups, theater troupes, pirates, politicos, Boy Scouts, foster and adoptive families, ghost hunters, Scottish musicians and more. And every fall it welcomes thousands who come to enjoy Seymour’s signature event, Fright at the Fort.
“All kinds of people can come and have an experience there, because Leon had that vision,” Weston said.
Part of his vision was sharing his love of all things spooky, and for more than a decade, Seymour invited Loren Coleman, a Portland-based cryptozoologist who is one of the world’s foremost experts on Bigfoot, to speak at the fort.
“In 2016, he actually rented a Bigfoot costume and invaded my talk. Here comes Bigfoot, running down the hill,” Coleman said this weekend. “What was really unique about Leon was that he was very passionate about the Friends [of Fort Knox], about the fort, and about strange subjects. He would find out somebody else who was interested in Halloween, and he would light up. There was something magical about him.”
Legacy of ‘getting stuff done’
For the Friends group, part of that magic is that after Seymour took the helm, the fiscal fortunes of Fort Knox began to turn around. He was a natural at both fundraising and dreaming up events that helped to bring the fort back from the brink. More and more people came to the fort and its gate fees grew. In 2012, the Friends of Fort Knox became even more important to the fate of the fort when Gov. Paul LePage signed an agreement that privatized the park and turned over its daily operations to the group. The decision generated its share of controversy, with opponents worrying that the state was giving away its history and renting it indiscriminately for private events. But Seymour and the Friends weathered those storms, and Weston said he was proud that the group wrote a check to the state every year for a percentage of the gate fees collected at the fort. Last year, the sum was $42,000.
“He was always wanting to find a way to do a great job without spending too much money,” she said of Seymour, adding that his dedication to the fort was extraordinary.
Just weeks ago, he was bringing his portable oxygen tank to work with him at the fort, and even near death, he continued to generate ideas of how to move the fort forward.
“His passion for the fort was kind of insane,” said Leslie Wombacher, the executive director of the Bucksport Bay Area Chamber of Commerce and a former member of the board of the Friends of Fort Knox. “He just really believed in that place and its importance.”
“Leon meant everything, truly,” she said, adding that he wanted the Friends group to be able to continue without him. “It’s not going to be easy, we understand that. But there’s a strong board there that has a great desire to not step back but to continue his vision.”
Despite the successes of the last two decades, Seymour wasn’t without his critics. Some Mainers would rather the fort was more of a dignified museum and less of a freewheeling, open-air carnival. Not everyone appreciated his often-irascible personality, and even friends used words like “crusty,” “crazy” and “abrasive” to describe him.
“He’ll be really missed. You either hated him or you loved him, and some days you did both,” Wombacher said. “That’s the kind of person he was. But that’s the kind of person who got stuff done.”
A memorial service for Leon Seymour will be held at Fort Knox at 5 p.m. on Sunday, June 10.
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