June 24, 2019
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Who is George Dorr? Discovering the ‘Father of Acadia’

To view stunning vistas and breathe fresh ocean air, Ronald Epp and his wife Elizabeth first visited Acadia National Park in 1985. Traveling from their home in Hartford, Connecticut, the Epps planned to walk the park’s historic carriage roads and trails and drive to the top of Cadillac Mountain.

Their Acadia story begins without much flourish. They were the typical tourists, excited to experience the wildness and beauty that is Acadia. Little did they know how much the park would come to mean to the both of them.

“We were both wowed,” Ronald Epp said of their first visit. “And we made repeat visits almost every year after.”

Over the years, the Epps explored the villages of MDI and hiked its many mountains, becoming more acquainted with the oldest national park east of the Mississippi River and the surrounding island communities.

“Being trained as a philosopher, I ask questions,” Ronald Epp said. “And when I asked questions about the beginning of the park, the phrase that came out again and again was, ‘Oh, that was George Dorr.’”

But no one could tell Epp much about this mysterious “Father of Acadia,” the co-founder and first superintendent of Acadia National Park, a man whose namesake graces one of the park’s highest peaks and is memorialized in island granite at the park’s famous Sieur de Monts Spring.

“I became interested in Dorr from the very beginning because his name was the name that kept coming back to me when I asked questions,” Epp explained. “It was, ‘Well, this was done because Dorr wanted it that way’ or ‘This was named such-and-such because Mr. Dorr named it’ or ‘This path came into being because Mr. Dorr led the trail crew that made it.’

“People knew about what Dorr did here, but they didn’t know about Dorr before he came here,” Epp continued. “So what intrigued me was what resources, what background, what temperament and what values he brought to this place that led him in the direction that today people applaud.”

Upon further investigation, Epp discovered that while several books had been written about George B. Dorr, no one had ever written a complete biography about the man. Many details of Dorr’s life had slipped through the cracks of time and could very well be lost — unless a skilled historian could dig them up.

So Epp rolled up his sleeves and started to do some digging. Now, after about 15 years of research and writing, Epp is celebrating the completion and publication of “Creating Acadia National Park: The Biography of George Bucknam Dorr,” a 393-page book released April 1, just in time for the Acadia’s 2016 Centennial celebration.

Epp wrote the book for a general audience, to be read and enjoyed by anyone who has an interest in the history of Acadia and Mount Desert Island, as well as the formation of the National Park System and American Conservation Movement. The detailed account of Dorr’s life, which features 40 pages of footnotes, is sure to be a valuable resource for generations to come.

The biography was published by Friends of Acadia, a nonprofit organization founded in 1986 that works to preserve, protect and promote stewardship in the park.

“To see that come to fruition and that I’m alive at the end to see and feel some of the impact the book has on other people is so rewarding,” Epp, 73, said.

In reconstructing the life of the Father of Acadia, Epp unearthed details from some of the most peripheral sources — the diaries of Dorr’s family members and friends, letters to acquaintances and documents buried in the vast archives of Harvard University in Boston and The Rockefeller Archive Center in New York.

“Letters still ring with a certain emotional authority, especially in this era when so little letter writing is done,” Epp said. “You find people expressing their emotions in the most intimate sort of ways in letters.”

One of Epp’s goals in writing the biography was to better understand Dorr and, more specifically, the reasons why Dorr devoted so much of his time and resources — essentially the last four decades of his life and all of his fortune — to the creation of Acadia National Park. To do that, Epp reached back generations to find a philosophy of philanthropy that was passed down through Dorr’s family and instilled in him at an early age. He also looked to Dorr’s own writing, in which he also looked to the future, as all conservationists do.

“The population of the future must inevitably be many times the population of the present,” predicted Dorr, quoted by Epp in the biography, “and the need of conserving now, while there is time, pleasant, wholesome breathing spaces for those coming multitudes is great.”

Dorr believed it was of paramount importance to conserve “the places where the influence of Nature may be felt the most [or] observed and studied in its fullest.” On MDI, he wasn’t alone in his thinking.

Fellow Bostonian Charles W. Eliot and wealthy philanthropist John D. Rockefeller of New York worked with Dorr in the early 1900s to conserve land on MDI through private land acquisitions through the Hancock County Trustees of Private Reservations, one of the country’s first land trusts.

Epp refers to these three men — Dorr, Eliot and Rockefeller — as “the Acadia triumvirate.”

“You come away from these three men with this sense of almost a kind of thankfulness that you’ve been able to enter their lives, that you’re somehow walking among these conservation giants,” Epp said.

Because of the efforts of these three men, in 1916 — 100 years ago — President Woodrow Wilson accepted what today is the first parcel of Acadia National Park, the 5,000-acre Sieur de Monts Spring National Monument.

And Dorr kept on working, expanding the park through land acquisitions, often depleting his own resources.

“It was hard living for the last 15 years of his life because whenever a little bit of money would come his way, he’d buy more land and then legally obliged it to the national park” Epp said. “So some people thought that he lost his grip of things because he continued this at his own expense.

“But people do that for sport endeavors,” Epp pointed out. “They do that to make more money. They do that because they’ve become obsessed with scientific advancement. He was just consumed with this notion of growing the park.”

Today, Acadia National Park, which comprises more than 47,000 acres, is the only national park created entirely of donated private land.

“Hopefully I’m offering to readers not only a book about Acadia, but a book about what Acadia is a party of, and that’s a much larger thing called the National Park Service,” Epp said.

“And also, hopefully, it’s just an interesting story about a fascinating man — who at times, my wife thought I was morphing into,” Epp said with laughter in his voice.

Elizabeth Clewell Epp died in 2013 after a battle with cancer. Ronald Epp has dedicated the biography to her memory.

“Creating Acadia National Park: The Biography of George Bucknam Dorr” is available in paperback for $20 through Acadia-area booksellers and through Friends of Acadia at acadiacentennial2016.org.

 



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