Percival Baxter created Baxter State Park for “people of moderate means”. It is said that Percival Baxter was familiar with Thoreau’s writings and was inspired by them. For all of his adult life, particularly in his political life, Percival was an individualist who did not follow the same well-trodden paths as his colleagues. He and his father, James Phinney Baxter, who was six-time mayor of Portland, were always faithful Republicans, yet often at odds with the G.O.P. leadership—in many cases, because of their vision and efforts to further the public good.
Take the example of James Phinney. He set a model for his son to follow with programs that enhanced the beauty and recreational value of the city he governed and provided easily accessible open spaces within city limits so that the less fortunate could have a place to nurture their spirits.
In a similar way, Percival set out an even vaster goal for himself and spent many years putting together the different elements that today form Baxter State Park. No obstacle, human or otherwise, could discourage him. Following his retirement from active politics in 1926, after he was defeated in a Republican U.S. Senate primary, Percival Baxter vowed he would devote the rest of his life to acquiring Mt. Katahdin for the people of Maine.
Allegedly, the idea of doing that first struck him in 1903 while standing with two friends in nearby Stacyville and viewing the mountain’s magnificent silhouette from that direction. Percival, himself, gives 1917 as the date he first publicly proposed a Katahdin State Park. The reaction, he says was not encouraging. “I was attached as a dreamer and branded as a socialist. Several of our newspapers came out against me.” One Maine paper, The Portland Press Herald, myopically editorialized that it was “the silliest proposal ever made to a legislature.” The same lack of vision was manifested again and again by the lawmakers in Augusta, with strong encouragement from the Great Northern Paper Company, the actual owner of the mountain. As a state senator, Percival Baxter offered bills for Katahdin Parks and saw them defeated. Even as governor, he was unsuccessful, although he offered to donate his biannual salary to start the project going.
The notion of spending his own money and buying the mountain was a natural progression after his generous offer was ignored. The death of his dad in 1921, the year Percival was governor, had left him as the primary heir to his father’s fortune.
Percival had the money, if the Great Northern Paper Company was willing to sell. However, until 1928, Great Northern was dominated by its founder, a crusty Dutch-American named Garrett Schenck, who had no love for Percival Baxter and refused to deal with him. Upon Schenck’s death, his successor, William Whitcome, took an entirely opposite tack. He like, indeed admired, Percy Baxter. An agreement whereby Percival bought the part of Township 3, Range 9, containing the mountain, was quickly reached.
in 1931 Percival took a gamble and he gave the land to the state despite the advice of the attorney general that he didn’t have a clear title to do so. Ultimately, at the beginning of 1933, the gift was at last made official.
Climbing Mt. Katahdin
No one knows exactly when the first white man saw Katahdin, John Gyles, a captive of the Indians from 1689–98, was the first one to mention it. The first known attempt to climb it was in 1764—a partial climb up the southern side by a surveyor, John Chadwick. Forty years later, Charles Turner, Jr. led a party on the first successful ascent.
It was not until the nineteenth century that a real-life Indian climbed Katahdin. He was the famous shaman (medicine man) John Neptune, who, as the story goes, kept Pamola from getting into his cabin on the heights by pouring water under the door and having it freeze shut.
During the 1830s there were a number of scientific expeditions, including that of Charles Jackson, the Maine state geologist. Following Thoreau’s visit in 1846, the Reverend Marcus Keep, then a missionary in Aroostook County, cleared the first trail on the mountain and gave his name to what is now Keep Ridge.
Still not content with his extraordinary achievement, Percival Baxter went on to add more and more land to Baxter State Park in a sustained thirty-two year effort. And, as a lifelong animal lover, he envisioned a sanctuary for the creatures of the forest. “With the protection of wildlife, the deer, the moose, and the birds will no longer fear man and gradually they will come out of their forest retreats and show themselves.”
Set up accordingly to Percival’s wishes, the task of the Baxter State Authority is to run the park and insulate it from political whim, with an advisory committee that includes members of the Baxter family.
One of Percival Baxter’s most eloquent statements about Katahdin so well-known and so often repeated is as follows, “Man is born to die. His works are short-lived. Buildings crumble, mountains decay, wealth vanishes. But Katahdin in all its glory forever shall remain the mount of the people of Maine.”