I’ve been going to Maine annually for a number of years, going back to a rental house on the water and enjoying the beauty of Mount Desert Island. Most people visit Acadia National Park for the scenery, unrivaled on the East Coast. It’s the oldest national park east of the Mississippi River (founded in 1919 as Lafayette National Park). But there are many layers of history if you look for them.
I always enjoy biking on the carriage roads, designed and funded by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. between 1913 and 1940. They offer sweeping vistas and cool rambles by lakes. It was considered a state-of-the-art road system. They are broken-stone roads (common at the turn of the twentieth century), blended into the natural landscape. The roadways include 17 unique stone bridges and two splendid gate lodges, built to impress and welcome his visitors. Wealthy East coast families like the Rockefellers and Fords and Carnegies and Vanderbilts erected “cottages” on the island at the end of the nineteenth century, drawn to the area by the earlier paintings of such Hudson River school painters as Thomas Cole and Frederic Church.
But before these rusticators arrived, there were the Maine Coast pioneers like the Irish Carroll family, whose 1825 house is restored in Acadia National Park. Four generations lived in the house over the years and farmed and worked a trade, usually related to the sea.
The first inhabitants of the island, however, were the Wabanaki Indians and their stories are told at two sites: the spectacular Abbe Museum in downtown Bar Harbor and a site in the national park. Over the years, I’ve gotten to know the museum, and its director, Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, is a friend. Each summer I look forward to seeing the staff’s newest project. One year they featured an excellent exhibition “Indians and Rusticators: Wabanakis and Summer Visitors on Mount Desert Island 1840s-1920s.” It discussed the interaction between the two groups, an annual occurrence for many decades. Another exhibition focused on Wabanaki guides who offered guide services to explorers, cartographers, tourists and artists over several centuries.
Last summer, I was especially intrigued by the project in progress. Master canoe builder David Moses Bridges, Passamaquoddy, was building a 14’ traditional birchbark canoe in the Wabanaki style. It was thought to be the first time in one hundred years that a traditional native canoe had been constructed on the island. Museum visitors could observe the process and learn about the skills involved. After 200 hours of gathering and processing materials and 500 hours of building time, the work of art was completed. The Abbe staff officially launched the canoe last September and it became part of the museum’s teaching collection. In a new educational program, students can learn about traditional native craftsmanship and ingenuity.
This year, Cinnamon invited me to talk about my new book, which is filled with many examples of my hands-on adventures over my public history career. I enjoyed the opportunity to tell of past Native American adventures (mostly related to my work on the national Lewis and Clark bicentennial exhibition). But, guess what I really wanted to do? Go for a paddle! Abbe educator George Neptune and his cousin, canoe builder David Bridges, graciously agreed to facilitate my wish. The canoe had never been on the ocean before. They brought the canoe to a dock on Somes Sound (“Pihcicihciqipisipiqe” in the Passamaquoddy language!) a long sliver of ocean slicing the island almost in two. The canoe only weighs 52 lbs. out of the water, but in the water is designed to carry 700-800 lbs of supplies. First David and I took it for a ride and then David let me go solo.
As I glided through the water I marveled at the ease of travel, while trying to stay low and maintain balance. I wasn’t used to sitting on my knees to paddle. The gray sky and placid water were perfect conditions for this new hands-on history opportunity. Needless to say, the experience gave me a new appreciation for exquisite craftsmanship and for people of the past who devised a process to create a practical and useful work of art.