October 28th, 2020
Moosehead: An Adventurous Tradition
For eons, our Waponaki neighbors have lived, fished, hunted and protected the majestic wilderness area we call the Moosehead Lake Region.
In 1846, Henry David Thoreau made the first of his three adventurous trips to the pristine wilderness with the assistance of Penobscot , Joe Attean. The Penobscot River was a central portage of what had been known for centuries as the Meductic Trail; an ancient water road used by the tribes of the region for seasonal trading and swift travel to southerly regions. This trail begins in New Brunswick, on the St. John River near the site of Meductic, the oldest known Maliseet settlement, which was a fortified village and thriving trade center.
The poet, philosopher, activist and great voice of wildness and wilderness, described Moosehead Lake as a “gleaming platter at the end of a table” in the documentary account of his explorations in The Maine Woods.
Starting in the mid-1830s, lumber became a major Maine industry. During that period, Bangor became known as the Lumber Capital of the World with more than 300 sawmills and numerous vessels from both Europe and the U.S. docking daily to fill their limit of lumber cargo. Entrepreneurs saw the North Maine Woods as a golden opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the burgeoning lumber industry.
Aaron Capen, Sr. and his son, Aaron Jr., trekked up from Boston in 1833 to check out timberland opportunities in the Moosehead Lake Region. After cruising around the lake, they found that Deer Island and neighboring Sugar Island (with an excellent supply of timber) were available, and in 1834, purchased the two islands. Their timberland investment soon evolved into Capen’s Sporting Camps.
Harry E Wilson, a Union Army Civil War veteran, decided that a life in pristine Maine with a guaranteed job provided him with a perfect choice. Thus, he moved to the Greenville Junction area, and commenced working at a local sawmill. He soon realized that the loggers needed some accommodations, which motivated Harry to build Wilsons Camps in 1865.
THE GILDED AGE
In the later part of the 19th century, industrialist and bankers such as John Astor, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller were often referred to as the Robber Barons.
As a result of their wealth and power, this new class of nouveau riche was fascinated with having wilderness experiences, and entrepreneurial Mainers were up for the challenge of developing fishing and hunting camps to satisfy this need.
Trains, steamboats and stagecoaches formed the transportation infrastructure that made travel to the Maine wilderness possible. During the summer of 1873, Teddy Roosevelt, then a young teenager, made his first trip to Moosehead Lake from New York with his family. They traveled to Dexter, Maine by train and then boarded a stagecoach for Greenville. During the last half of the 19th century as many as 55 steamboats plied the waters of Moosehead Lake. The late 19th century and early 20th century saw the development of additional sporting camps and infrastructure.
In 1880, Charles Randall from Milo, Maine developed West Branch Pond Camps, and in 1901, Mose Duty a young Maine guide and boat builder, started clearing land for what would become Spencer Pond Camps. A century ago, Walter Maynard established the iconic Maynard’s in Maine Sporting Camps in Rockwood.
In 1910, the Great Northern Paper Company established Pittston Farm in Rockwood to provide accommodations and food for the men involved in logging drives. Today, the farm serves as a lodge for folks engaged in sporting activities and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The historic steamboat Katahdin was built in Bath in 1914, and joined the fleet of steamboats carrying passengers to sporting camps and lodges that dotted Moosehead Lake. Later, she was converted into a towboat for hauling lumber. The Moosehead Marine Museum completely refurbished Katahdin during the 1990s and today, it’s listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, while offering cruises on the lake from their Greenville dock from late June until Columbus Day.
Another legendary fixture in Greenville is Harris Drug Store, which has been serving local resident and visitors for well over a century by Harris family pharmacists. Today, Mike Harris carries on the family tradition.
The 1930s saw the establishment of The Birches as a hunting and fishing lodge in Rockwood on the shores of Moosehead Lake. Today, in the summer months, they have fly-fishing, canoeing, kayaking, hiking and mountain biking trails to explore. You can search for wildlife on a moose cruise or wilderness safari. Accommodations vary from cabins on the lake and lodge rooms, to large rental homes. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all served in the dining room overlooking the lake.
THE GREAT DEPRESSION & WORLD WAR II YEARS
The ingenuity, strength and resilience of the families that operated the sporting camps in the Moosehead Lake Region during WW II and ensuing years, allowed the families to come through those hard times, ready to move forward.
Traditions are valued, but nostalgia does not mark today’s sporting camps and the new adventurous traditions have evolved.
THE NEW ERA
The mid-1950s marked a new era in family vacations. The new suburbanites with access to cars and interstate highways soon discovered Moosehead Lake as a vacation destination as it had become a one-day drive from southern New England.
Fishing and hunting remained a part of the region’s attractions, but canoeing, kayaking, biking, hiking, moose safaris, bird watching and leaf peeping were new activities that brought new adventurous to the Moosehead region.
Unfortunately, November 17, 1953 saw the iconic Capon’s Sporting Camps on Deer Island be destroyed by fire.
The 1960s saw the opening of downhill skiing at Squaw Mountain, and a bit later, snowmobile trails started to be groomed, which ushered in a whole new era of sports for the region.
Moosehead sporting camps continued to flourish in this new era by adapting to the needs of the time. Many stayed open year-round to support the growing interest in winter sports.
Roger Courier made access to remote lodges and lakes of the region by initiating a float-plane service in the early 1980s. Prior to this venture, Courier had been a contract pilot for Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries. He currently operates Courier Flying Service that offers sightseeing service to the region, as well as a seaplane museum. His operation is located at 447 Pritham Avenue, in Greenville.
Coming up on the current summer season will see Maynard’s in Maine celebrating their 100th anniversary. Gail Maynard and her son, Bill, are the camp’s hosts. They operate a four-season business, but have limited winter accommodations for snowmobilers.
Wilsons Camps were purchased by the Snell family in the 1980s from the Wilsons, run by the camp’s hosts, Scott and Alison Snell. Today, renamed Wilsons on Moosehead Lake, the camp is run as a four-season operation. Snowmobilers can sled from their cabin onto well-groomed trails.
In 1969, the Willard family purchased The Birches. John Willard is the host of this iconic camp that is marking its 50th anniversary within the Willard family.
The West Branch Pond Camps, hosted by Eric, Mildred, Avis and Oscar Stirling, has two seasons: Summer/Fall, which runs from ice out in May until Columbus Day and Winter, which starts on January 15. Their winter season specializes in serving cross-country skiers.
Spencer Pond Camps, hosted by Christine Howe and Dana Black, (both registered Maine Guides) provides guests with a true nostalgic wilderness experience as it is off- the-grid, which allows its guests to experience what life was like at camps in the late 19th century.
Guests to the Moosehead Lake Region can choose accommodations from lodges with impressive amenities and gourmet cuisine to rustic cabins and yurts with family-style meals. A huge menu of activities include canoeing, kayaking, fishing, biking, hiking, birding, mountain climbing, whitewater rafting, and ATVing are just a few of the opportunities.
Northern Outfitters in Greenville can help visitors with any outdoor sporting needs, including the rental of ATVs and in winter snowmobiles. They also can arrange for a fun rafting adventure. If you should bring your own ATV or snowmobile, and it needs servicing, Moosehead Motor Sports is available to help. And Northeast Whitewater can arrange for a perfect experience on Maine’s wild and beautiful rivers.
Indian Hill Trading Post in Greenville is worth the visit as it is a unique combination of a large sporting goods store with a complete super market and liquor department. This one-stop location offers a wide range of brand name gear and apparel, hunting and fishing licenses for residents and non-residents, firearms, fishing equipment and extensive outdoor supplies.
If it’s cultural interests you seek, drop by the Moosehead Historical Society and Museum. This past June, the Moosehead Lake region’s famed outdoor traditions were celebrated with the unveiling of a new, permanent exhibition titled, “Moosehead’s Outdoor Heritage.” The renewed interest in the mystique of the North Maine Woods makes the opening especially relevant. Visitors are introduced to the spectacular places, wildlife, and the working traditions that are still a part of the Moosehead Lake Region today.
The Main Campus of the Moosehead Historical Society is located at: 444 Pritham Avenue Greenville, ME. For more information: (207) 695-2909 or email: email@example.com.
This year, plan to enjoy traditions following in the footsteps of many a Maine adventurer.
— Text: Jim Harnedy joined the Activities Guide of Maine team as Sr. Editor in 1992, and has been closely involved with the magazine’s evolution through time. His 10th book: Forgotten Tales of Down East Maine was just released by The History Press.