The Maine Governor Best Known For Creating A State Park

Jan 29, 2021

One-hundred years ago Sunday, Maine got its second new governor in a month.

Frederick Parkhurst, who’d been elected the previous fall to a two-year term, died not long after his inauguration. That elevated the brand new state Senate president to the governorship.

Percival Baxter and Mount Katahdin in 1962.
Credit Baxter State Park photo via Maine Memory Network

His name was Percival Baxter, who is maybe best known for the park he created that bears his name, but that wouldn’t come until after his four years as governor.

Maine State Historian Earle Shettleworth told Morning Edition Host Irwin Gratz that Baxter’s interest in preservation had emerged as a young lawmaker in 1917.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Shettleworth: In that 1917 Legislature, he introduces a bill for the state to buy Mount Katahdin. It’s the first time publicly where he articulates the dream that he has of saving Mount Katahdin for the people of Maine. Of course, it fails.

Gratz: And one of those other issues, of course, which was interesting was this bill that would have given the state water rights, in other words, the right to dam up rivers, and that’s also something the Legislature did not agree with him on.

In many cases, the state had sold off or given away these rights, these things that he believed belong to the people, when he continued to pursue these issues as governor, he was even branded a socialist, you know, although he was a moderate Republican, because of his deep concern for protecting the people’s interest. In the early ’20s, in the legislature, one of the big issues was whether the Maine water power assets would be harnessed for the use of people in Maine, solely, or whether there would be a pass through to other states. And that’s in many ways the same kind of issue that we’re debating today.

Can you talk a little bit more about what would have been Baxter’s governing philosophy?

On the one hand, you have a governor who is very concerned about protecting the rights and values of Maine as a state, very concerned about public interest. On the other hand, he’s very fiscally conservative in the way he governs. He created a certain amount of ire in both parties, by the fact that many special interest bills with small amounts of money would get to his desk, and he would just veto them.

Well, what else do we know about the four years that he was governor and the things that he did, the way he governed?

He was very fiscally careful. However, again, along the lines of history and public interest in the mid 1920s. what was then the War Department, now the Department of Defense, decided that many of the 19th century fortifications along the coast of Maine were obsolete. They made it known to Baxter that they were going to be selling these, and they were going to be selling them at fire sale prices. And so as a result, he moved very quickly to acquire priceless sites such as Fort Popham at the mouth of the Kennebec River, Fort Knox near the mouth of the Penobscot River, and so on. And these all became the core of our State Historic Sites program. He was also deeply concerned about the growth of the Ku Klux Klan in Maine. He strongly spoke against it. He was very concerned about the things that the Ku Klux Klan stood for, their impact on Maine people and Maine, in general.

It was tradition at that time to serve two terms, so there’s no particular reason why Baxter chose to leave at the end of 1924. Did he ever serve in government again?

This is the interesting thing. He tried once more to enter government. He ran in the Republican primary of 1926, for the U.S. Senate. It was a Senate position open. He failed to win in the primary. And in many ways, if you look back on it historically, it was a great turn of fate because after that, he said, ‘I’m done with politics.’ And then he began to turn all of his attention toward creating Baxter State Park.

Correction: Gov. Percival Baxter served two two-year terms, not one term.