Category Archives: Dramatis Personae

Dramatis Personae

Samovars, Nijinsky, and Russian tea in Otter Creek

Steaming cups of strong black tea, silk-gowned ladies on a wide wrap-around porch, and yeast rolls that never fail–the Russian Tea Rooms were an exotic destination in the rural landscape of Otter Creek. Here secrets were whispered on the piazza, business deals made in front of the fire, and dull to titillating conversations exchanged between royalty and rusticators.

Beautiful stonework remains from the Russian Tea House.

The Tea Rooms, called the Tea House on some maps, or simply Romanoff according to the Bar Harbor Record, opened in 1899 on the Otter Cliff Road, then part of Ocean Drive.

It was a meeting place for the many summer visitors to Mount Desert Island. Carriages would bring the merry groups out, or the more ambitious would follow the old native American trail from Bar Harbor. A writer of the time describes the scene: “Coaching parties (to Otter Creek and Jordon Pond) have been quite in vogue this season, and the crack of the whip, the rumble of wheels, and the clear notes of the bugle are familiar sounds…” (The New York Times, September 13, 1903)

Social columns of local and city newspapers reported the parties given at the Tea House, and listed the names of the illustrious guests. On August 15, 1902 “A dinner was given at the Russian Tea House tonight by Mr. and Mrs. Louis von Gaertner. Among the guests were Mr. and Mrs. W. J. Pendleton, Prince Del Drago, Mrs. Roberts, Miss Godwin, Mr. and Mrs. Wetzeler, and Mr. Bass.” The town must have buzzed when a few years later the prince, 27 years old, married the wealthy widow, Mrs. Schmid, 50.

The Tea House overlooked Otter Cove. Where there is now a forest, lawn would have stretched down to the water. The view from the piazza would have been wide and quite likely offered vistas of the mouth of the cove to the ocean.

The grounds of the Tea House were a gathering place as well as the restaurant itself. The summer residents of Mount Desert Island, called rusticators because they felt life here was simple compared to their worlds in Boston, Philadelphia or New York, would picnic on the grassy field between the Tea House and the water. Henry Van Dyke, in his short story “A Holiday In A Vacation,” says “There were plenty of places considered proper for picnics, like Jordan’s Pond, and Great Cranberry Island, and the Russian Tea-house, and the Log Cabin Tea-house, where you would be sure to meet other people who also were bent on picnicking… There were dinner parties, and tea parties, and garden parties, and sea parties, and luncheon parties, masculine and feminine, and a horse-show at Bar Harbor, and a gymkhana at North East, and dances at all the Harbors.”

Granite that has been through a fire is not stable enough to build a house on.

But it was the Tea House, an imposing grey Victorian with a vine-covered porch and cozy dining rooms that was the real draw–that, and being taken care of. Log fires kept any evening chill away, and small nooks and corners provided comfortable spots for catching up with friends. Private parties were treated like the royalty some of them were, and Mrs. Robertoff, the proprietor, made sure everything went smoothly. She was such a conscientious owner that the Bar Harbor Record described her as ”looking after everyone’s comfort in her own pleasant way.” (1911)

A few short years later Mrs. Robertoff is gone. The local
newspaper ran an ad in 1915:
The Russian Tea House
Ocean Drive
Open to the public June 12, 1915
Under New management
Arrangements made for week-end parties.
Chicken suppers and lobster dinners a specialty.
Telephone 66

Advertisement for the seasonal opening of the Russian Tea House, Otter Creek, Maine.

The following summer Vaslav Nijinsky summered here on Mount Desert Island. His wife says that he spent countless hours practicing at the Building of Arts, just a few miles from the Tea House. Did he and Ramona have tea in Otter Creek? It is here that the record gets dim, and the next mention of the Tea House is when it had new owners, George and Hilda Renwick, and it was their home, not a business.

George was from Scotland, a Latin teacher and a gardener. The Tea House property was over a hundred acres, and he planted over eight varieties of apple trees. George had a large greenhouse across the street from the house. Lilies and other cultivated flowers still bloom in the field where it stood. A Harvard graduate, he was described as crusty by Dennis Smith who worked in the greenhouses as a child. “He drove an old black Ford like a wildman, smoking a pipe, and careening corners.”

George married Hilda Emory, and their niece Charlotte Harlan used to visit them in Otter Creek. She recalls summers on the wide porch, and gatherings inside around a piano, where family and friends spent evenings singing and making music. George had tenor voice, and years later sang at her wedding.

The Tea House was destroyed in the Fire of 1947, which burned much of the island. Charlotte remembers the phone call and hearing about Hilda fleeing in her nightdress. Their house was the last one to burn before the fire was stopped, sparing the rest of Otter Creek. George and Hilda’s moved down the street to house still called the Renwick House but their lives never fully recovered.

The property was sold after their deaths to the current owners, Gail and Henry Grandgent. They planned to build a house on the Tea House’s foundation but were advised that granite that has been under extreme heat was not stable. Instead, they built a charming home just past the ruins, with a view to the cove and old quarry, and plan to create gardens among the old granite walls of the Tea House. Gail, who has boxes of exotic teas lining the shelf of her kitchen, may bring her cup into that garden room and once again tea will be sipped on the site of the Russian Teahouse.

Bricks from the fireplace Prince Del Drago once warmed himself in front of.

community Dramatis Personae

Hills Like White Otters

Ben’s Hill, Otter Creek, from U.S. Geological Society drawing 1887

Dorr Mountain, Cadillac, and Champlain–these are the mountains that surround the island village of Otter Creek. Their namesakes were men of power and position. George B. Dorr was the founder of Acadia National Park. Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, Sieur de Cadillac was a French explorer who once held title to all of Mount Desert Island and founded Detroit. Cadillac cars were named after him. Samuel de Champlain landed in Otter Creek in 1604 and gave our island its name, Isles des Monts Desert. It was adventurers, movers and shakers, people who stepped out of a mundane life to explore new territory that we chose to name our mountains for. These mountains are my everyday view, sometimes red and orange with foliage, sometimes white with snow, but always the background of life in Otter Creek. They are ever-present but always out-of-arm’s-reach.

Closer than the mountains, right under our feet and beneath the wheels of our cars, are the hills of Otter Creek. My home sits on the top of Ben’s Hill and I drive up and down Marm Allen’s Hill every day on my way to work. No one seems to remember who Ben or Marm Allen were, or why they had hills named after them. Roads have been straightened, and some of our hills blasted and flattened. Marm Allen’s Hill on the old Bar Harbor road once went down to the brook that runs into Otter Creek, and then straight back up past the old Allen farm. Presumably Marm was one of those Allen’s. The first bridge at the bottom of this hill was built in the 1800’s just a few feet above the surface of the stream. Rocks from its footings can still be seen. The second bridge, wisely built a bit higher since snow melting in spring makes the stream roar, has also left traces. This bridge was still walkable in the late 1960’s, the timbers old but spanning the water. It, too, flooded every spring. Today there is just a culvert, with twenty to thirty feet of dirt piled above it, raising Marm Allen’s bottom, making her hill far more gentle and leaving the remains of the first two bridges far below.

The granite remains of the oldest bridge on Marm Allen’s Hill, with the concrete remains of the second bridge.

Marm did not found a city or get a car named after her, and Ben could have been a hobo, but they are as much a part of the geography of our small village as the renowned personalities our mountains are called after.

Corkscrew Hill was not named after anyone. The road up this hill started at the base of Ben’s Hill where a timber and stone bridge crossed Main Brook close to where it opens into the Creek. Tumbled granite blocks in the water show where it once stood. This bridge was abandoned in the 1920’s or 30’s but the timbers were still there until they washed away some time in the 1960’s. My husband’s father, Larry Smith, said that when it rained and Corkscrew Hill was slippery the Model T’s would go up the hill backwards in order to make it to the top. We have walked the old road bed, and while steep it does not seem to twist. Did the cars have to zig zag up like a corkscrew to get to the top, or, as a neighbor suggested, was a bottle of something uncorked for the long ride to the other side of the creek?

Standing near the old bridges, looking at the fill that was brought in to level Allen’s Hill.

We have two other hills here in the village. Music Hill is to the northwest of the cemetery and Music Hill Lane is the road leading to it. Paul Richardson, whose family was one of the village’s first families, thinks this name is fairly recent. Clyde Carter, whose family has been here for at least a few generations, recalls various members of the Smith family who lived up there playing what he calls old time music, fiddles and squeezeboxes and homemade percussion. Music Hill is as quiet as its neighboring cemetery these days.

Our last hill is Esther’s Hill. This was the local name for the long descent towards Seal Harbor, and finally there is someone who remembers Esther. Her name was really Vashti Esther, but she preferred to be called Esther, or V. Esther. She also had a pond named after her, and I heard the bullfrogs singing there today as I biked by. Esther was married to Lawrence Maynard Smith’s brother Maurice. She and Maurice had four children, Shane, David, Maurice and Martha, and one of the boys shot and killed Maurice the elder in a hunting accident.

After the accident Esther had better things to do than be a mother, and Martha and was raised by her grandmother Nyra, who also lived in Otter Creek. Now Nyra sounds like someone to name a hill after. While she may not have selected her three husband’s for their names, they make lovely sequence. Her first husband was Tripp, her second was Trott and her third, with whom she spent the rest of her life, was Harold Gallup. Harold did not live up to his name however, as Nyra once told my mother-in-law. “I’m interested, but Harold isn’t.”

The old road bed with the new road in the distance. Marm Allen’s Hill.

Although Nyra lived on the same hill as Esther, it is Esther’s Hill, not Tripp, Trott, and Gallup Hill. Martha says she is not positive her grandmother’s second husband really was Trott, but that is what the villagers said, and it might have been.

Our hills are less steep and curved than they were a hundred years ago, but even then they were not considered majestic enough to deserve the name of a worldly explorer. But Champlain Mountain, Ben’s Hill, Dorr Mountain, and Esther’s Hill, whether named for hobo or hero they are equally part of the landscape of life in Otter Creek.

Dramatis Personae

Snake on a plain

A fifty-foot boa constrictor skeleton lies mouldering on the south face of Cadillac Mountain, Otter Creek, Maine, in what is now Acadia National Park. I have never seen it, but Everett Walls told the tale.

“Fifty foot long she was, the vertebrae three foot high, Yup, we’d pick blueberries around them bones.” Everett said a circus boat had sought shelter in the nearby village of Seal Harbor during a storm. This was in the 1950’s, and the big snake had escaped.

“But,” I protested, “Snakes don’t grow that big.”

“Maybe thirty feet then, does it make any difference?” Everett asked. He is right, and we will leave that boa, which Everett also said might have been a python, but no difference there, either, at fifty feet.

“Quite a ruckus it caused, people ‘fraid to walk on the ridge. And he did come out now and again. Fifty feet is pretty big, people remember running into that.“ I am sure they would, but I have not been able to find anyone who saw the snake. Not even Everett. ”No, I never saw it alive, jus’ the bones. Fine with me.” Everett says.

This snake escaped captivity for a summer among blueberries, foraging on rabbits and voles, basking on slabs of flat pink granite. What a summer! The cramped cage was left behind, along with the smell of the ship’s hold, and the unnatural rocking on waves was exchanged for sun and a whole mountain to cavort on.

According to Everett, the circus crew hunted for their snake, and so too did local police. But he kept hidden, and the circus boat left without him.

The snake spent lazy days sinuously winding up to Eagle’s Crag, darting out a tongue to sense the moist salt air. The boa did not see and did not care when the ship disappeared from view over the edge of the sea.

“Yep, quite a scare around here, but we knew it t’wouldn’t be a problem long.”
The boa dozed and ate, lazily opening an eye against the warm August sun.

Then Everett started to talk about his aunt, that she had painted a picture of Otter Creek that was in the World’s Fair in 1939. “She painted nothin’ fancy, just simple pictures, but she entered a contest, and this picture went down to the world’s fair. Imagine that!”

An old painting of the Creek, by a creeker! I was excited. “Where is it now?”

“Oh, behind the ‘frigerator last time I saw it.” I pleaded for a peek. “Heck, I’d give it to you, but Elsie still likes knowin’ it is tucked back there.”

Elsie is gone now, and so too is Everett. But what about that snake?

“He weren’t designed for a Maine winter. We knew we didn’t have to worry ‘bout him.” Everett liked to come by, making the slow journey on crutches from his house to mine. He always had something to share, a story, some old photos, a flounder spear (this is still hanging in my shed) or just a few minutes of time.

“Really, Everett, really? A giant snake in Otter Creek?”

“Oh, yes. It was in the papers.” We smile at each other. Guess then it has to be true. I want it to be. I want that snake to have had such a fine summer here on our hillside. And every time I walk the South Ridge of Cadillac I can’t help but look for a long moss covered shape that just might be a fifty-foot boa skeleton.

Day to day Dramatis Personae Uncategorized

TRUSTY David Trust

Is the ice safe? A reasonable question, since every winter, somewhere, someone goes through. But not David Trust, and not his daughters. David has been an ice fisherman for most of his life, as were his dad and his grandfather. When David’s girls came along, he taught them how to fish, too. Along with being safe, he passed on other rules of ice fishing and of life: keeping your line untangled, being neat, knowing when you can trust the ice.

“We’d be out on the ice, get a flag, and off one of my daughters would go,” David says. “I’d dig one of my buddies in the ribs and say, ‘watch this.’ And we would all look. She concentrated so hard she didn’t know we were following her every move. And sure enough, just like I showed her, she would see if the reel was spinning. If it was, she’d set the hook and bring her fish in, coiling the line into the neatest pile.”

David speaks lovingly of his girls, and the special family times they had out on the ice. “I raised ‘em like boys, but they still turned out like girls,” he says, blue eyes gleaming. “They’re grown now, and they still love to fish.”

But times have changed, and so has the lake. David says that only ten years ago there were kingfishers, redfin shiners, crayfish, polliwogs. The water was brimming with life and vitality, diverse and healthy. Today he says the lake is barren, no forage fish, just bass, some lake trout, some pickerel. “Some asshole brought bass in, they killed everything, they killed the lake,” David says.

And indeed the fish are not there in the numbers they used to be. But this lake is where he learned to fish and where he taught his kids, and so he tries to fish here every winter, making it a family affair. “We have bonfires, hot dogs, hot cocoa,” he says. “It’s all kids, dogs, food and fish. Last time there were six inches of slush, but it didn’t stop anything. The kids were soaked to the bone and still tearing around, racing out to check a flag.”

But for serious fishing, he heads to inland Maine. Out on the ice, on the frozen surface of Green Lake, is his winter home, his winter castle. David’s icehouse, where he spends every minute he can, is 56 square feet of pure luxury. Copper counter tops, Alpine stereo, gimballed stove, weather instrumentation mounted on the roof for wind speed, barometric pressure and humidity. The comfortable dining benches fold out into an equally comfortable bed, and there is a solar panel and 12-volt brass lamps. “Last one I’ll ever build,” he says. And indeed it would be hard to top this one. Fishermen for towns around speak of his icehouse with a mixture of awe and incredulity.

David squints out over the brilliant white surface of the lake. “This is what it’s all about, nothing but fishing, and eating. Then fishing some more and eating some more.” He gets up an hour before sunrise and fishes until dusk. Then he stops. “End of the day, you’re done,” his says with finality.
A pair of eagles flies by, flying close, then parting. David pauses in mid-sentence to follow their flight. Yes, it is the fish that bring him here. But it is not quite as simplistic as fish then eat, fish then eat.

Teaching kids to keep their lines untangled, meticulously crafting a 56-square-foot model of luxury, and the casual acceptance that stopping what you’re doing to watch the eagles play is the proper use of time—this is life on the ice for David Trust. And great life lessons to pass on to his daughters, even though they are girls.

Excerpt from Maine Vanities, a collection of essays about the people and stories behind vanity license plates.

These short portraits capture Maine individuality. There is quirkiness, compassion, and humor. While passions range from skiing to solving Mensa puzzles, and ages from 14 to 91, enthusiasm, curiosity, and delight in sharing the story behind their plate and their bit of Maine is the common thread.

community Dramatis Personae

Hughie Wright, houseman and whisker maker

Hughie Wright with Freckles (the beagle) and Missy (the Weimaraner)

in Seal Harbor, Maine courtesy Jackie Davidson

Hughie Wright was a Seal Harborite, fly fisherman, loyal husband, maker of whiskers and Edsel and Eleanor Ford’s houseman.

One does not hear the word houseman very much any more. There are caretakers and estate managers, but houseman is rarely used. Yet it was a respected profession only a generation ago. A houseman was a trusted and essential employee. Most of the families that summered in the neighboring villages of Seal Harbor and Northeast Harbor would have a houseman. Hughie Wright was one of the best.

There is no trade school or correspondence course for houseman. It was a profession frequently passed on from father to son, and always learned on the spot. Hughie was self-taught. His job was, quite simply, to ensure the family he cared for had a perfect stay. He molded his skills to the desires of his employers Edsel and Eleanor Clay Ford during their stay at their summer home, Skylands. This was not demeaning, but rather a matter of pride. It takes keen observation, real affection, and a wide range of skills to be a good houseman. The bond between Hughie and the Fords, who he referred to as his “family” was the best of a master and servant relationship. Together over fifty years, Hughie called Eleanor Mother Ford and was devoted to her, even bringing her shoes home to clean at night. The Fords in turn depended on him, and took care of him.

At Skylands, cool Maine evenings were commonly warmed with a birch fire. Birch burns with snaps and cheery crackles, looks clean and pristine, gives off a lot of heat, and is the wood of choice for open fireplaces. One of Hughie’s many responsibilities was the building of the fire. And so the whiskers.

Whether it was Hughie’s grandfather or the Ford children who coined the phrase whiskers is uncertain, but old-timers still talk about Hughie’s whiskers. They are referring to his fire-starters. Every winter he would take clear pine, a beveled jack knife and make whiskers. He would spend close to half an hour on each one, shaving eighteen-inch lengths of pine board into thin curls. He then put them in a vise and used a drawshave to smooth their spine and drilled a hole hang them for storage.

Whisker, or pine fire starter c. 1960. Hand-shaved by Hughie Wright

Hughie learned to make the whiskers from his grandfather, starting when he was five years old. By the time he was a teen, he was allowed to make the whiskers not just for the kitchen fires, but for the living room as well. When Hughie started work at the Ford home in 1926, he introduced the fire starters and they at once became a required element in laying a fire. There were nine fireplaces in the house, and it took all winter to create a supply for the following summer. When stainless steel pocketknives became the only kind readily available, Hughie had a blacksmith hand-forge a beveled edge knife for him, so he could continue to shave the thin curls of the whiskers. Wood became more difficult to find too, but Hughie sought out clear pine, as pink was not acceptable in the Ford house.

There are only a few of these whiskers left. We were given one by Jane Smith, my mother-in-law, who is not sure how she ended up with it, and there is one in the Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. When Margaret, Hughie’s wife, died, she believed there may have been a few still left in the whisker closet of Skylands, now owned by Martha Stewart.

Skylands, where Hughie Wright was Houseman

Hughie lived the life he wanted, and being remembered for his whiskers would please him. They epitomize his quiet quest to make life good for his family. He was never one for glory, but was well mannered, professional and dignified. Married over forty years to Margaret, he went to work every day. A familiar sight in Seal Harbor with his long-billed hat and cigar in hand, he was a man of routine. He went home for lunch every day, and Margaret would make a large and hearty meal. Every evening he would shave a few whiskers. Every year he and Margaret went to the annual Wayback Ball, a social gathering held after the departure of all the summer folk. He fished in the spring, raised Springer Spaniels, and in the winters sometimes had a nip or two with friends. Not given to jokes, a rare example of his humor is the sign for their dog kennels, designed to emulate the signs of the wealthy cottagers. Small and discrete, it reads Dogterd Ridge.

Sign from Hughie and Margaret’s Kennel in Seal Harbor, Maine

Collecting the mail was part of Hughie’s routine, and all summer long without variation he would stop at the post office after lunch.

On one of those summer days, no different from any other, he dropped dead outside the post office. Margaret had made her fried clams, each individually dipped in batter and tenderly browned, and sent him back to work. Jackie Davidson, a family friend, says “Margaret said it was a terrible shock, but that Hughie would have hated being sick, he’d have made a terrible patient.”

The art of shaving whiskers is gone, too. Hughie tried to show others how to carve them, including directions for the hand-forged knife, but was never able to pass it on. We will keep ours in a safe place.

Thank you to Jackie Davidson, Rodney Smith, Jane Smith, and David and Muriel Billings and for sharing their recollections and photos of Hughie.

Dramatis Personae is a series of portraits of Otter Creekers, and other local characters.