Monthly Archives: July 2012

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.