The Coast Walk Project

Interview: Sam McGee – the Village of Asticou and the Savage family

On October 9, 2017, I met Sam McGee at his home in the Asticou neighborhood of Northeast Harbor. Sam is part of the 7th generation of the Savage family to live on Mount Desert Island, and is one of the family historians (Sam’s uncle, Rick Savage, is another, and you’ll be hearing from him in another interview.) His article on Maine Memory Net, “The Savage Family of Mount Desert,”  is a great starting point for anyone interested in the family. Since members of the Savage family were involved with Thuya Garden, the Asticou Inn, and the Asticou Azalea Garden, and since the family has lived in the Asticou area since 1820, he seemed like a pretty key person to consult about local history.

Rough boundaries of the Asticou neighborhood. I’m not clear on whether Lower Hadlock would be part of it or not.

Jenn:                … I’ve been doing some reading [to prep for talking to you,] like I read Down Memory Lane by Emily … Oh my gosh. She grew up at Asticou.

Sam:                Oh, Emily Kenney? [Ed.note: Emily was married a few times, so has various names in the archives. At the time she wrote Down Memory Lane, she was Emily Phillips Reynolds.]  Well, I think her last name might have been Kenney at one time … . She was older than my grandfather, but they were first cousins. I can barely remember her being alive, but I remember her. Her grandparents built the hotel, and so she grew up as a kid hanging around the hotel and was interested in history and wrote down a lot about it.

Jenn:                Yeah, her book is just charming. … She was talking about sledding down the ice … they’d slide down the hill into town.

Sam:                They used to harvest ice out of Lower Hadlock Pond, and there was a wooden sluiceway that went all the way down to the harbor to load the ice onto ships, and so the kids would get on there.

Jenn:                Oh, is that what she’s talking about?

Sam:                Yeah. The kids would basically take big trays from the hotel and go slide down that.

Jenn:                Oh, cool!

Sam:                My great-aunt who owned this place [Sam’s house, where we were talking] … talked about doing that as a kid. … I haven’t been able to find any physical remnants of that sluiceway, but it’s pretty interesting to think that it went all the way up to the pond from there. It came down on … the western side of the harbor. If you read the Champlain [Society] diary that I sent you, that was another point of orientation that helped me figure out where they were – they talked about looking back up towards … Ice House Hill or something like that … they could probably see [the ice house] back then because it was still there. …

Jenn:                You are like your own archive here!

Sam:                I know. Well, it’s just I’ve got all this stuff. I’ve been trying to digitize some of it, but it’s really unorganized right now. I need help. [Emily Reynolds’] mom wrote [a memoir] and it may be helpful for you later on because she talks a little bit about her Manchester ancestors… . When the Manchesters first settled there, it was right around the time of the war of 1812, and the British came and destroyed their property, killed and stole all their animals and stuff [except] apparently one cow that escaped into the woods. … I think her mom writes about that a little bit in that, in her [memoir].

Jenn:                Oh, I’d love to read that. Would you mind if I put some of these online on the blog?

Memoir by Cora Savage Phillips, mother of Emily Phillips Reynolds:

Early History + Personal Recollections of NEH Cora Savage Phillips


Sam:                Yeah, I don’t mind. I don’t think you really need permission from anybody because it’s hard to say who, so many generations later, who owns all this stuff.

Jenn:                Well, if anyone objected, I would just take it down.

Sam:                Yeah, I don’t think they’re going to because I think all the people that might get upset about it are dead!

Jenn:                [Laughs.] I shouldn’t laugh.

Sam:                No, it’s just time passes, and I believe if this is interesting to anybody other than me, then it should be shared. … Otherwise, this stuff’s just going to get lost. … My uncle, Rick Savage, and I talk a lot about it because in his generation, he’s kind of the family historian and I’m probably the next person who has any interest in it. He remembers Charles Savage and he remembers Emily and he spent a lot of time with both of them, gathering family history stuff. But at some point, [unless people pass these stories on,] that sort of link to the past would be lost, right? Because I barely knew both of them. I can remember them [from when I was a kid], but not enough to have a detailed conversation about family history or something. … Once you lose those ties, then you don’t have the personal recollection of all of that, and so it’s good to get it out there and for people to talk about it while they still remember the people who wrote it. …

Recollections of Grandfather+Grandmother Emily Phillips Reynolds 1982

For me, I feel lucky. I grew up in this neighborhood where I’ve got so much personal history in my mom’s family, … I didn’t know a lot of it until I was an adult or appreciate it as much. … One of the things that I think about every time I come down past Upper Hadlock Pond is Emily Kenney … in this memoir that she wrote… one time she talks about the fact that she was sick as a kid and her grandparents took her over to Bar Harbor to go to the doctor in the middle of winter, and that was an ordeal back then.

Jenn:                I imagine.

Sam:                I think at the time, they ended up spending the night at Fred Savage’s house on Atlantic Avenue because he had moved over there, remarried. It was kind of a scandal in the family because he divorced his first wife and left Northeast and went over to … Bar Harbor, but obviously whatever rift was there, it must not have been that bad because the grandparents took her to the doctor over there and spent the night. But then on the way back, … there was a [snow drift] at the top of Hadlock that tipped the [sleigh] over. I get the impression it was the first time she realized that her grandparents were mortal, you know what I mean? That they were getting a little bit older. Often when you go up that hill in a snowstorm [even today], … the snow will drift across the road at the southern end of the pond, and that image is really compelling to me …

I had specifically asked Sam if he had photos or records of the Asticou shoreline, so we started chatting about some materials he sent me about the Champlain Society. You may need some background here. The Champlain Society was a group of Harvard students led by Charles Eliot, Jr., who spent summers on Mount Desert Island studying natural history beginning in 1880. We will be learning a lot more about them in our next interview; until then, if you’d like to know more, this article is a good introduction: 

Sam:                If you read the history about the Champlain Society, the first summer they were over [on the Sound], but then they couldn’t secure access to that anymore, so they came over [to Asticou] – I’m pretty sure the first summer they were [at Asticou], which was 1882, they were down where Story Litchfield’s house is. I’m almost positive of it because … if you read the journal and the descriptions of where they are, they talked about being above what was called Savage’s Wharf. … There’s a little boathouse on the shore [now] and then her house up above. Down by the boathouse, there used to be a wharf. They talked a lot about being camped up above that. …

Jenn:                That seems pretty definitive.

“Attached is a picture from around 1927 which shows the boathouse when Savage’s wharf was still there next to the Savage boathouse, as well as Richard Estes’ dock and boathouse (still there). I think the Champlain society camped in 1882 just to the left (west) above the boathouse, roughly where Story Litchfield’s house now is. In the 1880’s the boathouse was not there, but the wharf was.” Photo and caption courtesy of Sam McGee.

Champlain Society camp log, Northeast Harbor, 1884. Photo taken by the Champlain Society, probably 1883. “Camp Asticou and the Harbor from the roof of the new Harbor Cottage.” The Harbor Cottage was built in 1883 and stood in roughly the same place as the current Asticou Inn (which was constructed ca. 1901.) Their tents appear to be down by the Shellheap property. Photo courtesy of the MDI Historical Society.

Sam:                Then the next year, the picture that I sent you that’s taken from the hotel, that was when the hotel had just been built. In 1883, they had just built the … first building, and … it looks like [the Champlain Society] tents are set up where the McIlhenny-Thompson property is, which is a little bit farther down. … It seems to me that they moved around wherever they were able to secure a space for the summer. I think that’s how the whole Eliot family ended up coming up here… . I think originally the father camped out on Calf Island over near Bar Harbor, but then the son came up here with all of his Harvard buddies, and then talked the father into [buying land] in that general vicinity, and … the people over at Coffeepot you talked to are all descended from that family. [Ed.note: that was Coast Walk 17.] …

Sam:                … Did you see the Chebacco for this year? … They reprinted A.C. Savage’s Memoirs of a Lifetime in the [2017 issue]. Rick Savage and I helped Tim Garrity try to identify places that are talked about in the [issue], and we went over to COA early this year and worked with Gordon [Longsworth.] [He’s] a map guru guy over there who’s got this fancy GIS program. He took old maps, overlaid them on newer maps, and helped pinpoint [places]. Rick and I tried to guess as best we could where the log cabin on the east side of Harbor Brook would’ve been and stuff like that. [Ed. note: Where the first Savage family cabin was: see Coast Walk 17 ] … A.C. Savage talks about [a time] when he was a little kid [that] he got sick…. His mother sent him down [to a family living near the current Shellheap property] to do an errand, and on the way back he became so dizzy … that he fell down and passed out. Probably right where the Asticou Dock is [now]. …

Jenn:                Poor kid!  [Ed.note: This was in 1840. A.C. had contracted typhus, which was going through the community. One of his brothers died of it. A.C. writes, “How plain I can remember the day I was taken sick! There was no road on the east side of the harbor at that time, so we had to walk along the edge of the water along the shore at low tide. When the tide was up we went by the wood road above the ledge where the Curtis road now is. The day I was taken sick, mother sent me down by the shore to go to aunt Harriet Pung’s. I went and did the errand and on my way home I became dizzy and fell off what we called “the big rocks” about half way from Pung Head to our wharf. After a time I got up cold and wet, the tide having flowed up around me, my face and head bleeding. However, I got home and was put to bed where I lay for several weeks.”]


Sam:                … When you think about it, so many things could go wrong where somebody could’ve died or drowned because they didn’t know how to swim. It’s like in the Champlain [Society] Journal, there’s one entry in there about how Fred Savage, the architect, he was probably … 15 years old or something, I’m guessing by the timeline. He was swimming down off the wharf and got a charlie horse and almost drowned, but the Champlain Society people saved him. … There’s barely a mention of it in this journal, but then I think to myself, if it weren’t for the Eliot family, he never would have been an architect.

From the Champlain Society Journal 1883, p.75: “While all were busy preparing for dinner, a sudden cry for help caused a rush for the shore. Sam who reached it first found Fred Savage in the water in an exhausted condition, and helped him out on to the float; cramp and inexperience in swimming had put in considerable danger of drowning.” Transcript and scans of the journal courtesy of MDI Historical Society via Maine Memory Network.

Jenn:                Right, and the physical history of the island would be different.

Sam:                Be completely different, yeah. Because it’s not just [saving him from drowning]. It’s also the fact that when [the Savages] started selling off lots and building summer houses for the Eliot family, Fred was working there as a carpenter and a day laborer and he got noticed by Eliot’s son-in-law, Robert Peabody, the architect, as being skilled. That’s how he ended up going down to Boston to be trained as an architect.

Jenn:                He worked at Peabody and Stearns didn’t he?

Sam:                Yes. … What I see [in] my family history is that way back early on, there was an emphasis on [education] – it was worth it to spend money on education. … I think his father would’ve helped parlay that meeting into encouraging Fred, ‘You should go to Boston. Don’t just stay here. You should go down there and get trained.’ Wow, what a big opportunity that was for somebody from very-rural-at-the-time Maine, you know? … yeah, you’re right. It changed the physical landscape of this town and Bar Harbor too, to some extent.

Jenn:                I mean, [Fred Savage] did the … well, it used to be the [Bar Harbor] school, but the town office, right?

Image courtesy of Special Collections, Raymond H. Fogler Library, DigitalCommons@UMaine,

Sam:                Yeah, that was one of his.

Jenn:                And the [Bar Harbor] fire station.

photos from Bryan, Maine Cottages, 2005.

Sam:                That was kind of one of his last things because… post World War I, people weren’t building as many summer homes, and so he started doing industrial projects because that’s what was out there for work.

Jenn:                I’m [thinking] back to your thread of how the Eliots influenced [the island], and … one of the things I’m finding on this walk is the way what happens in one generation has these repercussions that just grow. One of my favorite examples is the Charles Tracy expedition. Tracy was, I think, a New York lawyer, came up here with a big party of people [in 1855] … They were one of the first rusticator parties … . His daughter Fanny married J.P. Morgan and brought Morgan here on their honeymoon, which led to the Morgan Men [summering here] and half of the mansions that were built in Bar Harbor. … One of the Morgan Men was Fabbri, and his son [built] the radio station at Otter Cove, so there’s this crazy connection between these first rusticators in their ox cart and … the submarine station in Otter Cove.

Sam:                Which, if you think about it, [the generational continuity is] amazing: historically uninterrupted by time – because sometimes I think these things happen [in other places] and then three generations later, it goes away, but up here there’s still… well, if you look at Coffeepot [for example, the current owners] have to be seven generations or at least five [from] when the Eliots first came here.

Jenn:                Yeah. … Now you’ve got me thinking about the Eliot family and how they came here: this almost accidental coming-up-to-visit and then these huge repercussions. [Ed. note: So yeah, Eliot Senior goes camping one summer, brings his son the next year; the following year Eliot Junior brings his college friends, then Eliot Senior builds a house, the Eliots’ friends start visiting, and the next thing you know Northeast Harbor is a summer colony, Eliot Senior has helped create Acadia National Park, Robert Peabody has trained Fred Savage, Edward Rand has written The Flora of Mount Desert Island, and Fred Savage has defined the Shingle Style cottage on MDI. Heaven knows what else we’ll find. Stay tuned.] …

We wandered into discussion of non-Coast Walk things, and eventually came back around to demographic changes in Northeast Harbor:

Sam:                I often think, ‘Will my kids stay here at some point in their lives?’ or it might not be possible in terms of economics?

Jenn:                Yeah, but they might come back.

Sam:                They might, but I do think about affordability [and] the whole population of this particular village as part of Mount Desert. Even in the ’80s when I grew up here, I would describe it as peak population, and there were probably three times more year-round people that lived in the village – maybe it was 1,000 year-rounders in the village, and now it’s less than 300. When I was a kid, I can remember riding my bike downtown. You always easily found five or six other kids to play with, and it was a great little village because it’s got all this infrastructure. I think it’s a little different now. The infrastructure’s still there and that school’s still a magnet and the library’s still a magnet, but it’s much more of a commuter village and a commuter school, if you will, where kids get picked up and then they might go off to Somesville where real estate’s more affordable and middle class people can afford to live. It’s not the same as it was 30 years ago when I grew up and … my mom as a teacher could afford to live here. I don’t really think that’s feasible anymore. … But even given all that, I am always surprised at how resilient certain historical trends or family trees or whatever are around here. I think it is unusual compared to other parts of our country, which were historically up until very recently very mobile. I’ve been reading lately that Americans are a little less mobile than they used to be. … With industrial decline in our country, I think people are a little more stagnant than they used to be.

Jenn:                Well, I know for us, it’s a choice. … There was a time when we had to figure out, “Are we going to pursue our careers or are we going to do what it takes to stay here?”

Sam:                Yeah, and so you made the latter choice.

Jenn:                Yeah, which is why I’m now a [vacation] rental “mogul”. … That’s where I earn my living mostly. Photography brings in some money, but we certainly don’t live on that.

Sam:                The funny part is I don’t think that’s any different in some ways than the generations before us because they did whatever they had to do to get by.

Jenn:                Oh yeah, your family is classic.

Sam:                I think the whole getting into the hotel business here was an improvisation.

Jenn:                Yeah, and renting out boats at one point. Just whatever people wanted, they supplied. More or less.

Sam:                Because A.C. and Emily Savage, who I think of as the third generation, he was pretty much a schooner captain. I think of him as a glorified truck driver, right?

Jenn:                Yeah, he was coasting, right? [Ed.note: ‘coasting’ was the 19th century term for short-range shipping along the coast.]

Sam:                Yeah, and so he’s just delivering stuff up and down the coast. He might have deforested the hillside here and sold the logs to make money. Then he was in the Civil War, so he got to get out and see the world a little bit… [but] because he was in the Navy, I don’t think he saw much action. He was just patrolling the Potomac River. He came back home and then postwar it’s kind of like, “Well, what do we do now?” The steamship era started. He probably started to see, “My days might be numbered as a schooner captain,” then saw these educated kids coming up from Boston camping out in the field and buying dinner from him up at his house and he thought, “Oh, I’ll turn this into a cottage industry.” That’s how the hotel got built. It seemed like everybody moved out of their big house in the summer, rented it out. Lived wherever they could, … you know, that was just one way that you made money, and I think that’s still true around here to a large extent.

Jenn:                We do that.

Sam:                There’s good and bad I think probably that comes with all that.

Jenn:                Yeah. Well, the good is that you get to stay [on the island] and the bad is, well, it’s a pain in the butt.

Sam:                It’s disruptive, but I suppose your kids learn to be adaptable.

Jenn:                [shrugs] What it takes to stay on an island.

Photo courtesy of Sam McGee: “My mother, Marcia Savage, and my Uncle, John Savage on the front steps of the Red House around 1955, just after it was built.”

Jenn:                When you were growing up here, where did you live?

Sam:                I lived in the red house right down the road there apiece that my cousin Tom now lives in. It’s funny, I think about how many people lived there and originally, I think it was a little bit temporary in intention.

Jenn:                The house?

Photo courtesy of Sam McGee: “A picture of the barn in the 1930’s after it was moved from south of Cranberry Lodge, north to where the Red House now is.”

Sam:                Yeah. At one point, where that red house is, there was a huge barn that was there and the barn actually used to sit next to where Cranberry Lodge is, but apparently after the Asticou Inn burned in 1900, my grandfather’s grandfather was so worried that the barn might ever catch on fire that they moved it. The building is huge. I’ve got pictures of it. I can show you. I’ve got a picture here in the other room. This is only half of it.

Jenn:                Oh, wow.

“Left to Right: little girl: Mary “Mame” Savage on her mother’s lap (my great Aunt). I live in what was her house. Emily Nicholson Savage (my great-grandmother), John Chase Savage (my great-grandfather) – the horse he is holding … was named Jill, Richard “Dick” Savage (my maternal grandfather), John Nicholson Savage (great uncle), Samuel Savage (great uncle), hired hand, Harry Merchant. The barn to the left in the picture was moved from South of present day Cranberry Lodge to the northwest in Asticou Way to where my cousin Tom’s house now is.” Photo courtesy of Sam McGee.

Sam:                This is sitting kind of where the red house is now. That’s my grandfather. Those are his two older siblings, these are my great grandparents, and this is my Aunt Mame who owned this house. This picture was probably taken in 1911. When the horse and buggy era declined, and my great grandparents both died late ’30s, early 1940s, my grandfather and his brother and my aunt inherited the barn, and they kind of turned it into a storage garage for the taxi business. … They were school teachers in the winter and they had a chauffeur service in the summer, and in those days, people would come to the hotel and spend the whole summer there, and it was very formal. They’d have these Irish Catholic guys dressed up in black suits that were their chauffeurs, and so my family started giving summer lodging to the chauffeur people in various buildings around the neighborhood, storing the cars, taking care of them, all that, and so at some point, my grandfather got the idea of, “Well, I’m going to tear the barn down and we’re going to build a garage.” So they did, they tore the barn down and they used the leftover parts from the barn and built this really long garage to store all the cars in.

Jenn:                I think I’ve seen pictures of that. Oh, you know, your article, … “They should’ve built the houses on wheels?” I loved that.

Sam:                I talked about it a little bit in there. Then after the Bar Harbor fire, I think one of the places that survived was this mansion called the Stotesbury estate, which sat right where the ferry terminal is now.

Sam:                The Stotesbury Estate was so big that when they tore it down and sold off all the pieces of it, they actually had to have a magazine printed for when people came to bid on all the stuff. My grandfather used to brag that he spent $1,500 building the red house because he built it out of spare parts from the Stotesbury estate – he bought flooring, he bought windows, and the house has these big, really thick doors in it. He dragged my uncles over there and had them tear apart this junk and bring it over here, and they built that red house, and so that was the house my mom grew up in with her brothers, and then later on we moved into it when I was a kid. Now my cousin Tom lives there. I think my grandfather had always intended it to be somewhat temporary in nature – at the time both my grandparents were schoolteachers. They’d go to California in the winter and teach school out there, then drive across country every summer, come back here, and run the taxi business.

Jenn:                That sounds exhausting.

Sam:                It does. I think at a certain point they got tired of it. They did that for five or six years, and I think my grandfather at the time was probably reaching middle age and tired of hauling three kids out to California, teaching, and then coming back, so they originally built the red house as a place to stay in the summer when they ran the taxi business, but then it became their home. Then later on in life, my grandparents built the house down on the shore where Story Litchfield lives now and moved out, and that’s when ultimately we moved into the red house when I was a kid. It’s funny to me to think of this house that I think was sort of done in a very haphazard fashion has seen a lot of families come and go through it. … I get a kick out of it.

Jenn:                Is it kind of like every generation winterizes or puts a foundation under it or something? Like you did with this place?

Sam:                The red house does not have a great foundation under it, but it is winterized. … When we moved into it, my mom did renovate it quite a bit, and my sister used it as a summer rental for quite a while because she doesn’t live up here, and then my cousin Tom bought it from my sister. It is nice that it’s in the family and that there’s kids down the road. I like that.

Jenn:                Was there a neighborhood of people up here or was it all family?

Sam:                Mostly family, at least through my childhood. It’s becoming more and more seasonal as time goes on, this particular little neighborhood back in here, but it was all family at one time. The original property was 105 acres that went roughly down to the Asticou dock [and] all the way up over the hill. Do you know where the cemetery is up on the top of the hill? Well, if you go in the driveway right before Brown Mountain Gatehouse, it’s called Gatehouse Hill Road and you drive straight up, there’s a cemetery at the top of the hill. It’s mostly a community cemetery for people in Mount Desert, but technically it’s still a private cemetery that was created under a deed of trust by my great-great grandparents, and my uncle’s the successor trustee of it right now. Joseph Curtis was the one who laid out the plan for the cemetery. [Ed note: Curtis’ name may sound familiar – he built the terraces and lodge at Thuya Garden and donated the property to the town.] It’s got his name all over it because he was a civil engineer by training and did a lot of public projects down in Boston. … He would have been a rough contemporary with my great-great grandfather. They were both in the Civil War. They probably shared that common history with one another, and he was really, if not the first, then the second summer person to come up here besides the Eliots, and so my family sold land off to the Eliots and to Curtis and built some of the first summer houses for them. That’s another way they supplemented their income was selling off lots that used to be wood lots or whatever. Anyway, so the family property extended all the way up to where that cemetery was. My Uncle Rick still lives next to the cemetery. … When I was a kid, my mom’s younger brother John and his wife Diana lived up the hill from here, and they operated a riding stable.

Jenn:                Seriously? Cool.

Sam:                They taught kids English riding …, and they used to cater to all the summer people. As a kid, what I remember is that they had that operation going on up there. There were always summer people coming back and forth on this road dropping their kids off for riding lessons, and when we were kids, we all learned how to ride horses and kind of had the run of the neighborhood around here because it was still largely mostly in the family. My uncle always liked animals, so in addition to the horses, there were chickens or sometimes they had pigs up there.

Jenn:                It sounds awesome.

Sam:                It was fun. It was a great way to grow up … . A lot of times, you were doing chores to help out, but you got to play all these places. I have a sister who I grew up with and my Uncle John and Diana had two daughters … Melissa’s a year older than I am and was in Jen’s class [Sam’s wife], and my cousin Bethany is two years younger than I am. Those were contemporaries, and then my Uncle Rick had two children who lived next door in the gray house when you turn the corner in here. I have a cousin, Laura, who’s my age, and a cousin, Tom, who lives in the red house now who’s about four years younger than I am. We all grew up as six cousins with an age span apart of eight years maximum, and so we all played together. … Lots of shenanigans over in the Azalea Garden that I probably shouldn’t talk about. It was fun. It was a great, great way to grow up. We were always building forts and ice-skating.

Jenn:                Yeah, I ran with a pack of kids like that too.

Left to right: Tom Savage, Sam McGee, and Laura Savage skating on the pond at the Azalea Garden circa 1982.

Sam:                We used to go fishing over in the pond. It was a little bit less formal than it is now. Subsequent generations, these properties got sold out of the family and I think my cousin Tom and I are in a way the last holdouts…The dynamic of the neighborhood’s changed a little bit. … Then my other neighbors growing up were Charles and Katharine Savage. [Ed.note: Charles Savage designed the original Asticou Azalea Garden and the gardens at Thuya. He and Katharine also ran the Asticou Inn for about 30 years.] I don’t remember Charles as much because died in ’79, but Katharine lived to be 92 or 93 or something … so I knew her pretty well and as a kid growing up, she used to hire me to do chores like mow the lawn or help clean her basement out. I can remember going down there and Charles’ whole shop was set up in the basement where there were some unfinished carvings that he had done and he had a whole photography studio down there. He was a big stamp collector. I have some of his stamps that Katharine gave me over the years and old letters from the hotel and stuff like that.

Jenn:                Oh, cool!

Sam:                As a kid, I was always fascinated by all that stuff and maybe more interested than my contemporaries in it, but it was great, having her. She was a little bit formal as a person, but she and her husband ran that hotel single handedly for decades. Basically from the ’30s until the ’60s. It was pretty much all extended family in the neighborhood up through the ’80s, I would say. Things started getting sold off in the ’90s, some of it as a result of divorces and some of it as a result of demographic shifts and it being less and less affordable and more people buying places to be a summer residence.

Jenn:                Does it feel like a community in the summer when people are in residence? …

Sam:                Yeah, that’s a good question. In some ways, yeah, because the people that bought Katharine and Charles’ house – the house had fallen into decline and I thought somebody’d buy it and tear it down, honestly – but an architect bought it and he saved it – they’ve been great neighbors. … They come up in the spring and they go to North Carolina in the winter, so yeah, to some extent it definitely gets a little bit more active in the summer. … Then there’s of course the whole hotel operation, which seems to still muddle along.

Jenn:                Who should I talk to over there? Who would have the good stories?

Sam:                I don’t know because I think a lot of the people that had long history there have either moved on or died, honestly. It’s kind of this consortium of summer people that are … the shareholders in the hotel, and in recent years, they just hired the Acadia Corp to run the operation. I think Sue Kropf might be one of the people who’s in charge over there. You may want to chat with her a little bit. … I think it’s largely a board of mostly summer people that aren’t super involved with the day to day of it. They may have some history with it, but … it may be that the shareholder of today is a child or a grandchild of a shareholder of yesterday who helped save the hotel … [when it] was struggling financially in the early ’60s. … I think Charles got a little distracted with the projects up at Thuya and Azalea – they were passion projects for him – and even though he had the support of Rockefeller, I know he put a lot of his own time and money into it too. There was also a huge hotel downtown called the Kimball House that the Kimball family owned … . [You should talk to] Alex Kimball, who’s Danny’s son. I think what ended up happening is this corporation formed of summer people that cared about it, plus members of the Kimball family, and they decided, ‘well, we’re going to be able to save the Asticou Inn, but Kimball House has got to go,’ and they tore it down. It was one of these big grand dame hotels just like the Asticou.

Jenn:                That’s so sad.

Sam:                … I think a lot of things changed post-war. How tourism was done changed. People came up by automobile. There was more of the middle class that might come post-Bar-Harbor-fire and stay at a motor hotel, and that was the way that you traveled, right? Even over here, summer people either built their own places or they didn’t stay at the hotel for a month [anymore] like they did a generation before, so a lot of these ancillary services started to fall off. Eventually my grandfather didn’t do the taxi business anymore and didn’t store as many people’s cars and definitely wasn’t housing … chauffeurs wearing black tie, you know? … [The hotel] used to be very formal – Charles didn’t allow alcohol over there.

Jenn:                Really?

Sam:                That would’ve been verboten. … The fact that they serve alcohol over there now, he’d probably be rolling over in his grave about it. …

Another digression, and then we started talking about the path that used to run from the Asticou Landing to Seal Harbor.

Path to Seal Harbor from Asticou Landing, ca.1940-1950. Photo courtesy of Sam McGee.

Sam:                One of the things you might notice when you’re down there is that if you take that sidewalk that goes down to the Asticou dock, the path used to keep going.

Jenn:                Yeah, Rodney was telling me about that.

Sam:                You can see some remnants of it when you’re down there. I’m sure you’ll notice it, but my mom told me … when she was a teenager still that there used to be this series of sidewalks that went all the way to Seal Harbor from here. I think some of them went up across people’s properties and that there were little wooden bridges here and there.

Jenn:                Oh, what fun!

Sam:                They widened the road at some point – I think it was either the late ’50s or early ’60s that that happened – and so a lot of that got wiped out just because there was no room for it, but I think you’re going to see some sort of archeological remnants, if you will, of that path. Especially down by the Thompson’s property and all the way to the dock. That’s worth checking out. I think … you’ll see little pieces of where they fenced it off, kind of like they did up at the terraces. It’s cool to think about the fact that it was a little bit safer to get there than it is now. … Mom told me that when she would babysit for summer kids over at the Seaside Inn that she could ride her bicycle from here to there on the sidewalk.

Jenn:                If only we could still do that.

Sam:                … Apparently over near Harbor Brook, there used to be a campground.

Jenn:                Really?

Sam:                Yeah. As you’re going up the hill, before you get to the parking lot, the upper parking lot for Little Long Pond, some of that property on the left I think was at one point a commercial campground.

Jenn:                You’re kidding.

Sam:                For a very short period of time. Probably in the ’40s and ’50s. You don’t think about [recording] this stuff, and there’s certain periods … when things just aren’t that well documented, you know? Some of it’s overwhelming. There’s plenty of [documentation for some things], but there are other periods where people probably didn’t think it was going to last or it wasn’t that important to document things.

Jenn:                Yeah. You need to write down your childhood memories of growing up here.

Sam:                I plan to at some point, but I’m not quite there yet.

Jenn:                Well, it’d be really neat to see the different generations’ memories of the same place.

Sam:                Yeah, absolutely.

Jenn:                My mom’s an immigrant, and on my father’s side, his father came to this country from Ireland, and [Dad’s] mother was born here, but his grandparents weren’t. We’re all pretty recent, so I’m just fascinated by this history of people who have stayed in one place. …

Sam:                I think that’s more normal for a lot of people than staying in one place. For sure. I often think about it – at some point, some people in my family, in my mom’s family, were immigrants too. As I understand it, the John Savage who first came here and settled at Harbor Brook was a Protestant Scottish immigrant. I think in his lifetime, the choice was, “I can either basically stay an indentured servant or I can, as a 14 year old, jump on this boat and go to America and take my chances,” … Things must have been pretty extreme for you to [take that risk] … Or you must have thought that the opportunity was so great that even at that young age, you decided, ‘I’m out of here.’ Right?

Jenn:                Yeah, my grandfather came over at 18 for the same reason. …

Sam:                I think that my great-grandmother, who married into the Savage family on my mom’s side, she was a first generation American, an Irish immigrant in Philadelphia who came up here and worked for their summer lady who stayed at the hotel, and that’s how she met my great-grandfather.

Jenn:                Oh, that’s so romantic!

Sam:                Yeah, so a lot of these people were imports of one kind or another.

Jenn:                Well, you need us for the gene pool, right?

Sam:                Right. Somehow, I’m related through marriage to Dan Falt. There’s this whole line of Falts who are really from Nova Scotia that came down here and worked. They were immigrants that worked at the hotel, and some of them ended up staying and marrying into the family. …

Jenn:                I just hope our kids can manage to stay.

Sam:                Yeah, that’s what I think about a lot. I hope if it was something that they wanted to do, that it could be an option for them. …

Jenn:                Yeah. I think they need to go away first.

Sam:                Oh, yeah.

Jenn:                Then come back.

Sam:                I think that’s a really good thing to do. I did it. I was gone for a while, and I think it’s a great way to get some perspective on things.

Jenn:                Yeah. That’s what Brian did. He went away, found a wife, brought me back.

Sam:                Yeah, I joke [about that] with some of my island friends that I grew up with . My friend Chris Dorr, who grew up in Bar Harbor, he’s like, “Yeah, the pull of the mothership is pretty strong.” He’s so right about that.

Jenn:                We were fine traveling around for years and then it was like, “We should probably have kids sometime soon,” and bam, back on the island.

Sam:                You know, that can definitely be a driving force. I know for us, we would come up here in the summers and at the time we were renting this place out just to pay for it, and at one point you’re like, “Wow. Seems like the school system’s great.” … We thought that it’d be a really cool place for the kids to grow up and experience something a little different.

Jenn:                It is an awesome place to be a kid. It’s also, I have to say, a good place to be a parent. There’s a really strong community. …

Sam:                Yeah, definitely.

Sam:                I’m a little bit of a map collector … You’ve probably seen this map before, but I love this one.

Jenn:                Oh, is this the 1807?

Sam:                Yeah, it’s a copy of the Peters map.

Jenn:                Oh, fantastic. I’ve only seen tiny reproductions of it. …

Sam:                This is that French line that they talk about that divides the title to the eastern side of the island separate from the western side.

Jenn:                Yeah, this is all De Gregoire, right? [Ed.note: Louis XIV granted ownership of MDI to Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, an officer of his army, in 1688. In 1787, the newly-formed USA confirmed the grant to his granddaughter, Marie Therese de la Mothe Cadillac de Gregoire. Her name survives in a Hulls Cove neighborhood and street, where it is usually spelled DeGregoire or Degregoire.]

Sam:                Yeah, you would’ve had to get your title from de Gregoire ultimately if you were over here.

Jenn:                Well, I thought, wasn’t this English down here? No?

Sam:                No. What happened I think is that de Gregoires had it, and at first, you might have gotten your lot from them and the Manchester side of the family. The deeds go right from the de Gregoires to them, the early ones, but the later settlers, there was this rich guy named William Bingham that bought out all of the de Gregoire.

Jenn:                That’s who I’m thinking of.

Sam:                Once you needed clear title, you had to go buy your deed from Bingham’s estate. It took me forever to find the deed to this property. … I searched the Hancock County registry. I had a file here at the house that my mom had, and I could get the chain of title back to just before 1900 … I’ve been told informally that it was around 1818 that the second generation of Savage and his brother-in-law, William Roberts, who came from Seal Harbor, bought this property … . The problem was that they had the deed, but they didn’t record it for another 20 years.

Jenn:                Oh gosh.

Sam:                It was like hunting for a needle in a haystack. I finally found it – those early deeds are handwritten, so they’re not indexed very well. It’s not like you could ‘control-find’ a person’s name because it’s done in penmanship.

Jenn:                Where did you finally find it?

Sam:                There’s some guy that did a website where he researched all these lots and found the deeds []  …, and he did all the Salem lots over in Southwest, plus a lot of the stuff on here, and I finally found it [there.] It just didn’t get recorded until the 1840s.

Jenn:    Wow. It’s so cool going back through the original documents. … My favorite map on the whole island is that enormous hand-drawn one in the basement of the library. … I can stare at that for hours because it has so many personal notations on it.

Sam:                Yeah, that’s great. … Sometimes I use these to help me figure out timelines if I’m reading something.

Jenn:                Yes! Because so many things that you read, they’re like, “We were near so-and-so’s property,” or “This was located just above so-and-so’s house,” and you’re like, “Okay, so we’re in 1872, which means the so-and-sos lived there” [and you get your bearings.] …

Sam:                … My second cousin, … Charles’ son, Ken, just passed away, but Ken had this original oil painting in his house, and so to give you an idea, this is where the hotel is now. That’s Cranberry Lodge, and this is my house when it was attached to Cranberry.

Jenn:                Oh my goodness.

Sam:                This was done from memory by a son-in-law who was a doctor down in Portland, but you can see how denuded the hillside was back then.

Jenn:                Yeah. It’s not even recognizable [as] the same place. …

Sam:                I am trying to digitize a lot of this stuff before it gets lost, but I’ve got a file cabinet down in the basement. It’s just full of stuff. I even have my aunt’s slides who lived here. I haven’t even gotten there yet.

We poked around in Sam’s collection of photos but it was time for me to go, so we agreed that I would have to come back and we’d spend some time going through his archives. I think we could have talked local history for hours.

Jenn:                Well, thank you so much for taking all this time to talk with me!




Baldwin, Letitia. Asticou Azalea Garden. Mount Desert Land & Garden Preserve, 2008.

Baldwin, Letitia. Thuya Garden: Asticou Terraces & Thuya Lodge. Mount Desert Land & Garden Preserve, 2008.

Brown, Margaret and Vekasi, Jim. Pathmakers: Cultural Landscape Report for the Historic Hiking Trail System of Mount Desert Island. Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation/National Park Service, Boston, 2006.   [Full text available here:]

Bryan, John M. Maine Cottages – Fred L. Savage and the Architecture of Mount Desert. Princeton Architectural Press, 2005.

Champlain Society Camp Asticou Log, Northeast Harbor, 1882. Handwritten MS in the collection of the MDI Historical Society.  Scan and transcription here:

Champlain Society camp log, Northeast Harbor, 1884. Handwritten MS in the collection of the MDI Historical Society.  Scan and transcription here:

“Historical records: early island ownership,” Bar Harbor Times, April 1917, republished on the Bar Harbor Times website, April 16, 2017. Accessed January 24, 2018.

“La Mothe – Marie Therese (La Mothe) Cadillac de Gregoire (1733 – 1811),” Southwest Harbor Public Library Digital Archive, accessed January 24, 2018, Item 14491

McGee, Samuel Savage. “The Savage Family of Mount Desert,” Mount Desert Island: Shaped by Nature. Maine Memory Network, no date. Date accessed: January 24, 2018.

McGee, Samuel Savage. “They Should Have Constructed Their Buildings on Wheels,” Mount Desert Island: Shaped by Nature. Maine Memory Network, April 2013. Date accessed: October 9, 2017.

Phillips, Cora Savage. Early History and and Personal Recollections of Northeast Harbor. Undated typewritten manuscript. Location of original unknown; scanned pdf provided by Sam McGee.

Reynolds, Emily Phillips. Recollections of Grandfather and Grandmother and their Family. Typewritten manuscript, 1982. Location of original unknown; scanned pdf provided by Sam McGee.

Reynolds, Emily Phillips, Down Memory Lane. Bacon Printing Company, Bangor, Maine, 1966.

Savage, A.C. Memories of a Lifetime. Undated typewritten manuscript. Location of original unknown; scanned pdf provided by Sam McGee. Published in  Chebacco 2017.

Savage, Charles K. Asticou Terraces Trust: Report of the Trustee 1937-1965. Typewritten manuscript with tipped-in watercolor illustrations and photographs, 1966. Original in the Northeast Harbor Public Library.

Tracy, Charles. The Tracy Log Book, 1855. Bar Harbor, Acadia Publishing Company, 1997. [Full text available here]






One thought on “Interview: Sam McGee – the Village of Asticou and the Savage family

  1. Pingback: Interview: Maureen Fournier – the Champlain Society – The Coast Walk Project

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