The Coast Walk Project

Interview: Rick Savage, Asticou

Photo of Harbor Cottage, and business card of A.C.Savage, Proprietor. Photo courtesy of Rick Savage.

Several people I interviewed had told me Rick Savage would be a good person to talk to about the Asticou area and the Savage family, so on November 6, 2017, Rick and I met to talk history. Rick is a seventh-generation member of the Savage family, a charter boat captain, and a marine surveyor. He’s had a few other careers as well, but I’ll let him tell you about that himself!

Rick:     How can I help you?

Jenn:    Well, I’m interested both in the history of the MDI shoreline and also in how people are working on the shoreline now. So I’m doubly interested in talking with you, because of your family history, and because you’re a boat builder and a charter captain.

The Asticou, Rick’s charter boat.
Photo courtesy of Rick Savage

Rick:     I’ve been a boat charter captain for 45 years. I haven’t built any boats since about 2003. I’m also a marine surveyor. A surveyor inspects boats for insurance companies, and financial institutions, and people who are buying boats and things like that. I’ve been doing that for 15 years.

Jenn:    That sounds kind of complicated.

Rick:     You’re required to get educational credits every year, and you have to belong to a professional organization. I’m pleased to belong to the group  – there are only about 20 of us in Maine that are certified to do it. There are other people who do it on their own. 

Jenn:    So you come in when someone’s buying a boat, or when there’s been storm damage or something?

Rick:     I could. Particularly it’s for insurance purposes. Or if somebody goes to the bank, wants to borrow money, and they put the boat up for collateral, the bank would insist on an inspection and survey. Very much like buying a house. … Anyway, getting back to the Savage family, I’m seventh generation. I’m living on Savage property that was passed down to me from my father, and his father, and his grandfather before him. So I feel very fortunate to be here. Mount Desert Island is a wonderful place to live, if you can find a way to make a living.

Jenn:    Tell me about it!

Rick:     I’ve always said that unless you’re in a profession that pays you well, you have to wear a variety of hats. I did the boat building in the winter, and the boat charter business in the summer. I’ve been doing that for a long time.

So, I don’t know where to start. I’ve done a lot of research about island history, particularly Northeast Harbor – mainly because of my family. I first became interested in the bicentennial year, 1976. At the time I had two older relatives, cousins, who were in their 70s and 80s, and they were very pleased that somebody of the younger generation was showing an interest. You can’t mandate that every generation likes genealogy or history. I don’t think [my father’s generation] really knew much about the family history. It was the previous generation that did. I was very fortunate to be the recipient of old papers and family bibles and photographs and letters, that actually meant a lot to me. So I’ve carried on from there.

Jenn:    I saw your article in the 2017 Chebacco. There were some great photos in there!

Rick:     And that was just a short span of time ago. When Tim Garrity [ed.note: director of the MDI Historical Society] asked me to write that, I said, “Nobody’d be interested in that.” You know, my era, it wasn’t that long ago. And he asked me how old I was, and I told him, and he said, “Yeah, you’re old enough.” [Laughs] But it doesn’t seem really possible.

Jenn:    Well the funny thing is, the island has changed so much in the last 30 years we do need to document what it used to be like.

Rick:     It’s since the mid ’80s, the dramatic change that I’ve seen. I grew up here in this village, went to high school here. I was really encouraged to get out and go away to get a job. I went away to college. It was pretty grim around here in the ’60s. Bar Harbor had never recovered from the fire. My parents were schoolteachers, and my father had started a small heating oil business. Northeast Harbor was prosperous in the summer, but there were a lot of people unemployed in the wintertime. So my generation was encouraged to leave. Most of my classmates did, for a spell.  I came back a few years later and wondered what I was going to do, but I’ve never regretted it. I think things were starting to change by the time I came back here.

Jenn:    I encouraged my kids to go away for college. You appreciate the island more when you come back.

Rick:     Well, both of my kids are back here now, and I was really surprised. My son has got a successful tree business, and my daughter and her husband are teachers, and they have a comfortable home. I think they both realize it’s a nice place to live. So, what would you like to know? Would you like to know something about the Savage family?

Jenn:    I want to know everything. [We both laughed.] Are you working on any projects right now that you’re really interested in? Either history or boats.

Rick:     Well, I am actually. I’m writing a story about growing up here. The article in Chebacco was taken from what I’m writing. I have done a number of talks to historical groups and things like that around the island.

“Rick Savage reading a passage from his article “Growing up in Asticou: The Late 1940s to Mid-1960s” recently published in the 2017 CHEBACCO.” Photo by the Mount Desert Island Historical Society

Rick:     I ought to show you this map first. This is a survey map by John Peters, he was a surveyor in Blue Hill, Maine, and he did the eastern half of Mount Desert Island. The island was divided in two originally. The Bernard Tract was the western side and the DeGregoire tract was the eastern side.

You know the original settlers came around 1761, the Someses and Richardsons, and my family came here in 1792. They got kicked out of town.

Jenn:    What!?

Rick:     Yeah, because they didn’t own property. They called you an indigent if you didn’t have land ownership, so my family didn’t come back until 1798. John Savage (the first) bought this tract of land by Harbor Brook and this is where they settled. The east side of Harbor Brook, which is that little stream right there. It’s just off Bear Island.

So the background for John Savage the first – he was born in 1756. Came to America at 14 years of age.

Jenn:    Wow.

Rick:     That’s because when you turned 14 in Scotland, you were considered an adult, and you had to have a means of employment. I’ve been to Glasgow and tried to look up my family genealogy. I was told over there that either you had to be a land owner, or Catholic to have any records. They weren’t either one, and I found no records.

Jenn:    That’s too bad.

He had seven children, and three of the sons stayed in the area, and the daughters married into other families. But my direct ancestor, John Savage (the second), was born in 1801, three years after they came here. So there was John the first, John the second, then A.C. Savage, then A.C. had four sons, one of them was my grandfather, and then my father, and then me, and then my children. When he was 16, John Savage the second and a man named Will Roberts bought these two tracts of land, up here at the head of the harbor: 

detail of Peters, “Plan of the French Grant on Mount Desert,” Northeast Harbor Library

The irony of it is, the direct ancestry always came down to one child, every time. John Savage the first had three sons. One was drowned, one eventually moved out of this area and went to Southwest Harbor. But John Savage the second settled here on the site of the Asticou Inn. This is the earliest depiction of the Asticou Inn area. [The house on the left] is John Savage the second’s farmhouse, it sits right where the hotel sits today. This is the same road location:

Painting of Asticou ca.1860-1870, by John L. Hughes, ca.1880. Image courtesy of the Northeast Harbor Library via Maine Memory Network.

Rick:     John Savage II had seven children – only one son lived to maturity, and that was A.C. Savage. All the other sons died. One was killed in the Civil War before he was married, the other sons died of – they called it consumption, but that was TB – and other diseases. It was a tough time. All the daughters died young, without any families. A.C. Savage was the only survivor out of seven children.

A.C. Savage and his father were partners and they went coasting – shipping up and down the coast – that’s how they made their living. A.C. married Emily Manchester and built his home in 1854: the house that you see there in the painting is the second house, Cranberry Lodge [the house on the right.] This scene didn’t really change for 30 years, until the first Asticou Inn was built in 1883 on that site. A.C. Savage and Emily raised eight children. And my grandfather was John C. Savage, one of the last of the children.

Jenn:    Where are we standing to get this view?

Rick:     We’re standing out in the harbor, looking back. This is an original painting done by a family member. At the time, Mount Desert Island was pretty well populated, although Northeast Harbor and Seal Harbor were not. Bar Harbor, Somesville, and the Southwest Harbor side were populated. Seal Harbor and Northeast were the last areas to be settled on the island.

Jenn:    Do you know why?

Rick:     My theory is that Northeast Harbor wasn’t a very good harbor.

Jenn:    Oh really?

Rick:     Well, today this cove is all filled in. This is where the Harbor Master’s office is, it was all mudflats. All the boating had to be out here in the mouth of the harbor. So it wasn’t a good harbor. And Seal Harbor definitely is not a really good harbor for year round activity.

Hand-drawn “Map of Mount Desert Island,” Colby & Stuart, 1887. Image courtesy of the Northeast Harbor Library

Rick:     There’s a story from the War of 1812, when the family had settled in Little Harbor Brook. There was a British ship called the Tenedos, and it created a little havoc around the island.

Jenn:    That’s the one that was at the Battle of Norwood Cove?

Rick:     It was. And they were anchored off Bear Island. John Savage and his son and son-in-law were trying to take some logs from there up to Somesville, and the British cut the logs loose and kept the men on the Tenedos as prisoners of war until the Battle of Norwood Cove was over, then they released them.

Jenn:    That must have been a pretty rough time to be here.

Rick:     Yes. That brings us up to the Civil War. A.C. Savage was commissioned in the Navy, and he stayed until the end of the war. Then in 1870 he started taking summer boarders at Harbor Cottage. [Ed. note: See the photo at the very top of this post.]

Jenn:    So which one was Harbor Cottage?

Rick:     That’s Cranberry Lodge now.

Jenn:    Oh, okay. So that was the first rusticators?

Rick:     He says they were the first in Northeast Harbor to take rusticators in. Bar Harbor had already been pretty well established then. There was some spill-over I would say, wouldn’t you? Then in 1883, his son Herman built the Rock End Hotel, that’s down near where the Northeast Harbor Fleet is. And 1883 also saw A.C. Savage building the first Asticou Inn.

Jenn:    So the Asticou Inn and the Rock End Hotel were the same year?

Rick:     They were. Herman was a young man, 28. He married a Gilpatrick woman, and that’s how they got the land where the Fleet is. Obviously there was a growing need for hotels in the area. I think the Claremont’s not far behind. I think that was built in 1885.

Jenn:    Seaside House must have been starting about then too.

Rick:     Seaside, I’m not sure when that was built, there were two other hotels in Seal Harbor, built on the village green, and I think it had to be right around that same year. The Roberts family also built a hotel.

“1885? / Left to Right / Asticou Inn / F.L. Savage house, later J.C. Savage / A.C. Savage home.” Photo courtesy of Rick Savage.
“Asticou – about 1895 or earlier – showing the Roberts House, a house known as the Kelly House (stood between the R House and the Asticou Inn.) The John Savage House – The Phillips Cottage, the first Asticou Inn with the old farm house in front of it (later moved and in 1967 used by the Phillips family in summer) The Harbor C – The Morris cottage up the hill. Note the old Savage cemetery (later moved to a newer Forest Hill Cemetery)” [sic] Photo courtesy of Rick Savage.

This is Asticou in about 1890.

Jenn:    Oh, wow! That’s quite the village.

Rick:     It is. Cranberry Lodge is there, this is the Asticou Inn, this is the Roberts House. That’s about where the round houses are today. You know those, down at the hotel?

Jenn:    Yeah, the yurt things. My daughter calls them the mushroom houses.

Rick:     Yeah, they’re not much.  That’s called the Phillips House, she was a daughter of A.C. Savage. That house is still there. The little farmhouse, the other white house, had been moved down in the field, and that’s that building right there. This is Cranberry Lodge, of course the big tall one’s Asticou Inn. So this area had really grown.

Jenn:    So are we standing somewhere close to Asticou Stream over here?

Rick:     Yeah, the brook would run right down here.

“Asticou – about 1885 – repro made 5/27/80 / showing Roberts house – a hotel / the first Asticou Inn 1883-1899 / old store + post office – now home of R Savage II family – 1980 / Fred L. Savage house – Hill Top / Caspar Morris house – still in Morris family / F.I. Phillips house / A.C. Savage house + barn – now Cranberry Lodge / Old homestead of John Savage II built 1820 – still standing as summer home of Don Phillips / Davenport house – later Crofoot – later P. Malicote (1980) / Tyson House now owned by Richard Estes (1980)” Photo courtesy of Rick Savage

Rick:     Okay, that’s an aerial view of Asticou village.

Jenn:    Oh, wow! And what year is this?

Rick:     It had to be pre-1890. So let’s see. That’s the Roberts house. That’s Cranberry Lodge. The Asticou Inn is tucked in between them. This house is still here, that was Major Danforth’s. This house is still here. That’s the brown house where the boy’s dormitory is today. Well, anyway. I’m gonna say, what did I say, about 1885.

Jenn:    And how did they … were they up on one of the mountains to do that?

Rick:     I think they were standing on the road.

Left to right: Roberts House, Kelley House, John Savage House, original Asticou Inn, 1883-1899, A.C.Savage House (now Cranberry Lodge.) Photo courtesy of Rick Savage.

Rick:     That’s a water view. Doesn’t look as busy as this photo, but it’s also about the same time.

Jenn:    That’s very cool. It’s so neat to see the old photos.

Rick:     Yep. Well, if I hadn’t shown an interest in this, years ago, I don’t know what would have happened to these photos, because they belonged to Charles Savage and Emily Phillips.

Photo courtesy of Rick Savage

Jenn:    So this is the town landing before they filled in Fraser Cove?

Photo courtesy of Rick Savage

Rick:     Yes. And this is an aerial view before they filled in Fraser Cove. I’d say this was pre-1950, because it’s before the high school, the school that I call the high school was built.

Jenn:    There’s the Fleet down there!

Photo from Savage, “Growing Up in Asticou” Chebacco, vol.XVIII, 2017, p.82
Photo courtesy of Rick Savage

Rick:     That’s filling in Fraser Cove. Building the wall across it. I remember them filling in the cove.

Jenn:    Oh wow. I can’t imagine trying to get the DEP to approve that now.

Photo courtesy of Rick Savage

Rick:     Yeah, we’ve always said that – this would never happen today. Of course that’s Northeast Harbor before, that’s down at Clifton Dock area.

Photo courtesy of Rick Savage

And this is the dredge itself. You know, back when I was copying these photographs, I didn’t write down who took them, and I don’t even know where the originals are. These are some panoramic views of the harbor. Charles Savage did these. This is pre-dredging era.

Photo courtesy of Rick Savage

Rick:     This was a copy of somebody’s sketch done at the library:

Jenn:    “Before the summer people came.”

Rick:     Yep. So Tom Savage was still over here by Harbor Brook. He would’ve been a cousin to A.C. Savage. And he had a house here. This is where the big Rales Mansion is. Pre-1870 post office. This is the wharf that I keep referencing, the Savage wharf, it’s in front of the Story Litchfield place.  Then Horace Roberts, he had a dock. This is A.C. Savage’s house, and then the little house down in the field before the hotel. Then the post office up here in the corner.

Jenn:    So there are two post offices here?

Rick:     No. They changed them by politics. Pre-1870-75, then they were the wrong persuasion, so then they got moved into town. Right?

Jenn:    Oh, that’s too funny. What is the ‘village gate?’

Rick:     Well, the Smallidges owned all the land, and the Gilpatricks, so they had a gate across here. This was all their land so the cattle wouldn’t get out.

Jenn:    Oh my gosh.

Rick:     Yep. Herman Savage married a Gilpatrick woman, and that’s how he got this property over here, this is where the Northeast Harbor fleet is. Gilpatrick’s Cove. The Rock End Hotel was right on that point. This is the Kimball House. And Kimball Store.

Jenn:    So when you grew up in the area, where did you grow up? Here in the village, or up on the hill?

Rick:     No, down right across the street from the Asticou Inn was a little red house, a single story. My father built that in 1954. They were tearing down the Stotesbury Estate in Bar Harbor.

Jenn:    Oh right, I remember your photos of that in the article.

Rick:     And they hauled the lumber over to Northeast here, my father did, and built that little red house. That’s what they did in those days. Prior to that we lived in a little family house. I was only eight or nine years old when they built that, so I grew up there.

Jenn:    People have told me it was more of a village then. It’s hard to picture.

Rick:     There were five families, an aunt, an uncle, Charles Savage’s family, the Phillips family, they all lived there. The Azalea garden didn’t exist then. Then there was a house on the corner called the Roberts house, and there were families living there.

Jenn:    And was it your Dad who had the garage?

Rick:     My father had a garage, and a taxi business. When I was about 12, he started a small heating oil business.

Jenn:    Was there a dairy or an ice house, something, or stores?

Photo from Savage, “Growing Up in Asticou” Chebacco, vol.XVIII, 2017, p.74

Rick:     There was a gas station there. George Savage, Charles Savage’s brother, he was an architect, he had his office there. Gus Phillips was a map maker and photographer, and he had his studio there. It was a little year-round community. By that time the post office had moved into Northeast Harbor. This was vacant land, woodland, and fields. I graduated from high school, what’s now the elementary school, in 1963, went away to college, to New York City, big change. I was educated to be an automotive engineer and had a job at Chrysler in Detroit when I graduated.

Jenn:    How long were you there?

Rick:     Three weeks.

Jenn:    Seriously! What happened?

Rick:     I quit. I couldn’t stand it. I came back here at the end of August, my parents looked at me and shook their heads, “Now what are you going to do?” I pumped gas for a year, and decided that wasn’t going to be my livelihood, so I went back to college and got a degree in education. I graduated with another BS in industrial arts. I was a shop teacher for a couple of years.

Jenn:    In Northeast?

Rick:     Yeah, on the whole island. Then about 1970 my father wanted to retire from his heating oil business, so I took that over.

Jenn:    How did you end up in boat building?

Rick:     I always liked boats. Even as a kid, I wanted a boat in the worst way. We used to play on the Asticou dock, and we’d rig up sails and boats and stuff like that. I always wanted a boat. My father would never let me have one. He didn’t care if I had cars. I owned a car when I was 15, and I could drive anywhere I wanted to, he didn’t care.

Jenn:    Why was he worried about boats?

Rick:     When I was a little, little kid, he had a boat built in Castine, over in Brooksville, and he had a lot of trouble with it. He always told me he bought a second hand gas tank for the boat, and it was dirty, so the engine would always stall on him. When I was about four years old, they launched this boat, and I was with him, and he was going drive it from Castine Harbor to Northeast Harbor. We were a long time getting in, and my mother was getting quite worried. She called a guy named Ted Bunker on Cranberry Island to see if they’d go look for my father, because I was there, too. And Ted, he said, “Don’t worry, we’ve been watching him for about an hour drifting around out here.”

My father later on told me that he didn’t know how to read a chart or anything, he couldn’t recognize Mount Desert Island, so he cut in by Baker’s Island. Well, there was a bar there, and he had to pull the boat across Baker Island Bar, to get to Northeast Harbor. I think he didn’t have good boating experiences so he didn’t want anything to do with it.

I bought my first boat when I was old enough to afford one, in the early ’70s. In 1974, I got a Coast Guard license, I started taking people out.

Jenn:    Were you teaching industrial arts then?

Rick:     I had quit by then. I only taught for two years. I taught from 1969 to ’71, and from 1971 to ’89 I ran the heating oil business, and I sold it in ’89. Then I went into boat building full time, for myself.

Jenn:    That’s so funny. I keep telling my kids, really, don’t sweat what you’re going to major in, in college, because you’re probably not going to use it, nobody does.

Rick:     My grandson was here last night, and he’s a senior, and he says he’s really worried. I said, “Listen, you have no idea what you want to do, and even if you did, you should try something else anyway.” I think when kids rush off and they build up a huge debt in college and then they get stuck in some mundane cubicle or job, man that’s awful. I couldn’t imagine that.

Jenn:    My mother is the only person I’ve ever met who knew what she wanted to do when she was a little kid. She wanted to be a doctor, and she became a doctor and was happy doctoring.

Rick:     I think that’s wonderful, when people can choose a career and do that, and be happy at it. I look back on my career now, there were a lot of things I would’ve liked to have done. When I went back to college to be an industrial arts teacher, I found out I was a really good woodworker. And that’s how I went into boat building, it just was easy for me. Maybe I could have gone into the real boat building business. I was always a small operator. But I built five boats from new and sold them. Did everything myself. My wife and I built three houses together.

Jenn:    Did you build this one?

Rick:     Yeah.

Jenn:    Wow!

Rick:     Took me five years. We built a house in Somesville first. Built that garage apartment over there, and then immediately started building this one. Then we had another rental house that we built in Asticou. So, yeah, I built them all myself. … My education really prepared me for almost everything I’ve continued to do. I mean, even the automotive thing was beneficial, the mechanical stuff, the engines. Then I went to the University of Southern Maine, I got into woodworking, found out I really liked that, better than the automotive end of it, and found out I had some ability building furniture and stuff like that.

Jenn:    It’s funny the paths you take, isn’t it?

Rick:     Yep. And it worked in with my boat building too, because that’s always a challenge. But it was easy for me, I always figured people should do things that are easy for them, that they enjoy. I guess, actually, if you enjoy your work, you don’t really go to work, do you?

Jenn:    No, you just show up day after day.

Rick:     Well, you know, it’s good. … Getting old enough, I’m thinking I still might like to retire, I haven’t done it yet.  I haven’t built any boats, but I do the marine survey work. I still run my charter boat in the summer.

Jenn:    You still enjoying that?

Rick:     Yeah, I mean, it’s pretty hard not to. Go on picnics and whale watching, stuff like that, and not enjoy it. I have a nice boat that I built. I don’t know if you saw it or not. It’s called Asticou.

Jenn:    I saw the photos on the website. It said you could take 40 people?

Rick:     Yeah, it’s licensed for 49. It’s a big boat.

Jenn     Holy cow, 40 people, that is a big boat. So do you take people out for picnics, or tours, or?

Rick:     Picnics, and whale watching and sightseeing.  All private charters, I don’t sell tickets. I’ve been doing it long enough, so I have quite a following of repeat customers.

Jenn:    Cool. I’m always glad when I meet someone who’s found a way to make a living here that they still enjoy.

Rick:     I’ve been blessed with good health, ownership of this property is a blessing. I feel honored to carry on a family tradition, that the land is still in my ownership. I’m sorry to say that all the other properties have been sold off pretty much. Anyway, that’s the way it goes. I think it’s great when somebody wants to carry on the information. It gets lost, you know.

Jenn:    I guess my hope is that by putting it out on the web, it’s there for everybody.

Rick:     Well, I thank my forebears for passing it on to me, because otherwise I don’t know what would’ve happened to it.

Jenn:    And thank you so much for sharing all this with me!

Rick:     Good luck to you.

___________________________________________________________

WORKS CITED

Savage, Rick, “Growing Up in Asticou: The Late 1940’s to Mid-1960’s,” Chebacco, vol.XVIII, 2017. [https://mdihistory.org/wp-content/uploads/09-Rick-Savage.pdf]

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