Dorr biography illuminates a life of service

Book Review

DORR_EPP_CoverZ_Dorr-Down.inddWithout question, Acadia National Park as it is known today would not exist without the tireless work of George Bucknam Dorr. But as his biographer Ron Epp so skillfully reveals in his new book “Creating Acadia National Park, the Biography of George Bucknam Dorr,” much of what we hold dear today on Mount Desert Island, and many of this community’s leading civic institutions, probably would not exist as well – if not for a lifetime of work by Dorr, a genteel Boston Brahmin.

The list of institutions and agencies which he helped found and was involved in from the start is long, and in its entirety, an equally impressive accomplishment. It includes the Hancock County Trustees for Public Reservations, the Wild Gardens of Acadia, the Jesup Library, the Bar Harbor Athletic Fields, the Village Improvement Association, the Building of the Arts, the Bar Harbor Water Company, Kebo Valley Golf Course, the MDI Biological Laboratory, The Jackson Laboratory, the Abbe Museum, the Appalachian Mountain Club Camp, Schoodic and the Acadia Corporation.

As Acadia celebrates its centennial year, it is nigh time for the entire story of Dorr’s life finally to be told. Epp, historian and consultant to producer Ken Burns’ documentary “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” adeptly takes what could be a dry and academic subject and infuses it with life and light. He does so by sharing with us the entire universe of philanthropic and civic-minded personalities that – together with the men who also are considered the park’s cofounders, Charles W. Elliot and John D. Rockefeller Jr. – laid the foundations for one of the most enviable places to live and recreate in the country.

Perhaps most welcome is Epp’s inclusion of not just the summer families, with familiar names such as Stebbins, How, Kennedy and Vanderbilt, and design luminaries such as Fred Savage, Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. and Beatrix Farrand, but also of representatives of the year-round community without whose work Acadia might never have gotten off the ground. They include attorney and later judge Luere Deasy, lawyer Albert Lynam, U.S. Rep. and later judge John A. Peters and early Assistant Superintendent Benjamin Hadley.

So too, does Epp’s narrative weave in the contributions of such notable path finders, trail builders and map makers as Waldron Bates, Herbert Jacques and Edward Rand.

Ron Epp

Ron Epp

Along with covering the at-times seemingly impossible task of stitching together land on MDI and at Schoodic into a single reserve, “Creating Acadia National Park,” also focuses appropriately on what was going in Washington, D.C. Passages dealing with the relationships Dorr held with conservation icons such as Stephen Mather and Horace Albright were especially enlightening.

Epp also provides the political and economic background and does not downplay how the societal paradigm shifts that characterized those times helped shape events.

Sleuthing out details of Dorr’s early family life and motivations was not easy. And though Dorr’s thought processes have in some ways been preserved in the thousands of letters he sent to others, little actual impartial material on Dorr exists. Epp, who spent years working on this book, could locate only one formal interview of Dorr by a journalist. And of course, it focuses on the park, not on him.

Epp’s exhaustive, methodical and impressively thorough research manages to pull the details of this extraordinary life together, from Dorr’s early years growing up among the luminaries of “The Hub,” as early Boston was known, to his studies at Harvard and later into an adult life of privilege, traveling the world, being involved in academia, but never really settling on a career or longing for marriage and a more domestic existence. Particularly engrossing are snippets of Dorr as a regular person when he strayed from the expected arc of the life of someone who would have such a profound impact on conservation and on MDI. Readers will come to know Dorr the man, not only his triumphs and generosity, but also his frailties, his blind spots and ultimately, his humanity.

Passages noting Dorr’s willingness to defy directives from Washington when he became Acadia’s first superintendent also help document his single-minded determination to first do what needed to be done to make the shared vision for the park a reality.

Those wishing for a scholarly telling of the tale of Dorr’s life through his death at age 90 while he was still in office as superintendent will not be disappointed. Epp’s endnotes are voluminous and comprehensive. But space devoted to endnotes does not tell the full story of how deeply researched and masterfully written “Creating Acadia National Park” is. The storyline flows so well and the cast of supporting characters is so well explained, producing a singularly easy-to-read book with its accessible presentation and an unimperious style.

What many lovers of MDI and Acadia know of the park’s founding comes from what Epp respectfully calls Dorr’s own “monograph,” “The Story of Acadia.” Much of what we all know about Dorr often stems from Sargent Collier’s 1964 book “The Triumph of George B. Dorr: Father of Acadia National Park.” At 63 pages, it was a good overview of and proper salute to what Dorr accomplished.

But in just under 400 pages, plus a section of vintage photos, Epp’s “Creating Acadia National Park, The Biography of George Bucknam Dorr” puts the man, the myth and the legends all in stunning perspective. It shares what his drive, his dedication and his spirit meant not just to Acadia but to all of Mount Desert Island as well.

“Creating Acadia National Park, The Biography of George Bucknam Dorr” is published by Friends of Acadia and is available in bookstores and online.


Dorr biographer to speak at Jesup

BAR HARBOR — Ron Epp, author of “Creating Acadia National Park, The Biography of George Bucknam Dorr,” is scheduled to appear at the Jesup Memorial Library on Thursday, April 7, at 6:30 p.m. Friends of Acadia, the publisher of the biography, and the Jesup are cohosting this park centennial event.

Epp is a historian and professor who served as a consultant for the Ken Burns documentary “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” His research over the last two decades into the Massachusetts families that influenced the development of conservation philanthropy has resulted in numerous talks and publications for Acadia National Park, Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations, Mount Desert Island Historical Society and many other organizations.

Books will be on sale that night from Sherman’s Books with a portion of the proceeds being donated to Friends of Acadia and the Jesup. Call 288-4245 or [email protected].

Earl Brechlin

Earl Brechlin

Editor at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander editor Earl Brechlin first discovered Mount Desert Island 35 years ago and never left. The author of seven guide and casual history books, he is a Registered Maine Guide and has served as president of the Maine and New England Press Associations. He and his wife live in Bar Harbor.
Earl Brechlin

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