This photo of Baker Island was taken by Lyle Stepanek in 1943. PHOTO COURTESY OF NANCY ROSBURG

Summer resident pens Baker book



By Rachel Taylor

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BAR HARBOR — Baker Island in the Cranberry Isles is the subject of a new book by Cornelia Cesari. The Jesup Memorial Library will host a book launch party for Cesari’s book on Wednesday, June 20, at 6:30 p.m. A reception at 6:30 p.m. will be followed by an author talk at 7 p.m.

Cornelia Cesari. PHOTO COURTESY OF CORNELIA CESARI

Baker Island, a mostly uninhabited, rockbound isle, is home to the greater area’s first lighthouse, completed in 1828. Its first settlers, William and Hannah Gilley, “simply took possession of” Baker, the namesake of which is not known.

The Gilleys raised their 12 children — six boys and six girls — on the island, the shoals and sand bar of which were dubbed a “ship trap” by mariners. Their granddaughter Phoebe Jane Gilley Stanley, who died at age 87 in 1929, never left the island during the last 36 years of her life.

Part of the Cranberry Isles, a town composed of five islands, Baker now falls partly within Acadia National Park.

Cesari owns one of the two private homes on the island. A former teacher and current painter and writer, Cesari said her inspiration to write “Baker Island” sprang from her search for such a book, which didn’t exist.

Growing up in Wayland, Mass., Cesari’s family vacationed at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Echo Lake Camp in the town of Mount Desert during the 1970s. The camp hired a vessel to take guests out to Baker every Wednesday. The group would hike across the island and have a picnic.

IMAGE COURTESY OF CORNELIA CESARI

“We would leave the group and wander around the island in a dream state,” Cesari said.

In her mind then, she pictured other little girls who had been on the island before her.

“I snuck into the keeper’s house, and I remembered a pink room upstairs,” she said. “That really sparked my imagination, and I wrote stories as a child about the keeper’s daughter in the pink room. Years later, when I saw that pink room again, I nearly cried.”

Visiting the island for the first time, Cesari’s late mother, Elizabeth Cushing Kolm, instantly fell in love with Baker’s serenity. There was no electricity or running water.

“It was my mother’s sanctuary,” Cesari said. “She was a solitary soul.”

With persistence and being in the right place at the right time, the Kolms were able to buy the one-room island schoolhouse in the 1980s.

The youngest of four girls, Cesari recalls those island summers as idyllic and full of adventure. One time, she fancied a root beer float and ran across the 1-mile bar linking Baker with Little Cranberry Island at low tide.

Cesari hotfooted it to Little Cranberry’s former Islesford store. Needing to get back before the tide came in, she said the storekeeper must have thought she was crazy when she said, “I need a root beer float, and I need it fast!”

Other than on a few perfectly timed full moons a year, it’s impossible to stay dry when walking across.

“It gets a little hairy when you are hip-deep and the current gets going,” she said. “It isn’t to be taken lightly.”

Her favorite memories have been watching her own three children, two sons and a daughter, grow up on Baker.

One year, they tried to make a raft out of only bric-a-brac found on the shore. They didn’t get very far. A photo shows her three kids standing on the raft nearly 3 feet underwater.

The Baker Island Light has had a long line of keepers who kept the beacon burning bright for decades. Joseph Muise and his family were among them.

In November of 1932, Muise’s wife went into labor during a storm. Because he couldn’t leave his duties, he called the Coast Guard, and five men set out to bring her to the mainland. However, the baby would not wait.

“Two miles from Southwest Harbor,” Cesari wrote in her book, “baby Prudence was delivered into the wool peacoats of the surfmen.”

The lighthouse was deactivated in the mid-1950s before being automated and relit in 1958. Now, the 43-foot-tall tower’s solar-powered light still sweeps local waters nightly and serves as a sentinel for mariners.

It also is a powerful draw for visitors who find their way along the grassy path that skirts the lighthouse. Some come in school groups; others on tour boats.

When they go to the island, Cesari and her family sometimes take a private boat, kayak or walk across the bar. On Baker, they live “sparingly,” because there still is no running water or electricity. There is a well, but it tested positive for giardia in the 1990s. They bring drinking water and collect, boil and filter rainwater.

Cesari and her family used to read by candlelight but now rely on solar power to avoid creating a fire hazard.

During the day, Cesari and her family share the island with visitors from all over the map, but at night, they call it their own.

“By late afternoon, it’s quiet, and the deer come back out, and at night it’s just us and the ferries,” she said. “It’s special.”

Sometimes it can feel strange to have so many new faces walking around their home, but Cesari said if she’s not in the mood to be with people, she can just go hide. After decades spent there, she knows all the best hiding spots.

In addition to her personal relationship with Baker, Cesari appreciates how Baker has affected so many other people’s lives. She’s met people who go there every year to celebrate their anniversary, who are celebrating their wedding or are on Baker to spread a loved one’s ashes.

“For such a tiny island, it just has this inordinate value to so many people, and it’s just interesting to think this little 100 acres is so beloved by so many people,” she said. “There’s something magical about it.”

Looking forward, Cesari would like to see attention turned toward the island’s buildings. She said the lighthouse is in desperate need of repair. “Lighthouse Digest” keeps a “Doomsday List” of endangered lighthouses, and she said the lighthouse on Baker is in jeopardy of being placed on it.

But for now, Cesari said she appreciates how many people hold Baker Island dear in their hearts.

“It’s everyone’s special place,” she said. “It’s everybody’s secret.”

 

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