In 1946, Percival Baxter gifted to the city 29.5 acres of wooded land between Stevens Avenue and Forest Avenue. For the last 75 years, the Mayor Baxter Woods property has been a city park. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

Friends of Baxter Woods honored the park’s history last weekend with a 75th anniversary celebration that included a talk by local historian Herb Adams, music by violist Evan Cuddy and a cleanup of the 29.5-acre property.

Forest Home, the home of Portland politician Francis Ormand Smith (1806-1876), was built in 1836 on land that is now Mayor Baxter Woods. Collections of Maine Historical Society, courtesy of vintagemaineimages.com, item #22422

“We didn’t want to miss the opportunity to celebrate, 75 years of anything is such a milestone,” said Marc Lesperance, president of the group, which formed in 2019 to fight leash laws on the property and now more broadly works to protect the tradition, history and natural beauty of the park.

Today, Mayor Baxter Woods is a popular place for walks, recreation and educational programming, but prior to becoming a city park 75 years ago, it housed a grand estate for a notable politician, was the site of telegraph experiments by Samuel Morse, was owned by one of the Maine’s most prominent families and was home to the state’s first Braille trail.

In 1882, longtime Portland Mayor James Phinney Baxter purchased the land, which had contained the Forest Home, or Smith Castle, the onetime home of Francis Ormond Smith. The home was built in 1836 and was demolished in 1876. Smith served as a U.S. congressman from 1833-1839. It was during that time he met telegraph inventor Samuel Morse. Adams said Smith invited Morse to Forest Home to work on the telegraph. While on site, Morse laid the first underground telegraph cable.

When Baxter bought the property from Smith, he retained most of it, but smaller pieces are now home to the Stevens Square development (the former St. Joseph’s Convent) and residences on Clinton, James, Florence, Hartley and Percival streets, named in honor of Baxter’s children. Madeline and Mabel streets that abut the nearby Baxter Pines property were also named for Baxter’s children.

When Baxter died in 1921, his son, Gov. Percival Baxter, made the land available for public recreation and it became known as Baxter Bird Sanctuary. The land, Adams said, had trails maintained by the Cumberland County Audubon Society and the Longfellow Garden Club. The three-quarter mile trail system on the property today is managed by Portland Trails.

Gov. Percival Baxter, left, presents the Baxter Woods deed to Portland Mayor Helen Frost and City Manager James Barlow on the steps of Portland City Hall in 1946. Maine Sunday Telegram file photo

A quarter century later, Percival Baxter, then close to 70, gave the land to the city for $1 and it became “Mayor Baxter Woods” in honor of his father. The land was officially dedicated Aug. 16, 1946, the same day he dedicated Baxter Pines, a 16-acre wooded property on Leland Street behind Deering High School’s Memorial Field.

In an April 14, 1946, letter in the Portland Sunday Telegram (now the Maine Sunday Telegram) to then Portland Mayor Helen Frost, Baxter wrote that although he “received numerous offers from those who wished to buy this land, all offers have been refused because I have other plans for this area.”

Those plans were to keep the land open to the public for perpetuity.

“He thought there might be a day when the last forest along Forest Avenue might be the one he named in honor of his beloved father,” Adams said of Percival Baxter.

The deed stipulated the land should be held forever by the city “for the benefit of the people of Portland as a municipal forest and park for public recreational and educational purposes.” The land cannot be developed beyond pedestrian trails and should be kept “in its natural wild state as a sanctuary for birds,” it said.

Close to 100 species of bird have been found in the woods since 2016, with Canada goose, American robin, cedar waxwing, black-capped chickadee and American goldfinch most commonly reported, according to the eBird website. So far this year, 27 species have been spotted.

Historian Herb Adams shares stories about the history of Baxter Woods during a 75th anniversary celebration April 19. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

The deed also states that unless they are decaying, trees should not be removed from the property. The oldest tree on the property dates back to 1807, according to the 2018 Forest and Wildlife Habitat Management Plan for Mayor Baxter Woods, which states “the property is predominantly forested and characterized by old stands of red oak, white oak, white pine, hemlock and other species. With dominant canopy trees 180-200 years in age and untouched in over 100 years of age, the average size and age of the trees is extremely rare. As an example of old oak-pine-hemlock forest Baxter Woods may be without par anywhere in Maine.”

Baxter, who died in 1969 at age 92, was steadfast throughout his life in seeing the property remain as he wished, Adams said. In 1962, Baxter threatened to sue the city when plans emerged to cut into a portion of Mayor Baxter Woods to widen Forest Avenue.

Lesperance said in the 1940s and 1950s, parts of the park were used for programming for Boy Scout, Girl Scout and Campfire Girls groups, but by the 1960s, those groups have moved their operations, and vandalism and disregard for the property increased. According to a September 1960 article in the Portland Evening Express, 100 truckloads of junk, old tin cans and other trash were removed from the park. In 1966, the original bronze dedication plaque was destroyed.

Adams said vandalism continued into the 1970s and 1980s. In 1971, markers on the state’s first Braille trail were destroyed within a few months of being installed by the Deering Lions Club.

Adams said the challenge with a property such as Mayor Baxter Woods is balancing preserving the natural beauty of the park with keeping it open for recreation and programming.

“As our attitude for urban living changes, so has the use of the park,” Adams said. “It’s an urban forest and that presents challenges.”

Lesperance said he feels the Baxter family would largely be proud to see what the park has become over these last 75 years.

“This is such a beautiful place,” he said. “That is why we are fighting for it. The city has been a good steward for the most part.”

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