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Archives: When horses were part of the work crew

Winter on Mount Desert Island is a time to catch up and look inward. The Preserve staff shift their energy and focus from the bloom and show of high season summer to caring for the bones and infrastructure of our properties.

Tim Taylor, the now retired Thuya Garden Superintendent started working on the property in his teens. According to Tim, frozen ground, snow cover, and a calm day provided the best opportunity to get equipment deep into the woods on Asticou Hill. Winter was the time to clean up blow downs, cut trees for fence posts and construction projects, and safely burn piles of brush collected in the fall.

Sixty-five years ago, Soldier, a draft horse teamed by Augustus “Gus” Phillips, was the center of winter work to create a place for Thuya Garden in the woods below Eliot Mountain and atop Asticou Hill. Phillips, cousin of the first garden trustee Charles K. Savage and talented carver of the iconic wooden Thuya Garden gates, led Soldier and a small crew of men over two winters to prepare a clearing for the garden beds and axis lawn, reflection pond, and pavilion buildings that became the anchors of what we know today as Thuya Garden. Phillips is shown standing next to Soldier in a photo taken at Thuya, ca 1956.

Safely burning collected brush on snow-covered frozen ground continues as an effective method for maintaining the forested acreage throughout the Preserve. Soldier has long been retired, replaced by motorized equipment with year-round access to all corners of the Preserve. Reportedly, many staff members over the years have enjoyed roasting hot dogs for lunch over the seasonal burn piles – a Preserve tradition on cold winter Fridays! Two men, identified as Thuya’s first head gardener Arthur “Mike” Coombs and Gus Phillips, are shown working a burn pile ca 1956.

These two photos, thought to be taken by Charles Savage, are included in the Preserve archives, courtesy of Tim Taylor. The photos were given to Tim by Katharine Savage after the death of her husband Charles in 1979.

Betsy Hewlett is a former employee of the Preserve and now helps to curate our archives collection.

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