Getting the story straight: Joseph Henry Curtis
How do you accurately capture the life and legend of a man who passed away almost 100 years ago and left no direct descendants and few personal records? “You start with what you have and follow the paths it takes you on,” says Rick LeDuc, Garden Manager at Thuya Garden and Asticou Terraces.
Many hours of Rick’s “winter work” over the past 10 years have gone into tracking down the many layers of the life and work of Joseph Henry Curtis (1841-1928), philanthropic creator of Thuya Lodge and the adjoining trails from the Asticou hillside down to the adjacent water’s edge. Rick’s goal is to erase any misconceptions in our records. He says, “If we are telling the story of a person, we should at least try to get it right.”
Much of the Curtis story shared by the Preserve comes from a manuscript written in 1981 by former Thuya Lodge librarian Billie Favour. The casual writings left by Thuya Trustee Charles K. Savage and subsequent contributions from Preserve staff, local residents, visitors, and history buffs have also modeled a Curtis story. From this assortment of notes and recollections, there is a trove of mysteries to pursue.
A research scientist and biologist by training, Rick enjoys digging into data and asking questions. He has sorted through the written lore and oral history amassed over the past decades, noting discrepancies, and creating questions when things do not line up. Then, in his words, he “scratches along.” He has dug into public birth, death, tax and property records, photos, newspaper accounts, professional journals, genealogical sources, and library and archive databases. Much of his work is exhaustive internet searches and then follow up correspondence with the assorted leads that emerge. Piecing together the patchwork of clues into an accurate timeline and story, fact-checked and well-sourced, comes next.
Some more detail about Curtis has been the result. And more questions.
Did Curtis ever actually live in Thuya Lodge, the house standing at the Preserve today? Yes, but likely not from the building’s completion (probably in 1914) until his death in 1928 as we have assumed. We now have property records and some correspondence that indicate that Curtis occupied Random Ridge, the house he completed on Thuya Drive in the 1880s and added on to in 1906, before selling the property in 1916 to the Robbins family. Other records, such as the local Cottage Directory from 1923 through 1927 indicate that he was living in lodging in town in Northeast Harbor. He also owned property there, referred to in records as the “Curtis Cottage on Main Street.” These recently located sources and some other unrelated accounts of the construction of outbuildings behind Thuya Lodge point to Curtis living far less at the Lodge than we thought. In summary, he was there for perhaps six or seven years but not in his final years nor in the almost three decades of summers that he spent in Asticou prior to building the Lodge cottage that we know.
What was Curtis’ social and professional relationship, if any, to Frederick Law Olmsted, scion of American landscape design and Boston neighbor during his lifetime? Scratching along down the information trail, Rick and others have found that Curtis did indeed work alongside Frederick Law Olmsted and the Olmsted Brothers firm that continued after the elder Olmsted’s death in 1903. Several solid resources provide a general account of work that Curtis, landscape engineer, and Olmsted, landscape architect, did together in the Boston area. Olmsted is noted as a consultant to Curtis on a design for the 107-acre grounds and layout of the McLean Hospital (Belmont, MA) over an at least 25-year period beginning in 1872. We now conclude that the Curtis story is not as separate and exclusive from that of Frederick Law Olmsted as we thought. Rick will be continuing down the information trail to determine more about Curtis-Olmsted collaborations and whether Curtis may have been involved in some of Olmsted’s internationally famous public landscape triumphs during his career.
What was the source of Curtis wealth? We have assumed, mostly by conjecture, that Curtis was gentry and a man with ample inherited wealth. Genealogical records show that he was not the same branch of the Curtis family that summered in Camden and were generous benefactors in mid-coast Maine and elsewhere in the Northeast. The extent of his estate, almost entirely left to the Town of Mount Desert, does not indicate that Curtis had the extreme wealth that many of his MDI summer neighbors and Boston contemporaries had during this period.
Our depiction of Curtis as a summer rusticator with accumulated family wealth, dabbling in the land planning profession, is not as accurate as we thought. It appears that Curtis provided income for his family from his landscape work and did not rely solely on inherited wealth, if at all. Rick has documented an array of professional landscape development commissions, correspondence with contractors and vendors for land and development project management, and other work further afield.
His professional portfolio, dating from the 1870s, is extensive. Curtis’ father, noted as a clerk at his death, died when he was an infant and to date, we have found no record of an estate or will. The scant records of his mother and her remarriage also do not point to accumulated family wealth or property. The portrait of Curtis as an accomplished and respected land design and engineering professional, working individually and mostly in Massachusetts and Maine, is now emerging.
More questions are being investigated. For example,
Where, exactly, are the Asticou Hill paths that Curtis designed beyond the existing Terrace? Rick and the Thuya crew have not found much evidence of abandoned paths on the hill although we have some photos that show crude dirt paths in locations where they are not today.
Did Curtis have any part in the founding of Acadia National Park and the work of fellow Bostonian George B. Dorr that was taking place on MDI while he was building and creating his hillside gift to the Town of Mount Desert? Rick suspects not. But we know that he was civically engaged in local committees such as one organized to keep autos out of Mount Desert and another to build sidewalks into Northeast Harbor. Available records of the founders of Acadia and their meetings and activities hold no mention of Curtis. But more research needs to be done to rule out a Curtis connection to the founding of Acadia.
Rick is careful to note that Curtis is not a famous man with a high profile. His personal story is not a public one of an icon, hero, or leader such as his neighbor Charles W. Eliot or younger contemporaries George B. Dorr and John D. Rockefeller Jr. He was not highly acclaimed for creating sensational outdoor public spaces such as the younger MDI resident Beatrix Farrand or older Boston peer Frederick Law Olmsted. Rather, Joseph Curtis was a Boston professional who privately established a public preserve on MDI of approximately 20 acres at the time of his death. He shaped the property with his personal vision for its general future purpose of public use and enjoyment. Curtis’ vision forms the nexus of what we have today at Thuya.
With better information, the Preserve can pay proper respect to an unsung benefactor and his intentions. As time permits, Rick will continue the historical research as an adjunct to his full-time leadership and management role at Thuya. It is a work-in-progress and an untold story. Great work, Rick, and we look forward to hearing more about your history journey.
By Betsy Hewlett. Betsy Hewlett is a former employee of the Preserve and now helps to curate our archives collection.
photo of Rick LeDuc by Katherine Emery Photography