Forty years of the best job on the Island: An interview with Thuya Lodge docent Helen Townsend
Helen Townsend first saw the Thuya property in the 1960s when she visited the gardens with her new husband Bill. She was subsequently hired by the second Thuya Trustee, Paul Favour, to share the responsibilities of “lodge hostess” with his wife, Billie Favour. Both schoolteachers, Helen and Billie worked several summers at the original Abbe Museum at Sieur de Monts Springs as museum guides. The twosome moved their love of Island history and education to Thuya when Billie’s husband Paul assumed leadership of Thuya Gardens, Lodge, and Asticou Terraces. Starting in late June 1982, Helen worked half of the week and Billie the other days until Labor Day when school started. Thuya Lodge’s calendar was set by the school calendar to accommodate Helen and Billie’s schedules. Helen’s love of Thuya has only continued to grow over the years as she greets guests at the Lodge front door, offers a short background introductory talk, and asks people to sign the guest book.
We recently caught up with Helen prior to celebrating her 40th summer as Thuya Lodge staff. Now retired from elementary school teaching and serving the Preserve with a title of Docent, Helen talked with us about a few highlights from her long tenure at Thuya Lodge.
What has changed in Thuya Lodge since 1982? When I first started there was nothing but a table in the kitchen. Billie and I would rarely take any guests in there because there was nothing to see. There was a large ugly furnace in the kitchen that was later covered with a tall wood structure. When Tim Taylor took over (as superintendent), he brought in the cookstove from his camp and the ice box. Now, the kitchen is one of the favorites of people who tour the Lodge although nothing but the sink and cupboards are original.
We also had to clean the Lodge and now that job belongs to others. There were also the ‘bathroom years’…many years when guests would line up inside the building, waiting to use the tiny bathroom at the back of the building. That is now behind us, thank goodness!
Guests and the garden’s managers have always been more interested in the gardens than the Lodge. That has not changed. But my main interest is Joseph Curtis and his Lodge. My husband and I renewed our marriage vows there on our 25th anniversary and my daughter and grandson love the Lodge as I do. Others say that Thuya is gardens. But, for me it is the Lodge. And that has not changed!
Were tea or refreshments served anytime during your years in the Lodge? One of the earlier Thuya hostesses, Mildred Gilley, was older and sometimes she would come into the Lodge and spend time because she wanted to be there. She may have brought cookies with her. She would usually go upstairs and sit in the library and talk with people. Maybe that is where the story of the Lodge being a “tea house” started. But we have never served food. No tea and cookies.
What are your favorite places in the Lodge? My heart is downstairs. The downstairs furnishings are almost all original Curtis family items from 1928 and exactly the same as they were in 1982 when I came to my job there. I help put them away in the fall and place them where they should be when we open in June. One year someone else put the Lodge away in the fall closing, and it took me almost the entire next summer to find everything and get it back in the right place!
I cannot explain the upstairs – how it used to be in 1928. We do not know exactly what it was like then. We only know that Charles (Savage) made room changes to accommodate a library. I was working when many of the books in that library were removed from the Lodge. It was a very hard time when I saw the booksellers take them away.
Many staff, trustees, and board members have come and gone over the years. What are some of your people memories? Have you taken any celebrities through the Lodge? I have talked with people from all over the world who visit the Lodge! Where else would you meet so many interesting people each summer? I have had relationships with all the gardeners over the years – knowing some better than others of course. The other women who have worked in the Lodge are friends. I feel as though Joseph Curtis is one of the Island’s most important landscape people and telling what we know of his story is a part of me now. He does not get enough credit for his life. We had a visit from Laura Bush when she was First Lady. She came into the Lodge with several friends and signed the guest book. One of the gardeners enforced the no cell phone use policy and asked Mrs. Bush’s Secret Service staff to turn off their cell phones which I thought was very amusing.
Thuya Lodge with its charming warmth and quirky character has captured Helen as her home-away-from-home. In her words,
I never considered not doing this. I do not want to be silly and gushy. But it’s a part of me. To me, it is one of the best places on the earth. People love it. They say, ‘I would like to take your job.’ I tell them that I have the best job on the Island. I do not just say that. I mean it.
Congratulations and thank you for many years of kind and caring stewardship at Thuya Lodge, Helen Townsend!
Betsy Hewlett is a former employee of the Preserve and now helps to curate our archives collection.