Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.
James Phinney Baxter spent the first half of his life making money and gaining power. He spent the second half spending both for the public good.
Portland has him to thank for both the Western and Eastern Proms, not to mention the boulevard that bears his name. He presented the city with its first public library, too. Along with his wife, Hetty, he produced a son, Percival, who gave Mt. Katahdin to us all.
Baxter was born March 23, 1831, in Gorham, the youngest of six kids. He loved to read and he adored animals. His father, a doctor, moved the family all over the state. The family finally settled in Portland when Baxter was 10 years old.
When he finished school, he tried studying law. It didn’t take. In his early 20s, he paid a private tutor to teach him French, German, Spanish and Latin. Then, he borrowed money from his family and started a wholesale dry goods business. He devised a catalog, decades before L.L. Bean, to help sell his wares.
He married Sarah Kimball Lewis in 1854 and they set about starting a family.
In the early 1860s, canning was a new technology. Seeing the business potential, Baxter got in early and started making his fortune. He opened his first lobster canning operation on Deer Isle in 1862. He soon expanded to corn, tomatoes and beans as well. He sold massive amounts to the Union Army during the Civil War, solidifying his empire.
By the 1870s, his Portland Packing Company operated 21 canning plants — 13 of them in Maine. In 1874, he brought in $750,000 in business. That’s roughly $15 million in today’s money.
But Baxter spent much of his time traveling and rarely saw his family. He had to take care of his far-flung business interests in New York, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and the like. By then, he was a large man with mutton chop whiskers and receding hair. According to friends he “made no pretense to personal magnetism or humor.” He was a wealthy Yankee and he was all business.
In January 1872, his wife died after birthing their seventh child. Later that year, Dolly, his only daughter, tipped over in her high chair. The 4-year-old crashed to the floor, injuring her spine. She lingered for a short while, then died.
At the height of his business success, Baxter’s personal life lay in tatters. He wrote in his journal that life was nearly “unbearable.”
But that all changed when he married Mehitable Cummings Proctor Perkins in 1873. She was the young widow who’d nursed and comforted Dolly before she died. They had three more children together. He bought a big house at 61 Deering St., where they all lived together.
That year, he was 48 years old. He was very wealthy and he took his first vacation. Baxter whisked the whole family away to the White Mountains. He fished. His wife, whom he called Hetty, painted and sketched.
With his family and fortune secure, Baxter set about making his mark in civic life.
He loved Maine history and published a stack of scholarly monographs on the subject. He headed the Maine Historical Society for more than two decades. His son, Percival, would later say his father knew the history of Maine the way most people know the alphabet.
He published and annotated rare historical documents. Some, he translated from French himself.
Reading his historical work now is a little tough. He was definitely a man of his times and possessed the self-assured bluster of a self-made man. Baxter had nothing good to say about Native Americans, calling them savages. He didn’t care for trade unions or most immigrants, either. He venerated only Anglo-Saxon, Protestant pioneers.
Baxter spent time writing poetry, most of it bad. He tried his hand at political satire. He even wrote a 700-page book explaining his theory that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays.
Baxter also took positions on many civic, bank and railroad boards. He helped found the United Way. He also worked with the Portland Society of Art and the Longfellow Association.
But he was just getting started.
In 1889, Baxter gave Portland its first public library building. Before that, the city’s meager collection of books lived in a few shabby rooms at City Hall. His library still stands at 619 Congress St. It now houses the VIA Group. The edifice used to have three, eight-foot statues on the roof. They symbolized history, literature and the arts. Inside, Baxter donated a marble sculpture called “The Dead Pearl Diver.” You can still see it at the Portland Museum of Art.
In 1892, at the age of 61, Baxter became mayor of Portland. He won re-election six times. He was also defeated twice — once by his own Republican Party in a primary.
Under his mayoral leadership, Portland expanded the Western and Eastern Proms. Baxter hired the Olmsted brothers’ design firm on his own dime to create a master plan for city parks. They were the men behind Manhattan’s Central Park. Baxter wanted a ring of green encircling the city. The plan included improving Deering Oaks Park and constructing a new, tree-lined boulevard around Back Cove.
For years, Baxter cajoled landowners around the cove to sell or donate their land. City engineers stabilized the marshy shore and built a gravel walking path. They studded it with ornate bridges and cultivated shrubs. Finally, in 1917, the boulevard opened. Shortly thereafter, the city named it in Baxter’s honor.
Four years later, on May 8, 1921, Baxter died. He was 90 years old. The funeral took place at his house on Deering Street. Buried at Evergreen Cemetery, his pallbearers included the governor of Maine.
That governor was his son, Percival Baxter. Ten years on, the younger Baxter gave Mt. Katahdin to the people of Maine. That kind of generosity was, by then, a family tradition.
Note: If you want to know more about James Phinney and Percival Baxter, find a copy of Neil Rolde’s excellent book “The Baxters of Maine: Downeast Visionaries.” It’s the source for most of what I found out about them.
Another note: I’ve received a message from a reader who is convinced that the Union Army never bought canned goods directly. He says it was merchants, or “sutlers,” who followed the army around who bought the canned stuff. They then sold it to soldiers. This may be true. In either case, Baxter made money selling canned goods in the war that ended up in soldiers’ bellies.
Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.