by Terry Hussey
"The best kept secret in downeast Maine," is the way one resident describes McClellan Park in Milbridge. It features spectacular views of open ocean and the islands. The rocky shoreline provides the perfect place for children to climb or explore the life in a tidepool. It's scenery is as sensational as that of Schoodic Point or Acadia National Park, but there's not traffic and crowds. Les Stanwood was the speaker at the November 12 meeting of the Milbridge Historical Society, telling his audience about the history of the 10.4 acre park on the Wyman Road in town.
McClellan Park was given to the town of Milbridge in 1925 by George B. McClellan, son of the Civil War general. The younger McClellan was a frequent visitor in the area and may have planned to build a house there. He was a lawyer and educator, an alderman and later Mayor of New York City, and even a Representative to Congress for New York. "He had a love for this area, and when he donated it, McClellan stipulated that it be used for a public tenting and picnicking ground," said Stanwood.
"The park just sat there for the next 30 or so years," said Stanwood. "As A boy growing up in Wyman, I had no idea that the town owned land down there." In 1934 there was a terrible fire in Milbridge which burned the whole Wyman peninsula. It burned right through the McClellan land. After the fire, the town had the wood cut and given to needy families, and again the land just sat there.
"In 1959," said Stanwood, the state, through the Washington County Development Authority was seeking some sites to develop for tourism. A total of 40 projects were submitted for funding, and the McClallan land in Milbridge was one of nine selected for development.
"Someone has to start these things," said Stanwood. "Someone has to get a movement started and push for it. We can thank Phil Sawyer for McClellan Park, because he was the one who was most instrumental in working toward the development of this park. He worked with town manager Clarence Buckley, and things began to happen." Sawyer, now deceased, was a Milbridge businessman and selectman. His widow, Madeline, is a founder of the Historical Society.
Stanwood said that the state grant generated $10,000, and all of it was used to develop the park. They constructed the road into the park, 18 picnic sites with tables, and had plans for 18 tenting sites. They erected a 16' x 45' storage building and a water pump that was powered by a propane generator. "It's hard to believe, but that generator is still working today. I don't know why, but it is."
Stanwood showed a newspaper picture taken in 1962 at the dedication of the park. The Masons had a lobster cookout that day and put away 250 pounds of lobster. The newspaper reported that the park had an attendant every Sunday.
For the next 30 years, according to Stanwood, again the park pretty much ran itself. "There were a variety of management schemes, said Stanwood, " but it was loose." He reported that fees collected went from a high of $468 in 1986 to a low of just $13 in 1990. "And there were problems," said Stanwood. "It was going down hill. " There was vandalism. Fires were built all over, and there was graffiti painted on the rocks. "I've been told, " said Stanwood, that there were flower children living there without the benefit of clothes."
Stanwood , a Milbridge native, said that he returned to the area in the mid 1980's after having been gone for 30 years. "I had gone to the University of Maine at Machias in recreation management, and my brother-in-law, Harold West, began talking to me about working in the park."
Stanwood said he approached the selectmen and then-town manager, Jerry Storey. "I told them I was willing to work in the park, collecting fees, picking up trash, and keeping order to the best of my ability. that's pretty much what I did all summer. He said that Storey suggested the town have a Parks Committee, and he thought that people should come to the town office to pay their camping fees.
Stanwood said the parks committee was charged with overseeing the park. "That committee represented a very diverse body of thinking," said Stanwood. "Some wanted to turn it into Coney Island. Some wanted to leave it alone. Some wanted to plant grass and keep out everyone from out of town. And close the park at dark."
"My feeling," said Stanwood, "was that the park should basically stay like it is, but it should generate enough to pay its own way."
Stanwood was working out of town during the summer of 1994. The parks committee operated the park, but with great frustration. "The vandalism was rampant. They put two picnic tables down there, and one lasted less than a week. They burned it for firewood," he said.
In early 1995, I talked with town manager Linda Pagels," said Stanwood. "She was enthusiastic about doing something about the park. We worked with Terry Hussey and got a grant from the Maine Conservation Corps. "
Stanwood explained that the grant paid the salaries for four youth workers to clean up the park. It also paid for 1/3 of the salary for a supervisor. Stanwood was that supervisor. "Believe me, it wasn't earthshaking." The grant also paid for some picks and shovels, pry bars, and safety shoes for the kids.
The students who worked were Stacey Seavey of Indian River, Richie Grant from Columbia Falls, P.J. Rossi from Cherryfield, and Cullin Bell from Milbridge. Seavey attended the program with Stanwood. Now a freshman at UMM, Seavey said she remembered the summer fondly. "I still think about it all the time," she said.
The team worked tirelessly from June until mid August. "It was a busy but fulfilling summer," said Stanwood. "We repaired and repainted the utility building, built handicap ramps, repaired the bathrooms, and cut a lot of bushes. We built fire rugged rings to contain campfires, and we removed graffiti from the rocks. We constructed, painted, and installed signs all over, labeling the facilities and telling people where they could build fires."
"The road seems to grow rocks. Every time there wasn't something else to do, we used prybars and picks to remove rocks. We weren't too mechanized. It took a lot of manual labor.
Stanwood said that the grant required what they called a "monumental project," and for that the team constructed an enormous sign to mark the park's entrance." They used spruce logs to support the sign, and spent several days digging through four feet of marine clay to get them installed.
Campers continued to use the park throughout the period of renovation. "Trash pickup was part of the daily routine," said Stanwood. Camping receipts totaled $770 for the 1995 season. He said that campers who were used to spending the summer there for free were surprised to find that there were park rules and that fees were collected daily. "When they found they couldn't just leave their trash anywhere and that we would be knocking on the door for payment of fees, some left the park. "These were the same campers who had generated three truckloads of trash after their last stay, so we weren't too sorry to see them go."
The just completed summer of 1996 started out slow, according to Stanwood, but picked up later. "We had a lot of visitors, and we've had a lot of compliments," he said. Stanwood visited the park after work each evening to collect fees, and look over the operation.
"Everyone who knows this park loves it," said Stanwood. "We have lots of families, artists, and sightseers. There's an ecology class from Gettysburg College that comes in a couple of times each summer," he said.
"If you monitor a place and take care of it...
"We found that if you monitor a place and take care of it, people will respect it and respond in kind," he said. Receipts for the summer were over $904," said Stanwood.
Stanwood said that there were two remaining problems in the park. Not having an official presence in the park seems to encourage petty vandalism. "Id like to see an attendant in the park next summer," he said. He suggested the possibility of having a college student use it as an internship program or hiring a teacher to work there.
The second problem is the lack of a reliable source of power. The 1962 generator is getting old. "This is just about the only job I ever heard about where you have to jump start the toilet," he said. Stanwood explained that the generator to run the water pump is started with a battery. When the battery died, Stanwood would bring his truck up to the utility building and use jumper cables to start the battery. He would fill all the water reservoirs, then rush to town to get the battery charged before the water ran out.
"Id like to see a better generator. Of course the cat's meow would be to have Bangor Hydro power come in there," said Stanwood.
Stanwood said that he is looking for used picnic tables to recondition for use in the park. He and his summer crew have already renovated five older tables and are hoping to find a few more to fill an obvious need. He said he could paint and replace boards in donated tables and make them usable until there is money to buy new ones. Anyone with a table to donate can call the Milbridge town office at 546-2422.
Stanwood showed the audience a new brochure about McClellan Park, written by students from the Workforce Development Center in Machias. "You will note the name of Nicole Jellison that appears on that pamphlet. What you might not know is that Nicole Jellison is the granddaughter of Phil Sawyer who was so instrumental in getting the park developed.