Notes on the Background and Early History of Monhegan Associates, Inc.

By Theodore M. Edison

Monhegan Associates, Inc. developed slowly from small beginnings and did not come into being as the result of any sudden inspiration. However, as stated in the organization’s incorporation papers, the primary goal of the project has always been: “To preserve for posterity the natural wild beauty, biotic communities, and desirable natural, artificial, and historic features of the so-called ‘wild-lands’ portions of Monhegan Island, Maine, and its environs, as well as the simple, friendly way of life that has existed on Monhegan as a whole.”

As I, the writer of these notes, had a good deal to do with early developments, I think that some remarks about my own connection with Monhegan and nature preservation may help to present the project’s general background.

At least as long ago as 1908 I started spending summers on Monhegan as a child, and I and other members of my family have fond memories of Monhegan as it was “in the old days.” The beauty and freedom with which I was then surrounded probably had much to do with making me want to help in saving enough samples of wilderness on Monhegan and elsewhere to permit future generations to enjoy what I had known.

The “energy crunch” and problems of pollution control and food and water supply are receiving so much attention today that it’s hard to remember that as recently as the 1950’s such matters were largely ignored. People who tried to slow down the “population explosion” were often treated harshly, and there is still much resistance to their efforts. Unfortunately, ignoring unpleasant problems hasn’t made them go away, and all over the country there seems to be an increasing realization that disaster may result unless reasonable ways can be found to check overexploitation of our natural heritage. Long ago, signs of approaching trouble appeared in various parts of the world, but in the vastness of nature, the signs were little noticed, and the few “prophets of doom” who based warnings upon them were usually not taken very seriously. Furthermore, advertising has helped to imprint the idea that happiness depends on continuous growth, exploitation, and what is called “progress.” The tensions and strife that the jet age has brought to modern life make me think that there is no such dependence, but I see little chance of any voluntary mass return to old-fashioned ways of doing things. Ingrained beliefs are so hard to change that I feel that sales efforts may play just as big a part as actual land acquisitions in determining the ultimate success of nature preservation projects.

Back in 1929, long before there was any thought of creating an organization like Monhegan Associates, Inc., I bought a strip of land that runs across the island (next to the old Underhill property) from the main road to Burnt Head on the north end to Gull Rock on the south. In 1946, I inherited from my aunt, Mary Miller Nichols, an adjoining strip that includes the middle portion of Gull Rock; and later I acquired most of the rest of the wildlands at the southerly end of Monhegan, extending all the way to Lobster Cove. I still own these lands; but I have no intention of developing them, and under my present will they would go to Monhegan Associates, Inc. upon my death. This small portion of Monhegan represents in miniature many of the features found elsewhere on the island, and at first this was the only wildlands portion that I expected to try to preserve. Since it is still possible that some unforeseen catastrophe could force Monhegan Associates, Inc. into bankruptcy, I have tried to avoid putting too many eggs in one basket by continuing to retain this property; and for future safety, I think it may be best for me to turn the property over to The Nature Conservancy, or some other sympathetic organization. Perhaps a cooperative agreement could be worked out that would minimize the chance of any possible conflicts of interest, but so far this idea is only in its formative stage, and I have no definite proposal in mind. Acquisition of land that was subsequently transferred to Monhegan Associates, Inc. began in 1938 with the purchase from George P. Putnam of two lots on the northerly side of Burnt Head; and that purchase initiated me into the almost unbelievable frustrations that can be expected in Monhegan real estate transactions. Mr. Putnam had some land that he wanted to sell, but considerable correspondence with Mr. Putnam and others was required just to get a vague idea of where the land was. After a while, it was found that the land comprised Lots 59 and 60 “as per plan of R. B. Capen C.E. dated December 1891”; but without a copy of the map, that didn’t help too much. Eventually, the land was bought without knowing its exact location, but even after the purchase, several things had to be straightened out through additional correspondence before the deed could be properly recorded. It’s just as well I didn’t spend much time in pinning down lots according to the 1891 plan, because maps found in later searches indicate that initial plans for the “Prospect Hill” development may have covered more land that was available to the developer. Many lots shown in plans dated 1891 and 1893 are eliminated, or shifted to new locations, in a revised plan dated July 22, 1908. For lots with numbers lower than 48, mere reference to a Capen plan of 1891 leaves doubt as to whether the lots are in the Prospect Hill development near Burnt Head or the Surf Side development near Lobster Cove, since Mr. Capen made plans in 1891 for both developments.

During the years 1938 through 1959, all of the lots in the easterly portion of the Prospect Hill development between Burnt Head and White Head were acquired from 23 different owners, and all of these lots were conveyed by me to Monhegan Associates, Inc. by a Single deed dated August 11, 1959 (recorded in Book 555, Page 368, at the Lincoln Registry of Deeds). The paper “streets,” as well as the gaps and overlaps resulting from conflicting surveys, were included by means of a deed obtained from the heirs of George B. Kenniston, the developer; so the conflicts have been resolved by getting the tract back into one ownership.

For several years prior to 1952, pressure of other activities prevented my wife, Ann, and me from getting to Monhegan, but the real estate opportunities that presented themselves when we did return led to thinking about forming an organization that could hold Monhegan wildlands in perpetuity. Most of the old-time Monheganites we knew seemed to favor the idea, but there was also substantial opposition. The opposition was not unexpected, because experience with other nature preservation projects had shown that it is almost impossible to avoid some conflict between the interests of those who go to wild places to escape the complexities and tensions of urban life and the interests of those who may consider the lack of “complexities” an inconvenience. The unusual structure of Monhegan Associates, Inc. was developed in an effort to find a way in which people with such differing interests could work together harmoniously in a spirit of reasonable compromise.

The creation of anything that’s off the beaten path involves the solution of problems, and at first, plans for the new organization were in such a state of flux that nothing definite could be said about them. Furthermore, so much had to be done during brief summer visits, that little time could be devoted to the promotion of better understanding of objectives. Under these circumstances, it isn’t surprising that rumors should lead to fears that an attempt was being made to subject island life to an excessive amount of outside interference. The fact that work on the project remained in the hands of a very small group of people for an initial three-year period did nothing to allay such fears; but it would have been practically impossible to hold all the special meetings required to iron out difficulties and perfect the legal structure if large numbers of people had had to be consulted at every step. Actually, the biggest threat of interference could come from overexploitation of Monhegan by outsiders, and one prime reason for bringing the Associates into being was to prevent overexploitation. Thoughts of turning over any wildlands to a governmental agency were rejected because it was felt that on Monhegan that type of control wouldn’t yield the most satisfactory results.

(Some of our best national parks are suffering from an invasion of too many people, and even the famed Yosemite Valley is experiencing problems that one usually associates with city slums. Despite the best of intentions, “improvements” that attract more visitors tend to be self-defeating, because thousands of people can’t enjoy solitude together)

Isolation has enabled Monhegan to build up a spirit of independence, and if that spirit is to be maintained, local voices should be kept strong. On the other hand, such a unique combination of features is found on Monhegan that the island has more than local importance, and it seems only fair to give at least some recognition to the interests of outsiders. From the possibly biased viewpoint of someone more concerned with nature preservation than exploitation, how can local and national interests be equitably balanced, and who should be given the job of trying to preserve the attractive features of Monhegan? In some sections of the country speculators may acquire land just to strip it of all it has to offer, and in other sections industrial developments, or social experiments, may take precedence; so mere land holding doesn’t necessarily assure an interest in nature preservation. However, on Monhegan, most of the property owners seem to love the island for its beauty and its informal, friendly way of life; and it was judged that no other group had a greater incentive to preserve the island’s best features. Consequently, it was thought that primary voting power could safely be placed in the hands of people (to be known as Full Members) who qualified directly or indirectly through property ownership. To give a secondary voice to outside groups, it was proposed that voting power be extended to a limited number of Representative Members, who would be appointed by specified organizations having at least state-wide status. Since the number of Representative Members could be kept small, it was assumed that normally they would be far outvoted by the Full Members; but their role could be made important by giving them power to veto any drastic departures from the stated aims of the organization. Thus added stability could be gained without recourse to a rigidity that could prevent desirable adaptations to changing conditions.

The experimental character of the organization that was to be launched made it seem likely that some of its features might have to be altered during an initial trial period. Therefore, unconventional provisions were kept out of the corporation’s basic organization papers by transferring to the By-laws the power to set up special structures. Through the use of this device, it was possible to get the corporation under way before a decision had been reached on sources of Representative ·Members; and until the organization “went public” {at its third annual meeting, August 23, 1957}, the By-laws could be changed easily without having to amend papers filed with Maine’s Secretary of State. Prior to opening the corporation to wider membership in 1957, there was no way of knowing whether it would expand or remain small, and it was feared that outside developers might try to get rid of it by gaining domination through the use of legal tricks. A number of membership qualifications were designed to defeat such tricks and to keep membership out of the hands of other people whose interest in Monhegan might be primarily exploitative. And to make the corporation resistant to attack, we tried to see that every legal “I” was properly dotted.

As corporation laws differ from state to state, it was deemed necessary to have the procedures needed to establish Monhegan Associates, Inc. checked by a Maine lawyer, and with the very limited phone service then available on the island, that wasn’t easy. I spent a lot of time in a small telephone closet in the Odoms’ (pre-fire) store collecting notes from conversations with Mr. James Blenn Perkins, Jr.; and sometimes I had to wait in line for more than half an hour just to find out he was in court. During the formative stages, plans were also discussed with the Monheganites who would become the Trustees and Officers of the corporation, as well as with many other people.

At last, on September 4, 1954, the project had advanced far enough to hold a preliminary informal meeting on procedures, and at an evening Organization Meeting on September 8, 1954, Monhegan Associates, Inc. was officially launched. (With the aid of fast mail and a speedy legal printer in New York City, it was possible to supply each of those who attended the September 8 meeting with a printed “Preliminary Proof” of the proposed Certificate of Organization and By-laws, containing revisions telephoned to the printer as late as the morning of September 7!) Some additional revisions were made at the Organization Meeting before adoption of the By-laws, and the Certificate of Organization and original Bylaws were printed in final form on December 10, 1954.)

The names of most of those who worked with me in planning and running the corporation are so well known to every one Who has had a reasonably long association with Monhegan that there is no need to describe their activities here. The list of those who were very helpful is long, and as I don’t want to risk an appearance of ingratitude by missing a deserved reference, I’ll stick pretty well to the data I have at hand and restrict special mention to the following persons who took part in the Organization Meeting:

The original Trustees and Incorporators were: Marion H. Cundy, Virginia L. Davis, Ann O. Edison, Theodore M. Edison, Isabel N. Farrell, Earl S. Field, Mildred J. Meisner, Frank C. Pierce, Teco Slagboom

and the original officers were:

President Theodore M. Edison

Vice-President Sherman M. Stanley

Secretary Ruth S. Nunan

Treasurer Leo J. Meissner

Mrs. Elva Brackett attended the meeting and sealed the certificate as Notary Public, and Mr. Ralph W. Dunbar attended part of the meeting as a guest and informal consultant. During the first three years, so much time was spent on improving the corporation’s legal structure and searching for sources of Representative Members that the Associates entered into few other projects. However, as the result of the sad death on April 4, 1956 of one of our most prominent and generous founders, Mr. Frank C. Pierce, the corporation received through his will a very important interest in the tract of land known as the Starling Estate. Because of that interest, the Associates were consulted when the Monhegan Water Company proposed to install equipment that would draw water from Long Swamp. We didn’t want to block the project, but we worried about the possibility that a pumping station might be placed in Cathedral Woods. We went over the situation with Mr. John L. Collins, who had made the engineering studies, and at a special meeting of the Trustees held June 4, 1956, the Board considered various alternatives and approved the making of exploratory probes as well as several different possible ways in which the Long Swamp water project might be carried out.

At the Annual Meeting of Members held August 24, 1956, Mrs. Rita D. White was elected a Trustee to fill the vacancy left on the Board by the death of Mr. Pierce. On June 23, 1957 (As per vote at Trustees’ meeting of August 24, 1956) The Nature Conservancy and Wildlife Preserves, Inc. finally became the two initial organizations to serve as sources of Representative Members. The initial appointments made by those organizations were: Representing The Nature Conservancy – Dr. Conrad Chapman Dr. Edwin C. Jahn Miss Dorothea Marston Representing Wildlife Preserves, Inc .. – Mr. Robert L. Perkins, Jr. Mr. Richard H. Pough Mr. Richard S. Thorsell

The August 23, 1957 Annual Meetings of Members and Trustees marked the end of the organization’s formative period and the beginning of its more visible participation in the island’s life: the important Fire Prevention and Trails Committees being established at that time. The Treasurer showed that the corporation was entering into its new phase of existence in good financial condition by reporting that as a result of receiving contributions and income from investments, the Associates had, in addition to the land that came from the late Frank Pierce, assets comprising $5,772 worth of Mutual Fund Stock, $5,573.26 worth of Government Bonds, and $2,082.45 in cash; with no liabilities. These notes are not intended to deal with the Associatest’ later history, but a few further comments linked to more recent events may be pertinent.

Attempts to please everybody are almost sure to fail, and when time pressures are severe, rather arbitrary decisions must be made without much consultation with others. However, experience on Monhegan and elsewhere leads me to believe that extensive preliminary consultation can be a big help in assuring long-term success. For example, when the lighthouse keeper’s house came up for sale, a questionnaire (dated September 22, 1959) was sent to all Monhegan residents (not just to Monhegan Associates members) asking if they would like the Associates to acquire this island landmark for use as a museum and/or art gallery. The response was large (71+%) and overwhelmingly favorable, so the Associates bought the property (deed dated August 7,1962), and the museum has blossomed into a great success. I doubt that the museum would have received the nonmember backing that has meant so much to its progress if the Associates had gone ahead without first getting the views of nonmembers on the venture.

Seeming conflicts in interests often disappear when people really get to know each other. Consequently, one approach to harmony is to find at least some projects where there is agreement on objectives and then find ways in which the projects can be advanced on a cooperative basis. A Monhegan project of that kind is fire protection, since practically everybody is anxious to keep fire from ruining the island. Members of the Associates’ committees joined Monhegan Plantation officials in studying the problem, and mutually advantageous arrangements were worked out. Since wildlands are the primary concern of the Associates, the Associates bought equipment especially well adapted to fighting fires in wild areas; but as the equipment could also be used to supplement the Plantation’s other fire apparatus, it was made available to the Plantation and is now housed in the Plantation’s little firehouse.

To enable the fire equipment to be used effectively, it is necessary to keep fire trails open to various remote parts of the island. As building anything like ordinary roads could damage the feeling of wilderness and put the Plantation to considerable expense, the Associates’ Trails Committee has cooperated with the Plantation in maintaining natural appearances while removing just enough obstacles from the fire trails to permit a rugged jeep fire truck to make bumpy emergency runs.

At the moment, I can’t afford to spend much more time on these notes, so further discussion of the Associates’ real estate acquisitions and other subjects will have to be curtailed. However, in connection with real estate, I want to point out that many Monhegan landowners who didn’t make direct gifts of their lands to the Associates, nevertheless supported the project with effective partial gifts by selling their properties for much less than they could reasonably have expected to get by holding them for later development. As a result of a rapid increase in membership, early fears of a take-over by an outside developer were soon replaced by fears that the organization might drown in its own protective red tape. To effect simplifications and other improvements, the By-laws were amended from time to time, and with the culminating changes approved at the August 25, 1972 Annual Meeting, they are believed to be in reasonably satisfactory condition. It is good to see that Monhegan Associates, Inc. seems to be serving a useful purpose, and I hope it will continue to do so. I’m very glad that it’s treated as a real community project, and I wish I could express individual thanks to the many people who have played important parts in the undertaking. When life becomes less hectic, I may prepare additional notes about those people, but under present pressures, I only have time to close these notes With a simple salute to all those who have helped make Monhegan Associates, Inc. prosper.

Theodore M. Edison [5/30/1976]