Baker Island, a remote part of Acadia National Park, occupies a longtime special spot in the lore of the park.
The region’s first lighthouse was constructed on the Acadia island and its first keeper was the head of the self-reliant Gilley family that settled Baker in the early 1800s. Hikers enjoy the island for its mystical views of the Acadia mountains on the horizon on a clear day, unusually large sand bar and reef and paths through grassy fields around the coast. People are attracted by the light tower, an Acadia ranger-narrated boat trip and walking tour of the island from mid-June through early September, and giant slabs of granite on the south shore called the dance floor, once used by smooth-stepping rusticators and recently by at least one local swing group.
Now, Cornelia J. Cesari, whose family has owned one of only two private homes on the Acadia island for more than 30 years, has written the first comprehensive history of the island.
In her book, called “Baker Island,” Cesari writes that the island is “an out-of-worldly experience, a timeless Brigadoon” and a historical hub for fishermen, locals, tourists, summer people, artists, academics, military families and naturalists.
Cesari said she was driven to write the book because the island affects the lives of many people and its complete 200-plus year history was never previously written. Visitors often approach her on Baker Island and tell her how much it means to them, or become rapt when she tells stories about the island, she said.
“I have always felt this book needed to be written,” Cesari said in an interview. “It had to be put together. So many people love Baker Island.”
The island is known largely because of its light tower and the pioneering Gilley family that settled there.
Charles W. Eliot, the youngest ever president of Harvard and a summer resident of Mount Desert Island who helped create the national park, was so fascinated by the island’s history that he wrote what is now called “John Gilley, One of the Forgotten Millions,” a little tome, originally published in 1899, that tells the history of the family that settled the island.
Cesari’s book, part of Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series, expands on Eliot’s research and brings the history up to the moment.
The book is set for release on June 18 and is available for pre-order at the website of Keepers of Baker Island, a private nonprofit group that works with the park to preserve and maintain the island, located a little more than three miles south of Mount Desert Island. Cesari is president of the board of directors of the nonprofit and says books bought on the website will benefit the organization, although the book will also be available at the same price of $21.99 elsewhere, at bookstores and Amazon.com. (NOTE: Please see sidebar about Amazon.com links)
Book explores history of Acadia island, lives of settlers
The book tells the history of Baker Island partly through the experiences of the original settlers, William and Hannah Gilley, who moved to the island around 1806-12 and had 12 children, including nine after arriving on the island; as well as at least 18 keepers of the Baker Island Light Tower, keeper’s house and other structures, which are now on the National Register of Historic Places and was the first light tower built in the region. The original was built in 1828 and later replaced in 1855 by the structure still standing today.
Cesari digs into the lives of many people central to the history of the Acadia island and looks at the present, with the nonprofit she helped create in 2010 at the suggestion of park management. Members of the group provide critical maintenance on the island including cleaning the shoreline, refurbishing the historic cemetery and removing spruce trees to restore historic vistas.
To complete the book, Cesari traveled to Washington and other cities to research archives, worked with historical and lighthouse organizations and interviewed numerous people with special knowledge of the island relatives including descendants of lighthouse keepers, rusticators and teachers on the island.
For example, she interviewed a granddaughter of Annie Longfellow Thorp, a daughter of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who spent summers on nearby Greening Island. The poet’s daughter bought land with her husband that includes the “dance floor,” the massive flat pink granite on the south shore of Baker Island.
“I met with anybody I could find who would sit down with me. I met the neatest people.”
The book looks at the families and people who shaped the island’s history including William Gilley, who obtained a house and salary when he was appointed first light keeper in 1828 by President John Quincy Adams, and Phebe Jane Gilley Stanley, a granddaughter of the original settlers, who did not leave the Acadia island the last 36 years of her life before her death at 87 in 1929, according to Cesari.
With cows, oxen, hogs and 50 sheep, plus the bounty of the sea and home-grown vegetables, the Gilleys did not leave the island much, except to exchange logs for lumber and transport grain for making flour at a Mount Desert Island mill, according to the book.
Author enjoys long personal history with Baker Island
Cesari, who lives in Chelsea, Vt., and her husband, John, are back and forth from the Acadia island between April and November.
She also wrote the book while battling multiple sclerosis. Diagnosed with the disease in 2007, Cesari said she used to hike a lot and kayak regularly, but now she needs to conserve her energy.
“It does affect my ability to get around the island. That is frustrating. In some ways it actually encouraged me to write the book.”
Cesari said she first discovered Baker Island and Acadia National Park in her youth when she and her sisters would attend summer camp at Appalachian Mountain Club’s Echo Lake Camp and hike all over the park.
Cesari’s father was Henry Kolm, a well-known inventor, entrepreneur and senior scientist and researcher at MIT who died in 2010.
Her mother, Elizabeth Cushing Kolm, who died in 2002, bought the old school house in 1986 from David Slone, whose father, the Rev. Lucian Slone of Palmyra, NY, had owned both private residences on the Acadia Island, according to Cesari.
Her mother enjoyed living simply and fell “head over heels” for the island, Cesari said. Her mother long had researched the history of the island and her files became an important source for the book, she said.
“She would spend weeks alone out there,” Cesari said. “She loved it.”
Noted metalsmith Ronald Pearson and his wife, Kathleen, who are also deceased, bought the other home from Slone. The Pearsons’ three grown children still own the island’s only other private residence, the home of Phebe Jane Gilley Stanley.
Phebe Jane Stanley is of historical interest, partly because when she died on the island, one of her sons, Albert, moved to Great Cranberry Island, finishing about 125 years of ongoing Gilley residence.
Acadia National Park currently owns all of the 170-acre Baker Island, except for a couple or so acres and the two private homes.
Ironically, Cesari also traces her own origins to the first Gilley on Baker Island. She is a distant cousin of 18th-century Capt. Benjamin Bunker, who had a granddaughter who was William Gilley Jr.’s mother, while a grandson of the captain had three sons, including two who became light keepers on Baker Island.
One of those keepers married William Gilley’s niece, Abigail, so she is connected in that way, too, she said.
Conservation also runs in her blood. Her parents were early and active members of the Sudbury Valley Trustees in Massachusetts and provided a conservation easement to ensure protection of a wildlife refuge in the Concord, Assabet, and Sudbury river basin.
Low-tide walk to Baker Island not to be taken lightly, past or present
Baker Island, one of the five Cranberry islands, can be reached on foot at low tide and that was often the way early residents traveled to nearby Little Cranberry Island.
Cesari tells the story of Gussie, a daughter of the wife of lighthouse keeper George Connors, who would run across the bar and back to pick up love letters at the post office on Little Cranberry Island from Frank Chalmers, a stonecutter she met on the island of Vinalhaven while working at her aunt’s boarding house.
Even to this day, people trek to Baker Island from Little Cranberry Island via a mile-long walk over the sand bar between the two islands at low tide, but perhaps no one recently experienced a more unusual trip across the bar than the author’s husband, John Cesari.
About ten years ago, Cesari needed a larger tractor to replace an old two-wheel tractor on the island, so he very slowly drove a 4 by 4 Kubata over the bar. In fact, he was so deliberate that he ran out of time on the low tide and needed to store the tractor overnight on the Green Nubble, a small island between Baker and Little Cranberry (also known as Islesford), and then went back and finished the trip at dawn.
Baker Island is experiencing a revival these days, but it was deserted in the early 1900s, partly because two grandsons, Joseph Warren Gilley Jr. and Charles Gilley, were lifelong bachelors.
“There were a lot of reasons Baker was suddenly abandoned but that was one of them,” Cesari said. “They stopped having kids, whether it was poor health or whether the bachelors did not get off the island.”
Nine of the 12 children of William and Hannah Gilley married and had 58 children, for example, according to Eliot’s book about John Gilley. (NOTE: Please see sidebar about Amazon.com links)
The 1840 square block house of Elisha Gilley, one of the sons of William and Hannah, still stands on the island, along with a one-story school house built in 1898 and later purchased by Cesari’s mother, according to a park service cultural landscapes inventory.
Sometimes, in her research, Cesari found history that show the more things change, the more they remain the same, such as disputes over the way tax dollars are spent on education.
Cesari writes that voters in the town of Cranberry Isles, which includes Baker, voted to discontinue a new school on the island in 1901, because stingy taxpayers objected to annual costs of $195, including $120 for teachers. Funding was later reinstated after island residents protested, but the controversy shows that even on Baker Island more than 100 years ago, education finance was a hot issue.
German U-boats spotted off Baker Island during WWII
The history of the island often is intertwined with the lighthouse.
Baker Island Light Tower was decommissioned and shut down in October of 1955 by the US Coast Guard, but was reactivated in 1957 as an automatic aid to navigation after an outcry from local mariners and residents.
The entire 10-acre Baker Island Light Station, including the keeper’s dwelling, light tower, oil house and garage, is under the jurisdiction of Acadia National Park today, having been acquired from the U.S. Coast Guard in two parcels in 1958 and 2011, according to a report on the light station commissioned by Acadia National Park.
The Coast Guard uses an easement to maintain the automated light in the 1855 light tower.
Cesari also looks at the the threat of German U-boats off the coast of the island during World War II.
During the war, when German submarines patrolled Frenchman Bay, fishermen described encounters with surfacing U-boats. The keeper on Baker Island, Frank Faulkingham, who had enlisted in the Coast Guard, claimed that a dozen armed Germans landed on the island one night and pilfered fuel from light station drums, while he retreated safely into the house, according to the book.
Her detective work turned up a tragic story about Lyle Stepanek, a young Coast Guard seaman on Baker Island in 1943 during World War II, who wrote letters to his family in Iowa about his life on the island. Stepanek was engaged to a hometown girl but he was lost at sea the next year when he was assigned to the USS Leopold and it was torpedoed by a German U-boat.
While reading old newspapers in an attic at the Jesup Memorial Library in Bar Harbor, she discovered a tiny mention of Stepanek having dinner with a local family.
From there, she logged on to ancestry.com and tracked down his sister, Nancy Stepanek Rosburg, in a small town in Iowa and the woman was thrilled her brother was remembered and transcribed his letters for her.
“That is just an example,” she said. “Baker island touched so many lives.”
In the years ahead, Baker Island seems poised to touch the lives of even more people.