I took advantage of the continuing marvelous summer weather at the beginning of this month to take a day trip to Eagle Island in Casco Bay, Maine. We set out on a little ferry with Portland Discovery Land & Sea Tours passing several islands, forts, lighthouses, and the occasional seal or porpoise along the way. Eagle Island was the summer retreat for Admiral Robert Peary and his family from the early 1900′s to the mid 1950′s. Admiral Peary, as you may know, was the first explorer to reach the North Pole arriving on April 6, 1909.
When I signed up for this tour, I expected to walk the trails around the island and tour his house, which has been lovingly restored by the Bureau of Parks and Lands, the Friends of Peary’s Eagle Island, and grants from various Maine foundations. What I didn’t expect to find were gardens. These were the gardens of Josephine Diebitsch Peary, his wife, and Marie Peary Stafford, his daughter.
Josephine Diebitsch Peary was an accomplished woman in her own right. She was valedictorian of the business school she attended which led to working at the Census Bureau In Washington, D.C. When her father became ill, she took over his position at the Smithsonian until she became engaged to Robert Peary in 1886. After their marriage, she supported his efforts to reach the North Pole and accompanied him on his first two expeditions. On the second expedition, she gave birth to their daughter, Marie, who was nicknamed Snow Baby by the Eskimos (and later the press) who had never seen an infant so white.
In their day, the gardens were full of annuals as well as perennials. Now there are only perennials, which of course do not need to be replanted each year. Both Josephine and Marie kept notes that allowed staff to recreate the gardens, with many of the original hydrangea and foxglove surviving. The park manager for Eagle Island maintains these gardens as her time allows.
Both Josephine’s and Marie’s gardens included perennials such as roses, peonies, foxglove, iris, bleeding heart, hollyhock, and poppies. Foxglove was Josephine’s favorite and can be found all over the island. Her garden also included Sweet William, heliotrope, rebrum lily, feverfew, phlox, asters, Bachelor’s button, and hydrangeas.
Marie’s garden included Canterbury bells, lupine, Widow’s Tears, ageratum, morning glories, and Butter-and-Eggs. I had never heard of Butter-and-Eggs, but apparently it is resembles a snapdragon, but is larger with petals that go from pale yellow to a bright orange-yellow.
When I visited, there weren’t many blossoming plants outside of phlox and hydrangeas being so late in the season. When the family resided here, there were also lots of raspberry bushes from which Josephine made many jars of jam and cordial each year.
I think it would be an interesting project for a local garden club or clubs to restore these gardens to their original glory. Celia Thaxter’s garden on Appledore Island, Maine in the Isles of Shoals comes to mind where local gardening clubs and volunteers have spent the past thirty years or more restoring her garden. The difficulty, of course, is transportation. The club members would need access to a boat to take volunteers to the island. In general, boats are only allowed to moor for a few hours, but maybe an exception could be made for a project like this.
I highly recommend a day trip to Eagle Island. The house is chock full of history with displays of artifacts connected with Peary’s travels, his family, and life on this island. You can tour the house at your own pace with the aid of a portable audio tour. There are also docents on hand to answer questions.
I know I will be returning since two hours was not enough to take in all the history as well as walk around the island. As you can imagine, the views from the island are idyllic. During a hike, you can enjoy a picnic lunch at many areas on the island. I particularly enjoyed the small beach at the far end of the island. This island trip was a gem!