Celia Laighton Thaxter (1835 – 1894)
Friday, I got the last spot available on the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Shoals Marine Laboratory vessel the R/V Gulf Challenger and joined thirty plus passengers to tour Celia Thaxter’s Appledore Island Garden out on the Isle of Shoals. The 95 acre Appledore Island is in the Gulf of Maine approximately 10 miles off the coast.
The UNH and Cornell partnership only make six trips from June to August available for this special garden tour led by UNH Marine Docents. www.sml.cornell.edu/sml_reservation.php
The boat leaves from the Judd Greg Marine Research Complex in New Castle, NH early in the morning and includes a walking guided tour of the rugged, rocky island visiting the upper island, Devil’s Dance Floor, Siren’s Cove, the turbine, the Laighton Family Graveyard, the Gazebo to view nearby islands, a fabulous buffet lunch at Kiggins commons and the highlight of the tour — Celia Thaxter’s Garden.
Many scenes of Celia’s garden and Appledore Island were painted by the American impressionist, Childe Hassam (1859 – 1935) and can be viewed at the Smithsonian Institution and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Celia was born in Portsmouth but grew up on several of the islands in the Isle of Shoals. As a little girl her love of gardening started as she was so impressed by the power of planting marigold seeds and watching the tiny seed grow into a beautiful flower.
Towards the middle of the nineteenth century, one of the first New England resort hotels was built on Appledore Island (formerly called Hog Island) by Celia’s father Thomas Leighton and Levi Thaxter (Celia’s future husband and tutor).
The resort was named Appledore House and drew the rock stars of the time including famous musicians, artists and writers with its fresh clean air. Guests at that time wanted to escape the dust from horse trodden unpaved roads and constant smoke filled air of burning coal and woodsmoke on the mainland.
The resort was an arts colony of sorts with notable guests registering such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Whittier, James Russell Lowell, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sarah Orne Jewett, John Greenleaf Whittier, William Morris Hunt and Childe Hassam. All enjoyed the summer resort life on this beautiful rocky, windswept ocean spot.
Celia loved the islands and had a keen sense of nature and gardening. At an early age she married her father’s business partner (also, her tutor) had three children and spent many years between Massachusetts, Maine and summers on the Isles of Shoals helping with her husbands poor health, a disabled child, aging parents and hostessing at the Appledore House.
Celia was known for entertaining in the Victorian fashioned parlor of her parent’s cottage and growing an old fashioned cutting garden to share fresh flower arrangements with all the guests in the hotel. She was exposed to many great writers and artists. Celia Thaxter became one of America’s favorite poets in the late nineteenth century. Her prose included works such as The Burgomaster Gull, Landlocked, Milking, The Great White Owl, The Kingfisher and The Sandpiper. She also wrote stories including “A Memorable Murder” (about a famous murder on Smuttynose Island) and her final book “An Island Garden” (illustrated by the American Impressionist Childe Hassam) which tells the specific details of her flower garden with particular plant choices and common gardening challenges 0n the island.
Celia died suddenly in 1894 and was buried in the family graveyard on Appledore. Unfortunately, the Appledore House and her cottage burned down in 1914.
With the detailed information from her last book “An Island Garden” it was possible for Dr. John M. Kingsbury originally of the Shoals Marine Lab, several garden clubs, students and the Cornell Plantations to have enough information to reestablished the garden in 1977.
Currently, There are approximately 200 high school, college, and adult continuing education students taking classes and researching marine science, ornithology, geology, etc… while living on the Island with 40 faculty from Cornell, UNH and other institutions around the country.
The seedlings for Celia Thaxter’s garden are now grown every year at the UNH’s Thompson School of Applied Science’s greenhouses by Mr. Robarge and a few select students. In June all the annuals are transported by boat and planted by the caretakers Mr. and Mrs. Boutilier and several other longtime SML volunteers including Mary Smith who happened to be on my tour.
It rained a little on our boat ride out to the island and some thunder rumbled early in the day, but then the sky cleared and the views were breathtaking.
What a great day to always remember. I was fascinated to see all the nesting Great Black-backed Gulls (largest gull in the world) and the common grey seagulls with their downy, spotted young. One noisy gull mother with wings stretched out and beak open, chased a couple of us on a narrow trail providing a little entertainment for the rest of the group.
The New England coast is beautiful, especially on a sunny, summer day.
I can only imagine how inspired all the artists, writers and musicians must have felt enjoying their relaxed and carefree time at the grand old resort on Appledore Island.
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