Wild and Provocative
Standing sentry at the east end of the Fox Island Thorofare, Babbidge Island is roughly 70 acres and shaped like a crooked finger. Many of us know this place as an island that is wonderful to visit and explore, its shorelines sculpted by years of exposure to the open ocean to the east or protection from nearby Calderwood facing west. What seems remarkable about this rugged, small island is that it was home for several families over an approximately 80-year period during the 19th century.
Living on Babbidge was no small undertaking. Imagine the effort of the first homesteaders to build shelter, gather food and firewood for the long winter and maintain contact with settlements on North Haven and Deer Isle. These people were hardy souls. We can speculate that they were marginally prosperous from one key artifact still visible today, a stone pier. Evidentially, they had experience working with large stones and some abundance of backbreaking labor. Perhaps sons, sons-in-law and neighbors from the community at the Little Thorofare helped construct this impressive structure. Did they own an ox? It is likely that the pier allowed these hardscrabble families to move goods and livestock to and from the island with relative ease.
Part of the fascination of this place is its past - stones walls, a cellar hole, a dug well and a wagon trail further the mystery of settlement on this rocky island in the middle of Penobscot Bay. The combination of micro-habitats (salt and freshwater wetlands), two rock highpoints and starkly different shores draw people and wildlife to this place just as it did 200 years ago.
Different Names and Numerous Suitors
Over time, the island has been identified by various names and undergone frequent changes in ownership. The remarkable resource, Islands of the Mid-Maine Coast, Volume I: Penobscot Bay (1997) by Charles and Carol McLane documents the presence of people on Babbidge Island from the late 1700s to the present day. We gleaned much of the following historical information about Babbidge from the McLanes’ detailed writing of the island.
While the island’s official name on maps has been Babbidge since the 1850s, it was first known as Island D on a 1785 map. By 1799, a deed designated the island as Ames Island and recorded its sale from James Cooper to William Merithew for $210. Nine years later, in 1808, Merithew sold the island “formerly Ames Island or Cooper’s Island” to Ephraim Stinson for $500.
Within another decade, Ephraim Stinson died and his heirs sold half the island to Courtney Babbidge for $300. Ephraim’s widow, Catherine, retained ownership of the remaining half of the island and then remarried to Courtney Babbidge. In Islands of the Mid-Maine Coast, authors Charles and Carol McLane wondered, “Were Ephraim Stinson and Courtney Babbidge both living on the island before Ephraim’s death? Did Courtney marry his neighbor’s widow out of compassion (he, too, was a widower)?” In addition, the authors noted a Babbidge family legend of an ancestor, perhaps Courtney, who lived on Babbidge Island and occasionally came to North Haven for supplies, dressed in a blue swallow-tailed coat with brass buttons and muttering: “There is only one Tory lives on Babbidge’s Island.” Deer Isle historian George Hosmer noted Courtney Babbidge was “a man of decided political opinions” and theorized perhaps his Toryism came late.
When Courtney Babbidge died in 1834, the family continued living on the island. A stepdaughter, Rebecca married George Shaw and the island came to be known as Shaw’s Island. The 1840 census showed George Shaw with a household of eight, three males and five females. In 1847, the family sold the island to Melzar Waterman of North Haven.
Ten years later, Melzar Waterman sold the island to Ephraim Stimpson Jr. and Paul Sawyer for $800. Paul Sawyer may have been living there prior to the sale, as an 1849 North Haven town record reported Sawyer’s Isle in the Little Thoroughfare. In 1858, Paul Sawyer sold his share of Babbidge Island to Ephraim Stimpson, just a year after the pair bought the island from Melzar Waterman. The 1859 Waldo County map which recorded names and location of island residences, showed no one living on Babbidge Island. Authors Charles and Carol McLane noted “the omission could be the surveyor’s oversight, or it could mean that the island was in fact uninhabited for a few years.”
From the 1860s to 1900, the island continued to change hands numerous times. It sold from Ephraim Stimpson to Seth Calderwood in 1862, then to John Smith in 1864, then to Otis B. Kent in 1874, and then to Hollis Leadbetter in 1900. Authors Charles and Carol McLane noted that none of these sales mentioned residents of the island. Still, an 1882 chart showed the presence of a well-established farm with house and barn, cleared fields, stonewalls, and a wagon road running from the center of the island to a pier on the northwestern shore. The McLanes theorized that members of the Stimpson family overflowed onto Babbidge and utilized it for additional farmland, leading to the island even being called Stimpson, despite another island of the same name nearby. By the time Hollis Leadbetter sold the island in 1906 to Mrs. Amey D. Peters, the deed described the island as “known by the name of Stinson, sometimes called Shaw’s or Babbidge’s.”
Changing Little with the Times
Mrs. Peters spent summers on the island and built a small cottage on the west end. According to the McLanes, she allowed local farmers to pasture sheep on the island and thus kept the fields from growing up in trees. When Peters sold the island, her small cottage was moved to North Haven where it now belongs to Pat Curtis.
Charles K. Cobb (aka "Chick") purchased the island from Mrs. Peters in 1944. Chick and his wife, Elsie, would row over from their summer home at Mullen's Crick and spend the mornings working on the trails around and across the island. They used to keep a bottle on the mooring with paper inside for guests to sign their names when they stopped on Babbidge to picnic, walk the paths and swim.The conservation easement on Babbidge Island consists of "the right of public view of the Property from offshore in its natural, scenic, open and wooded condition." It limits the structures that may be erected (permitting tent platforms, outhouses and temporary structures, but no houses) and restricts the uses of the property, preserving it in its natural and scenic condition. Acadia monitors the easement on a regular basis.
In 2010, Acadia National Park hired an ecologist to collect baseline data regarding the vegetation and list the plant species and animal species present. The Cobb family has spotted deer, mink, squirrels, mice, snakes, sheep, the occasional territorial ram and six to eight kinds of warblers there. In recent years, bald eagles have nested there, in addition to ospreys.
The Cobb family has been working hard to develop a trail that hugs the perimeter of the island. Dan Cherneff (aka the “Savage from Babbidge”) and friends nearly completed the loop trial in October 2013 and plan to return in the Spring to finish the job. Jack Cobb, Elsie and Chick's youngest son, notes that, "Babbidge's is an island of fulfillable dreams - all you need is a few sticks of wood and some nails," referencing the development of the family's campground.
Even when they are in residence, the family welcomes respectful visitors to the island for day trips. In 2012 and 2010, more than a dozen people participated in NHCP walks on Babbidge.
Two hundred years from now the island might be known by a different name and the owners may have changed. What we do know is that it will continue to be a safe haven for wildlife and a place that stirs one’s imagination about living on a remote island.