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Hidden History: Hog Island

This blog post is part of our Hidden History series, which explores the surprising places that we discover history. We often think of museums, historical societies, and libraries as the sole repositories of our past. Yet, hidden histories are everywhere! Stories are often buried away in the least likely of places and we at HistoryIT love unearthing and saving them. This week, we look at Hog Island Audubon Camp.

Hog Island is a 330-acre island in Maine’s Muscongus Bay, about a quarter-mile offshore from the town of Bremen (approximately sixty miles northeast of Portland). The Audubon Camp in Maine opened on Hog Island in 1936, and in 1998 the Friends of Hog Island formed to support the camp’s work, promote continued engagement with past campers (over 50,000 so far) and staff, and raise funds. In 2019 the Friends of Hog Island contacted HistoryIT and asked us to digitize their more than 25,000 historical photographs, scrapbooks, documents, videos, film, curricular materials, camp records, and other items.

Thanks to this project, we learned about the fascinating history of Hog Island Audubon Camp and the impact it has had on American conservation efforts.

The Todd Women: Protectors of Hog Island (Title Tag)
The camp exists due to the efforts of mother-daughter duo Mabel Loomis Todd and Millicent Todd Bingham, who shared a deep desire to preserve and protect Hog Island, which Todd and her husband had become partial owners of in 1908. By 1919 they were the island’s sole regular occupants. Bingham wrote that her mother

“protected it in every way she could, from fires left by careless picnickers, from persons cutting masts or Christmas trees or digging for relics in the prehistoric kitchen midden.”

After her mother died, Bingham wrote

“I could never feel that I owned such a place…it seemed, rather, the property of all those who cherished it and who wished to preserve it for others who would cherish it likewise in years to come…so I began to wonder how I could make such a dream come true.”

The Audubon Society Complementary Vision

The answer came to her in 1935 when she met John Baker, then the new Executive Director of the National Association of Audubon Societies. The two discovered that they had complementary visions – she cared about conserving Hog Island and he wanted to create a camp where teachers could learn about nature. Baker wanted to do so because he believed that teachers exposed to ideas about conservation would then instill similar values in their students. Bingham agreed to lease Hog Island to Audubon for $1 a year, and in 1935 the Todd Wildlife Sanctuary was established. The following year, the Audubon Camp in Maine opened.

Starting the Audubon Camp

From the beginning, the camp attracted some of the most prominent individuals in the national conservation movement as campers, instructors, photographers, and more. The camp’s first Director, Carl Buchheister, later became the president of the National Audubon Society.

The First Audubon Camp Instructors

One of the camp’s first instructors was Assistant Bird Life Instructor Allan Cruickshank, a leading figure in American ornithology, nature photography, and conservation. Cruickshank ended up teaching at the camp for twenty summers. Along with his wife, Helen Cruickshank, he was instrumental in convincing NASA to set aside land for conservation on Florida’s Merritt Island, home to the Kennedy Space Center.

Another one of the camp’s first instructors, renowned ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson, used his camp experiences to promote bird watching as a popular American hobby. And yes, he’s the same Peterson who’s the inventor of the modern field guide. To see a short film that includes footage of Peterson setting up a bird blind for photography, click here.

Sustained Scientific Inquiry

The fact that many instructors came back year after year meant that the camp faculty developed a deep local knowledge of the ecology and environment of Hog Island and coastal Maine. As a result, the camp became an excellent incubator for sustained scientific inquiry.

Project Puffin

The most famous example in this regard is Project Puffin, an effort started by Hog Island ornithology instructor Dr. Stephen Kress in the 1970s. The focus of the inquiry was to reintroduce Puffins to Eastern Egg Rock (approximately eight miles from Hog Island) while documenting the project so that conservationists could replicate it elsewhere if it succeeded. In 1983, a Puffin hatched on Eastern Egg Rock returned for the first time, and now around 1,000 pairs of Puffins nest on five Maine islands, with another 5,000 pairs on an island claimed by both Canada and the United States. Project Puffin evolved into Audubon’s Seabird Restoration Program, which now works to share restoration methods to benefit rare and endangered seabirds worldwide. Visit the site to learn more about Project Puffin.

Environmental Conservation and Rehabilitation of Incarcerated People

In addition to its outreach with teachers, the Audubon Camp attracted advocates and leaders from other fields, who took the lessons learned from their time on Hog Island back to their own work. One such camper, Dr. Miriam Van Waters, was a national figure in women’s and juvenile prisons and a leading advocate of prison reform. She viewed environmental conservation and rehabilitation of incarcerated people as interconnected because “man is the greatest of predators,” elaborating that

“if you want to teach true conservation you must teach respect and concern for soil, water, plants, and animals, but also the rehabilitation of human beings. The one will follow the other.”

Over the years the camp continued to evolve, eventually opening up to youth and families to engage young people directly without having to go through their teachers.

Preservation of Shell Middens

Hog Island is also home to shell middens from the Abenaki nation. Also known as shell heaps or kitchen middens, shell middens are old dumps for domestic waste that may contain artifacts (objects made by humans) and/or ecofacts (organic materials such as bones, which may have archaeological significance) that might provide clues about the diet, hunting and gathering patterns, use of tools, and seasonal movements of the Abenaki. Unfortunately, rising sea levels on Hog Island now threaten the existence of the shell middens.

Search the Digital Archive

While Hog Island Audubon Camp is well-known in conservation circles, few others have known about its rich history and lasting contributions to the American conservation movement. Now that HistoryIT has tagged and catalogued the camp’s historic records and materials in an easily searchable digital archive, anybody who wishes to do so can have instant direct access to its fascinating history. Check it out for yourself.

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