MDI historian Tim Garrity is retiring … (so he may nerd out on more history)


SOMESVILLE, OCT 2, 2020 – When I started writing this blog in April, Tim Garrity was one of my first guide posts. I forgot who gave me his name but it was a huge advantage to start something on this island with credible sources.

Tim guided me through my series on MDI cemeteries. You can learn a lot by traipsing through the graveyards and tracking down their genealogy. It lends a touch of humanity to our daily pursuits and teaches us about the humility of time. In the end, we will finally all be equal.

In this edition, I wrote about the consequences of orphaned properties on MDI and how one property owner is going through the hassle of clearing a single title. Who knew two small parcels touched so many lives? Is there another Coffee Pot extant, the heirloom which allowed the Pierce family to build their first cottage?

Tim Garrity spent the last 11 years affirming the stories behind the orphaned tales of MDI and other historical pursuits. Which ship captain, settler, Revolutionary War soldier, writer, Civil War soldier, Native American influenced what became today’s Mount Desert. Tim Garrity learned where the bodies were buried.

He gave up a 25-year career as a health career executive, and at Age 53, with the support of his wife Lynn Boulger, enrolled at the University of Maine to pursue a master’s degree in history. He worked as an interpretive ranger at Acadia National Park and also as a census worker until the opportunity came along to be executive director of the MDI Historical Society.

He was the only employee of an organization in 2009 which was on unstable financial ground. He had to figure out for himself how to print an envelope with the proper return address, among other tedious tasks for which he had no support.

One of his proudest legacies he leaves behind is the relentless pursuit of accurate history. He is particularly fond of the many collaborations with other organizations, especially one with the Abbe Museum, which in 2013 became the first and only Smithsonian Affiliate in Maine. 

MDI was uniquely positioned to benefit from multiple sources of documentation such as the Abbe’s history and cultures of the Native people in Maine, the Wabanaki, and the work of the Champlain Society in the late 19th Century – “the Harvard kids,” according to Garrity.

The collections of Virginia Somes Sanderson, a direct descendant of the first European MDI settler Abe Somes, and the Savage family as chronicled by Rick Savage of Northeast Harbor were among others who helped tell the history of the island.

The autobiography of Rick Savage’s ancestor, Augustus Chase (AC) Savage (1832-1910) was an especially important document.

Prefaced with an introduction written in 1972 by Rick’s uncle, Charles Savage, AC’s “Memories of a Lifetime” recalls a past when “the path from Northeast to Seal [Harbor] was marked by blazed trees.” AC married Emily Manchester in 1854 and together they weathered the Civil War, founded the Asticou Inn, and raised a family of considerable accomplishment. At the end of life, AC called Emily, “The Guiding Star,” according to MDI Historical Society.

And, of course, no article about MDI history would be complete without referencing the Champlain Society, the “Harvard kids” led by their captain, Charles Eliot, son of then Harvard president Charles W. Eliot. They came here from 1880-1889, studying plants, birds, insects, fish, geology, hydrology, and meteorology and wrote their findings in hand-written notebooks.

“Though they were not the first scientists to come here, they were the first to spend extended periods of time, engaging deeply in this place,” according to the Friends of Acadia. The best encapsulation of the Champlain Society was written by By Catherine Schmitt and Maureen Fournier in spring 2015 for the Friends of Acadia Journal. “In partnership with the Northeast Harbor Library and the Maine Historical Society, we have been working to digitize and transcribe the notebooks, a gift of the Eliot family to the Mount Desert Island Historical Society.”

The shards of information memorializing human history would be of little value unless they can be categorized, archived and rendered usable by the public. Thus, Garrity’s various relationships with students, researchers and professors at UMaine would come of great value. They would become the modern-day Champlain Society.

Garrity recruited and marshaled UMaine students and resources to join his pursuit of historical research on MDI. It was captured so well in his letter in 2018 to assistant professor of New England History Mary T. Freeman, seeking her support:

“It was a pleasure to meet you last Monday at the History Department lecture. I’ve enclosed Chebacco, the annual magazine of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society. This magazine represents a significant connection between the University of Maine and the Mount Desert Island community. 

“All three of the magazine’s editors are Black Bears, as is its copy editor, ten members of the editorial review board, and six of its authors. 
“As you establish new links between the university and community, please keep us in mind as a source of support for your work. Our connection with the University of Maine is one of our most valued institutional relationships.

“Each year, we offer a $1,000 stipend to a Visiting History Scholar and a $5,000 stipend to an Eliot Fellow … We host an annual visit by UMaine students to the island. Last Sunday, forty students attended this event. Maine students bring us their energy, curiosity, and cutting-edge education, while we provide them with a fresh field of research material and a setting where they can launch their careers. 

Those who succeed as leaders of non-profits must possess creativity and imagination.

Garrity served a decade as executive director during which time the society’s revenue exceeded expenses every year and developed a good bench. In 2019 he took the title “historian” and made a “peaceful” transition to Raney Bench as the new director.

Garrity said the exemplary board led by MDI stalwart Bill Horner was one of the best non-profit boards on the island and gave him great support.

Advice to Tim Garrity: Retirement can be a little disorienting. But it also offers new horizons and unencumbered intellectual opportunities. Choose your projects wisely. May you have fair winds and following seas on your continuous journey in your well-tested Chebacco of life!