Vandalism is generally frowned upon on MDI… but when an inscription is found on Seawall with mysterious initials and the dates 1895-1900, it turned into a multi year quest that led to someone no one expected. The story also appears in this year’s issue of Chebacco Magazine (which looks way more like a book than a magazine honestly) and is given free to all members of the MDI Historical Society ($25+ annual donors).

MDI Historical Society’s Executive Director sat down with Nicole of Gift MDI to record this unlikely story and give some great book recommendations to those wanting to get into the ‘people’ version of history on MDI. If you like the audio version of the Gift MDI blog, let us know and we’ll see if we can do more stories like this. Full transcript is below the recording.

Resources Mentioned: 

Bar Harbor in the roaring 20s book by Luann Yetter

Bar Harbor Police Beat by Richard Sassaman

MDI Historical Society’s History Harvest Project

The Memorials of Acadia National Park by Don Lenahan

Cemeteries of Cranberry Isles and the towns of Mount Desert Island by Thomas Vining



Nicole: Hi everyone. This is Nicole with Gift MDI. I’m here with a special guest and we’re going to do this audio as an experiment. So if you like this, please reach out and let us know. But I’m here with Tim Garrity who’s the executive director of the MDI Historical Society, and Tim’s a really great storyteller and that’s why I wanted to talk to him in audio version so you can hear his storytelling, and also maybe listen to it while you’re walking your dog, washing your dishes. But there’s a lot of cool history here on MDI, some of the stuff you’ve heard before and some of the stuff you haven’t. So we invited Tim here today to talk a little bit about, in particular a really cool inscription that you may or may not have noticed here on MDI. So a little vandalism and also a couple of book recommendations. So Tim, thanks for coming.

Tim: Glad to be here. Thanks for inviting me. I’d like to tell you about the story of this mysterious inscription at Seawall. In the Seawall area of Acadia National Park. That’s South of Southwest Harbor on the road to the Best Harbor Light and you would head towards the Seawall Hotel.

And if you were traveling south on the right hand side, there’s a freshwater pond as you’re going across the causeway. And on the left side side, there’s a natural pier of granite that goes out into the channel between Mount Desert Island and Great Cranberry Island.

Nicole: Okay. I didn’t realize that was natural, I guess.

Tim: Yeah, it’s a piece of a ledge that extends out and it’s bare. It’s been carved over many times and it’s a place where people go and storms and waves wash over, and sometimes push rocks up onto the roads. And when the waves-

Nicole: Oh, yeah. I’ve seen pictures of that.

Tim: You can hear the rocks rattling back across the ledge, back into the water. And Tom Vining, who studied inscriptions throughout Mount Desert Island in the late 1990s appointed me to this place. He had to walk me right up to it because it’s not an easy thing to see. But on a vertical face of rock at the edge of the water, high tide lapse at the base of a rock at high tide, someone has deeply and crudely inscribed 1895-1900 CHH. Or maybe GHH. You can trace it with your finger and it’s not certain, but it appears to be 1895 1900 GHH. And local tradition has long been that this inscription pertained to the death of a child, swept out to sea from that place in a storm.

A five year old, on 1895. Died in 1900, with the initial CHH or GHH. And a few years ago, beginning in 2014 we had a young intern who wanted to work for us in the summer at the Mount Desert Island Historical Society. A young fellow named Theo Gardner. And he decided at age 13 that he was going to figure out the mystery to this inscription. What does it really mean?

And Theo started to investigate everything that was out there about it. He found a newspaper column in the Bar Harbor Times from the 1990s that said this was a memorial to Charles H. Hodgkins Jr, who was born in 1895. And that was a story told by the proprietor of the nearby hotel, and Theo researched this story, looked at all the people answering to this description of Charles H. Hodgkin’s. We went together to the town hall in Tremont too. In Trenton where this guy was supposed to have lived.

We learned that this Charles H. Hodgkin’s lived to 1987.

Nicole: Okay. Not him!

Tim: Not him. Not our guy. And Theo then search all of the newspaper accounts from that era and found nothing pertaining to the death of a child. Looked at the newspapers from Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. The story did not check out. Given the content of the paper those days, it surely would have been reported.

Nicole: Right.

Tim: And then we drove together to Augusta. Oh, I should say that Theo came back for three years. Two weeks for a summer for three years. Beginning in 2014. So all this stuff is happening over the course of several years.

Nicole: Got it. Okay. This sounds like it took awhile.

Tim: Digging and searching… And we went to Augusta together and we searched all the birth records from 1895 and all the death records from 1900, and found nothing to correspond. In other words, after a very thorough examination, the death of a child’s story did not check out, but we were at a complete standstill. And then meantime, I kind of envisioned this sorrowful grieving father angrily chipping this, inscripting it to the rock. I had this story in my head, I was still wanting to believe it and wonder why we couldn’t find the evidence, but we couldn’t find evidence to back it up. Theo knew that after his third year of volunteering, that was the last he could give and he was going to move on in life. He was just a high school student. So the last thing he did was to put a notice in the newspaper, in the Mount Desert Islander, saying that we were trying to solve this mystery.

If anybody can help us, please contact us. Two more years pass. And one day a man walks into our office at the Sound School House and he says, “I think I know who this guy is.” The man who walked through the door is George Gildan, who was a volunteer, a historian for the Southwest Harbor Congregational Church on the high road in Southwest Harbor. And he was working with some old church documents and came across folders that were left by a minister who worked at the church who signed his name or initialed these documents with his initials. GHH.

And it turns out that this man served as pastor of the congregation from 1895 to 1900.

Nicole: Oh.

Tim: 1895, 1900. GHH. this fellow’s name was George Henry Heflin. And when we search on that name and look, we discover a lot about him. That he was the pastor of Southwest Harbor congregational church from 1895 to 1900. he eventually became ordained as a priest in the Episcopal church that he… And that most importantly, he had left all of his diaries to his Alma Mater, Yale University, and they were a complete collection of his most intimate thoughts that he wrote down every night for 25 years, are held at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

And I went to Yale, and I spent two days reading through these thousands of pages. I couldn’t cover it all, but I learned a lot about him.

That he was born in 1865… So the time that he was here, he was age 30 to 35, and he was a very unhappy young man in his time here. He was uncertain in his vocation. Church ministers for a little congregation like that were paid a pitons, barely enough to survive. And he was pretty sophisticated, educated guy, but he was just getting along barely. He was really lonely.

Nicole: Aww.

Tim: He really wanted to be married. He proposed to three women in his congregation in a three month period in 1900. Two of them turned him down. One he decided it would not be a good match. He finally left and he’d go… So, he was poor. That was problem number one.

Celibate. That was problem number two. And he was very hard of hearing, and he was losing his hearing, and it was isolating. And what I learned is by 1910 he is completely deaf. He left this place in 1900 after the church board cut his salary from $100 a month to $50 a month, and he went on to other assignments. But his deafness increased. He never settled anywhere until he attended church service with his adult sister at St. Anne’s Church for the Deaf in New York, that had been founded by the Reverend Thomas Gallaudet, the founder of Gallaudet University. The university for the deaf in Washington. And then this was a place where the liturgy was signed. And the music and the hens were signed, and he wrote it as diary, “I have found my life’s work.”

And he went on to Philadelphia, do a ministry for the death. In his time in Philadelphia, he started paying attention to socialist causes. The anarchist Emma Goldman was riling up workers against the entrenched business powers in Philadelphia. He describes his growing ministry and learning how to help deaf people care for themselves and lead fulfilling lives. And he once came across a coal car at a railroad siding and saw two poor young boys stealing coal in a winter day. And he helped the smaller, younger boys steal a sack of coal. The young kid was struggling to bring it up the side of a bank, and he climbed down and help the kid. And he recognized what he had done was completely illegal and out of line for a minister. But he said he’d never been so satisfied with any work he had undertaken then to help that kid with holes in his shoes steal coal.

Nicole: Aww.

And he learns of an opportunity in Hartford, Connecticut for something called the Silent Mission, in which he would provide environment life for deaf people. And he had a scattered flux. A couple of dozen in Hartford, a dozen in new Haven, a few at Bridgeport, some in Norwalk. And he spent the next 25 years of his life creating this world for deaf people that pulled them out of their isolation, and into this world where they could feel valued and part of society and find work. And the Episcopal Church at the time was on the front lines of creating a culture for deaf people where they previously were often in pretty miserable circumstances because of their condition. Well, I forgot to mention that while he was here, he would often ride down to that pier of granite at Seawall, and kind of deal with his discontent, just letting the wind and the waves buffet him.

He had responsibilities both in Southwest Harbor and Bass Harbor, and he would ride his bicycle sometimes in the dark. A very dangerous proposition on dry roads.

Nicole: Yeah. Windswept too.

Tim: Windswept. And Seawall was always right there, and that was a place he would go. So anyway, time passes, he spends time, wears himself out working for the deaf. He was reported or at around age 58 in the early 1920s as having worn himself into exhaustion and he needed to take time off. The local church circular. He wore himself out, arranging Christmas celebrations for deaf people throughout Connecticut.

Nicole: Christmas is stressful.

Tim: Stressful for everybody, and that kind of did him in. So he goes into semi retirement, and this is the sad part of the story. He dies at age 61 in Rhode Island. He steps out of a automobile into the path of a streetcar, never heard it coming. He dies three days later. The news was received with great sorrow, and even though he had this very down opinion of himself, the rest of the world thought he was this saint. The granddaughter of Thomas Gallaudet said that he was the most remarkable man she ever met. That he was this tall, gawky bald guy who was very expressive. He would use big arm gestures and bow deeply when he met her on the street. But so much of his language was in pantomime. He could speak…

He had difficulty modulating his volume because he couldn’t hear himself, but he had grown up hearing and could speak. But he was very generous. She said that his home address was the YMCA Hartford, Connecticut. He would often sleep on benches and train stations because he’d given his money away to the poor deaf. And another ulagist said it was unfathomable how he survived on his salary.

Well, there are three epilogues to this story. The first is Theo Gardner, that young guy who did this research. Theo is soon to leave for the University of Chicago where now he will be a freshman. He wrote his college entrance exam on the topic of his search for the solution to this mystery, and he wrote about his experience of working with the historical society, and doing all this research to come to nothing, but it was a community of people who figured out the answer to this mystery. The second epilogue is my own that I didn’t realize as we started this and first encountered this inscription, how it would come around to something that’s been very big in my life, and that’s the experience of people who are hard of hearing and deaf. My father was injured in a service in the second world war.

He grew up very hard of hearing with one of those big 1940s era hearing aids at home on a lanyard around his neck. That was my first experience with hard-of-hearing people. And then I have two daughters who are both hard of hearing, and a grandson who is almost totally deaf, and now receives services at the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf. All a culture designed to help people who are deaf find their own identity in this world, and live and work in this world. And my daughter works for a nonprofit called Maine Hands and Voices, that helps families of deaf children learn what resources are available for them. So all of this, of course, was unknown to me as I was first looking at this inscription. And then there’s the third and last epilogue, and that is of George Henry Heflin. The year before he died, he returned to Mount Desert Island.

Nicole: I was going to ask if he had ever come back.

Tim: He came back and he visited old parishioners who remembered it very fondly. He remarked at how much more prosperous the place was since he had been there in the 30 years since he had been there, from the late 1890s to the 1920s after the park had been founded. He did things that tourists do. He went on a boat ride out to Baker Island. He still had an eye for pretty girls. He noted that there was a young flapper onboard with pretty eyes and a pretty smile, but she smoked too much. And he hung out with the younger sister of one of the women he had proposed to and turned him down. And he went to a picnic with friends out at the rocks at Seawall.

He said they had a picnic out there. Ate lobster and biscuits, and crackers, and olives, and boiled coffee on the spot. They played with the waves running up to the edge, and then retreating as the waves came on just in time for them to get caught. They set up the bottle on the rocks and threw stones at it and to make future sea glass. And he just had a time to revisit his life here before it came to a close. So I think that this story tells us about… The more interesting story often lies behind the legends of Mount Desert Island. Of what they’re about, points to this deeper meaning and the value of pursuing these historical stories. Their ability to help us empathize with people who’ve gone before and find common purpose in meeting with them.

Nicole: Right. Because even though he only spent five years here, and it sounds like it was a pretty hard five years, it’s almost like he wanted to leave something. He wanted either a reason to come back or kind of to be known that he was here. It was still an important place to him even though it sounds like it wasn’t necessarily this fairy tale where he moved to an island and lived happily ever after.

Tim: No. And maybe he saw… What seemed apparent to me that the things that beset him when he was here, his poverty, celibacy, his deafness, actually were things that steered him towards a path that gave him real meaning in life. And you can see that the discontentedness life diminished as you read the diaries. He seemed a lot more sure of himself, a lot less unhappy with his life. I never did come across an entry where he fessed up to making that inscription. Something that now would earn him a fine for vandalism. But certainly he is the subject of the inscription and probably he’s the author, and maybe someday I have more time at Yale I can get to the bottom of it.

Nicole: So you mentioned somebody named Tom Vining who studies inscriptions. Have you traced other inscriptions? I mean granted, this would be a full time job.

Tim: Well, there’s a couple of people. Tom Vining is this fascinating guy, and still very much with us and lives on the island. Tom is the author of the “Cemeteries of the Cranberry Isles and Mount Desert Island”. He has a book that’s about three inches thick that was published in the late nineties of over 7,000 gravestone inscriptions on all the cemeteries in Mount Desert Island, as now a valuable resource for people who are trying to do research on their ancestors. We got just somebody in this morning who wanted to find the grave of their grandfather because they want to put ashes of a family member next to the grandfather. And Tom also has donated a lot of materials to what’s called the MDI Cultural History Project. So Tom is an extraordinary guy. A one of a kind who is good at writing stuff down and categorizing things.

Nicole: That’s great. Yeah, because it’s kind of a history of MDI vandalism. It’s kind of interesting.

Tim: Yeah. And Don Lenahan also wrote a book approximately titled The Monuments of Acadia National Park. And he mentioned this inscription as Seawall and said the mystery lives on. He got to review the early editions of the story that we published on this in our journal Toboco, but Tom recognized this was an open question. What it meant. He didn’t jump to any conclusions.

Nicole: Right, right.

Tim: And was very happy to know that the solution had been found.

Nicole: Absolutely. And it’s nice that you are here to help other people find their solutions to their mysteries. The Mount Desert Island Historical Society is open year round. We have offices at the Sound School House on Sound Drive, otherwise known as Route 198. And we can help people do research on their questions. We have a project today called The History Harvest, and this is one where we invite people to bring us a precious family possession. A photograph, an artifact, and allow us to digitize it. Either photograph it or scan it, and return it to you the same day, and record a five to 10 minute oral history that we will transcribe. And we’ll put images of this artifact and the story that people tell us about it on a digital exhibit on the web. And we find that the stories we’re learning are amazing.

Nicole: That’s great. And so we’ll link to that with this, as well as the MDI Historical Society. Now before we started recording, you mentioned a couple of books that were interesting in terms of telling… I think we all know a lot of the history stuff. We all know about the great fire, that went through Bar Harbor and stuff like that. But maybe, if we were thinking of this as People Magazine, the more colorful history that we might not even think to look for. One of them you mentioned is by Richard Sassaman.

Tim: Richard has just passed away very sadly. A really beloved character in the community who was a documentarian. He just made a lot of photographs and a lot of records of life and people and experiences he encountered. And one of his books is titled, “Bar Harbor Police Beat: True Stories from the Police Files of Mount Desert Island, Maine”. Still available. And it’s one of the things that lots of us love to read in the Islander, and that’s Police Beat. Stories like the police were alerted to a man talking loudly to himself on the village green, and they went to intervene to help the guy or to quiet the noise. It was just a guy talking on his cell phone.

Nicole: Yeah, it’s true. They are really well written, especially if you’ve read a police beat, maybe of somewhere else, they’re not as equally well-written as this police beat is. I think the one in my hometown is a female subject called the police station at 5:00 AM to complain about dogs barking on whatever street. This is a little bit more of a story than that.

Tim: Well, I think people are aware of the lighter side of the small town reports that get into the police log. And another interesting book is by an author who is a English teacher at University of Maine, Farmington, and she wrote a book that’s titled “Bar Harbor in the Roaring Twenties”. I might have to correct that title.

Nicole: Oh, and you said Luann Yetter?

Tim: Luann Yetter.

Nicole: Nice.

Tim: And she examined… Again, it’s newspaper based stories. All kinds of interesting stories about life in the 1920s just going through the newspaper. They range from a tsunami that occurred in Tremont, that was an enormous wave that came up the harbor.

Nicole: Whoa!

Tim: They include stories of rum running and all kinds of rascality goin on.

Nicole: Rascality. You mean it stopped in the 20s?

Tim: No, I think rascality had a big breakthrough after the first world war. There was a major… I’m sure it will have it with us always, but there was a major breakthrough.

Nicole: Nice. That’s awesome. Well, thanks so much Tim for coming in. Appreciate your time.

Tim: Thanks for inviting me.

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