by Richard Scott Coffin
Re-printed with permission of the Kennebec Historical Society.
Let this serve as an invitation to join with Mother Nature in a hike over Howard Hill to gain a better appreciation of her handiwork. Initially, I thought “Howard Hill, an urban park in time” would make a good title for this article. It is certain that this park land will continue to function as a place of learning, remaining a magnificent gift to this central Maine region. Down East magazine has referred to the Howard Hill property’s promise as being “an urban wilderness retreat.” And, so it is.
In his article, “What Makes a Good Urban Park?”, published in 2007 in the periodical Public Square, Peter Katz, who played a key role in shaping and implementing a range of nationally significant community design and development projects, reflects, “A good park should allow you to both see and walk through it. Part of this relates to obvious issues of safety, but this principle also relates to the (Peter’s) earlier point about ‘overdesign.’ In many new parks, I feel like a victim of planning, forced to navigate an obstacle course just to get through.”
It is natural that youngsters have a great deal of curiosity about the world around them, and it is their parents’ responsibility to protect them from harm. When I was a youngster living in the southwest part of Augusta, my Dad would take me by the hand and we’d walk up Sewall Street to one of two access points into the Howard Hill property. Sometimes we had a family outing that included my late sister, Mary Sturtevant, my sister, Carolyn Ladd, and my late brother, David. Our childhood home was, as Avery Siler, a 2015 intern with the Kennebec Land Trust, noted, “a short walk from the woods that became their backyard and playground. The (Coffin) girls share memories of wildflowers: lady slippers, jack-in-the-pulpit, Solomon’s seal, and in the springtime, trillium. Yellow violets were their favorites.” Mary spoke of Howard Hill as being “a refuge,” Avery reflected. Favorite plants that I still recall from our nature hikes were those tasty teaberries, and the hardwood tree, hop-hornbeam. Shelley Wigglesworth, an award-winning freelance journalist from Maine and certified Master Gardener, shared this item on the newengland.com website in 2018: “Teaberries were used commercially in the making of Teaberry chewing gum, one of the first chewing gums marketed in the United States at around 1900 — which is still available today. My grandfather Scott Stewart who had wandered over this same area 130 years ago, spoke of using American hophornbeam for making his axe handles. “Its wood is very resilient and is valued for making tool handles and fence posts,” according to a Wikipedia article about the tree. It is one of the hardest for deciduous, hardwood tree species within the Northern Hemisphere, in my view. As I am a former “timber cruiser” for International Paper Co. myself, that particular tree has always been special to me. Go out there for yourself and see if you can find one!
Regarding those access points into Howard Hill, one was opposite from Brooklawn Avenue, and the other was uphill along a power line from where the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife facility is now located on Federal Street. William Howard Gannett’s home stood at the crest of Western Avenue, quite near where Applebee’s Restaurant is now located. His home had been the primary access point into the Howard Hill property long before Capitol Street was extended westerly from Florence Street, which took place in the late 1950s. A fourth point of access, and one that will continue to function, is from the south and is still gained from Hallowell’s Winthrop Street. Incidentally, William Howard Gannett (1854-1948), father of Guy P. Gannett, was the founder and publisher of Comfort magazine and a member of Maine’s Legislature from 1903 to 1905. For a number of years he sponsored recreational activities in Augusta for its youngsters.
Ganneston Drive is now located where the woods road was that Mr. Gannett maintained over his 350-acre property. It still intersects with that power-line, so hiking southerly along that woods road 0.4 mile farther, we’d come to an intersection of another woods road on the left leading easterly 0.2 mile to what we youngsters then called “Lookout Point.” It’s a high, prominent location where in 1915 Mr. Gannett built a treehouse that he named “The Bird’s Nest.” In the mid-1940s, when I was there with my Dad, all that treehouse structure except for dangling sill logs had collapsed into the woods below, and today the only obvious sign remaining is the granite landing once used to support the treehouse ramp. From that elevation is a wonderful, broad vista easterly of Kennebec Valley, as well as of the Capitol Building.
Returning to the main north-south trail running over Howard Hill, we hiked southerly one-quarter mile to the Hallowell line at a hayfield or pasture, which still exists, then continued for another half-mile south past the former Stevens School onto Winthrop Street in Hallowell. Then we walked back home from there via Hallowell’s Pleasant, Page and Second Streets to Sewall Street, being a fourmile round trip, plus an added half-mile to include that Lookout Point site. It’s a hike taken with my own three children several times.
The pasture mentioned is now part of the Effie L. Berry Conservation Area (more on that site below). An alternative trail from the pasture went easterly downhill along the north line of Hallowell for 0.3 mile, and then northerly for a halfmile leading onto Sewall Street just opposite Southern Avenue. Due to real estate development along the west side of lower Sewall Street in the late 1950s through 1970s, that former trail or woods road no longer exists. Timewise, repeating our nature hike leisurely would involve approximately three hours.
Johnson’s Pond, which likewise is no longer there, was another attractive feature of Howard Hill. Many of Augusta’s youngsters had skated and played ice hockey on it during the wintertime, while others swam there in summer. It may have been in the 1970s when an Augusta youngster drowned that the dam was dynamited and the pond drained. This former pond site has since reverted to again being part of the woods. I’m not aware that crosscountry skiing ever became popular at Howard Hill, but skied there myself a couple of times as a teenager.
Between 1930 and 1969, Howard Hill, also known formerly as Gannett’s Woods, and Ganneston Park, had been designated as a state game preserve. It is noteworthy that a great deal of health-related value will continue to exist in what now is a city park. You could also say that as a community, we are truly blessed.
Since Howard Hill is now undergoing trail and access improvements, it is important to share with you the following operational perspectives. Your patience may be required until facilities including access and parking spaces have become operational.
The city of Augusta now owns the 164-acre site. The city’s Bureau of Parks and Recreation oversees and maintains the use of the Howard Hill property primarily in the form of foot trails.
Offering a broader perspective, Augusta’s Parks and Recreation Bureau offers a wide range of sports and recreational activities for both children and adults. If you have any questions about the recreation programs, please contact the Buker Community Center at 207-626-2350.
The department’s ongoing function “provides an environment where the citizens of Augusta and its surrounding communities can engage in fun, healthy activities all year long.” Presently there is no off-street vehicular parking. There are plans to develop an access road and parking lot when funds have been raised to accomplish this goal.
The Kennebec Land Trust holds a conservation easement on the Howard Hill property. The conservation easement assures that the property will be retained forever in its essentially undeveloped condition; protects plant and wildlife habitat and environmental quality; and permits limited, sustainable harvesting of timber and nontimber resources and public recreational use. Recreational uses include hiking, nature observation, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and bow hunting by permission only. No motorized vehicles are permitted on the trails. (See the Kennebec Land Trust’ brochure online at: https://www.tklt.org/howardhill.)
The eight-acre Effie L. Berry property, owned by the city of Hallowell and protected by a KLT conservation easement, is contiguous with Howard Hill and has similar conservation values. Parking for the Effie L. Berry Conservation Area is at the end of Coos Lane in the Stevens School complex. The parking area provides public access to the Effie L. Berry and Howard Hill trail network. More online: https://www.tklt. org/effie-l-berry-conservation-area.
KHS member Richard Coffin, an Augusta native who now splits his time between Maine and Florida, is a retired civil engineer who worked for most of his career in park design for the Maine Department of Conservation.
Photo Credit: Stacie Haines