Don Wilson was born in Greenville in 1941 and resided at East Outlet until 1974. While at Moosehead, he helped his father, also Don, in operating these camps. He has authored many books, including one of my favorites, “The History of East Outlet Moosehead Lake, Maine & Wilsons on Moosehead Lake.” Don wrote the following article for the book on Maine sporting camps that I am writing for Down East Books (to be published in April of 2016).
Prior to and during World War II, my grandmother operated a post office in what we called the Big Camp, now known as Ski Lodge. She was a postmaster for 29 years, and ran the office from the hotel during the summer months. The hotel was the center of the operation, with guest rooms on the second floor, guides quarters on the third floor and wait staff on the top floor. During the winter months, my grandparents lived in the Big Camp.
In the mid-50’s they bought a place in Greenville and during the week, my grandfather commuted every day to work, while my parents, who now had a house on site built by my father, took care of things at the place. Attending the Greenville school presented a challenge, especially during the winter months when the road was snowy and icy. My father used to drive me, along with some of the neighbor kids, until my grandparents purchased the house in Greenville, where I then lived during the week. When more families moved to the area, Moosehead and Squaw Brook, the State instituted school bus service, which later expanded to Rockwood since the school there did not include high school grades.
When I was growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, we had a number of cottages, and during that time added two more. Going down the row from the hotel to the dam, there was what was called the First Camp, Second Camp, Third Camp, then the Big Camp. These are now known as Penobscot, and Piscataquis, while the Third Camp was destroyed by fire shortly after we sold the property in 1974. After the Big Camp came Hate to Quit It, Riverside (as that was on the river and below the dam before the last reconstruction), then Hiawatha and Love Nest the name of which was changed to Pocahontas. After that were two longer camps, known by First Long and Second Long.
These camp were part of the original log lodge built as an addition to the hotel. It was known as Fisherman’s Lodge, and existed as early as 1901. The middle portion was removed, resulting in three smaller camps, the middle one being known as Antlers, now called Kennebec, and set in back of the first two camps. Toward the dam from this camp my uncle, Alfred J. Wilson Jr., who was drowned on the lake in 1936, built a cottage for he and his wife. The camp is now known as Sequoia.
Out on the point in front of the hotel was a camp known as Canabas, the name being one of the native American names for Kennebec. On the other side of the hotel was a camp known as Camp Burton, now called Lakeside. In back of this camp on the same side of the hotel was Chesb’m, a native American name for Moosehead. The camp is now known as Katahdin, behind which is a camp added after the Wilsons sold, called Somerset. Behind this camp, at the shore, are Driftwood and Spencer, both built during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, respectively.
In total, at its height, Wilsons had 40 buildings on site, including the 4-story hotel, 17 cottages, two homes, two sets of garages, an ice house, a chicken coop and a stable, a power house, two shops, large wood shed, a pump house for filling the gravity-feed water tank, and a motor house which serviced the boats and the dock area and another shed. Besides two generations of Wilson family, there were employed a staff of thirteen, which included two cabin women, a laundry woman, a cabin and grounds maintenance man, a dock man, three waitresses, two cooks, two dishwashers and a receptionist. Depending on the part of the season, there were as many as a dozen guides, some of whom spent the entire summer, living in the hotel and eating with the staff. A second dining room was for the guests and could seat as many as sixty people at a time.
Wilsons offered three meals a day, each with an extensive menu that included several choices of entrees, vegetables, homemade breads and desserts. For fully one hundred years, until 1965, Wilsons operated on the American Plan serving three meals a day, and provided either box lunches or shore dinners for those who chose to be away for the noon meal. In addition, Wilsons continued to offer meals upon request to those not on the American Plan, as well as transients from elsewhere.
Due to rising labor costs and taxes, the decision was made in 1965 to offer either American Plan or make your own meals, and a number of cottages were converted to include a kitchen. During the early 1960’s, with the construction of the Squaw Mountain Ski Area, the decision was made to winterize several cottages and remain open through the winter, making Wilsons a year-round operation. In addition to skiers, Wilsons offered accommodations to snowmobilers and ice fishermen during the winter, as well as hunters during the fall months.
Before my time, guests would arrive in one of three ways, the latter two being the most popular: by car, by rail often embarking at the Moosehead station, or by boat from either Greenville or Rockwood. Like many establishments, Wilsons had their own boat for ferrying guests to the establishment from wherever they landed. Railroad travel was popular enough up until the 1950’s that a set of rails existed running from the station to the hotel which accommodated a platform on wheels moveable by hand, upon which to move baggage, goods, and, in season, game from the various hunts.
After the highway was completed c. 1927, the preferred travel by sports and vacationers was by automobile. Many of the patrons would stay for extended periods of time, often a month or more, particularly prior to the construction of Route 15, when the establishment was more isolated and less accessible.
Wilsons always maintained a fleet of boats, smaller ones with low horsepower motors for rent in the earlier years, along with one large boat which could accommodate over a dozen passengers with their guides trailing a string of canoes to fish from once arriving at their destination. Generally a noontime cookout was part of such a trip. In later years, beginning in the 1950’s, guests started bringing their own boats, and fishing on their own rather than the traditional way of hiring a guide for the day or longer.
Early in the season, especially just after ice-out the establishment would be full and the early morning dock scene a hubbub of activity with guides getting ready to take their parties fishing. Frequently, at a spot on the lake known for good fishing, there would be a dozen or more boats trolling around, all catching fish. During the 50’s and into the 60’s most sports would return from a day’s fishing with their limit of fish.
Wilsons maintained two large walk-in coolers to accommodate the catches, and most parties went home with a limit of fish which, back then was 15 lbs. per license, changed in the late 50’s or early 60’s to 7-1/2 lbs. There have been several changes to the law since that time, always less, or more restrictive.
Like a lot of young sportsmen who lived around the lake, I became a guide as soon as I was allowed. Since I was in school during the fall and winter months, my guiding was confined to the summer season, fishing not hunting, although I did my share of hunting myself. I guided mostly on the lake, but occasionally on the river, at the dam, or trout fishing in remote ponds and streams. A couple of trips to the Allagash, and to a few of the larger lakes like Seboomook, Chesuncook and Lobster, served to round out my exposure to the area. I guided for ten years, the last two of which I spent the season operating a cabin cruiser for Mr. Cannon, a regular guest who spent a month or more with us. I still retain a guide’s license, but mostly, when I do guide, it is for family and friends.
A number of sportsmen, sometimes with their wives, came to fish the river and the famous East Outlet dam. Most of them were fly fishermen, although until the late 60’s or early 70’s when the law was changed to fly fishing only, a number of repeat anglers were either bait fishermen or spin fisherman. Up to the 1940’s, the dam was made entirely of wood, held in place by several rock cribs. During the 40’s, the northerly half was reconstructed to a more modern and more permanent concrete structure. The dam remained that way until the mid-1950’s when the southerly portion was also replaced with a concrete structure as well as being moved a considerable distance down river, thus eliminating one of the deepest and best fishing pools on the entire river.
About this same time, Harris Dam at the lower end of Indian Pond was constructed, also eliminating not only a sizeable section of the Kennebec River both upriver and down, but also enlarging Indian Pond to over twice its original size. This impoundment also served to flood over a sizeable section of the old Somerset Railroad bed, but also one of Wilsons’ neighbors and close friends, the Marr’s establishment which was at the junction of the East and West Outlet branches of the Kennebec at the head of the Pond.
The stories that persisted about the fishing and hunting prior to these events have not since been equaled. To make matters worse, bass were illegally introduced into Indian Pond during the 1960’s, turning the pond into a tremendous bass fishery, but to the detriment of its tributaries, as now the invasive species has found its way into the branches of the Kennebec River, but also into Moosehead Lake. This has caused a noticeable effect on the overall fishery, with a scarcity of baitfish and, in some areas of the lake, fewer brook trout than in the past.
During this time, a number of dignitaries and famous persons frequented the establishment. Many newspaper articles and stories in national sporting magazines appeared from well known writers and promoters. A number of local people were also promoters, appearing at, and sometimes hosting, sportsmens shows and like events. My father, Don Wilson was an exhibition fly caster numerous times, and spent many hours with the sportsmens and local groups. He also served on the Governor’s Fish & Game Advisory Council.
From very early times until the late 1960’s the dam was a scene of spring logging activity. At first, logs, then later, pulpwood, was towed in large rafts known as booms, from all over the lake to the dam, where it was sluiced down the river, then through more dams after being collected at and towed across Indian Pond and Wyman Lake further down river. The rafts assembled at Moosehead collected wood from other lakes and tributaries around the region, including the Moose River, Tomhegan Stream and the Roach River, as well as several smaller ones. Hundreds of thousands of board feet of sawlogs and thousands of cords of pulpwood were sent through the dam and down the river to the mills, having been delivered to the East Outlet by steamboat at first later diesel-operated towboat, from around the lake where it had been collected.
The dam and Wilsons once again became a center of attention as the dock at Wilsons made a convenient location to tie up the Katahdin, the prime towboat of booms of logs, along with its smaller craft. The dock was therefore used by the paper companies as a hub to come and go from, since by the 1930’s it was accessible by highway from either Greenville or Rockwood. Around the early 1970’s, environmentalists helped put a stop to this long-standing practice by many logging companies on many rivers, but not before the companies harvested as much wood as they could, and built a network of roads traversing hundreds of miles and accessing thousands of acres of woodland previously relatively inaccessible.
This last big harvest was not the first, however, as earlier in the 20th century hundreds of dams were constructed throughout Maine, for the purpose of moving wood down every imaginable trickle of running water, delivered streamside by horses as well as mechanized machines such as log haulers, and later, tractors and skidders. The Moosehead Lake Region was no exception. By the 1950’s, many of these access roads provided avenues for hunting as the forests recovered, and a way to reach many of the rotting dams where trout fishing was at its best. Such resources remained until the dams finally fully deteriorated, or were totally destroyed by spring freshets.
In 1974, after a period of continual operation for 109 years, for a variety of reasons Wilsons decided to sell, insisting the name be retained. This name had gone through an evolution of its own, from Wilsons Tavern, to the Outlet House and Camps, to Wilson’s Camps, to Wilsons on Moosehead Lake, to finally just Wilsons.