The Chesuncook House, 1863 – 2018

The Chesuncook House was built in 1863-64 by Greenville business partners John H. Eveleth, Lindley H. Folsom and one of his brothers, likely Oliver E. Folsom. It burned to the ground 1:30 a.m. Saturday morning, March 17, 2018. Current owners David and Louisa Suprenant and their family escaped harm. The cause of the fire is not known as of this writing.

Many people will remember the decades it was owned and operated by Bert and Margaret “Maggie” McBurnie. Bert’s life at Chesuncook ran the better part of the 1900s, when his father came to trap and cut lumber for Great Northern Paper Co. He brought the boy down from Aroostook County to Chesuncook Lake c. 1934 and where, except for a stint in the Army and a brief stay in Alaska, Bert lived until his death in 1997. Maggie, originally from Paris, France, met and married the young serviceman. Together they moved back to Chesuncook and made a life there, purchasing the hotel in 1957, renaming it the Chesuncook Lake House, and operating it as part small inn and part sporting camp that could house 10 to 12 travelers. Maggie was known for her warm hospitality and simple, delicious meals with a French flair, while Bert introduced outdoorsmen and off-the-beaten path travelers to their way of life in the remote territory. The only way to get there was by small plane or canoe. A number of Greenville businesses serviced the McBurnies. Folsom’s Air Service flew travelers in. Harry Sanders of Sanders Store took special care when Bert needed supplies. Several years after Bert died, Maggie sold to the Suprenants. Now of advanced years, she continues to live here in Greenville.1977_3_28 Chesuncook HouseJPEG copy

According to a letter by Lindley Folsom saved in the Historical Society archives, a log camp was built by a person of unknown origin at Chesuncook in 1849. By 1853, woodsman Ansel Smith occupied it and built a log addition that measured some 80 feet long, where woodsmen could find room and board for $3.50 per week. Smith acquired hundreds of acres of forestland and built a considerable logging business there.

“Uncle Anse” as Smith was known, hired Lindley’s father, Joshua Folsom, to oversee his business accounts. At the time, the outpost was nothing more than what Lindley Folsom called “a shanty” – apparently not a derogatory term for the times, as these stations were referred to as such and built as a supply chain at regular intervals in remote areas to service logging operations. Lindley said the Chesuncook shanty was “a regulation logging camp with a large slate stone fireplace and a dining room and kitchen annex.”

Lumbering operators would rendezvous at the Smith compound at Chesuncook. All supplies were hauled from Bangor, either through Greenville or Katahdin Iron Works, with other shanty stops situated approximately 10 miles apart along the route, since that was about the distance a team of horses could travel in a day. These supply routes formed a junction at Grant Farm, located about 20 miles south of the Chesuncook shanty, with what Lindley describes as the Joseph Morris shanty established between Chesuncook and the Grant Farm to service patronage from both directions.

Ansel Smith became synonymous with the wilds of the West Branch of the Penobscot River into Chesuncook. He ran a tight business and was known as a quiet, unassuming man of timber, but one who was not to be messed with. At the time, Chesuncook was considered a pretty rough place. Lindley recalls many “skedaddlers” or “deserters” occupying the area. One Henry Milliken wrote in a first person account that the Chesuncook House was “lively”, filled with smoke, with 30 to 40 men filling the house. Three trappers were sitting on a deacon seat, recounting their trapline ventures. Many of the lumberjacks did not speak English, as many French-Canadians worked the woods. The lobby was a large room with a low ceiling, heated by a huge stove or “ram-down.” There was a clerk’s counter at one end of the lobby and a large sink for washing up at the other end.

When Eveleth and the Folsoms built the hotel, the original log shanty stood for several years, a place for laborers to board.

Lindley also references Henry David Thoreau’s description of the Chesuncook Hotel as being fairly accurate. Even then, the hotel included a large framed stable, a log hog house, a blacksmith shop, milk house and an outside potato and vegetable cellar. Lindley also remembers Peter Tomer, a well-respected guide from the Native-American family on Moosehead Lake, camping a short distance from the Chesuncook establishment, where he and his wife made bark canoes and baskets. The baskets were likely sold at the Mt. Kineo Hotel.

Chesuncook is typically remembered as a stopping place. The earliest settlers were Native-Americans who made their way from the coast to the Allagash, living for several weeks at Chesuncook Lake, which was considered a two-day trip from the stopover for flint on Mt. Kineo at Moosehead Lake. One article notes that the first known permanent settler at Chesuncook was a Tomah of Indian descent, who built a small cabin there and took in visitors, not long before lumbering operations went into full force by the mid-1800s. Thoreau was also guided to Chesuncook and wrote about it in the 1850s. While today Thoreau is oft quoted for his writing about the North Woods, a hundred years later, Bert of Chesuncook was not a fan.

In a 1987 interview, he called Thoreau a terrible learner because he could be close-minded about how things were done in the Maine woods and thought he was prejudiced toward the Indians who tried to teach him. In his time, Bert spoke about a cherished a way of life, which he saw as one that increasingly drew great curiosity for the experience from outside that tiny enclave. At the Chesuncook Lake House he wished to introduce visitors into that world, simply, and for all that it offered, as is.

Today, the Suprenants plan to rebuild the house, continuing to welcome visitors to this stopping place in the woods.