One of the more interesting and somewhat puzzling buildings on the Airline is the Wilderness Lodge, which is located in Township 24, Middle Division west of Wesley. An old landmark, it sits there seemingly abandoned and empty and has done so for many decades except for a few short periods of mysterious activity. Sometimes a nondescript vehicle or two can be seen in the parking lot on the way to Bangor but the vehicles will likely be gone when you return home. Still, someone has, over the decades, maintained the building, probably at considerable expense but to what purpose? Who built it and why? It seemed a mystery worth a bit of research.
We know from this photo published in the Bangor Daily on June 11, 1964, that the Wilderness Lodge was built in 1964 and at the time “caused a rash of curiosity from frequent and not-so-frequent travelers of Route 9.” We recall it was rumored the lodge was being built for the rich and famous from Hollywood and after its completion stars such as John Wayne often flew in secretly to hunt and fish out of reach of the paparazzi. If that were true it was a professionally run operation because there was never a sign of much activity around the lodge.
Contained in these rumors was a small, although very small grain of truth. The Wilderness Lodge was built in 1964 by Earl and Sarah Harris of New York for the Backwoods Club of Maine, a group of wealthy and famous sports and socialites. Jackie Gleason, among many well known personalities, was said to be very excited about the project.
The Portland Press Herald described the project as follows:
Work is progressing nicely on the new development In Township 24 on the Airline Rte. 9 between Beddington and Wesley. Earl Harris, production manager of Paramount Pay- TV and owner of 18880 acres of land in the township (purchased for about $300000 cash Harris says) has been working steadily on his celebrity-tinged recreational development.
Harris was up in the area last week and returned home Wednesday. There’s much more to the project already than has so far been published. For example Jack Lescoulie of “Today” TV fame has been elected president of the Backwoods Club bf Maine. This is the part of Harris’s project which will bring many celebrities to this state. Access to 5000 acres of the land Is reserved for members of the club. Work has already started on the club’s foundation on the shores of one of the Hadley Lakes in that area. Work continues on a cocktail lounge on the Airline which will be used by members if they wish, by the public and by those who buy land in the 13,880 acres of other land Harris owns. Harris will attach a 10-unit motel to the cocktail lounge to enable him to qualify for a liquor license.
William Silsby Jr of Ellsworth Is handling Harris’ affairs in the area. It costs $1000 to become a member of the Backwoods Club of Maine. The first 100 to join will be life members and won’t have to pay any dues. Dues will be set by the club under bylaws which the membership itself will draw up. Anyone interested should write to Backwoods Club of Maine, Inc. 7 Park Ave New York City.
Besides Lescoulie and Frank Blair from the “Today” show, Johnny Carson of “Tonight” has been lined up. Then there’s John Wayne, Franchot Tone, Peter Donald formerly on “It Pays To Be Ignorant” on TV, George Hanson public relations man for American Express Co., a couple of generals, Jean Dalrymple head of the New York City Center and Barney Balaban president of Paramount.
THERE WILL BE OTHERS
Harris has recruited Nelson Schraeder a free-lance public relations man in New York with many connections in TV to work at getting more celebrities interested. The whole idea behind the club is to provide a spot where New York celebrities can fly in in a couple of hours and then relax and rest by a lake with their families in semi-isolation. Work will begin very shortly on an air strip in the area. Until that air strip is built Harris will use the Deblois air strip which isn’t too far away. Harris has divided his land into three prime areas. One is the 5000 acres for the Backwoods Club. Another is commercial and one man has leased land which he hopes to make into a dude ranch. There’ll be a dining hall, an antique shop, a service station, a general store for hunters and fishermen, chapel and dry cleaners. Some of these would be let on a concession basis.
The main drawback of the scheme was the Backwoods Club of Maine existed mainly only on paper, had few members, none particularly prominent and to be blunt, was based more on hope than reality. After the lodge was completed in late 1964 some members of the “club” did visit the site including Jack Hurdle, producer of the Jackie Gleason Show and Tony Storey, General MacArthur’s personal pilot who had flown MacArthur out of Corregidor in 1942 but actual generals, movie stars and other celebrities were scarce on the ground. Within a year the Portland Press Herald was asking “Whatever happened to the Backwoods Clubs of Maine?” According to the Press Herald it appeared Harris was “refinancing” which we’re sure cheered the many locals who were owed money. John Dudley in his Airline history confirms that Harris didn’t pay his bills and lost the property.
1967 brought foreclosure and a long succession of owners who, like Harris, didn’t pay their bills although there were times when driving to Bangor, we’d be surprised to see cars in the parking lot, the doors open and signs advertising rooms, food and drink. The Wilderness might even stay open for a few weeks or months or be closed for a decade.
The above is from 1969 when Jerry Pierce was appearing at the Wilderness Log Cabin Lounge. It was a short-lived affair and it may have been about this time that the Maine Musician’s Association published a notice in the Bangor Daily warning groups they were unlikely to get paid if they played the Wilderness.
The Wilderness was closed completely in the 1970’s but was reopened briefly in 1981 by a fellow from Oregon named Jerry Love. The end was predictable:
1981 Bangor Daily:
Search continues for motel proprietor TOWNSHIP 24 M D
The search is continuing for the proprietor of the Great All-American Food and Beverage Co a motel-restaurant-cocktail lounge complex on Route 9 north of Beddington Washington County Sheriff Robert Higgins Sr said Monday.
He said Chief Deputy Sheriff Roland Richardson is conducting an investigation into the mysterious disappearance of Jerry Love the proprietor of the establishment formerly known as Wilderness Lodge.
Love was reportedly last seen on July 12 after the restaurant’s closing hour. Love is being sought by the Maine State Police, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the county sheriff’s department. Richardson has indicated the proprietor owes considerable back pay to his employees and apparently left the area owing a minimum of $22000 to investors in the business which catered heavily to travelers on the Airline Road. He is reported to have resided in Oregon, Texas Washington and Idaho before coming to Maine to attempt a revival of the Wilderness Lodge.
According to law enforcement officials Love has used at least one other name and his wife Lillian has given three different names as her identity at various times. It was an advertisement in a pilot’s magazine which is believed to have led the Loves from Corvallis, Oregon to Maine where they spent 1980 renovating. On Feb 14 they opened 10 motel units offered room for banquets seating for 96 in the lounge and 40 in the dining room. A dance floor was also made available.
Built in 1964 as private resort for people in the television and movie industries the structure was operated as a motel and restaurant only for a brief period in 1972 before it closed. It had been vacant 11 years before the Loves took over.
To our knowledge the Loves were never found and the Wilderness remained closed unused until the early 1990s.
According to John Dudley:
In the summers of 1990 and 1991 the Maine Department of Education conducted a Migrant School at Wilderness Lodge. The purpose was to have the children be educated in a natural environment, out of doors, instead of in a typical American style classroom. Many of the staff were Passamaquoddy and Penobscot. When they arrived for work at the school, the Native American held a smudging ceremony to purify the place for the task ahead. Aaron Shetterly was a teacher at the school and provided this information.
John Dudley also says in 2011 he talked with Matt Whitegiver of Otis who then owned the lodge. Whitegiver told John he opened the lodge during bear hunting season. Perhaps these bear hunters were unaware that the Wilderness Lodge is haunted.
This absolutely true story is again from John Dudley:
THE GHOST OF WILDERNESS LODGE
This story comes from Betina Martin, MDOT and is shared by Harry Nelson, also of MDOT.
“I actually stayed a short while at the Wilderness Lodge! It was the only time I saw it opened- it was owned by a couple from Maryland, and they had bear hunters there. We had little rooms, and they provided the evening meal as part of the price, served family style and you didn’t get to place orders! I was told that the Wilderness lodge was haunted, and one night while we were eating, the owners’ four dogs suddenly jumped up, went into the corner of the room and started barking at what appeared to be NOTHING! “I never saw a ghost, but it was definitely eerie.
I really enjoyed staying there, but I refused to look at any dead bear. I was told that at one time it was a brothel and that one of the girls there went missing and they believe that she is the one who haunts it. When I said I was going to stay there, there were people from DiCenzo who warned me not to – they said that semi-trucks don’t stop there at night because one time a driver woke up feeling like he was being strangled, and he saw the ghost. They were serious! Of course, this made me want to stay all the more…. I stayed there with a woman and a couple of men from DiCenzo, and none of us saw the ghost.
There was one occasion when the Wilderness Lodge or at least its parking lot was crowded with very angry protesters. In 1988 Champion Paper agreed to sell a waste disposal company from Orrington 60 acres for a massive landfill just off the Airline in Township 30. Hundreds of protesters met at the Wilderness Lodge and attempted to drive to the proposed site but were turned back by county deputies and State Police. The protests continued backed by local politicians from both parties, notably Harry Vose, Democrat of Eastport and Thelma Look, a Republican from Jonesboro until the project was abandoned.
We do not know who owns the Wilderness Lodge today and we’re sure there are some who have more accurate information and a better memory than we do about the Lodge’s history. Feel free to contact us with corrections or add to the above history.
One final note. The Air Force once maintained a practice bombing range off the airline near Deblois. Occasionally one of the bombers would fly at a low level, its wingtips just above the trees bordering the road north of the long straight stretch going west by the Wilderness Lodge. If you happened to be on your way to Bangor when the bombers were on a run, the noise was tremendous, the trees to your right would move as if a hurricane had struck and the shock waves could be felt in your vehicle. The massive plane filled the sky above the trees. It was quite an experience.