Naturalist Howe eyed earth and skies

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Many times I set out to write about some interesting bit of history, and before I’m done I find that the story encompassed a lot more than I expected.

That’s the case when I decided to write about George Howe and his telescope. I was aware that the people of Oxford Hills had taken extraordinary steps some years ago to preserve an old telescope and observatory on the grounds of Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School, but that was just the final chapter in the story of a remarkable Maine man.

Born in Norway in 1860, George Robley Howe came to be known as “Uncle George” throughout the area, and many referred to him as the Thoreau of Maine. Much of his story I found in writings of Edith Labbie, my aunt, and on a website created a few years ago by David Sanderson, historian of the Oxford Hills and its people.

They told how this son of a prominent Norway businessman enjoyed the beginnings of a successful insurance career, and later recognition in journalism at the New York World daily newspaper. He married Emma Boardman of Hartford, Conn., in 1988 and they had a daughter two years later when they had returned to Norway and Auburn. Within a few years, the marriage dissolved for unknown reasons, and that period became the turning point in Howe’s life that set him apart … not in the business world but in the world of nature.

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Discovery of important gemstone deposits in Oxford County captured his interest. Many pages in Edith Labbie’s files describe how he became one of Maine’s pioneer geologists.

One summer he stayed at a hotel near Bridgton’s Pleasant Mountain and he trekked throughout the Denmark area probing secret mountain sides and ledges for weeks and months.

“His search continued from summer into fall,” she wrote. “On a bitter cold day as winter was settling in, he came upon a pocket of beautiful amethyst. They were a rare royal purple with burgundy highlights.” Snow brought an end to the explorations, but in the spring Howe brought out knapsacks full of extraordinary stones.

“Financial gains meant little to him. Friendship and nature were his special treasures,” she said. He became a noted naturalist in the years that followed, with professors, scientists and representatives of firms such as Tiffany’s paying him visits.

Glass cases of gems filled his study, and velvet-lined cases held freshwater pearls from streams he had known since childhood. His botanical specimens numbered more than 500, with many mosses, lichens and fungi. He had more than 2,000 butterflies and insects in mounted displays.

Sharing his knowledge of the natural world was Howe’s passion, and he especially loved to teach young people. Sanderson tells how “Uncle George” and Shavey Noyes, a colleague and fellow naturalist, started a movement called the Boy Scientists, and its popularity grew rapidly. It’s said that their ideas had a significant influence on the early years of the Boy Scouts organization about 10 years later.

 Howe married again in 1957, but his wife, Lena, died of cancer in only three years. He had built a home for them on Pike’s Hill, which rises steeply near downtown Norway. There, at what he called Summit Study, he enjoyed meeting and teaching both young and old.

 In the 1920s a learned friend, Dr. Alpheus Baker Hervey, who was president of St. Lawrence University in New York, gave Howe a 13.5-inch reflecting telescope to be used for the benefit of the young people of Norway. It was mounted on a pipe driven into the stone of that hilltop, and many enjoyed its excellent celestial views.

 It eventually was disassembled and pieces were scattered and nearly lost until a community restoration effort in 1972 placed it in an observatory built specially for it. The telescope is now owned by Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School in Paris.

 Howe’s mineral finds might have made him a very wealthy man, but he had other ideas about the real significance of his work. He gave away many of his most precious gems, and he had little left at the end of his life and was dependent upon others for care until his death in 1950.

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