July 09, 2020

Welcome to the club Lewiston photographer’s scrapbooks chronicle fraternity of William Tell Hunting group

This club was originally intended as a home for the over-worked toiler, but it has now come to be a retreat for good fellows … with its picturesque scenery, its solemn stillness and its remoteness from the habitation of man it is the ideal spot to rest … Business is forgotten in the contemplation of nature and the sportsman reigns supreme.

Records from the William Tell Hunting Club

The exploits of the “William Tellers,” as members of the William Tell Hunting Club called themselves, easily could have been lost to the ravages of time were it not for the efforts of one member. Amateur photographer George T. Bain of Lewiston captured about 15 years of the club’s sojourns on film.

Each fall during the first third of the 20th century, club members left their families and businesses behind to spend two weeks hunting in the Maine woods. Their successes were carefully recorded in a ledger each season. Many of the photographs show bearded and mustached middle-aged men standing beside dressed-out deer.

Apparently, Bain religiously carried a cumbersome camera, tripod and some kind of extra lighting to the club’s hunting camp. After developing and printing the pictures, he collected them in small scrapbooks, the dates of each excursion stamped on the album covers in gold letters.

A collection of these scrapbooks along with official club records were donated by Bain’s family to Special Collections in Fogler Library at the University of Maine in the mid-1970s. A Bangor auctioneer recently obtained a group of the scrapbooks that will be sold along with other items on New Year’s Day. John Cheney of Cheney Auction Co. obtained them from a client in Bangor, who said his father was a William Teller from the late teens to mid-’30s. Cheney would reveal no other information about how he acquired the pictures.

How the club got its name remains a mystery, but Theodore Roosevelt was president in June 1903 when 10 businessmen formed the William Tell Hunting Club. Five were from Lewiston, three from the Maine towns of Auburn, Hartland and Pittsfield. One hailed from Providence, R.I., another from Albany, N.Y. The club claimed to be the first hunting club in the country.

That summer the club had its first cabin built on land leased from the Hollingsworth and Whitney Co. of Waterville. In October 1903, club members began the first of 38 trips to their hunting camp along Spencer Stream that runs from Spencer Bay on Moosehead Lake to Spencer Pond. From the club’s cabins, both Little Spencer and Big Spencer mountains could be seen.

Over the years, club membership grew slowly and peaked in the mid-1930s with nearly 40 members on the books. The records also began noting during these years the deaths of charter and early members. Just a dozen men, including Bain, made the last hunting trip in 1941. After World War II, the club never recovered its popularity. The cabins were demolished and the lease agreement was severed in 1950, according to documents in Fogler Library.

The story of the William Tell Hunting Club, however, can be seen in Bain’s photographs. Much about the club was revealed in a Nov. 2, 1974, article in the Lewiston Evening Journal Magazine. Written by Bain’s son, Sherwood E. Bain, it included an account by A.G. Staples, the paper’s editor, published on Nov. 10, 1928.

The annual excursions were held the last week of October and the first week of November, then the opening two weeks of hunting season. Most members took the train to Kineo Station on the west shore of Moosehead Lake. From there, they boarded the single-stacked, double-decked steamer Katahdin, according to Sherwood Bain’s account. Some photographs, however, show members on the deck of the Marguerite.

They disembarked on the opposite shore at Spencer Bay Landing, where club members were taken to the camp on a horse-drawn buckboard. While William Tellers “roughed it” according to their own standards, the cabins were clean and well stocked when they arrived. The club also employed cooks and guides.

The initial fee for membership was $100, with annual dues of $10, carefully recorded in account books now at UMaine. Total expenses for that first 1903 season were $555.20 or $61.69 per member. Mose Duty was paid $48 for 16 days of guiding. The head cook got $3 per day and his two assistants, $2 each. One J.W. Perkins Co. was paid $60.83 for “whiskey, etc.” and “ale” costs were $24.

The 1928 trip Staples wrote of included members Hiram W. Ricker of Poland Spring and Russell R. Fray of Beverly Hills, Calif., as well as much singing by William Tellers. “No club on earth has ever sung so much, so persistently, or so badly as William Tell. No club has more songs of its own. They have even been printed in a book,” he wrote. Sadly, no songbook, which would have included “The State of Maine is Not to Blame for a Club Named William Tell,” is among the club’s records at UMaine.

“I know of no finer sight,” wrote Staples, “than to see the aging company of the oldest hunting club in the United State of America religiously intoning its traditional songs, year by year, with the tenors and deeper bassos as they went their way into the wildwoods of Maine. It has really become a sacrament.”

By the late 1920s, hunting was not the only activity club members engaged in. Staples wrote of the contrast between how the hunters and nonhunters spent their days at camp. Fray shot the first deer that year, within 50 feet of Little Spencer.

“Climbing steadily, he reached a place where the sheer cliffs confronted him and that ended it. He saw deer, but in places where it would be mere cruelty to shoot. He saw a fawn gamboling a little way off – but would not shoot a fawn. Fray gets his deer always because he works so hard. Some of us do not hunt as much as others. We sit about camp a good deal and settle international problems …”

Unlike most of his fellow club members, Staples was a night owl. He stayed up reading until 2 a.m., then slept long into the day after many William Tellers had gotten their deer. In 1928, his schedule worked to his advantage. While others were sleeping, Staples witnessed the northern lights.

“One night the northern lights crackled and snapped over Lobster Mountain and one day – all day long – snow-squall after snow-squall came down out of the North, struck the pond first, threw a close veil across the mountain and pond, set up a curtain of vivid crimsons and orange across the East where the sunlight made many rainbows of the snow crystals, and finally enveloped us in impenetrable snow on our lawn and our clothing.”

The William Tellers were not the first to find beauty in the woods of Maine or to solidify friendships stalking game. The photographs they left behind captured an era rarely seen on film. Many of the pictures are typical shots of members lined up for the official record. Just as many are candid photos, showing the men playing cards, singing, sleeping and simply standing outside gazing longingly across Spencer Pond or into the woods contemplating the natural beauty of the place.

The clothing people wear and the equipment they use, even the woods themselves, have changed in the 50 years since the William Tell Hunting Club disbanded. What has not changed is that intangible thing people find outdoors in Maine.

“This is Paradise enough for any person who loves the forest primeval,” wrote Staples at the end of his story. That sentiment remains unaltered.

Cheney’s auction will be held at 1 p.m. Monday, Jan. 1, at Jeff’s Catering in Brewer. The preview will be from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. that day. Snow date will be Sunday, Jan. 7. For more information, call 942-5032.

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