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  • Cat Dorman

Governor Percival Baxter and His Irish Setters

On June 4 1923, Governor Percival Baxter of Maine issued a statement in response to an influx of outrage from the public for his decision to lower the flag on the Maine State Capitol in Augusta in mourning for his beloved Irish Setter Garry II. Garry had been Baxter’s constant companion throughout his time in office, known in particular for greeting school children each lunchtime on their daily constitutional walk around the neighborhood. Garry was beloved, like any White House pet we know today, and so, Baxter thought, no one would object to his being honored for his time of government service.

He was wrong. And veterans groups in particular objected to this honor being extended to a mere canine, feeling that it cheapened the meaning of the gesture and belittled the sacrifice of the men who had only just died serving in World War I. It would be reasonable for an elected official to walk back on an unpopular choice in hopes of preserving their popularity, but Baxter doubled down. He writes, “I seek to offend the feelings of none, but I yield to none my right to act according to the dictates of my heart.”

Seemingly in direct response to veterans, the governor implies that dogs too should be viewed as veterans, writing that “in our recent conflict dogs saved countless lives, performed many acts of bravery and devotion, and in their death were fittingly honored by their human companions. Unlike men, however, dogs always are loyal and unselfish…”

newspaper clip from Governor Baxter's press release

Here, his raw pain at losing his beloved companion is plain. Had he not issued so quick a reply he might have toned down his words, but in his pain and grief, he rebukes any criticism with the implication of dogs’ superiority. If one were to imply he acted rashly, however, there was rebuke for that too. For he carries on to explain, “it was my desire and my plan to have the flags lowered during the period of Garry’s journey homeward to the graves of his ancestors at my island home.”

Part of his aim in holding such a public memorial for Garry was to provoke conversation about the place of dogs in our lives. He writes,

I firmly believe that when the men and women of this State and nation think through what I have done they will ace that a lesson in the appreciation of dumb animals has been taught and that my act heightens the significance of our flag as an element of human achievement that has been made possible largely through faithful services and sacrifices of dumb animals.

Whether that was the lesson learned is debatable, but his statement was carried in the New York Times, and even in recent years when think pieces question if we lower the flags too often, this incident is often referenced. Furthermore, this interaction is only one in a lifetime of acts that sought to celebrate the role of dogs in our lives. Governor Percival Baxter’s legacy is inextricably tied to his dual love of dogs and nature.

Nowhere does this dual affection become more visible than his aforementioned “island home” to which Garry made his final journey. The island is Mackworth Island, located just off the coast of Falmouth, Maine. Baxter’s father James had purchased the small wooded island in 1885 when Percival was a small boy. It was here that he would raise his first dog, an Irish Setter from whom his pets would descend for decades. It’s fitting then, that on the island where he walked, swam and played with his pets, they would also find their final resting place. Set back a few feet of what is now a public walking path sits a small cemetery encircled in stones holding his most beloved companions.

In 1943 Percival Baxter donated the island to the state of Maine to house a school for the deaf that his family had founded. He did so on two conditions: the first that the rest of the island aside from the school remain a public nature preserve, and the second that his dog cemetery remain undisturbed in perpetuity. And so, just off the coast of Falmouth, visitors today can walk the leisurely one mile loop, admiring the fairy houses of leaves, sticks ,and stones made by local children and take a slight detour to pay respects to Baxter’s thirteen setters. As well as a solitary horse named Jerry Roan about whom little is known.

Not only did he memorialize his most beloved companions in a picturesque cemetery, he also chronicled their intertwined lives in a self-published book titled My Irish Setter Dogs, published in 1923. He used the book as an opportunity to extoll the virtues of dogs once again and to illuminate the ways they had made him a better person. For example, he attributes his support for women’s rights to seeing at a young age how differently female dogs are valued. He writes of selling his litters of puppies,

The male pups brought me ten dollars, the female five. At this discrimination between the sexes I revolted. Perhaps this was the beginning of my later desire to help the weaker sex attain equal rights with the stronger, for in after years I became an ardent champion of equal suffrage.

This link between supporting suffrage and the price of puppies is tenuous at best. And of course, to us today calling women the “weaker sex” and aligning them with a piece of property to be bought and sold leaves a bad taste. But this was 100 years ago and his heart was in the right place. In attributing many of his beliefs and attitudes to his close relationships with dogs, he clearly hopes that this will inspire others to join his pro-dog cultural revolution.

Baxter truly believed that through his actions he could help others understand what he already knew; that dogs could make us better people and citizens. So when he was governor, he not only kept Garry as his constant companion and honored his own pets, but he also used his authority to put these beliefs into wider practice. He was the first governor in the US to introduce dogs into prisons in hopes of boosting morale and improving outcomes for those incarcerated.

Shortly after Baxter’s experiment, the Governor of Pennsylvania followed suit and sentenced chocolate lab Pep to prison at the famed Eastern State Penitentiary. We’ve posted about Pep and Eastern State in the past, and at the time we noted that in the century since Baxter first introduced dogs to prisons these types of programs have grown and expanded. More formalized dog programs can now be found around the country as rehabilitation programs for incarcerated individuals.

Baxter may not have been able to convince the general population of Maine that dogs should be respected as humans but he was able to leave behind the legacy of a dedicated animal lover. He would likely be pleased to know that he is most remembered for his fierce dedication to his dogs as well as the large swaths of land that have become Baxter State Park in Maine.

In 1999 a construction project on the Maine Sailors and Soldiers Memorial for those who had served in World War I uncovered a small time capsule that Baxter had set into place in 1924. In it was a sealed envelope containing an eight-page letter “to be opened after my death.” In the letter Percival details the moments and subjects which lay most heavily on his mind; his refused proposal to his young sweetheart, his strong anti-war sentiments, his disdain for the cruelty towards animals he sees in Maine, and – of course- lowering the flag for Garry II’s funeral. He clearly remains proud of the act, for he writes that “Good old Garry II was the first dog in history to be thus honored… His spirit lives on and through him, dumb animals the world over will be treated more kindly and mercifully.”

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