Celia’s garden and grave out on Appledore Island

The garden today tries to be faithful to the original. The railing is where the cottage porch once stood.

Celia Thaxter (1835-1894) is an intriguing character in New England history. An important figure in New England poetry, she was also a pioneering hotelier, flower gardener, and catalyst in the fine arts.

Celia in her garden, 1899

While turning her family’s hotel on Appledore Island in the Atlantic into what was probably the leading summer resort in the Northeast, she also created a famed artists’ colony with salon events featuring a who’s who of America’s leading artists, poets, novelists, and painters. There were likely more, including actors and dancers.

With its 95 acres, Appledore is the largest of the nine islands that comprise the Isles of Shoals about nine miles off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire. It was known as Hog Island until Celia’s family decided to build the hotel and turned to an earlier name for the shoals, one drawn from the Old English word for apple tree. How romantic.

The shoals also include tidal ledges.

Celia’s flower garden in front of her cottage became legendary, celebrated in her lovely book An Island Garden, with glorious illustrations by Impressionist master Childe Hassam. I treasure my reproduction copy. She’s the one who convinced Hassam to use his middle name rather than Frederick as an artist.

The hotel itself burned in 1914, and today the island is privately owned, much of it by the Shoals Marine Laboratory run by the University of New Hampshire and Cornell University. Visits are strictly controlled.

Today Appledore Island is the home of the Shoals Marine Laboratory. The tower was a bunker used to watch for German submarines approaching Portsmouth Harbor during World War II. The hotel sat in the open space from 1847 to 1914. A corner of her resurrected garden is at the lower left.

Last summer, my wife and elder daughter and I indulged in a tour of the island. Among its highlights was walking through the grounds of the long-gone hotel and a replication of Celia’s garden, which is much smaller than we’d expected and less carefully tended. The fact that it needed such constant care is a lesson in humility for those of us who expect similar results on much larger tracts.

And, for those of you who have read the garden book, I’m told that garden slugs are no longer a problem.

Nearby is her grave.

Celia is buried with her parents and siblings on the island.

 

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