On June 11, 1925, the Courier-Gazette ran an unattributed story entitled “Knox County Naturalist.” The article was a profile of resident politician and scientist, Norman Wallace Lermond. Lermond was the founder of the Knox Academy of Arts and Sciences as well as the Knox Arboretum. The Arboretum surrounds a beautiful brick house that can still be seen today if you drive up Arboretum Park Drive off the Oyster River Road in Warren. Lermond had amassed a great trove of books, fossils, gems, and herbs, and was lobbying the state for funds to build a fireproof building to house them. Not only was he concerned that a fire could destroy the collection, he was also conscious that two similar archives had been removed from Maine already because they lacked a fire-proof home. He didn’t want to see more of Maine’s natural treasures removed from the state.

Lermond was born in Maine just before the Civil War. His family moved to Boston when he was still young and later relocated to Hartford, Conn., where he would attend church in the same congregation as Mark Twain. Throughout his education and career, he would live in just about every corner of the U.S., bringing home specimens from Florida and California and many places in between. He started a commune in Washington state and lived there for a while before returning to the East Coast. Wherever his adventures took him though, Maine — its natural history and its people — remained close to his heart.

According to the article, the Arboretum building was not intended to be merely a repository for dusty tomes and dead specimens, it would be filled with laboratories for students and would be the seat of the publication he was busily editing at the time, the Maine Naturalist, which the correspondent described as a “pretentious illustrated magazine,” but also noted that “full sets of this magazine are to be found in libraries throughout the country.” The Arboretum was itself an attraction, bringing visits from botanical enthusiasts from across New England. These efforts reveal a man who wanted more than just to hoard knowledge and top his profession; he wanted to bring science to life and spread it around his community.

He was an avid reader of Edward Bellamy, who’s utopian novels were loadstones of the burgeoning populist movement. Eventually, Lermond decided to leave his day job with the New York and New England Railroad; he would return to Maine and help reshape the community through science and agriculture.

It was a heady time in American politics. Across the country, farmers were organizing against the inequities of the Gilded Age, demanding a bigger cut of the pie they had helped to bake. Greenbacks were clamoring for the removal of the gold standard and federal support for farming networks. Women were actively pursuing suffrage and recognition of their own labor. Everyone was keeping a nervous eye on revolutions that were reshaping the old countries of Europe. Edward Bellamy was writing bestselling novels that depicted a futuristic America that was run by cooperative trade unions, where women had the run of their own bodies and even animals had rights.

Maine was in a time of transition from being a Democratic enclave in New England to being a Republican bastion more in line with Boston. Meanwhile, new Mainers were pouring in from Quebec, Ireland, and Scandinavia, who were more likely to lean toward Democrats and Greenbacks. The gubernatorial election of 1879 had failed to yield a majority to any of the three parties and armed factions gathered in Augusta to duke things out the old-fashioned way. Gettysburg hero and former governor, Joshua Chamberlain, had to take charge of the State Militia to keep the peace.

This was the political backdrop against which Lermond returned to Maine. He didn’t lean into demagoguery or nativism, however; he was a slow and steady organizer who sought reform through cooperative institutions. According to Wikipedia, he helped found the Thomaston Farmer’s Exchange as early as 1880. He also helped organize the New England Milk Association, the forbear of today’s New England Dairy. The Greenback movement was coalescing into a broader party known as the People’s Party, and Lermond would help organize their Maine chapter. He ran on their ticket for Maine’s 2nd Congressional district in 1898. The People’s Party would later evolve into the American Socialist Party, and Lermond would be their candidate for governor in 1900. He received just over a half a percentage point of the total vote.

The statement he gave the Courier’s correspondent leaves one wondering what exactly turned him away from reformist politics, but the statement was direct enough: “In 1903 I opened my grove in Warren under the name of Utopia Park, and for three seasons we held socialist meetings there, with speakers of national reputation, most of them ministers or college professors. I then closed the park to the public, retired definitively from politics, and decided to devote the rest of my time to nature and science.”

Fair enough.

Lermond remained active in the sciences and helped found a national organization, the American Malacological Union, which is still active today. He worked in the Department of Mollusks at Harvard, where he left his unfinished autobiography that wouldn’t be discovered until long after his death in 1944. It makes me sad to think that he lived to see American socialism all but outlawed by the Red Scare, and that he died right when the Nazi’s were consolidating power in Europe. I respect his inclination to turn toward nature and quiet study, but I wish he’d stayed active and raised his voice against the gathering storm.

Lermond left the building in the Arboretum to the people of Maine, but the legislature didn’t want to keep it up. His collections were at first purchased by Colby College, but eventually they were transferred out of state.

W. W. Matteson is a writer who lives in Thomaston, where he weaves tales about Maine’s coast and mountains.

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