Camden's great benefactors

By Barbara F. Dyer | Apr 19, 2014
The Opera House

Camden and Rockport would never have been the lovely places of beauty that they are today had it not been for Mary Louise Curtis Bok and her father, Cyrus H. K. Curtis, founder of Curtis Publishing Company. Their gifts to Camden are almost too numerous to list.

Mary Louise Curtis was born in 1876 to Louisa Knapp and Cyrus H. K. Curtis. She married Edward Bok and had two sons, Cary and Curtis. Edward Bok’s story is told in the book, "The Americanization of Edward Bok," written in 1920 and dedicated to his mother and also his wife.

At a special meeting Nov. 2, 1916, of the Trustees of Camden Public Library, Mrs. Bok offered what was known as the “Ocean View” lot (because the Ocean View Hotel was there from 1810 to 1903) or Decrow lot, for the purpose of erecting a library building. It was accepted unanimously. While World War I was going on not much was done. In 1920 many worked to raise money for a new library. Four years later a Maintenance Fund was created by Mr. and Mrs. Edward Bok, Mr. and Mrs. Cyrus Curtis, Mr. and Mrs. John Gribbel and Mr. and Mrs. Chauncey Keep. Architect Parker Morse Hooper offered to donate the plans and have his architect friend, Charles Loring, join him in drawing the plans. On June 11, 1928, the beautiful new Camden Public Library opened its doors. What a blessing to our community.

Following that, Mrs. Bok bought and gave the land adjoining Camden Public Library and running to the high water mark of the harbor. She hired Fletcher Steele of Boston, a noted landscape architect. He designed the “Garden Theater” as she called it. Today, many call it the “Bok Amphitheater.” Hans Heistead oversaw the work, and Mrs. Bok had a two-fold purpose. She insisted that they hire Camden men to work there, as it was during the “Great Depression” era. She wanted work for the men to earn money in order to put food on their table. Her other purpose was to beautify the water front, with places people could enjoy. She gave the prize statue “Two Little Fawns” that is located beneath the back stairway to the library.

It was Olmstead whom she hired to design “Harbor Park.” He and Steele worked together to make the whole place with a vision. There are only three other public places in existence designed by Steele with public access.

Camden did not have money during the Great Depression to keep the plantings as they should be. Some birch trees died and some volunteer maples came up unwanted, etc. A committee was appointed a few years ago to study the original plans, and it took about five years of meetings. Then, some generous donors and the townspeople came up with the money to do it. A committee was formed to make sure the parks are always kept that way.

May Louise’s father, Cyrus H. K. Curtis bought a prime piece of harbor property and built Camden Yacht Club. His daughter had it landscaped. There had been two lime kilns there and piles of wood to burn in them. Mr. Curtis gave the land and yacht club to the inhabitants of the town of Camden.

In the 1920s, Camden Opera House was in need of repairs, so Mrs. Bok paid to have the work done.

Again in 1994, when the Opera House was 100 years old, it was again in need of major repairs. It was restored to its original being, with new curtains, new seats and painted with the same colors and designs. Money again was donated, this time by MBNA. It is beautiful and the Kay Tucker Room was given a facelift to match the Opera House.

Mary Louise Bok was instrumental in purchasing the Bay View Hotel, that was badly damaged by fire in 1917. Businesses that were on the property were moved and she paid Olmstead to design the Village Green. The Baptist Church in the background was painted yellow but she paid for the labor and paint to make it white to blend in better with the Village Green. This was about 1928. Others who helped financially were: Cyrus Curtis, Chauncy Borland and John Gribbel. Many houses in town were painted mustard yellow; I believe that paint was less expensive. Mrs. Bok offered to buy the paint for anyone who would prefer to paint their yellow house white.

After World War II, she donated the flag pole to the Village Green in memory of our men and women who served their country. She intended to have their names inscribed on it, but because there was a disagreement among several people, she quietly withdrew the inscriptions.

Allen F. Payson was our fire chief and Mrs. Bok had faith in him. Whenever they needed something for the fire department, Chief Payson would talk with her and she saw that Camden had it. She remodeled the Allen F. Payson Fire Station.

On March 12, 1934, the residents had voted to change the name of “Negroe Island” to Curtis Island, in honor of Mary Louise’s father, Cyrus H. K. Curtis. She accepted the approval of the Commissioner of Lighthouses, and officiated at an informal ceremony on her birthday. The plaque read: “Curtis Island and Curtis Island Light Station so named May 2, 1934, at the request of the people of Camden. In memory of Cyrus Hermann Kotzschmar Curtis 1850-1933 to perpetuate the love and esteem in which he is held by the citizens of his native State.”

We know that roofs were shingled, houses painted, pianos tuned and many, many other things done anonymously by the family. She enriched our culture with the fine music she brought here. The lovely lady gave over and over to our two communities in a very quiet way.

Widowed, Mary Louise Curtis Bok later married Efrem Zimbalist, a world famous violin player. As we look around our area, we give thanks and appreciation to one fine, generous lady, who passed on in 1970. Next there will be another column to name the gifts from her father, Cyrus H. K. Curtis and her husband, Edward Bok.

Barbara Dyer is Camden's official town historian.

The Ocean House
Camden Public Library
Camden Amphitheater
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