May 26, 2023
By Gordon Whittington
Even today the chilling call of the wild still echoes loudly in a few parts of the whitetail’s range. One of those places is the damp, dark woods of northern Maine’s Downeast region. It’s a land at once both near and far. Although by car you can easily get there from any of several crowded metropolitan areas within a day, upon arrival you discover a region a lot of people might say is “wilderness,” with vast, roadless areas of confusing forests and twisting waterways. Perhaps for that reason, most tourists focus on the region’s most obvious natural attraction, the rugged coastal splendor of Acadia National Park. Come fall, however, many nonresidents hope even more for a glimpse of a big deer. And this is no recent development. Well over a century has passed since the first reports of fine whitetail and moose hunting began drawing sportsmen northward.
SPREADING THE WORD
The driving force behind these reports was Maine Central Railroad. Looking to augment its dwindling freight business with more ticket sales to passengers, in the 1890s MCR hired groundbreaking outdoor writer Cornelia “Fly Rod” Crosby to promote the state’s natural wonders to city dwellers. Although not all her published features were specifically on the Downeast counties of Hancock or Washington, they greatly increased public awareness of Maine’s bountiful hunting and fishing in general. So did the taxidermy-filled booths Crosby organized for display at sporting expositions in New York City and elsewhere. Maine had been closed to nonresident hunting from 1853-70, but as the dawn of a new century approached, the state was looking for new customers.
Parts of Maine were fairly accessible by train, and with there being ample land open to the sporting public, Fly Rod’s writings touched off an annual hunter migration that continues to this day. And most of these visitors are looking for deer. Unlike moose, whitetails remain available to hunt with over-the-counter licenses.
As Maine’s first fully licensed guide, Fly Rod also inspired what would become a time-honored industry. Following in her footsteps were such rugged men as Fred Goodwin, who in the early 20th century set up shop as a guide in northernmost Maine. By the time North American Whitetail cofounder Dick Idol wrote of Fred’s exploits in 1984, he’d long been known as a great guide and expert hunter. This legendary figure is now gone, but across northern Maine many other guides and outfitters still provide access to big-woods hunting.
In addition to being a guide, Fred was a collector of great whitetail antlers, especially from Maine. And some of those from the Downeast region were exceptional in every way. They include two we featured in NAW years ago: the 228 7/8-inch former women’s world record Flora Campbell shot in 1953, and Hill Gould’s 259 6/8-inch palmated state record non-typical from 1910. Both these legendary whitetails came from Washington County.
It’s difficult to uncover deer whose stories trace back over a century, as is the case with the Gould buck. But I recently became aware of two other Downeast beasts from even earlier in Maine’s illustrious hunting history. In one case, much earlier.
In Downeast Maine, early French-Canadian influences helped weave a unique coastal history based largely on logging and commercial fishing. Where the infertile land would allow small-scale agriculture, families of course also grew assorted crops. Nature further helped industrious residents stock the pantry with native blueberries, cranberries and an assortment of game and fish resources.
Way back in 1902, at the age of 19, Will Preston felt the satisfaction of putting wild meat onto the family’s dinner table. He did so by taking a massive whitetail from a brushy expanse known locally as “the heath.” The location wasn’t far outside the county seat of Machias, where Will served as the town gardener.
As the young hunter had nine siblings, it’s easy to imagine this load of fresh venison alone was ample cause for celebration. But so too was the deer’s wide, thick, 22-point rack. It even impressed Will’s father, Sam, one of the earliest Mainers to hold the official title of “Moose and Deer Warden.” Feeling the trophy was worth preserving, Sam worked out a barter to have the head mounted. Typical of that era, the local taxidermist stuffed the cape with sawdust.
Grandson Steve Preston, an avid deer hunter himself, says that in the years following that taxidermy job his family almost lost Will’s mount — twice. The first scare came in October 1947, when massive wildfires of unknown origin blazed across roughly 200,000 acres in the region. Among the 2,500 or so people left homeless were the Prestons. “Will managed to save his family, deer head, hunting rifle and shotgun,” Steve notes. “All else was a total loss.”
As if that close call with the record buck weren’t enough, years later there was another one. Steve’s uncle had taken the aging mount to his cabin on Moosehead Lake, far inland in the remote Maine Highlands. One or more thieves later broke into the cabin and swiped the trophy off the wall, but then they left it on the cabin’s back steps.
The Preston buck eventually was measured for the Boone & Crockett record book, and he made it with a net non-typical score of 197 1/8. The buck’s impressive mass measurements top out at 6 6/8 inches toward the tip of the right beam and 6 5/8 in the same area of the left antler.
Even in a state with such a long, rich whitetail history, mounts from the turn of the 20th century are hardly common today. For that matter, they weren’t ever too common. This mount is for sure a survivor, having beaten difficult odds on a couple occasions, and Steve wants to maintain it as is for as long as he can. “I have had so many people tell me to restore it (with a new cape),” he notes. “But I think it is better to keep it original.”
CIVIL WAR REMEMBRANCES
As rare as it is to learn of a B&C buck from 1902, I recently became aware of an even earlier Downeast trophy. In fact, it traces back to the end of the Civil War, long before Fly Rod Crosby began luring sportsmen to Maine. Capt. Nathaniel Bowden shot the wide buck on his family’s homestead at Blue Hill, along the coast in Hancock County. The hunter, a member of the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment that saw heavy fighting throughout the Civil War, had recently returned to Downeast Maine when he took the deer now cherished by his family.
“Nathaniel saw this buck on the family farm as it left at the far end of a field, going into the woods,” notes great-great grandson Dan Pert. “There was a good deer trail there, so Nathaniel decided to sit by the trail, near the head of the field.”
Little else about the chain of events is known, but for the ending: The buck came back into view, and the hunter shot him. The sight of such a tall-racked deer might have unnerved many other guys, but Nathaniel had literally been battle-tested many times over. During the past four years, he’d survived 26 engagements with Confederacy forces. I doubt the challenge of shooting a deer gave him pause. The young hunter was part of a family of 15 children, so back home, his deer assuredly was welcomed. But there the story took a twist that was most unusual for the 1860s.
“It wasn’t common to mount deer at that time, but this deer was mounted, filled with wood shavings,” Dan continues. “All through the years it has been known as Capt. Nathaniel Bowden’s Civil War buck. It was handed down from one generation to the next. During my childhood, it hung on the living room wall. Then, when I had my own home, it was given to me.”
Only a handful of big whitetail racks from anywhere in North America are known to have been preserved from that long ago. To my knowledge, this is the earliest of any in Maine history. And based on size alone it was well worth saving, with a 21 6/8-inch inside spread, 15 points and a net non-typical score of 157 7/8. The antlers also have that gnarly “Maine” look many of today’s hunters find attractive.
Dan’s an avid trophy hunter, having shot many good bucks in the Blue Hill area. He maintains a special connection not only to his great-great grandfather but also to the chunk of land that produced the Civil War buck. “I reside less than two miles from the spot where it was shot,” he points out. “As a child, I used to sit in the remains of the Bowden place when hunting, watching for my big buck. I hunted turkeys there until the landowners changed a few years ago. I always smiled thinking about my great-great grandfather, his buck and his stories as I passed that old cellar.”
While the exact location at which Nathaniel shot his trophy now has passed from family ownership, sweet memories remain. And so does Nathaniel’s prized whitetail, though not without difficulty. As with the Preston buck, it’s fortunate this trophy has avoided being lost forever. “The Civil War buck is sporting a new cape, due to a house fire in which all our 20-something mounts were covered by thick, black, oily soot,” Dan explains.
Dan shot a great buck of his own on nearby Blue Hill Mountain in 1999. That trophy has a gross B&C score of 173 4/8 and a net of 161 4/8. The hunt reinforced the great-great grandson’s connection to his Civil War ancestor and the vintage deer the family still honors. “My buck of a lifetime may have traveled the same range as the old Civil War buck,” Dan says. “And those are the stories I pass on to my grandchildren who also now hunt our family land, just a few miles from the place where the Civil War buck once stood.”
It’s hard to imagine what Downeast deer hunting was like before the automobile began to open up the world to expanded travel. Even in those days long before scoring systems for trophy big game, the Bowden and Preston bucks were recognized as being well worthy of having mounted by taxidermists. So, thanks to two local hunters’ skills and their descendants’ pride in preserving their legacies, we still can admire a pair of great Downeast whitetails from a time of harder living but simpler pleasures.