Village Improvement Associations

In the 1880s, beguiled by the island’s beauty, summer residents and local alike had organized themselves into public-spirited Village Improvement Associations (VIAs), located in Bar Harbor, Seal Harbor, and Northeast Harbor. Their concerns ranged from sanitation to cultural events, and to the building of hiking trails. Charles W. Eliot, who later played a major role in founding Acadia National Park, proposed to the VIAs to create an organization to set aside special lands. The response was enthusiastic. Committees were formed, and on September 12, 1901, the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations was incorporated for the purpose of "…acquiring, owning and holding lands and other property in Hancock County for free public use." This early land trust joined the Village Improvement Associations conducted various civic activities in an around what is now Acadia National Park and played a pivotal role in the creation of Acadia National Park. One of the lasting contributions of this civic movement is the island-wide path system and the work of the many women involved.

Community Enhancements by Village Improvement Associations

The country's first "village improvement association" was formed in 1853 in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. They raised membership dues and odnations from residents to plant street trees, improve roads and sidewalks, improve sanitary conditions, acquire land for village parks, and construct buildings for public use. Over the next several decades, similiar societies were formed across the country, especially in New England. In accordance with this trend, a village improvement asssociation was formed in Bar Harbor in 1881 and incorporated in March 1891. The Bar Harbor Village Improvement Association was founded in 1881 and due to its success the incorporation of VIAs for all the major area towns followed inlcuding: Northeast Harbor VIA (1897), Seal Harbor Village Improvement Society (1900), and the Southwest Harbor Village Improvement Association (1914). Though these committees formed in separate towns, these four organizations extended their work beyond the village centers and worked together across the island in a Joint Path Committee. Their combined efforts led to the construction and maintenance of approximately 250 miles of recreational walking paths. The coordinator of the Joint Path Committee was known as the "Superintendent of Paths."

Bar Harbor Village Improvement Association

One of the functions of the newly formed Bar Harbor Village Improvement Association (BHVIA) was the care for the Shore Path in Bar Harbor. The VIA considted mainly of wealthy summer residents who were concerned with the upkeep of the village. Through time the group attraced an increasing number of year-round residents, particularly those with business interests in the village water supply, real estate, and commerce. The mission of the BHVIA was to "preserve and develop the natural beauties of the place, and to enhance their attractions, by such artificial arrrangements as good taste and science may suggest..."

When incorporated, the organization had four active committees: finances, entertainment, sanitary, and inspection. In 1892, the BHVIA created a 'roads and paths' committee. Many of the incredible historic trails in Acadia can trace their roots to the work of the roads and paths committee.

Northeast Harbor Village Improvement Society

By the time the Northeast harbor Village Improvement Society (VIS) was formed in 1897, there were already many trails in he vicinity of Northeast Harbor. Like the Bar Harbor VIA, the Northeast Harbor VIS established finance, entertainment, sanitary, roads, paths, and trees committees. James Gardiner served as the first chairmen of the Committee of Roads, Paths, and Trees from 1897 to 1910. During this period, path building was carried out with the same enthusiasm as in the Bar Harbor area. In 1909, the town of Mount Desert took over responsibility for constructing and maintaining sidewalks and roads. This allowed the Northeast Harbor VIA to concentrate on the maintenance of wood paths. From 1910 to 1913, William S. Grant, Jr. served as chairman of the Committee on Trails and Paths. In his 1911 annual report, Grant expresses his dismay about the trail damage caused by wood harvesting. He describes the impact on the trails as "depriving them of shade and in some cases making it difficult to follow the trail through the brush and debris that are carelessly left behind." Grant recognized the efforts of the Hancock County Trustees of public Reservations and the importance of land protection to both preserve the natural scenery and insure access to mountain summits and other natural areas. Dr. Joseph Tunis serves as chairman of the committee from 1913 to 1920. Tunis embarked on an ambitious program of trail construction and five new trails were added in 1914. With the removal of the automobile ban in 1915, bridle paths and sidewalks were built for separation from unwanted automobile traffic.


Seal Harbor Village Improvement Society

The Seal Harbor Village Improvement Society (SHVIS) was incorporated in 1900. At this time, existing foot paths includes remnants of old logging roads and a few paths used by early rusticators, such as the Seaside Path from the Seaside Inn to Jordan Pond. Beginning in 1890, the Bar Harbor Village Improvement Association also built paths to Seal Harbor to improve pedestrian connections between the two villages. Since the inception of the SHVIS, there was an active roads and paths committee. The purpose of the committee, as stated in the bylaws, was to "improve, so far as funds permit, the conditions of the roads, paths, sidewalks and signposts, and to attend the preservation of trees and plants." Early path work focused on trails in and around the village. Path Committee chairmen John Van Santwoord, Edward Lothrup Rand, and Joseph Allen were particularly energetic path builders.


Southwest Harbor Village Improvement Association

The Southweest Harbor Village Improvement Association (SWVIA) was incorporated in 1914, recognizing the need to integrate the interests of year-round and summer residents and visitors. The organization's stated purpose was the "active cooperation of the permanent citizens with the summer residents and visitors in making such use of the remarkable natural advantages and beauty of the place as to render it a more delightful village to live in and visit." By 1914, there was already an extensive network of trails on the western side of the island including trails to all the major peaks. Many of these trails were early logging roadds that had fallen into disuse, while others had been used by toursts since the mid-1800s. Water Buell served as the first Path commitee chairman for the Southwetst Harbor VIA and imporved existing trails and cosntructed several new trails. Few records of the Southwest Harbor Village Improvement Association though some records can be found in the other VIA records. The formation of a public reservation (later to become Acadia National Park) on the eastern (and opposite) side of the siland had only a limited impact ont he work of the SWVIA. Most of the lands on the western side of the island, where Southwest Harbor is located, remained in private hands until the 1920s.


The Village Improvement Association Legacy

The National Register of Historic Places nominated historic trail system at Acadia National Park is one of the best in the world thanks to the work of the Village Improvement Associations of Mount Desert Island. Their contribution to the beautiful stonework and laid paths define Acadia's trail system and welcome millions of visitors today. The Village Improvement Associations were also a product of their time and the various forces of racism, sexism, and classism that shaped life on Mount Desert Island in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Driven mostly by wealthy summer residents and exclusive of people of color, the VIAs reflect the priorities and philosophies of a certain part of MDI life. The land buying activities often displaced working class citizens and in specific cases targeted people of color, particularly Native Americans, under the cover of sanitary improvements. More untold stories about this aspect of Village Improvement Associations continue to be uncovered as we look between the lines of what has made it into their history books.
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    Last updated: February 15, 2022

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