Sunday, November 5, 2017

How Maine's Camp Chewonki helped launch the career of Roger Tory Peterson

Roger Tory Peterson in the Mid-1960s.   Photos by Salt Water New England
Wrote Bill Caldwell in Enjoying Maine of the first encounter between Clarence Allen, then Headmaster of Rivers School in Brookline, Massachusetts, and Roger Tory Peterson:
Clarence Allen slit open the yellow telegram and read the message - a message which eventually altered the lives of a million bird watchers.  
"If you want your camp naturalist, send me $39.50 for rail fare. I'm broke". . . signed Roger Tory Peterson.  
The time was May, 1928; the place Camp Chewonki, on the banks of the Sheepscot River at Wiscasset, Maine. "I sent the money, but reluctantly" says Clarence E. Allen, founder of Camp Chewonki. "Forty bucks was a pile of dough back in 1928. And I'd never clapped eyes on the sender. But I desperately needed a nature counsellor and someone had recommended a guy called Roger Tory Peterson." 
Two weeks later Roger Tory Peterson, aged 19, walked into camp, lugging two suitcases and caked with dust. 
"Peterson was flat broke, without a nickel to telephone me he was at Wiscasset station. So he walked the six miles into Camp. He was a pale, sickly specimen for a nature counsellor. Then I found out he was suffering from poison by illuminating gas, contracted while he was painting chairs in a hallway tenement."  
And that is how Camp Chewonki, Maine, helped launch the career of Roger Tory Peterson, who became the world's best-known author, painter, photographer and lecturer on bird life.  
Peterson's "Field Guides" have sold over a million copies. His books and his illustrations are bird watchers' bibles all around the world. But only a few Maine people know that Peterson's career as naturalist really began here in Wiscasset thanks to the $39.50 sent by Clarence Allen.  
"I remember Peterson's first night at Chewonki", says Allen.”Roger displayed his well-known skill at imitating bird-calls by sounding off like a Whip-poor-will.  Quickly, all the Whip-poor-wills around Wiscasset responded, and we were duly impressed. But at midnight the Whip-poor-wills were still at it and whatever popularity our new nature counsellor had developed was lost." 
RTP's original Field Guide to the Birds...

...was dedicated to Clarence E. Allen...

... and when he signed his puffin print for us...

...he added the first line of the camp cheer.

Chewonki <> Waterfront, Wiscasset


  1. What a wonderful story of how life can turn on a chance encounter, a risk taken, an intuition followed. How often we forget how serendipity plays an important role in our lives.

    My grandmother was the first birder in our family. Her bible was Peterson's field guide, which sat on her desk next to a pair of binoculars. My grandfather, however, could call crows until they would be circling overhead, high above the forest canopy. I remember wondering if the crows though my grandfather was one of their breed, or if they were only fooled for a moment and might now be laughing at us. Over a half-century later, I'm still wondering.


  2. Camp Chewonki was my first extended experience of living ashore in Maine. Fortunately for me Mr. Allen still ran the place then. I learned to love sleeping in unheated, cool cabins, waking to birdsong, camping out, wandering in the woods, playing day long games of Capture the Flag each Sunday, swimming in the granite-ledge-warmed shallows and taking long canoe trips on the North Woods rivers. If anyone wants to take a self-guided canoe trip suitable for novices, this is a good one:

  3. Charming. I would be surprised if RTP's guides hadn't sold over TEN million copies.