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Preserving a Storied Casco Bay Island

Lying at the seaward edge of Eastern Casco Bay, Ragged Island is a 77-acre landmark rich in history and ecology. Much of this offshore island provides valuable nesting habitat for eider ducks (325 pairs at last count) and guillemots, while a traditional farmstead area adds ecological diversity and cultural interest—with overgrown orchards, pastures where oats, hops and timothy have gone wild, and a lobster pound painstakingly hand-crafted from stone.

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For decades during the 19th century, people lived year-round on Ragged. One of the better-known residents, Reverend Elijah Kellogg, served Harpswell as a Congregationalist minister for long stretches between 1843 and 1901—happily situated equidistant by boat from his parishioners on Bailey and Orrs Islands and those in Cundy’s Harbor. Kellogg was one of Maine’s most prolific writers, completing 30 books for boys—including an Elm Island series of adventures set on Ragged Island.

Abandoned for a time in the early 20th century, Ragged Island became a favorite spot of rumrunners during Prohibition. In 1933, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay bought the island and summered there with her husband until her death in 1950.

Paul and Claire Sifton purchased Ragged Island the following year, and their three grandsons—Sam, John and Toby Sifton—now share ownership. Late this summer, they will transfer a conservation easement to Maine Coast Heritage Trust that prevents future subdivision and limits future construction—clustering it near the existing house. The easement provides for continued public use of a traditional picnicking beach at the island’s northern end. “Ragged has always belonged to the people of Harpswell as much as to us,” John Sifton says, noting how area residents use it both for fair weather enjoyment and foul weather emergencies. “We’re preserving it for them as much as for us.”

“Our mother has always wanted the island to be protected,” Sifton adds, “and none of us cared to see a building or lifestyle here that wouldn’t serve the wildlife well.” That desire lay dormant for years until—in just three years—the island’s property taxes rose 250 percent, motivating family members to take action. The Siftons sought to keep Ragged Island in their family and give the fourth generation of Siftons a chance to experience the place as their great grandparents had. By selling an easement to MCHT (even at a very generous “bargain sale” rate 40 percent below appraised value), they could generate funds to cover future taxes and upkeep while ensuring that—in John Sifton’s words—“the island will stay the way it is forever.”

Thanks to Ragged Island’s high conservation values, MCHT has been able to secure a diverse array of grants to help fund the easment acquisition. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which has long viewed Ragged as a top priority for permanent habitat protection, awarded funds toward the project, along with the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership, the Julie N. Oil Spill Settlement Fund, and Ducks Unlimited. “To complete the purchase,” notes Project Manager Betsy Ham, “we still need $75,000 in private contributions. We hope that those who know and love Ragged Island will step forward to help us secure the future of this exceptional place.”

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