ROME and MOUNT VERNON — The public got a look at the former summer home of Elizabeth Arden, a work in progress as it is being converted to a retreat for injured veterans and their families.

On Saturday afternoon, people were treated to walks through the future home of the Travis Mills Foundation‘s Maine Chance Lodge Veterans Retreat at 1002 Watson Pond Road by scores of volunteers, including Mills’ wife, Kelsey, and father-in-law, Craig Buck.

The Mills foundation purchased the former Elizabeth Arden Estate in February 2015 aiming to convert it to a retreat for wounded veterans and their families.

The nonprofit Mills foundation was founded by retired Staff Sgt. Travis Mills in 2013 after he lost both his arms and legs to an improvised explosive device blast a year earlier in Afghanistan. His vision and the foundation’s mission is “to help veteran families unite with the land, water, nature and each other to revitalize themselves and to keep moving forward.”

Fundraising efforts helped raise some of the $1.7 million for the property purchase as well as for the renovations needed to make it fully accessible for the veterans and their families.

A gofundmepage with a goal of $2.7 million has raised more than $838,000 in 18 months, and a number of other fundraisers have been held as well.


Mills talked of the support he and his family received during his 19-month stay at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and the value of the wounded veterans and their families networking and sharing and how the Maine Chance Lodge will continue that.

“We want this to last forever,” he said in between an enthusiastic patter about the project and good-humored comments, many about his missing limbs and a few about his relatives. Mills told the hundreds of people at the open house that the foundation is accepting donations of any amount and even simply good will. “Just go home and share the message of what we’re doing here.”

He said the plan is to host the first families in the summer of 2017.

Mills is comfortable talking about his injuries and recovery and says, “When I fall, I get back up.”

“I had one bad day at work,” he told the crowd in a brief aside about his book, “Tough as They Come.”

The former main house of the Arden estate now sits about 15 feet higher than it did previously. It now has a full basement, partially outfitted with utilities and roughed out rooms.


The plumbing and electrical lines are roughed in, and some windows are in place. Boards were removed Saturday so those touring the house could have fresh air and daylight.

Craig Buck, Mills’ father-in-law, gave a tour of the building, showing where glass doors will open to a walkway that will encircle the building. Glass doors and windows on the second floor offer grand views of the grounds as well as island-dotted Long Pond. The lodge has lake access through property it acquired on the other side of Castle Island Road.

Everything about the retreat is designed to be accessible for individuals in all different types of wheelchairs, and all bathrooms have roll-in showers.

Buck showed off the four suites in the east wing that are designed for a single individual or couples and the two family suites with vaulted ceilings in the west wing that can sleep six to eight people.

The studs are up for the kitchen, the dining room, the three-story elevator, the sitting room, the fitness room, the game room, the theater, staff offices and even a media room/children’s playroom that opens onto the future site of a children’s playground.

“Travis wants to have families come. Not just the injured soldiers, but their families too,” Buck said. That way children like his granddaughter, Chloe Mills, will see that other people are amputees too, just like her father.


Buck oversees some of the lodge construction when he’s not traveling with Mills on his numerous speaking engagements.

Mills’ wife, Kelsey, did tours on Saturday as well, escorting Robert and Moira Fuller, of Winthrop, on one of them.

Many local residents all clad in fluorescent yellow T-shirts volunteered to help out at Saturday’s events.

“This is a fantastic event for the town and the veterans,” said Fiona Arnold of Mount Vernon, as she took a break in the main tent.

“I’ve always admired this house and thought it was a shame it was underutilized,” said another volunteer, Darlene Fontaine, of Vienna.

It’s wonderful such a terrific organization is going to bring new life back to this property.”


Visitors and volunteers alike heard Ian McKinnon, of Brunswick, describe the history of the home and former health spa under Elizabeth Arden, nee Florence Nightingale Graham, a Canadian native who founded the cosmetics empire that bears her name. McKinnon talked of growing up on the estate, working along with his father, the groundskeeper. “My brother likewise started in the gardens,” McKinnon said.

He described Arden as “impatient, entrepreneurial, a social climber and a very determined woman” who flew the U.S. flag proudly and was so patriotic she had only red, white and blue flowers in the lawn’s delta-shaped flower beds.

Lynn Harvey, executive director of The Travis Mills Foundation, said the ultimate goal is to raise enough money for an endowment to run the retreat. Last year’s goal was $1.2 million, and this year’s is $1.7 million.

“Even when the building is operating, there will still be so many needs to meet the needs of the veterans,” she said.

The Maine Chance Lodge project itself got a big boost at Saturday’s event when Michelle O’Connor, of St. Michaels, Maryland, handed Mills a check for $250,000 from the John Brademas Foundation. O’Connor said another check for that amount would arrive next year as well. Brademas, who died July 11, 2016, was a former Indiana Congressman and former president of New York University. O’Connor said he supported increasing access for handicapped individuals.

Early Saturday, a number of people shared a Facebook appeal by Mills to come to the open house. “I hope everyone comes,” Mills said, recommending it as an opportunity for those who had planned to attend a concert at Horseshoe Cove on Cobbossee Lake, which was delayed until 1-4 p.m. Sunday because of “questionable” weather.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

Twitter: @betadams

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