MOOSE RIVER — When Unity College recently received the donation of a historic hunting lodge and the 150 acres of land that came with it, professors and administrators saw it as a new but natural way for the school to facilitate its hands-on, experiential environmental education.

Just how many ways the Somerset County facility and all of its resources could be folded into the college’s curriculum seem nearly limitless.

Melik Peter Khoury, the college’s president, said that although the gift of the 7,500-square-foot Sky Lodge is a new development, several professors have already made requests to bring students up to the facility in the coming months.

“There’s a lot of options in our academic programs that fit this perfectly,” Khoury said Tuesday on a trip to the lodge.

Khoury and several faculty members toured the 16-building complex in Moose River — a small community just north of Jackman — walking from the lodge to the fitness center, to the conference center equipped with classrooms across the road, the rental cabins dotting the property, and through an antique auto museum and a model railroad museum.

Additionally, within a 2-mile radius of the lodge, are several bodies of water for fishing, canoeing, kayaking and white water rafting as well as plenty of land and trails for hiking, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing.

The lodge’s access to these outdoor activities was precisely what led John and Elaine Couri, founders of the Couri Foundation, to donate Sky Lodge to Unity College.

“As we’ve gotten older, we had to think about what’s the next chapter for this property,” John Couri said at the lodge Tuesday. “Our choices were either to sell it or to donate it.”

When the couple decided to donate the property, they started talking to several colleges within the state, all of which expressed a great interest in acquiring the land. However, as Elaine Couri put it Tuesday, with Unity, the stars were aligned.

“Our goal was to find the right organization to take over the facility and to use it to the benefit of mankind, to benefit people, and Unity fit the bill perfectly,” John Couri said.

HISTORY OF SKY LODGE

Over the 30 years that the Couris have owned and operated Sky Lodge, they’ve invited groups that might not otherwise have a chance to experience the beauty of the Maine woods and waters, such as children from urban areas. In the last decade, the Couris have primarily hosted senior citizen groups to come stay at the lodge for weeks at a time, which is a program Khoury said Unity will continue when their takeover of the property is complete.

In the 1920s, Richard Sutro, an executive involved in railroad and utility companies from Port Chester, New York, according to his obituary in the New York Times, purchased the property and designed the building to be a private, luxurious hunting lodge for the wealthy. Built over two years, it cost $135,000, which John Couri said was quite a sum of money back then.

Sutro died a few months before the lodge was complete, but his wife maintained it and opened it up in 1929 as the Maw Paw Lodge.

A photograph of the historic Sky Lodge building under construction in 1929. Owners John and Elaine Couri recently donated the property to Unity College. Contributed photo

Years later, two pilots purchased the lodge from Sutro’s widow, renaming it Sky Lodge. The pair built a runway right next to the lodge so that people from all over the country — and the world — could come stay at the lodge for about $10 to $12 per night, which included three meals a day. If guests stayed for an entire week, the pilots would take them on a chartered flight to view the mountains and rivers from above.

The lodge went through several owners through the years, changing slightly with each proprietor. One owner built an eight-room motel next door to the lodge as demand in the industry changed, and another bought an island on one of the nearby lakes and named it Sky Lodge Island.

The lodge was put up for auction in 1988, but it didn’t sell. That’s when the Couris swooped in, bought the property and decided to run it as a nonprofit, eventually opening it back up for public use in the winters.

Angela Mulhall, who started working at Sky Lodge back in 1954 as a hostess, said the lodge itself has changed very little in appearance; but on the land surrounding it, the Couris made many adjustments. They built cabins and a home overlooking the mountains, as well as a conference and senior center on the property.

Mulhall, 81, worked at the lodge for more than 30 years and retired long ago, though she still lives right down the street from the lodge in Moose River. She visits with the Couris often when they come up from Connecticut, where they’re natives, and was there on Tuesday to meet Khoury and the faculty who will soon be taking over the place where she spent a great deal of her life.

Mulhall started working in the front lobby and was asked to be a waitress because she spoke French and could help translate for French Canadians who didn’t speak English. She said she met many people through her years at the lodge, many of them actresses and actors on their way to Canada to shoot a film. Mulhall said she cared for the daughter of the French ambassador to the United Nations while he and his family stayed in Room 9 of the lodge for a month.

“They asked me to be their nanny in New York City, but mom and dad wouldn’t let me go,” Mulhall said.

When the longtime employee learned about the Couris gifting the property to Unity College, she was shocked.

“I could not believe it when I heard that,” Mulhall. She said she was worried about what would happen to the business, but the Couris assured her it will continue to be run as a nonprofit.

“How fortunate can you get to undertake something like that? It will be wonderful for the kids to take this and use it for education or business,” she said. “I think it’s going to be bigger than ever.”

‘A NATURAL EXTENSION’

Acquiring a 16-building facility that can act as a campus-away-from-campus just 15 miles from the Canadian border opens the door to many possibilities for any learning institution. But because of Unity College’s focus on environmental and sustainability science, those possibilities are multiplied tenfold because of the Jackman-Moose River geography.

“One of the classes we’re thinking about doing this fall is one of our faculty members is going to work with our students to design a cross-country trail and a skills course, and we already offer those but now we can actually do it for real,” Khoury said during the tour Tuesday.

Administrators and professors agreed Tuesday that owning such a property allowed for students to actually get their hands dirty and put into practice what they’ve been studying.

“The best thing about it is that the students would be doing projects that would then be turned into reality,” said Tom Mullin, an associate professor at the college’s parks and forest resources department. “It’s like real-life projects and real-life activities that would be open to the visitor and guests on a regular, routine basis.”

Unity College administrators and staff assemble in the Great Room inside the Sky Lodge in Moose River before touring the property recently. The property was donated to the environmental college by John and Elaine Couri and consists of the 7,500-square-foot former hunting lodge, 16 buildings that include a conference center, antique auto and model train museums, a theater, cabins, a fitness center and 150 acres of land. Staff photo by David Leaming

Mullin said one way he could incorporate the resources available in Moose River would be to have his students use the land to map and design parks and trail systems, as well as to figure out how to achieve the best experience for visitors.

Other faculty noted more obvious opportunities access to the lodge would provide for students studying wildlife care, adventure programming, environmental science and land management, but they also talked about the unique potential for academic programming at Sky Lodge.

Pieter deHart, dean of the School of Environmental Citizenship, thought students could not only use the acres of land surrounding the lodge as classrooms, but could also utilize the building on the property in the curriculum as well.

“We have a major in sustainable energy management where they do a lot of mechanics and fine skill electrical manipulation. Maybe they could use some of this electrical equipment,” deHart said, referring to the elaborate and intricate model train sets inside the railroad museum.

He also thought students could make Sky Lodge more sustainable.

“We have green building classes, so even the physical infrastructure on the campus area of Sky Lodge we could do energy audits to see how efficient these buildings are and the ways we could make them more efficient. There’s a lot of potential,” he said.

Erika Latty, the chief academic officer at Unity, said students had a great opportunity to conduct undergraduate research conducting botany and biology experiments at Sky Lodge. Additionally, the conservation law enforcement program will have new terrain to conduct exercises on.

“They want to set up forensic scenarios in the woods,” Latty said. “They do that kind of thing on our campus, but they want to try it in new places so they can take an investigative approach.”

During the tour of the auto museum, which features the cabs of horse-drawn carriages as well as a Model T, a 1965 Ford Mustang convertible and even a “Back to the Future” vintage DeLorean, Khoury said a professor could show students how engines changed from pre-combustion to combustion.

Unity College’s Pieter deHart, dean of the School of Environmental Citizenship, looks over a 1929 Packard Holbrook town car and a 1965 Mustang convertible inside the antique car museum at the Sky Lodge property in Moose River recently. The extensive property was donated to the college by John and Elaine Couri. Staff photo by David Leaming

But one of the ways Khoury said he was most excited about incorporating the lodge into curriculum would be with the college’s new sustainable enterprise business major, which focuses on ecotourism and international development. He said students could learn how to run the lodge as a destination rental and lodging business and how to attract business from Quebec.

Running the lodge, as well as partnering with local businesses to create internships in the area, would help embed the Unity College community into the Jackman-Moose River community, Khoury said.

“It really gives students an idea of what it means to be a part of the environment. Now when you’re at Unity College you’re at Unity, you’re in Thorndike and you’re in Jackman,” Khoury said. “It’s a natural extension of our campus.”

Mitchell Berkowitz, the interim town manager of Jackman, said Wednesday he was glad Sky Lodge would remain open as it is an important part of the region’s history and the economy.

People in the area wondered if the college would continue the business side of Sky Lodge, Berkowitz said, but he was encouraged by what he heard from Khoury at a dinner Tuesday evening and believes they have a reasonable strategy to grow their student population and the ecotourism in the region.

Berkowitz hopes that Unity College will help make the area a popular stop-over for people traveling through to Canada and that they may want to come back again and again.

Unity College President Melik Peter Khoury, left, and Elaine and John Couri sit inside the Great Room of the Sky Lodge in Moose River recently. The Couris donated the property to the college, which college officials have said will enhance the college’s environmental, experiential programs. Staff photo by David Leaming

The multimillion-dollar gift from the Couri Foundation includes a substantial start-up investment and additional financial support to underwrite staffing and programming costs. Nevertheless, it will take time for Unity College to complete its take over of the facility and create the Sky Lodge they envision.

In the immediate future, Khoury said he will be bringing staff, faculty and students to the lodge so they can get a feel for the layout and how it can become an integral part of Unity College. In just a few weeks, 25 students involved in campus government will be coming to the lodge for their annual three- to four-day retreat. Khoury hopes the lodge will leave an impression.

“This year we are going to host it at Sky Lodge so that the student leaders on campus can go back and tell the story of their experience here,” he said.

Emily Higginbotham — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @EmilyHigg

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