The Mainer Who Found Bambi
Outdoors artist Jake Day left a whimsical legacy you can still see today — on-screen or on the snowy streets of Damariscotta.
- By: Andrew Vietze
- Photography by: Todd Caverly
Peering through the windows of 20 Bristol Road in Damariscotta on a cold December day is almost like looking into another time. Between the shutters and behind the glass of the white-clapboard home are three-dimensional dioramas, each meticulously crafted, showing holiday-themed scenes. In one an elf plays a horn for an audience of squirrels and chipmunks. In another the animals of a manger stare toward the barn door expectantly. The turreted castle of a fantasy story occupies one, and in yet another a little cabin sits beneath a tall mountain that could only be Katahdin.
Each one of the nostalgic displays has the fine detail of an artist’s dollhouse or expensive ship model, and they all have a certain magic to them, an almost fairy tale-like quality. Unlike so many hokey decorations featuring elves and woodland animals, the dioramas are artistic in their composition, worthy in fact of being displayed in the Farnsworth Art Museum (which they were).
They’re certainly unexpected in the windows of a satellite office of Brunswick’s Mid Coast Hospital. If you didn’t know to look for them three doors down from the Baptist church, you might stroll right by. But their presence here makes perfect sense when you learn who once called this four-square Federal home. Peek into these windows and you peer back through the past into the wonderful world of Jake Day.
When does the story of an artist really begin — with his birth or with the creation of his masterwork? With Jake Day, it’s best to start in 1930s Hollywood. Walt Disney had just purchased the rights to an Austrian children’s book with hopes of making it into a feature film. Bambi: A Life in the Woods tells the coming-of-age story of a young fawn who has to deal with all the hazards of the world after his mother is killed by a hunter.
Already world-renowned thanks to his short films about a mouse named Mickey, and his first movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney intended to use a California mule deer to represent Bambi. This notion rankled one of his artists, a painter from the tiny town of Damariscotta. Maurice “Jake” Day knew the woods, and he didn’t think it right to portray an Austrian fawn with a big-eared mule deer.
“Jake said, ‘You need a New England white-tail deer,’ ” explains his son, Dick Day, who lives in Newcastle. “And Disney said, ‘Okay, go and get me one.’ ”
And so Day did. He went home on an all-expenses-paid trip to locate a little whitetail. Through connections, the artist contacted Penobscot County Fish and Game wardens and arranged to have two orphaned fawns — Bambi and Faline, as they were later named — shipped to Hollywood, along with a happy menagerie of skunks, rabbits, owls, and ducks. The animals were penned on the studio’s set and Disney’s animators spent days watching them move, sketching and painting.
Once the animals were secure, Day was dispatched to the Maine woods to make photographs and sketches of a forest that would be home to such creatures. These images would serve as the backdrop of the film. Day knew just where to look. Along with his good friend, a Nobleboro logger named Lester “Sawdust” Hall, he went north to Baxter State Park, which had been a park for less than a decade.
On Disney’s dime, Day and Hall set up at the park for six weeks, based out of the old Hersey Dam site on Sandy Stream on the east side of Katahdin. Jake’s two sons, Dick and Mac, came along to help transport gear, and Penobscot County warden Caleb Scribner would help guide and locate animals. Journeying through the woods, Day sketched, painted, and photographed possible settings for the movie while his companions went fishing. At night they sat around the fire reading the Bambi screenplay.
In the script there is a woodland glen where many of the major events of the film play out, and the group spent days searching for just the spot. One day, on the way back to camp after a long backpack up to Chimney Pond and down into the Northwest Basin, they found it.
Lester Hall was in awe. He kept a journal on the trip and wrote: “As we came out into the New City Clearing and paused to look out over the meadow toward the wooded slopes of Russell Pond, the thought came to us at once — ‘This is Bambi’s birthplace. Here is the clearing where the forest creatures came for food and play. Here is the edge of the forest where they disappeared when danger threatened. And here is the little knoll from which the elder deer could keep an eye on their offspring.’ It was perfect.”
The pair stayed in the glen for days, making thousands of images and taking in every detail. As Hall writes later, “This valley was at one time the home of some of the largest pines that ever grew in Maine.” He marveled at a stump “actually large enough in diameter to turn a yoke of oxen on.” The drawings, paintings, and photographs Day created at the clearing and across the park made it back to Disney and were used by the animators to create the world of Bambi.
“When you watch the movie Bambi,” Dick Day notes, “you are looking into the Maine Woods.”
For a Maine kid who loved the outdoors and art, it was the moment of a lifetime. Born in Damariscotta in 1892, Jake Day attended high school at Lincoln Academy, where he did his first serious painting of a local church. From there he moved on to the Massachusetts Normal School, studying for a year before transferring to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Upon graduation he found the world embroiled in a war and enlisted in the Naval Camouflage Department of the Emergency Fleet Corps in New Orleans.
After the war, Day began work as a commercial illustrator, doing children’s books with well-known friends of his. “Jake was very close to Henry Beston and Elizabeth Coatsworth,” Dick Day says. At the time, Beston was best known for his children’s books, but he’d go on to write Northern Farm, his famous memoir about living a life in harmony with nature. “It was from my folks that they learned about Chimney Farm.” Jake’s illustrations also appeared in a range of magazines, including House Beautiful, Home and Garden, Atlantic Monthly and Vanity Fair.
Day was making a name for himself in Maine, but he was intrigued by the West Coast. “He read with interest what was going on in Hollywood,” says Dick Day. “It was the Depression, and he was searching for [something] better than trying to eke out a life here doing landscape paintings that nobody could afford to buy.”
In 1935, Day uprooted the family and moved to Laguna Beach, California, where he continued to draw and paint. An exhibition of his “imaginatives” — paintings of playful animals — in a local gallery caught the eye of two up-and-coming animators. Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising did contract work for several Hollywood studios including MGM and Disney, and they offered the young Mainer a job. Harman-Ising Productions had produced Looney Tunes, Merrie Melodies, and Silly Symphonies cartoons, and Jake went to work on their production Merbabes, an undersea adventure, and several episodes of the studio’s Two Little Pups and Little Buck Cheeser cartoons, the latter of which features a mouse that would inspire Jerry of Tom and Jerry fame.
Thanks to his work on these shows, Day was eventually hired as an artist with the Walt Disney Company in the mid-thirties — at the very time the studio was beginning to work on a certain film about a certain fawn, hoping that this feature, planned as the studio’s second full-length, would break new ground.
“Disney didn’t intend this to be a kids’ movie,” says John Fawcett, owner of Fawcett’s Toy Museum in Waldoboro and an artist whose own work was included in the book The Art of Mickey Mouse. “He was inventing a new art form, an animated nature film.” And he wanted a realism the likes of which hadn’t been seen in cartoons before, prompting years of painstaking research.
When the movie was finally done, Walt Disney thought it proper to thank the people of Maine for their help. “When it came time to premiere the movie, Disney wanted to have it shown in Augusta, because so many Maine animals and scenes were used in the film,” remembers Dick Day. “And the Maine Department of Fish and Game said, ‘No way. That movie will hurt the sale of hunting licenses.’ ”
However hunting sales fared, Disney’s gamble — an animated picture about a deer whose mother is shot — paid off. Bambi would become one of the most beloved movies of all time and, some say, Disney’s masterwork. As instrumental as Jake Day was in the project, though, his name never even made it into the credits because all his work was as a researcher for the credited animators. By then, Day wanted out of Hollywood anyway.
“My mother called it ‘too artificial,’ ” remembers Dick Day. The time he’d spent in Maine doing the research for Bambi had made Jake homesick, and he was tired of working for someone else. “I never worked on a schedule except in the movie business when I worked sixty hours a week,” Day told a Lincoln County Weekly reporter in 1977. “That was one reason I left to come back to Maine. I like to be able to take a walk in the woods whenever I want.”
So he moved the family back to the home his great grandfather built in 1798, and started looking at ways to make a living. At the time, the automobile-based tourism industry was still in its infancy, but Day recognized the economic possibilities of catering to those motorized visitors. “He knew the money was on the coast,” says John Neff, who wrote about Day in his book, Katahdin: An Historic Journey. “And he began to be a coastal landscape painter. That was what really put the food on the table.”
Day made an arrangement with his old friend Lester Hall. The lumberman had been building little log cabins, and he gave one to Day for free to use as a store in exchange for Day’s promotion of the building. The Days ran the Whittle Shop on Route 1 for several years, selling paintings of pine and surf and driftwood scenes. Jake’s wife, Beatrice, did much of the selling while her husband crafted the wares. Occasionally, for his own entertainment, Jake ran off with his buddies to the woods.
Jake Day first visited Baxter State Park in 1933, just a couple of years after Percival Baxter had given the people of Maine its tallest peak and two years before Day moved to California. Previously, Day and his family had been avid White Mountain campers. On one trip in 1932 they invited Hall along with them. The Nobleboro logger wasn’t impressed. He found the Whites “too civilized,” as he wrote in his journal. He told Jake, “If he would make a trip up into the Katahdin region with me next year, I could show him things that would make him realize how much our Maine mountains have to offer an artist.”
Jake went with him and was smitten. “From that time on, he made all of his journeys to Baxter,” says Dick Day. The painter traveled north several times with Lester Hall, spending weeks there each summer. As Baxter State Park ranger Ed Werler recounts in his book The Call of Katahdin, “Together, Jake and Lester had explored and knew more of the park than anyone I had met.” Stationed at Roaring Brook Campground, Werler had a packing business and would help campers tote their gear into the backcountry with his donkey. He and Day became fast friends and would see each other outside the park during the long winters.
“He was an exceptional person,” Werler says today. “He had a great sense of humor. Awful good company.” The admiration was mutual — Day gifted Werler with a beautiful oil of Russell Pond, a generosity that he extended to several rangers.
After Lester Hall died in the 1950s, Jake often brought other friends with him into the woods of Baxter, including Damariscotta’s grocer, insurance man, doctor, postman, a mayor, and a veterinarian. Their exploits became famous nationwide. Outdoor writer Edmund Ware Smith did a series of pieces for Field & Stream about Day and his team of woodsmen. They called themselves “Jake’s Rangers” and made arm patches for their unit. Day was their “Colonel,” and their adventures in Baxter Park, on Matagamon Lake, and Down East in Cherryfield, as retold and exaggerated by Smith in several books, helped define the Maine tall tale.
Jake’s Rangers were so well-known that U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who liked to fish in Baxter’s Kidney Pond, lobbied to join. “He wanted Jake’s Rangers to be his guides and helpers,” recalls Dick Day. “I think he thought they could take him to new places.” At the very least, they could show him a good time.
There was a certain irony to these trips. “I don’t think Jake even hunted and fished,” says Dick. “He just camped with them and visited with them.” Ranger Ed Werler noticed the same thing. While his companions fished, Jake hiked and looked for spectacular vistas for his work. “He didn’t do any serious painting up there that I remember,” says Werler. “He’d be taking pictures — he took thousands of slides — so he’d have subjects to paint later.”
Jake Day’s love of Baxter State Park continued until his death in 1983. He visited the area into his eighties and even climbed Katahdin with Governor Ken Curtis in 1968 at the spry age of seventy-five. He intended to summit again on his eightieth birthday but told a reporter “the blackflies were too bad.”
Day’s devotion to the mountain was recognized by the man who gave this huge fastness to the state, Governor Percival Baxter. “Percy was very fond of Jake,” says Dick Day. “He personally named him Artist-in-Residence of Baxter Park.” To this day the park displays many Jake Day works in its Millinocket headquarters, and his painting of a moose and a mountain is the logo you see on the side of park trucks.
It wasn’t long after returning from California that Jake Day’s two boys shipped off to fight in World War II. The artist worried about them constantly and came up with a diversion that would spread happiness through the community — he’d create Christmas dioramas and put them in the windows of his house to bring a little lightness to the holiday season. He’d just become a grandfather as well, and thought that these displays would make his grandchildren smile.
For decades Jake Day’s “Christmas Windows” were a holiday tradition in Damariscotta. Locals flocked to see them and kids would stand up on little stools to peer inside. In 1970, the dioramas were sent to the Farnsworth Art Museum, where they were displayed until 1999, becoming a Rockland-area tradition, as well. But the moving and storage of the units took a toll. Finally, a Jake Day Diorama Preservation Society formed in Damariscotta to return the artful creations not only to their original state but also to their original home on Bristol Road. That’s where you’ll find them today.
And if you look closely in one window, you might even see a fawn that looks very much like Bambi.
Visit the Jake Day dioramas at 20 Bristol Rd. in Damariscotta. Hours are 4 to 9:30 p.m. 207-563-5515.
- By: Andrew Vietze
- Photography by: Todd Caverly