Scenic Heroes: Marion Fuller Brown

A tireless advocate for the environment and scenic beauty, Marion Fuller Brown found inspiration in a quote from Theodore Roosevelt: “Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” Marion took these words to heart, helping spark the scenic conservation movement locally, statewide, and nationally. She championed legislation to eliminate billboards in the state of Maine and co-founded the National Coalition for Scenic Beauty, which would later become Scenic America.

One of Marion’s daughters, Martha Fuller Clark, who has served on Scenic America’s board of directors for many years, is proud to have taken up her legacy. “My mother was never one to be intimidated by challenging moments and events. She always spoke up and spoke out for what she believed in. She was a force to be reckoned with at the local, state, and national level,” she said.

Born in Kansas City, Missouri, on May 14, 1917, Marion left the Midwest to study zoology at Smith College; “hardly what anyone would consider preparation for volunteer, conservation, or political work,” Martha later quipped.

In 1939, she married Henry Morrill Fuller and moved to her beloved adopted home, York, Maine where they purchased Ram’s Head Farm in 1945. The farm became a source of inspiration and passion for their growing family – a passion that continues for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren today.  Their four children—Alexandra, Martha, Henry, and Emily—grew up on the farm, where farming, fishing, and outdoor adventures became a family affair.

Marion and Henry Fuller

While at home with their young children, Marion became involved in local and state civic affairs, including joining and later serving as President of the Piscataqua Garden Club which may well have sparked her interest in conservation and the environment. In 1960, she took her first official civic duty with an appointment to the Maine Milk Commission. 

However, tragedy struck in 1962 when Henry died in a haying accident, leaving Marion a 45-year-old widow, alone to raise her four children, the oldest being 22 and the youngest 11. “She had to rebuild her life and start a new life for herself. It was an atypical life for that time,” said her youngest daughter, Emily Fuller Hawkins.

As Marion embarked on this new life— charting “her trajectory of housewife to widow to political activist”—as described by her eldest daughter, Alexandra Anderson—she focused her attention on the York community and the state of Maine.  In 1964, she became the first woman to chair the Maine Milk Commission.

“It all coalesced for her around our property as she began to find her passion for land preservation, which she carried with her for the rest of her life,” added Emily.

Driven by this love for the land, Marion recognized that to truly have an impact, she would need to operate on the political stage. In 1966, she became the first York woman to be elected to the Maine State Legislature, where she served until 1972. It was a role in which she would thrive. “She was a person who stuck to her guns, and drove a good bargain when she wanted to get things done,” said her son, Henry Fuller.  “She gradually built a career for herself, and when she got involved in politics, it sort of enhanced things.”

Such a move was highly unusual for a woman at the time, but Marion viewed it as a logical progression. In describing her early involvement in politics, she said, “It does not require extraordinary training to participate in politics. Everyone can take the first step by informing themselves about the candidates and the issues.”

It does not require extraordinary training to participate in politics. Everyone can take the first step by informing themselves about the candidates and issues.

-Marion Fuller Brown

And it was through her involvement in politics that Marion met her second husband, a powerful lobbyist and former mayor of Augusta, Brooks Brown, Jr., while working together on a campaign. He thought women knew nothing about politics… until he met Marion. They married in 1967.

“He didn’t think women could do anything about politics. She set him straight,” said Emily. “She wasn’t a feminist, but she did not let social norms get in the way of what she wanted to do.”

Marion Fuller Brown and Brooks Brown

It was during her last term in the legislature, that Representative Marion Fuller Brown sponsored legislation that banned billboards on highways throughout the state of Maine. At the time, there were more than 2,500 off-premises billboards in Maine, and outdoor advertising was a controversial issue.

Carol Donnelly, a long-time friend and colleague in the Piscataqua Garden Club, admired her work on this pivotal issue. “Billboards were such a blight. She hated that they were making money for the advertising companies.”

When the legislation passed, Maine became the fourth state to ban billboards, joining Vermont, Alaska, and Hawaii. Displeased with this move, outdoor advertisers challenged the law in a case that ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981. The Supreme Court upheld a ruling by a federal district court in Maine, which stated, “The nation’s recently awakened and growing concern for the quality of its environment and the various and widespread steps taken by individuals, citizen groups, and governmental bodies to protect and enhance natural resources demonstrate beyond reasonable question that the Maine Act serves substantial governmental interests through the preservation of aesthetic values.”

When the legislation passed, Maine became the fourth state to ban billboards, joining Vermont, Alaska, and Hawaii. Displeased with this move, outdoor advertisers challenged the law in a case that ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981. The Supreme Court upheld a ruling by a federal district court in Maine, which stated, “The nation’s recently awakened and growing concern for the quality of its environment and the various and widespread steps taken by individuals, citizen groups, and governmental bodies to protect and enhance natural resources demonstrate beyond reasonable question that the Maine Act serves substantial governmental interests through the preservation of aesthetic values.”

The last billboard comes down in Maine.

Beyond her work battling billboards, Marion was also the primary sponsor of Maine’s Returnable Bottle Law and Clean Water and Clean Air Act.  “She loved the state of Maine and found her niche in the legislature in the area of the environment. It was a nonpartisan issue, and she felt that Maine had a lot to offer in terms of maintaining and preserving its character, scenery, and natural resources,” commented daughter Emily.

Marion also left a mark on the national stage. Following in the footsteps of Lady Bird Johnson and the Highway Beautification Act, Marion was appointed to the National Highways Beautification Commission by President Richard Nixon in 1971. During her term of service, she was also part of the first women’s delegation to visit China. And, in 1982, Marion joined forces with other like-minded individuals to found the National Coalition to Preserve Scenic Beauty, which would later become Scenic America.

“She cared tremendously about Scenic America,” said Carol Donnelly. “She spoke of it many times, but she didn’t have to say much because we all knew that it was representing our beliefs on a much broader scale. It was something to her that was kind of a pinnacle, along with the billboard legislation.”

Her involvement with Scenic America continued through to the end of her life and covered many roles. “She was a founder, a financial supporter, and a board member. She was many things. She became a spiritual presence for the organization. She gave a sense of continuity and validity to what we were doing,” said former Scenic America President Meg Maguire. “Also she understood politics. That meant she was ready to go after policy in a way that people who don’t really understand policy can find not as familiar.”

Marion, always politically astute and socially aware, also parlayed her interest in environmental and scenic issues, both locally and national through through her involvement with the Garden Club of America.

“She mobilized its members to lend their voices on behalf of environment issues, issues that were not on the radar until the 1970s.“ said her daughter Alexandra. “It was an era of very community-minded women who worked hard as volunteers. Garden Club members were married to powerful men. ” 

Or, as Emily put it, “She told them to stop just doing flower arrangements.”

Marion’s involvement with the Garden Club of America continued throughout her life, and under her leadership, she was able to forge alliances between the organization and Scenic America. The Garden Club of America continues to honor this legacy today with an award for service named in her honor.

Marion also recognized the important force that scenic beauty plays as a catalyst for economic activity. As Meg Maguire noted, “She was a person who deeply understood the importance of the visual environment and its importance to the economy. Not everyone understands that. Most don’t. But she really had that in her DNA. “

Today her legacy of commitment to conservation and community lives on in her beloved Maine. Ram’s Head Farm has become a model of conservation and land preservation. Together with her children and grandchildren, Marion was one of the first landowners in York to donate a conservation easement on her property, to the York Land Trust, inspiring others to do the same.  

And thanks to her children and grandchildren, another 220 acres of forestland behind the homestead now also belongs to the York Land Trust. The land, known as Fuller Forest, was opened to the public this past December. 

Fuller Forest

Marion also inspired her fellow conservation activists to remain vigilant. Former Scenic America President Sally Oldham has continued to carry out her work battling billboards in Maine as a member of the Natural Resources Council of Maine’s board of directors. She recounted, “In 2013, nine bills were introduced into our state legislature seeking to weaken the sign control provisions passed with Marion’s leadership.  I testified against these bills as did NRCM, none of which passed. This strong statewide environmental organization considers it a high priority to ensure that Marion Fuller Brown’s legacy of banning billboards in the state will endure long into the future.”

Karen Arsenault, a close colleague and fellow member of the York Land Trust and the Piscataqua Garden Club, noted Marion’s ability to quickly catch the attention of elected officials. “Marion was always there to help…If we needed advice or assistance with legislation from our Congressional delegation, I’d call Marion… She would be on the phone that day getting us some answers or help. Senator Collins and then-governor Angus King continue to have a great deal of respect and admiration for this woman who worked hard for what she believed in. When Marion called, they responded.”

In fact, on her 80th birthday, Governor King issued a special proclamation declaring May 17, 1997, “Marion Fuller Brown Day.”

Maine Senator Susan Collins offers her own praises. “Marion was a brilliant leader who was devoted to her family, public service, and environmental issues.  She was a true leader in land conservation and a longtime champion of the environment who was passionate about preserving the natural beauty of Maine and America.  She will forever be remembered as the driving force behind the successful effort to ban billboards in Maine, thus ridding our roadways, communities, and landscapes of visual clutter.  Maine is a beautiful state, and we, as well as the generations to come, owe a debt of gratitude to Marion Fuller Brown.”

Maine is a beautiful state, and we, as well as the generations to come, owe a debt of gratitude to Marion Fuller Brown.

Sen. Susan Collins

Even beyond her national influence, her grandchildren have brought the values she instilled in them to other countries. Her grandson Lafcadio Cortesi served as Asia Director of the Rainforest Action Network and worked with Greenpeace Australia Pacific and the USAID-funded Biodiversity Support Program in Indonesia. Her granddaughter Susanna Fuller is currently Vice President for Conservation and Projects for Oceans North, a Canadian charity that focuses on marine conservation in the Arctic and Atlantic Canada.

As you will learn from the following comments, Marion also passed along many important lessons to her children, grandchildren, friends, and colleagues. 

“My mother and father had  a strong tradition in activism. If you lived in a community, you had an obligation and responsibility to participate in the issues and concerns of that community. That’s a very strong thing in our family. Also there is a big awareness in our family about the importance of environmental conservation,” said Alexandra. 

Martha viewed her mother as a role model. “She was an example to all of us about the value of working hard for what you believe in. She walked the talk. She actually went out and did things. She was a mover and a shaker, hugely admired and respected by a broad segment of people in her own community, the state and throughout the country.”  

Henry recalled a strong and formidable woman who steered her life in a new direction as a young widow. “She was persistent, willing to fight for what she believed in and substantially stubborn to exert her force of character to win the day.”

Grandson Oscar Anderson noted, “She made us aware that we were fortunate to have open spaces and that we should all work to be stewards rather than just owners. Preservation and conservation take time and effort. You need to know the laws and regulations and use them to your advantage.” 

Granddaughter Genevieve Morgan recalled that  her grandmother was “a kind and nurturing constant presence. She always encouraged me to be a good friend, daughter, and neighbor…and to see the larger picture so that my efforts could better the world, not just my own ambition or desires. She embodied the idea that life is both good and bad, and there are seasons to life, as there are seasons in a year, and all have their challenges and glories. It is how one behaves during the challenging moments that defines character.” 

Doreen McGillis also learned lessons from Marion. “It takes courage and leadership to affect long-lasting change. She never shied away from fighting for what she felt was right and working on issues she felt strongly about. She was successful in bringing others around to her way of thinking because she was a generous, effective and visionary leader.” 

Sally Oldham described Marion’s strong positive influence: “As a mentor, it was invaluable to be able to talk with Marion about her experiences and perspectives in dealing with legislative advocacy for scenic conservation, including billboard controls.  As an inspiration, it was invaluable to know how much Marion had accomplished, demonstrating what was possible in our field.”

Marion passed away on June 3, 2011, on Ram’s Head Farm at age 94. Her spirit lives on in those people and organizations, such as Scenic America, whose lives and missions she deeply impacted—and according to Genevieve, she still returns to the farm, still under her family’s stewardship, nearly a decade after her death.

“She had an heirloom yellow rosebush at the corner of the barn that is still there, and whenever I see it bloom, I know she’s coming back to visit the farm again… I will always be reminded of my grandmother when I see that bush: some thorny branches, sure, but deeply rooted, expansive, tenacious, and blooming the most beautiful, fragrant blossoms.”