Yoga students at Sewall House Yoga Retreat in Island Falls. Credit: Courtesy of Donna Davidge

ISLAND FALLS, Maine — An Aroostook County retreat is among the nation’s top yoga destinations, ahead of famed locations in Virginia, Montana and Colorado.

Sewall House, the 1865 historic Island Falls home that Teddy Roosevelt visited to spend time with his friend and wilderness companion William Sewall, was ranked by USA Today in April as the No. 2 yoga retreat in the nation, beating out venues like Virginia’s Yogaville and Drala Mountain Center in Colorado. 

It’s been an arduous labor of love for Sewall House Yoga Retreat to reach this level of acclaim, said owner Donna Amrita Davidge, who is William Sewall’s great-grandaughter. Just a few decades ago, she saved her family’s home from the auction block.

Historic Sewall House Yoga Retreat in Island Falls ranked No. 2 in nation.  Credit: Courtesy of Donna Davidge

“This is the last remnant of Teddy Roosevelt and my great-grandfather. It is a slice of American history — a rich slice, and that’s why I bought it,” said Davidge, 68, adding she had fears about her decision, especially because she had no money.

Nancy Sewall Cunningham, Sewall’s youngest child of five, lived in the home until her 1996 death at 101. Davidge’s uncle and two second cousins, who inherited the home from Cunningham, had planned to auction the contents and the home. Initially, her relatives rejected her offer to buy it.

Buoyed by a love of northern Maine and a deep soul connection to the home she visited since she was an infant, Davidge kept trying. Eventually, she worked with an Island Falls attorney who set up a payment arrangement for her purchase, she said.

Davidge bought the home in May 1997 and that first summer she offered two retreat sessions.

“I started it really with nothing. I used little carpet remnants from Walmart to do the yoga floor because I didn’t even have yoga mats,” she said. “That first year I charged next to nothing and I really didn’t know what I was doing.”

The retreat’s growth has been gradual because she has had no investors or big money to back her. Since that shaky first year, Davidge, a highly trained and accomplished yogi, has been expanding the retreat at Sewall House, creating a space for sharing, healing and yoga, she said.

Sewall House Yoga Retreat students meditating  in Island Falls. Credit: Courtesy of Donna Davidge

Roosevelt wrote a letter to William Sewall expressing his gratitude for his healing experiences at Sewall House. Davidge draws comparisons to today’s Sewall House healing. The retreat allows people to be comfortable with who they are, she said.

Davidge’s yoga name is Amrita, meaning nectar.

When she purchased Sewall House, she was 41, a New York City yoga teacher and fledgling actress, living an artist’s lifestyle. Many of her early students were from New York City. Today, Davidge has an international following with people from Italy, Costa Rica, Canada, Denmark, Sweden and all over the U.S., to name a few.

Davidge married Kent Bonham of Sweden in 2003. They were married outdoors at Sewall House. She is the fourth generation of Sewall women to marry at the historic home, she said.

For 10 years, the two wallpapered, built studios and enhanced the retreat. Together they helped the business flourish. Their marriage ended in 2013, but they have remained friends and Bonham occasionally still visits Sewall House, she said.

The retreat customizes its experience to each person. Davidge suggests a five-day stay, especially for those who travel long distances to get there.  

Visitors might be getting over breast cancer, coming through a divorce, changing jobs or  losing a parent, Davidge said.

“We can cater the type of yoga we teach to them with what they want to learn,” she said. “Some want to just take home basics, some really want to get into a meditation practice.”

Visitors will find elegant private rooms and vegetarian meals, part of a yoga lifestyle, Davidge said, adding that she always hopes people have a transformational experience or at least learn new ways of doing things.

The   summer season at Sewall House begins this month with a May 20 retreat focused on mastering fear and enabling miracles with a Kundalini  yoga teacher who has been teaching for 50 years. There will be a vegetarian cooking class and intuitive consultations, Davidge said.

“All of this has come from my dedication to this place and its history,” Davidge said.

Davidge invites people to let the fresh air of northern Maine — its wildlife, lakes, hikes and the historic home — inspire moments of reflection and healing. All experiences are touched by Aroostook County’s natural beauty, she said.

“Northern Maine just has so much beauty, and a lot of times when people come up here they have no idea. They are like, ‘Where are all the tourists? Where are all the people?’” she said. “I tell them, ‘This is all ours.’”

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli is a reporter covering the Houlton area. Over the years, she has covered crime, investigations, health, politics and local government, writing for the Washington Post, the LA...