Mount Desert Island Heritage

Bar Harbor - The Golden Years

By the late 1800's, the rusticators began to grow tired of living in relatively Spartan conditions while spending summers on Mount Desert. They wanted more of the daily luxuries they had become accustomed to enjoying at home, so they turned to building vacation "cottages". The term "cottage" amuses many present observers, because it was applied to extremely large and ornate homes with 20, 30 or more rooms. They often were sided with wood shingles, giving rise to the architectural description known as "shingle style". Still, these cottages were unheated and, at least in the early years, lacked indoor plumbing. Kitchens tended to be rather small and located in out-of-the-way parts of the house, while entertaining spaces were grand rooms with ornate trim and delightful views.

In general, industrialists and financiers such as investment banker Edward Stotesbury, radio manufacturer Atwater Kent, publisher Joseph Pulitzer, stock broker George Vanderbilt and many others of similar backgrounds tended to build in Bar Harbor. Educators and clergy like Dr. Charles Eliot of Harvard, Daniel Gilman of Johns Hopkins, Episcopal Bishop William Doane and landscape architect Joseph Curtis gravitated toward Northeast Harbor and Seal Harbor. In 1914 John D. Rockefeller, Jr. built a magnificent summer estate in Seal Harbor known as "The Eyrie". He also acquired property in Bar Harbor and managed to keep a foot in both social communities.

The Bar Harbor summer social scene was extremely active during the period from around 1880 through the Depression era and the outbreak of World War II. Lavish parties were held almost daily during "the season" at estates all over the village, and the guest list for most of them read like a Who's Who. In addition, various clubs were established to provide influential summer residents with even more opportunities to socialize among themselves. The Bar Harbor Reading Room, now part of the Bar Harbor Inn, was started as a private gentlemen's club in 1874. The Kebo Valley Club and golf course was built in 1888, and it still exists today as one of the most beautiful and historic golf courses in the nation. Presidents played golf on these links during visits to the area. The exclusive Pot and Kettle Club was founded in Hulls Cove in 1899 as a gentlemen-only retreat. Membership was by invitation. A palatial Building of the Arts was completed near Kebo in 1907. It was modeled after a Greek temple, and its purpose was to offer Bar Harbor summer residents the same caliber of cultural activities that were available to them in the major cities. Prominent musicians and dancers performed regularly at this elegant facility. Even the Boston Symphony and members of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra gave concerts there from time to time. The Bar Harbor Club was established in 1929 to offer meals, rooms to relax while paying cards or smoking cigars, fresh and saltwater swimming pools, tennis courts and a grand ballroom for dances. As with the other clubs, membership was carefully controlled, resulting in very few locals on the list.

It would not be unreasonable to suggest that Bar Harbor society in the first half of the 1900's was a prime example of extravagant excess bordering on decadence. Some "cottagers" actually hired teams of local workers who would move, largely by hand, fully grown oak, maple and elm trees to different locations on the lawn each year, much like one would rearrange furniture or change the composition of a flower garden!

But several major events occurred during that time that initially had the effect of reining in this excess and ultimately led to its demise. First, in 1913 the 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, establishing an income tax on both individuals and corporations. Then there was the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Depression years. And finally, in 1947 Bar Harbor suffered a massive forest fire that burned for ten days and eventually spread over much of the village, destroying many of the elegant estates. The Bar Harbor summer social community was devastated by the combination of these events and never fully recovered.

Throughout Bar Harbor's Golden Years, local residents and wealthy summer residents lived together in very different worlds. But they had a symbiotic relationship. Summer people needed the year-round residents to care for their estates and to provide the services necessary to daily life. Locals, on the other hand, profited from the employment and income provided by their summer counterparts. This mutually beneficial arrangement continues to exist on Mount Desert Island today.