MOUNT DESERT, Maine — For people who spend time on Mount Desert Island, one of the more scenic and popular islands on the Maine coast, it is no secret that in the summer it often attracts wealthy, influential and famous people who are rarely seen in other parts of the state.
But there is wealthy, and then there is the Forbes magazine list of “The 400 Richest Americans.”
Forbes, using its best analysis of public and private information, annually updates and publishes the list, which in past years has been so exclusive that even some people worth more than $1 billion haven’t been included. This year, perhaps because of the down economy, the wealthy have to have a fortune of at least $950 million to make the cut.
A few seasonal residents of MDI usually do make the list each year, and 2009 is no different. Town records, inquiries and other documents show that at least five of the 400 richest people on the Forbes list released Wednesday own property in the town of Mount Desert, one of the four towns that can be found on MDI.
The Mount Desert villages of Northeast Harbor and Seal Harbor long have been known as summertime colonies for the wealthy and were familiar to former Forbes magazine publisher Malcolm S. Forbes, who used to visit Northeast Harbor on his 151-foot yacht Highlander.
Michael MacDonald, Mount Desert’s town manager, said Thursday that tradition and the area’s scenic summertime beauty are what draw the wealthy to town. Many of the town’s well-heeled summer residents first came to Mount Desert as children with their parents, he said.
“It’s an idyllic lifestyle,” MacDonald said. “It’s cool in the summertime and it’s uncrowded.”
He said the town has benefited from and appreciates their presence. Without naming anyone specifically, MacDonald said that some seasonal residents have given to the town’s fire equipment reserve fund and that the town’s office building in Northeast Harbor was built with donated funds. Many residents are employed either to help maintain some of the expensive summer homes or to build new ones, he said.
The wealthy tend not to draw unnecessary attention to themselves, according to MacDonald. They may have their own local tennis and yacht clubs, but they still rub elbows with the year-round residents in the town’s markets and churches.
“Most of the time they just want to be left alone,” MacDonald said. “People in Mount Desert respect that.”
But, still, most do not make the Forbes list. The island’s most famous seasonal resident, Martha Stewart, is one of those who has not.
In 1997, the lifestyle maven bought the local summer estate of former automobile industry scion Edsel Ford. She may be known worldwide from her books and television appearances, and her mansion in Seal Harbor may have an assessed value of more than $9 million, but Stewart is not and has not been among the 400 richest people in the country, according to Forbes.
The wealthiest seasonal resident of Mount Desert is Edward C. “Ned” Johnson III, head of Fidelity Investments. Johnson, estimated to be worth $8 billion despite the poor economy, is tied with Houston energy magnate Dan Duncan as the 30th wealthiest living American. Johnson, who held the 28th spot in 2008, is the beneficiary of trusts that own several properties near Somesville.
His daughter Abigail Johnson also is a Fidelity executive and is ranked even higher on Forbes list. With an estimated personal fortune of $11.5 billion, Abigail Johnson is tied with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen as the 17th richest person in the country.
Forbes lists two Texans who summer in Mount Desert among the 12 billionaires tied for 65th.
Charles Butt, a supermarket magnate from San Antonio, and Robert M. Bass, a Fort Worth resident whose family made its fortune in the oil and gas industry, each have a net worth of $4 billion, according to the magazine.
In 1905, Butt’s grandmother started a company that had one grocery store in Kerrville, Texas, but now has more than 300 supermarkets that employ 70,000 people. He was ranked as the 205th richest American last year, but saw his ranking climb because Forbes overcompensated for his company’s debt in 2008, the magazine claims.
Butt is known locally for being the root cause of a monstrous traffic jam between Ellsworth and MDI in June 2003, when crews he hired took nearly 12 hours to transport a large apple tree by truck from northern Ellsworth to his waterfront estate in Northeast Harbor.
Bass, who was ranked 62nd on the Forbes list last year, owns three properties in Seal Harbor, including a $4.5 million oceanfront estate that overlooks the Cranberry Isles.
Mitchell P. Rales is tied for 123rd on the list with 15 other billionaires, including his older brother Steven Rales. The Raleses, each worth $2.5 billion, made their fortunes investing in and acquiring industrial manufacturing companies. Residents of Washington, D.C., they founded and still control Danaher Corp.
In 2005, Mitchell Rales bought the former Northeast Harbor home of Washington socialite Susan Mary Alsop for $5.5 million and then tore it down. According to a building permit at the town office, he is replacing Alsop’s former oceanfront home with a $12.5 million mansion.
According to BusinessWeek magazine, Rales and his brother have not spoken to the media since 1985, when a Forbes article described them as “cocky to the point of foolishness.”
Rockefellers long have been among the wealthiest in the country and on MDI. Keeping that tradition alive is 94-year-old David Rockefeller Sr., a son of John D. Rockefeller Jr. and the former CEO and chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank.
Rockefeller is listed as the owner of record for more than a dozen properties in Mount Desert, including Bartletts Island, which is nearly 2,000 acres in size and has an assessed value of $5.2 million.
Rockefeller’s estimated net worth is $2.2 billion, which puts him in a seven-way tie for 147th on the list.
Other wealthy seasonal MDI residents whose fortunes have been noted in past years by Forbes include Roger Milliken, the 93-year-old chairman of textile firm Milliken & Co. Milliken, who most recently made the Forbes list in 2007 and last year had an estimated personal fortune of $1 billion, owns a summer home in Northeast Harbor, as does his brother Gerrish Milliken Jr.
Bar Harbor resident Tristram Colket Jr. most recently made the Forbes 400 list in 1998, when he had an estimated net worth of $725 million. Colket, whose grandfather John T. Dorrance perfected a way to can condensed soup and who went on to become president of Campbell’s Soup, lives on a 25-acre, $6.6 million oceanfront estate on the shore of Frenchman Bay.
George W. Strawbridge Jr. is a Campbell’s Soup heir who Forbes estimated in 2002 to have a fortune of $550 million. Strawbridge owns a $3.2 million home in Northeast Harbor.
Another wealthy Stewart with local connections besides Martha, to whom he is not related, but who is not on the Forbes list is William P. Stewart Jr.
Stewart, executive chairman of investment firm W.P. Stewart & Co., is known for having thrown lavish Fourth of July parties earlier this decade at his Northeast Harbor home on Somes Sound. He has commissioned fireworks shows and hired country musicians Randy Travis and Reba McEntire to perform at the parties.
Stewart also owns the 154-foot luxury sailing yacht Scheherazade, which was built in 2000 by Hodgdon Yachts of East Boothbay for more than $20 million. The boat was placed on the market this year with an asking price of more than $23 million, according to the Web site Superyachttimes.com.