When Samuel de Chaplain ran his ship aground on a ledge off Mount Desert Island in 1604 and promptly came ashore to make repairs, he became not only the first European to visit Bar Harbor, but also the first in a tradition of visits and habitation by the famous, rich and powerful that continues to this day. Champlain would go on to found Quebec City and New France. But on this visit to Maine, he named the place where he landed Isles des Monts Deserts (Mount Desert Island) for the bare-rock peaks of Cadillac Mountain and its neighbors. Fast-forward 250 years or so, and artists from the Hudson River and Luminist schools began flocking to the tiny village of Bar Harbor, drawn by the island’s wild, romantic scenery. Works by Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, William Hart, and Fitz Henry Lane were exhibited to high praise, bringing the island’s beauties to the attention of art patrons and society leaders who were also among the country’s wealthiest and most powerful. Wanting a piece of this beauty, arch-capitalists like J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the family of John Jacob Astor began building grand mansions that they called, with mock modesty, “summer houses.” During its Gilded Age, Bar Harbor rivaled Newport, Rhode Island, in wealth and ostentation, and entrepreneurs built dozens of hotels and guest houses to accommodate the less well-heeled who wished to experience the island’s beauties while hoping to rub elbows with their social and economic betters. When President William Howard Taft came to golf in Bar Harbor in 1910, it marked one of the highlights of the social season. Also among the island’s elite was financier John D. Rockefeller Jr., son of the founder of Standard Oil. In 1908, his wife gave birth in Bar Harbor to a son, Nelson, who would become Chairman of Standard Oil, 1st (U.S.) Under Secretary for Health Education and Welfare, Governor of New York, and Vice President of the United States under Gerald Ford. He led the movement of socially and politically liberal “Rockefeller Republicans,” supporting progressive measures in education, conservation, housing, civil rights and other areas. In more recent times, Bar Harbor has been home to:
- Les Brewer, entrepreneur, owner of the former Golden Anchor Hotel (on the site of the present Harborside Hotel), and co-founder of Bar Harbor’s College of the Atlantic
- Roxanne Quimby, former owner of personal care products company Burt’s Bees, and prominent environmental activist, philanthropist and gadfly
- Matthew Dunlap, former state representative for Old Town, candidate for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in 2012, and current Maine Secretary of State – and the only person to serve in that position in nonconsecutive terms since 1880
- Martha Stewart, television personality, author, and chairman of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. Her Bar Harbor home is reported to have 35,000 square feet of living space – no doubt all of it impeccably decorated and furnished.