In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

The Bryants and Rockefellers: Two Seal Harbor Families

Marvin Bryant, Seal Harbor, ca. 1920
Marvin Bryant, Seal Harbor, ca. 1920
Trenton Cemetery & Keeping Society

Text by Eliza Worrick

Mt. Desert Island's summer residents have always played an important role in the character of the small coastal community. Many locals can attest to the fact that the island would be a very different place if not for the wealthy landowners (originally called rusticators) and their seasonal visits. These differences could be seen in the island's economy, labor force, appearance, and even through the very livelihoods of those who live here year-round. Clearly, the more affluent residents of the island have had an impact on each of these aspects. This massive effect that MDI's "summer people" have had upon the area can be represented more clearly by focusing on one man’s story. Donald Alison Bryant, a native of Mt. Desert Island, spent most of 30 years working very closely with David Rockefeller and his family in the small village of Seal Harbor.

Before Donald worked for the Rockefellers, his ancestors' lives were affected by the earliest summer residents of the area. His family tree can be traced back through some of the first families to ever set foot on Mt. Desert Island and the outlying crops of lands. Families like the Stanleys, the Gilleys, and even the first settlers of the Cranberry Islands, the Bunkers, can all be found on Mr. Bryant’s line. These families' actions on the Cranberry Islands were vital pieces in the success of Mt. Desert Island and the mainland. Fishing, farming, and trading were what made the communities productive throughout the late 18th and into the 19th centuries. But by the 20th century, life as the early families knew it would begin to change drastically. A huge influx of new technology soon phased out the "old" trades that kept the island’s economy running. Word of mouth from artists and ship crews began to draw visitors each summer in order to get a glimpse of the magical place. Also, many of the wealthier visitors fell in love with what they found on the island, and soon enough million-dollar cottages started appearing across the landscape. The final push was when Acadia National Park was formed, putting Mount Desert Island on the map as an official tourist destination.

A huge player in the success of Acadia National Park was John D. Rockefeller Jr. After coming to Mt. Desert Island upon the birth of his eldest son, Nelson, in 1908, Mr. Rockefeller developed a passion for the landscape and immediately involved himself with plans to preserve it. He and park creator George Bucknam Dorr worked with the government to gain enough lands and funds to eventually make Acadia National Park official in 1919. From then on, John D. Rockefeller played a huge role in the growth, success, and upkeep of Acadia, until his death in 1960. By then he had given almost 10,000 acres to the park, along with paying for millions of dollars worth of construction costs. John's son, David Rockefeller, gained an interest and love for Mt. Desert Island, specifically Seal Harbor. Soon enough, David built his own cottage within the quiet hills of Seal Harbor. Ringing Point, as it is called, was constructed upon the property of the former Dane Cottage, and still remains standing to this day.

As the Rockefeller family planted their roots on Mt. Desert Island, Donald Bryant was making history of his own. Once he and his family had moved off of Isleford in 1923 and settled into Seal Harbor, Donald worked as a mechanic at a small garage. After joining the US Navy as a Sea Bee during World War II, Donald met and married Marguerite Hodgkins in 1946. He then left the service and began working for the Matheson family in Seal Harbor and Florida. Upon the birth of Donald and Marguerite’s second child in the early 1950s, they decided that it would be best if Donald worked closer to home. He was offered the position of monitoring and caring for David Rockefeller’s boats and waterfront property soon after this decision. As the Rockefellers began to spend more time in Seal Harbor, and as their property and possessions grew, so did Donald’s job status. He soon became estate superintendent, as well as an important part of the Rockefeller family. Donald found himself doing things such as overseeing the development of Bartlett’s Island, accompanying David’s wife, Peggy, on her many hobby-seeking endeavors, and seeing the Rockefeller children home safely after countless boat rides. Donald’s wife and children had to become accustomed to his position, as he spent great amounts of time away from home in order to fulfill his duties as estate superintendent.

Donald retired from his position in 1983, and passed away in 2002. His wife, Marguerite, passed away in 2004, and their property in Seal Harbor, which was as a gift from the Rockefellers during the 1970s, was sold soon after. Following the deaths of both Donald and Marguerite, as well as the passing of Peggy Rockefeller, the relationship between the Bryants and the Rockefellers faded out. The impressions that each family left upon one another lasted, and remain to this day. The story of the Bryants and the Rockefellers rings true with many other families in and around Mt. Desert Island in the sense that both ends of the spectrum would lead fairly different lives without one another. This effect that the wealthy have had upon the locals, and that the locals have had upon the wealthy, is a fascinating one, and is truly a piece of what makes Mt. Desert Island unique and captivating.