The House that Rockefeller Built: The Origins of the Bowdoin Scientific Station

Damon Gannon writes of living and working in one of the famous Rockefeller homes — the one that is part of the Bowdoin Scientific Station on Kent Island. The BSS director shares the history of the structure and the mission of its inhabitants.

Every September, as the new school year is just getting underway, Bowdoin’s faculty and academic staff gather at a reception hosted by President Mills. This is one of Bowdoin’s great traditions and is a nice way to kick off the new academic year. It is an opportunity for colleagues to get reacquainted and to meet new members of the faculty who are just joining the Bowdoin family.  Since members of the Bowdoin faculty often pursue their scholarly work all over the globe, most conversations at this reception start off with: “So, where did your work take you this summer?”

Once in a while, I respond to such inquiries by boasting that I had spent my summer living in and working out of one of the famous Rockefeller homes. Then I’ll pause for a moment to allow my companion to conjure up images of the mansions of Newport or the great summer “cottages” of Bar Harbor. I may even encourage this misconception by saying that the home is on a privately owned island with breathtaking views of the sea — all of which is true. Then my conversation partner will ask clarifying questions, such as, “Is it a really big house?” and “Is it an elegant home?” It is pretty big, by local standards. At 832 square feet, it’s the second-largest building on the island and the only one with a cellar.

It’s also pretty fancy by local standards: it has a wood stove for heat (which gets a lot of use, even in July) and has electricity provided by solar panels on the roof (not a lot of electricity, but enough to power a couple of lights and a laptop computer). But there is no indoor plumbing, no kitchen facilities, and no TV. The first floor has a small bedroom, an office dominated by weather instruments and a living room. The second floor has another bedroom and a storage room.

By this point in the conversation, the other person is thoroughly perplexed so I come clean by telling them that this particular house, which was built by J. Sterling Rockefeller in 1931, is part of the Bowdoin Scientific Station (BSS), the College’s biological field research station. BSS is located on a group of islands in New Brunswick, Canada, called Three Islands. Three Islands is located roughly halfway between the coasts of Maine and Nova Scotia, in the outer Bay of Fundy. Bowdoin owns all of Three Islands. Kent Island is the largest of the three and was the first one to be acquired by the College.

The College came to own Kent Island through an improbable series of events involving a lost albatross, a fisherman, an amateur naturalist, a philanthropist and “gentleman scientist,” the American Museum of Natural History, a small African songbird, a critically endangered species of sea duck, a world-famous evolutionary biologist and a very persuasive Bowdoin student. The story of this acquisition is fascinating, but it is too involved to do it justice in the space that I have here.  (For the full story, read the Bowdoin magazine story “First, There Was an Albatross,” Professor Nat Wheelwright’s account of how BSS was created. Wheelwright also narrates a slideshow about its history.)

The house as it was in the late 1930s with BSS caretaker Ernest Joy and housekeeper Carrie Chase outside.

J. Sterling Rockefeller purchased Kent Island in 1930 to protect one of the last remaining breeding colonies of common eiders (large sea ducks) in all of eastern North America. To be an effective sanctuary for the beleaguered eiders, wardens had to be stationed on Kent Island year-round.  Therefore, Rockefeller had a small house built at the center of the island to house the wardens.

It’s a saltbox, or fisherman’s cottage, that was constructed using a traditional timber-frame design. Much of the materials used in its construction came from Kent Island. Granite cobbles in the foundation were taken from the island’s East Beach and the cement used to bind these stones together probably came from the island’s lime kiln (the remnants of which are still visible on the edge of the South Field). Structural timbers were made from white spruce trees that were cut and milled by hand on Kent Island. Lateral braces for the roof timbers were made from the rounded off-cuts of the milling process (with the tree bark still attached). All of the beams are held together by wooden pegs instead of nails; iron and steel were expensive and hard to come by, but wooden pegs could be made on-site. It may have been built in the 1930s, but it was built using construction methods that date back to the 1700s. It was a long trip to a hardware store or lumber yard, so it was essential that the builders of Rockefeller’s House use simple, time-tested construction methods. Kent Island is still a long way from a hardware store, so Yankee ingenuity and self-reliance are still a necessary part of life at BSS.

BSS caretaker Ernest Joy and his common-law wife, Carrie Chase.

The first residents of Rockefeller’s House were Kent Island’s first sanctuary wardens, Alan Moses and Ralph Griffin. In 1936, Rockefeller decided he no longer wanted to own Kent Island, but he still wanted to ensure the protection of the island’s eiders and also wanted to establish a biological research station. He sold Kent Island to Bowdoin College for one dollar, with the stipulation that it be maintained as a research station and eider sanctuary, and that it be staffed by a year-round caretaker. Thus, Rockefeller’s House became the home of Ernest Joy, the Bowdoin Scientific Station’s first caretaker from 1936 to1949. Joy was stationed on Kent Island year-round, and  lived in Rockefeller’s house with his housekeeper Carrie Chase.

Together they maintained the Station’s buildings and equipment, monitored weather instruments, welcomed Bowdoin students and faculty to the island, endured the elements during the Bay of Fundy’s harsh winters, fought forest fires and looked after the birds of Kent Island. When a new cottage was built for the caretaker in the 1950s, Rockefeller’s House became the Station director’s residence and office. The house is now a “home away from home” and summer office for my wife, Janet Gannon (an instructor in the Biology Department) and me.

The house today with the BSS dormitory in the background.

Rockefeller’s house is now 80 years old; that means 80 winters of gale-driven rain, snow and salt spray, and 80 summers of Fundy’s famous fog. Despite Kent Island’s harsh weather, Rockefeller’s House looks exactly as it did in 1931. Regular repairs and maintenance have been performed throughout its life, but the original appearance has been maintained.

It can be a tough place to live with no running water, limited electricity, little communication with the outside world and tight quarters. But I often look around the house and think that J. Sterling Rockefeller would be pleased to see what it has become — a home for research and education that has involved hundreds of Bowdoin students and researchers from around the globe. The eiders that Rockefeller set out to protect have grown from a few dozen pairs on the island to thousands of birds throughout the Gulf of Maine — a great conservation success story. As the summer research season winds down and I prepare to return to campus for the fall semester, I look forward to telling my colleagues and students about life in Rockefeller’s House and all of the great research that went on at BSS in 2011.

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