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Edsel Ford and the National Park Service - Part 2

September 8, 2016 Archive Insight

Part 2: Mount Desert Island, Maine
Located off the coast of Maine, Mount Desert Island is one of the largest islands in the United States and home to Acadia National Park. Long known for its rocky coast, mountainous terrain, and dense wilderness, Mount Desert Island was popularized in the mid-19th century by the Hudson River School. The painters from this art movement focused on scenic landscape paintings, creating works of art that inspired many prominent citizens from the East Coast to build their summer homes on the island. By the late 19th century a resort tradition that became locally known as "rusticating" had taken root on Mount Desert. Wealthy East Coast families known as "rusticators" would spend their summers relaxing in their island mansions, taking in the scenery, and socializing with other prosperous families doing the same. In the early 20th century, the "rusticators" on Mount Desert Island also began to include affluent Detroit families as well.

Eleanor Lowthian Clay, Edsel Ford's future wife, was accustomed to affluence and spent her summers vacationing on Mount Desert Island as a child. Eleanor's wealthy uncle, Joseph Lowthian Hudson, was successful in the Detroit department store scene. As patriarch of the family, the childless J.L. Hudson cared for his other family members and allowed Eleanor's family, as well as some of his other nieces and nephews, to live with him. Hudson employed most of them in his business and groomed his four Webber nephews, Eleanor's cousins, to take over the family trade. Their sister, Louise Webber, married Roscoe B. Jackson, a business partner of J.L. Hudson. In 1909, Jackson helped formed the Hudson Motor Car Company with backing from Hudson. Jackson had found early success with the Hudson Motor Car Company and after inheriting the department store company, the Webber brothers were able to continue its success as well. The wealth and status that these families enjoyed allowed them to later choose Mount Desert Island as the location for their summer retreats and influenced Edsel to do the same.

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Eleanor, right, and her sister Josephine, left, vacationing in Maine with their family. THF130536

The wealth of J.L. Hudson had helped establish Eleanor's cousins and acquaint Eleanor with the son of another wealthy Detroiter in Edsel Ford. While Edsel courted Eleanor, her sister Josephine was simultaneously being courted by up-and-coming lawyer Ernest Kanzler. Edsel became close friends with Kanzler, his future brother-in-law, who eventually was hired by Henry Ford to help manage the Fordson tractor company. By the early 1920's, Edsel and Eleanor along with the Kanzlers, Webbers and Jacksons were all vacationing on Mount Desert Island. Edsel began his Mount Desert residency by renting summer homes there, occasionally inviting his parents to vacation with him. During the late summer or early fall of 1922, Edsel purchased property in the area known as Seal Harbor. Sitting 350 feet above sea level on what is known as Ox Hill, Edsel's property had a panoramic view of the surrounding sea and sky. Also within walking distance of Acadia, then Lafayette National Park, Edsel soon found that his property adjoined the property of the neighborhood national park's biggest benefactor, John D. Rockefeller Jr.

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Edsel with his sons Henry II and Benson spending time at the beach in Seal Harbor. THF95355 

Rockefeller Jr. first visited Mount Desert Island in 1908 and immediately became enamored with the area. He built a large estate in Seal Harbor and by the time he became neighbors with Edsel in 1922, Rockefeller Jr. had already used his wealth to donate large tracts of land to his local national park. During this time he was also in the process of building a network of carriage roads that allowed the beautiful vistas of Acadia to be accessed by the public. Preferring the quiet serenity of horse-drawn carriages over the noisy automobiles, Rockefeller Jr. worked personally with the engineers to ensure that the carriage roads captured the tranquil scenery the park had to offer. The beautiful landscapes of the area would become the topic that Rockefeller Jr. used to initiate his friendship with Edsel Ford.

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Panoramic view of Seal Harbor located on Mount Desert Island, Maine. THF255236
 

Initially writing in December of 1922, Rockefeller Jr. didn't hide his feelings when congratulating Edsel on the purchase of his Seal Harbor property. He had visited Edsel's property at the top of Ox Hill during sunset one night and stated in his letter, "I do not know when I have seen a more magnificent and stunning view than that which met my eye on every side. You have certainly made no mistake in selecting a site for your home.” He concluded the letter by expressing how happy he and his family were at the thought of having Edsel as a permanent summer neighbor. In Edsel's gracious response to Rockefeller Jr., he mentioned that he would be using architect Duncan Candler to design his Seal Harbor home. Candler had previously designed the neighboring Rockefeller home, as well as other note-worthy properties on the island.

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John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s initial letter to Edsel congratulating him on the purchase of Edsel's Seal Harbor property. This letter lead to a life-long friendship that would be fueled by the spirit of philanthropy. THF255332

Christened with the name "Skylands" due to the unbroken views of the Maine horizon line that the property provided, Edsel's summer retreat was built between 1923 and 1925. In 1924, familiar with his new summer neighbor's philanthropic efforts and swayed by his past experiences, Edsel began donating yearly to the National Parks Association, known today as the National Parks Conservation Association. Created by industrialist Stephen Mather in 1919, the organization's mission was to protect the fledgling National Park Service, of which Mather was the director. For eight years Edsel would donate $500 annually to the National Parks Association, until the Depression years of 1932 and 1933 when other business and philanthropic demands restrained his monetary donations.

By the time Edsel's summer home was done in 1925, he and Rockefeller Jr. had become good friends and philanthropic partners. They shared a love for the arts, beautiful scenery, social justice, and civic responsibility. Although twenty years his senior, Rockefeller Jr. found Edsel's situation relatable. Both men were the only sons of immensely wealthy industrialist fathers and both had inherited the responsibility of their massive family fortunes. Each looked to use those fortunes to serve humanity and steer society towards a positive future. Rockefeller Jr. cherished the trait of modesty, a trait that he saw Edsel strongly demonstrate throughout his life. For that reason, Rockefeller Jr. held Edsel, "in the highest regard and esteem," describing him as, "so modest and so simple in his own living and in his association with his fellow men." Their summers spent together at Seal Harbor would undoubtedly include conversations about where they could best direct their philanthropic efforts.

Ryan Jelso is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. 

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