The names of famous tycoons from America’s Industrial Age are recognized the world over: Carnegie, Rockefeller, Astor, Morgan, Vanderbilt, Ford. They made the equivalent of hundreds of billions of today’s dollars leveraging their shrewd business skills while taking advantage of a relatively unregulated economy and cheap labor. They are often referred to as “businessmen, industrialists and philanthropists.” They amassed fortunes across multiple industries and some of them spent quite freely – including on extravagant homes. This is (mostly) the story of a wealthy family that lived large and suffered from the pitfalls of cultural affluence.
John Gribbel and the Society of Wealth
John Gribbel was born to immigrants from Cornwall, England who settled in Jersey City, New Jersey. His father was a manufacturer of mining equipment.
After attending the City College of New York, Gribbel worked in banking in New York City. In 1883, Gribbel moved to Philadelphia to work for for Harris, Griffin & Company, a company who manufacturered gas meters. He rose the ranks and eventually became the owner of the business. Over the next decade, he diversified into gas, electric and street railways, acquiring companies, wealth and standing along the way. He becomes a member of various societies, including being the president of the Union League of Philadelphia.
In 1880, he Gribbel married Elizabeth Bancker and they had four children: Wakeman Griffin (1880), Idella L. (1886), John Bancker (1884) and Elizabeth (1897). Wakeman will make an appearance later in this story.
In 1899, Gribbel hired architect Horace Trumbauer to build a large estate called St. Austel Hall in Wyncote, Pennsylvania at a cost of $74,000 (approximately $2.3M in 2020). The design was based on an English manor named Kelmscott House, which had been owned by William Morris. Built on 42 acres, it was named for St Austell, Cornwall, his mother’s former home before immigrating to the United States. The house included a library, billiard room and a built-in pipe organ. The house was eventually demolished in the 1950s to make way for a housing project.
John Gribbel buys Glenriddell to Deed Them to Land of Poet’s BirthNY Times headline, Dec. 2, 1913
Gribbel became a collector of colonial and 17th century English books and engravings, along with manuscripts of the late poet Robert Burns. He purchased Burns’ priceless Glenriddell Manuscripts and immediately gave them to the people of Scotland. The gift of this 2 volume set “strongly bound in calf” came as quite a surprise when he announced it at the annual banquet of the St. Andrew’s Society of Philadelphia. This gift endeared him to the people of Scotland where he and and his wife were celebrated on a 1920 trip to the country.
There isn’t much printed about John’s wife Elizabeth, but it was noted that she contributed some recipes to The Philadelphia New Century Club Book of Recipes (1915). These include, “Mother’s Mutton Broth”, “New Amsterdam Molasses Cake”, “Rhode Island Rice Pudding” and “Strawberry Sauce”.
The Maine Connection
In the late 1800’s, the Maine Coast became a popular place for the wealthy to build extravagant “summer cottages.” The Rockefellers, Morgans, Fords, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Astors all built homes on Mt. Desert Island. Joseph Pulitzer, owner of The New York World newspaper, was one of the people who took to Bar Harbor. In 1894 he purchased the 27 room Louise Bowler Livingston estate called “Chatwold” on Schooner Head Road and then proceeded to greatly expand the building and grounds. By that point, Pulitzer was a physical and mental mess. His unrelenting drive for success had left him depressed, near blind, and extremely sensitive to sound. He spent most of his time on his yacht “Liberty” where he could find solitude. At Chatwold, he hired a firm to build a 4-story, sound-proof addition connected to the main house by a foyer that contained an indoor pool (ocean-fed and steam heated), a dining room, paneled library, offices and bedrooms for his secretaries and Pulitzer’s bedroom at the top with a floor on ball bearings, double glazed windows, and walls insulated with steel wool.
The completed structure was dubbed the ‘Tower of Silence’ by family and staff.
A new stable, with stalls for 26 horses and extensive servant’s quarters was built, along with enlarged greenhouses to keep the house in fresh flowers and fruits. It was in the grand library of Chatwold that Pulitzer came up with his idea to fund a school of Journalism at Columbia University and administer a prize for journalistic excellence, which eventually became the Pulitzer Prize. Pulitzer died aboard his yacht in 1911 and the great fire of 1947 eventually burned down much of Bar Harbor. Chatwold was one of the 67 that burned down on “Millionaire’s Row.”
In 1910, long before that famous fire, Pulitzer hired the Olmstead Brothers landscape architecture firm to improve the grounds at Chatwold.
One of the Olmstead employees was a young Norwegian designer named Hans Heistad.
Born in Brevik, Norway, Heistad studied landscape gardening and horticulture in both Norway and Denmark. After completing his education he worked as a foreman in a number of landscaping and horticulture firms in Germany. In 1905, Heistad arrived in the U.S. and found work as a carpenter and as an estate gardener and was hired by the Olmstead Brothers. He found his way to Maine in 1910 to work on the grounds at Chatwold and was so taken by the coast as it reminded him on his native Norway he settled with his family in the Camden area. Over the next few years, he provided design services for numerous private estates in the Camden/Rockport area.
In 1913, John Gribbel hired Heistad to improve the grounds of his summer estate called “Weatherend.”
It was no Chatwold but it was still impressive.
At Weatherend, Heisted oversaw a crew of masons and workers who built walls, terraces and walkways as well as “outdoor rooms” with accompanying custom outdoor furniture designed by Heisted himself. To keep his workers busy during the winter, Heisted, with the blessing of his boss, had the idea to build a small hut a few miles away on Beech Hill which was also owned by the Gribbels. The Gribbels had been acquiring land on Beech Hill since 1909 and eventually ended up with 300 acres. You can read all about Beech Nut over here.
Weatherend Estate and Beech Nut
From 1913-1915, Heisted built a stone gate, a winding carriage road, and a stone hut in the Norwegian mountain tradition at the top of Beech Hill which was called “Beech Nut.” It was a stone hut with a sod roof and a veranda with pillars and arches that framed the not-so-distant views of the Camden Hills and Penobscot Bay. Family and friends would bundle up the children and walk the 2.5 miles from Weatherend to Beech Nut to enjoy the fresh air and exercise and to have picnics in and around the hut.
CCC and Camden State Park
After he finished at Weatherend, Heistad continued to work on projects in the Camden area. He eventually became associated with the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC). During the Great Depression, President FDR and his “New Deal” created the Works Progress Administration (WPA). In 1936, the WPA setup an office in Lincolnville and hired local men who desperately needed the work for various construction projects. The New Deal also spawned the Civilian Conservation Corp who began working on various projects in Maine. In Maine, the CCC built schools, airports, bridges, roads, ski runs, parks and dams.
One of the largest project that the CCC completed in Maine was the building of what would become the Camden Hills State Park on the site of the Sagamore Farm (which had burned in 1930).
The CCC setup a row of barracks to house and feed 200 men from all over the state.
On this hilly site, Heistad worked with Newell Hamilton Foster, the Superintendent of the CCC in Maine. Foster had previously been the Superintendent of Liberty Island in the New York harbor. Another connection in this tale is that Joseph Pulitzer was instrumental in raising funds for the Statue of Liberty pedestal when they ran out of money in 1875.
From 1935-1941, the CCC crew cleared brush, leveled terrain, built roads, parking areas, hiking trails and rustic footbridges and planted 7,000 native trees and shrubs. Utilizing local stone they built an entrance gate ensemble, toll house, picnic shelter, fireplaces with seats and tables, naturalistic steps along hillsides, and massive stone benches. Once complete, the site was turned over to the State of Maine and it became the Camden Hills State Park in 1947.
As part of the project, Heistad and the CCC built 48 buildings at Camp Tanglewood in Lincolnville. Tanglewood was intended to lodge vacationers but was never actually used for that purpose. It was a YWCA camp from 1939-1972, then a 4-H camp, and is still in operation today. They also built a ski trail and stone ski shelter on Mount Megunticook. Heistad also worked with the Olmstead Brothers to build the Camden Amphitheater and park in 1930.
Drugs, Shootouts and Slashed Throats
John Gribbel’s eldest son Wakeman Griffin made the news a few times – for the wrong reasons. In 1905, when he was twenty-four and a student in the engineering department at the University of Pennsylvania, he was arrested for attempted suicide. Police were called to the Astor Hotel where Gribbel was found in a stupor under the influence of some sort of drug and brought to the Roosevelt Hospital. He was later released after denying that he had attempted suicide, claiming that he had taken the drug “to sleep” and was discharged by the magistrate in the custody of the family butler as his parents were vacationing in Mexico at the time.
GRIBBEL WILL LIVE; HAD ARSENAL IN HOME; Insane Philadelphia Veteran Who Killed Police Officer Is Under Alienist’s Care.NY Times headline Jan. 19, 1929
Then, on January 17, 1929, Maj. W. Griffin Gribbel, just released from a sanatorium where he was being treated for shell-shock (PTSD), caused by his experiences in World War I, shot and killed Inspector of Police, John W. Blackburn. The police and fire department had been called to the Gribbel home by Mrs. Gribbel. W.G. had barricaded himself upstairs with an arsenal of weapons and when he heard the police shouted “if you come up those stairs. I’ll shoot you!” A number of policemen, including the Inspector, had thrown tear gas into the room and when that had no effect on the crazed Griffin, tried to rush him as Blackburn had declared downstairs that “no gunplay would be necessary.” But when they rushed him, Gribbel fired wildly with a rapid-fire German gun spraying bullets that hit and killed Inspector Blackburn, known as the “Prayer Cop” for his reverance.
The police then returned fire hitting him four times.
Gribbel survived and was charged with first-degree murder and the case went to trial in February 1930. Gribbel was acquitted by a Philadelphia jury, two days later, on the grounds of insanity.
After escaping the guilty verdict, W.G. Gribbel went on to a long career working for his father’s company the American Meter Company. But, he was back in the news in 1943. As the NY Times wrote: “Major Wakeman Griffin Gribbel, 63 years old, a World War veteran who was acquitted of murder here thirteen years ago, was released on bail of $2,500 today on a charge of slashing the throat of a captain of waiters at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in an altercation arising from the disappearance of a red handkerchief from his overcoat.” That is quite a response to a handkerchief. Griffen died a few years later in 1946, having gotten away with attempted suicide, murder and a throat slashing.
Where They Went
Elizabeth Gribbel died in 1934 at the age of 74 followed by John Gribbel in 1936 at the age of 78 at his home in Camden. Hans Heistad died in 1945 at the age of 73 in Waterville.
Beech Nut, along with the surrounding land, was put in conservation easement in 1976 and eventually purchased by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.
In 2006, it was transferred it to the Coastal Mountains Land Trust and is now the Beech Hill Preserve.
Parts of the preserve including Beech Nut are listed on the National Register.
Heisted’s outdoor furniture that he built to complement the stone walls and outdoor rooms at Weatherend “inspired” the birth many years later of a luxury outdoor furniture company named for the estate. Weatherend Estate Furniture (weatherend.com) “combines the latest yacht-building techniques with proprietary innovations to produce the most elegant and durable outdoor furniture in the world.” Outdoor dining chairs cost over $4,000. I’m not sure Hans would be happy, but I bet Joseph Pulitzer and John Gribbel would have purchased a few if they were alive today.