At Waterís Edge
Arthur Atwater Kent, a summer resident at Cape Arundel from around 1907 to 1923, was born in Burlington, Vermont in 1873 to Doctor Prentiss Kent and his wife Mary Elizabeth Atwater.
Atwater majored in Mechanical Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the fall of 1895. He was a popular student but academically he floundered and dropped out after just a few months. During that same year he started the Kent Manufacturing Co., in the back of his fatherís workshop, building motors and fans. The following year he made another attempt at attending WPI but the class president for 1896 found Science and Math daunting and after one semester he was asked to withdraw and told that his future looked dim. His next visit to the school was on June 18, 1926 when he accepted an honorary doctorate degree.
Kent married Mabel Lucas, a girl from a prominent Philadelphia family the same year that his Unispark Ignition System was introduced. Before 1906, automobiles had to be started by cranking an ignition mounted on the front of the hood. The driver would then jump into the car in a manner reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy and hope it continued to run long enough to get the motor into gear. Kentís invention enabled the ignition to be engaged comfortably from the driverís seat and was an immediate success as automobile companies clamored to improve the mass appeal of driving.
The young Philadelphia family began to enjoy the trappings of wealth. In 1908, while summering at The Tower Cottage on Boston Ave. in Cape Arundel, new River Club member Atwater Kent designed his second auto boat and asked local boat builder Clement Clark to build it. The Papoose had a canoe construction covered with canvas and could travel at speeds up to 14 miles an hour. All forms of technology were fascinating to Kent and he repeatedly showed up at the cutting edge of modern convenience.
Victor Vernon, an aviation early bird offered rides on his flying boat from Kennebunk Beach in 1914. Mr. and Mrs. Kent were his frequent guests. On their first ride in the Betty V a wave broke over the plane as they landed and the motor stalled leaving them drifting toward a rocky stretch of the beach. Before the pilot could assess the situation Atwater climbed out alongside the motor, dried off the dampened magneto and climbed back into the Betty V. The pilot cranked the motor and she caught with a mighty roar. Vernon described his passenger as the highest paid and the best volunteer mechanic ever to work on any airplane.
In 1910 the Kent family bought The Nesmith Cottage beside St. Annís Episcopal Church and drolly named it AtWaterís Edge. They hired local men for $1.50 a day to make considerable renovations. To enhance the workerís enthusiasm for the job, they also offered all the Bourbon the men could drink. Atwater was convinced that it sped up the work. The house was improved several times over the next 13 years. In 1920 the Kentís were able to purchase a lot adjacent to their own upon which was the old fort constructed to protect the ships moored in the harbor during the War of 1812. Mounds of earth with apertures left open for the canons remained in relatively good condition thanks to the sea grass that had grown up around them. There was also a small cemetery on the lot containing the bodies of the Jeremiah Smith family. Amid some controversy in Kennebunkport Atwater leveled the fort and had the Smith family moved to The Landing Cemetery to make way for a sweeping lawn to the ocean. His friends nicknamed him the grave digger.
The Atwater Kent Radio, an invention for which Kent is best known, did not go into production until 1922. The success of the wildly popular radios catapulted the Kent Family into wealth of impressive proportions. In 1924 they purchased the Bar Harbor Cottage of W. K. Vanderbilt. When Kent, who was known for making the best Mint Julep to be found in the days of the prohibition, moved out of AtWaterís Edge he gave several of his ten Kennebunkport automobiles away to local residents.
Unlike many manufacturing companies that were vulnerable to the great stock market crash of 1929, the Kent Manufacturing Company was owned outright by the family. In the 1930 census they had a staff of 29 people living with them in Philadelphia.
The inventor was a fiercely independent man and when in 1936 he felt that the government or more specifically Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted too much control over how he ran his business he destroyed most of his records and closed his Philadelphia plant as well as his formidable career. He would not do business while ďthat manĒ was there. Kent left his wife and grown children to their lives in Philadelphia and moved to California where he became known for hosting legendary parties. The last decade of his life was spent amongst new Hollywood friends such as Joan Crawford, Erol Flynn, Cary Grant, Greer Garson and a young Elizabeth Taylor.
Kentís passion for the musicality of the human voice prompted him to sponsor well loved radio broadcasts of The Metropolitan Opera and an annual audition to find the next great opera star. Contestants were between 18 and 24 years of age and came from all over the country to his Bel Air home for the semi-finals. The winners received $22,000 cash prizes and a chance to audition for the Met. The Atwater Kent Hour was the most popular show on the radio for many years.
Atwater Kent was a man small of stature with large appetites and inexhaustible generosity. His philanthropic foundation supported countless charitable and cultural endeavors. When he died March 4, 1949 from a virus complicated by a malignant condition his will stated that no more than $50,000 should be spent on his funeral. He left $2 million to his ex-wife and 73 of his closest friends were willed sums ranging to $18,000.
Atwaterís Edge at Cape Arundel was finally sold to the Horace Liversidge family in 1946 and the house eventually became the rectory for St. Annís by the Sea but ask anyone in Kennebunkport, they will tell you its the Atwater Kentís House.
This article was originally published in The Log, Kennebunkport Historical Society's quarterly publication. Copyright 2001-2006 Sharon Cummins