Her Island History: 100 Years of Tenacious Island Women

Nancy Kimball Ho shares stories of the Kimball House Hotel and later running the Kimball Shop  in Northeast Harbor.

Postcards of the Kimball House Hotel, Northeast Harbor, ME 












Oral History Transcription:

Nancy Kimball Ho
August 4th, 2020
Interviewed by Rick Wheeler


RW: This is Rick Wheeler. It is Tuesday August 4th, 2020 and I’m with Nancy Kimball Ho at her house in Northeast Harbor. 


RW: First, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed about yourself , the Kimball House Hotel and the Kimball Shop. What object did you select to be scanned for History Harvest?


NH: Well I have two postcards of the old Kimball House Hotel. I thought it might be interesting to talk about the Kimball House. Some people remember it; others never knew it.  It was definitely a part of Northeast Harbor and of my growing up in Northeast Harbor. 


RW: Did you actually grow up in the hotel itself or next door?


NH: Well I grew up mostly here in this house. My parents when they were first married had a house (since torn down) in what is now the Asticou Azalea Garden. We lived there until I was about five. We then moved to this house, which was a summer house that they winterized. 


RW: Do you remember specific things about the Kimball House?


NH: Oh absolutely – as many off season memories as on season.  We used to roller skate on the porch in the fall after everybody left and they removed all the chairs.   This was fair game because they refinished the porches every spring. Just wandering around the rooms inside when nobody was there was also fun. 


RW: How many rooms were there?


NH: I think about seventy upstairs. That’s not counting the huge spaces downstairs and the kitchens. 


RW: Was it normally full during the whole summer season?


NH: Yes and all these cottages were a part of the Kimball House operation. There were roughly twelve cottages, including this one, Tenedos, by the church, and several along Kimball and South Shore Road. It was a huge complex. Most of the cottages didn’t have kitchen facilities so residents ate most of their meals at the hotel.


RW: Was this your parents primary business or did they have other things they worked on as well?


NH: Yes, this was pretty much their business and it was full-time. They had a break in the wintertime, but there was always planning for the next year. There were people who lived and worked at the property all year getting rooms ready and on winter preparations. It was constant. It was a big, old hotel. 


RW: I remember it well with its wrap around porch and turrets. 


NH: The turrets were really fun and the attic was hugely interesting because it was vast and  scary. The attic wrapped the entire building as did the basement.  The basement was really scary. 


RW: I never thought about the basement. Was it just a big open space?


NH: No there were multiple rooms down there. The baking was done as you first went in on that level. They had huge ovens down there. There was one room way inside that had broken china in it. At some point there was an icehouse in there –  back in the day when you used to harvest ice, bring it in and store it down under. So there was a big room for that.


RW: When was the Kimball House originally built? 


NH: It was built in 1886. There was an earlier hotel that I think it dates back to the 1830s. 


RW: Was it built by a grandparent or a great grandparent of yours?


NH: Great grandparent – Squire Daniel Kimball.


RW: Which is your brother’s name too?


NH: Yes, there was a big thing with naming. Daniel’s son was Loren Sr. and then my father was Loren Jr. It’s crazy you know having the same first names. So, there was a lot of that. 


RW: I remember the big green, illuminated “K” on top of the hotel that you could see from the water. The green glow was a great landmark in low visibility.


NH: Not too pretty, but it was definitely a landmark. 


RW: Were you there for all those Kimball House dances?


NH: Yes, Monday nights with the Harry Marshard band. 


RW: When I was nine or ten I somehow became a friend of Harry Marshard’s trombonist. I would sit near him and enjoy his trombone. My mother was fine with that because I was staying out of trouble and she could see me. 


NH: I’m trying to remember, but didn’t they have dancing for little kids early in the evening?


RW: They had the little kids stay until 9:00.The final dance for the little kids was always the bunny hop where everybody, kids and adults, got into a bunny hop line, similar to a conga line. 


RW: What happened to the Kimball House? Did it start becoming less popular?


NH: Well bad financial times hit the hotels. Several had burned. Several just weren’t around, such as the Seaside Inn in Seal Harbor and the Rockend Hotel just above the Northeast Harbor Fleet. The Asticou Inn went bankrupt. I think my parents realized they had to sell it or do something so Asti-Kim Corporation was formed. 


RW: Was that a combination formed by your parents and the owners of Asticou?


NH: I believe so. The owners at the time all took stock in Asti-Kim


RW: Does Asti-Kim still exist?


NH: Oh yes absolutely. It owns the Asticou. 


RW: Is that its primary asset now?


NH: Yes. They’re trying to figure out how to make it viable. It’s hard because it is such a short season. The days of people coming and bringing their entire staff, from chauffeurs to people to wait on them, are long gone.  People have chosen different lifestyles.


RW: I can’t think of anybody who brings staff up anymore.  


RW: Tell me more about your memories at the Kimball House. 


NH: Growing up there, I was expected to work, but you know it was good because it was a family affair. I did everything including waitressing, which was great fun because people came for the summer and they boarded here. There was boarding for women in one sector. There was also a huge laundry in back and the chef had a house. There also was a big garage and maintenance area. The gardens, which included a large formal garden, went from the road across from St. Mary’s all the way down the hill. Ralph, the year round gardener, was wonderful. We called him Mr. Ralph. He taught me all about plants. Because there was enough area on the property to drive, I had fun learning to drive at an early age. 


RW: How many siblings do you have?


NH: I had one, Danny, who was a year younger.



RW: So you played around together and got in trouble together?


NH: We did along with the manager’s two sons, Tom and John Kelly. They lived upstairs on the third floor. Both sets of parents were always busy so we had a fair degree of freedom.


RW: Do you know anything about when your family first came to the island?


NH: You know I should know more. Squire Kimball is really the first person I am aware of. He lived from 1802 to 1887. He married a Gilpatrick, which is another old Maine name.


RW: Going back to yourself, where did you go after childhood?


NH: I couldn’t wait to get away. As wonderful as it was, I couldn’t wait to escape. My mother had done a lot of traveling.. When she was young, her mother and father, Angus MacDonald, who started the Maine Seacoast Mission, didn’t know what to do with her since her two brothers were in boarding school. So they took her with them when they traveled around the world. I wanted to do the same. My mother climbed the pyramids in the days when you could. So as soon as I could, I left to go to Bradford Junior College and the University of North Carolina. I later moved to New York in the sixties.


RW: What took you to New York?


NH: A job. My father pointedly asked me what I was going to do with my degree so I took a job in advertising and later at Columbia University. It was fun and exciting – a great world. From New York, I took a trip to Europe and ended up getting married. 


RW: How did that happen?


NH: Bob and I knew each other in New York. When I went to Italy and Spain to travel, Bob magically appeared. We drove down through Italy together with a woman photographer and a newspaper woman. 


RW: Just the four of you?


NH: Just the four of us. Bob and I ended up getting married in 1960. My father disowned me because in his mind mixed marriages did not work. That totally stunned me. It was my decision and he always had taught me to make my own decisions. He came around eventually. It was after we had a baby.  I knew he liked Bob. That was the really weird part of it for me – that you could like someone and still be disapproving. He did not bring me up to be prejudiced so it could have been a father daughter thing.


RW: So you and Bob moved here?


NH: No, we were living in New York at the time and I worked at Columbia before having a baby and took courses. That was a perk because you could audit free or inexpensive courses. It was a dream to be able to take these courses. 


RW: Were you living close to the university? 


NH: Yes, we were on west 86th where Bob’s parents lived. His father was teaching at Columbia, so they had one of the Columbia apartments right on Riverside Drive.  Then we moved to Poland in 1964. We had Christopher and moved to the outskirts of Warsaw. It was still very Eastern Europe – very gray and depressing in those days. We came back from Poland and moved to Vermont. 


RW: What took you there?


NH: Bob took a job running a federal action project and was teaching teachers. We bought a place in St. Johnsbury and had two babies there. He used to tell me that “every summer you would just disappear” and I would say “Maine is summer for me. I need to come back.” 


RW: When you were in New York did you come back here in the summers?


NH: No. When I was in New York I was estranged from my father so we didn’t come up as much. My father died when we were in Vermont. With my mother living alone, we came back to help her and be supportive. 


RW: So when you came back to be here with your mom, is that when you moved here full time?


NH: No, it wasn’t that easy. We were given a small summer house on Somes Sound called Brookside. It was a little white house with a picket fence, on the Sound Road, near the little stone church. Then we moved to Mount Vernon Maine, just outside of Augusta. We bought one of Elizabeth Arden’s buildings on her farm. There were beautiful raspberries. It was an endless money pit trying to renovate it and make it a house. 


RW: From Mount Vernon where did you go?


NH: I came back to help my mother who was elderly at the time and then stayed. The children could walk to school. It was great. It worked out well.


RW: Did you live here? With your mom? Was Bob here?


NH: Yes, Bob got along well with my mom and helped her. It all worked out well.


RW: Now to morph over to the Kimball Shop, when did that come into existence? 


NH: My aunt Margaret Kimball was a single woman who owned the shop that she called the Ye Kimball Shoppe. She liked to travel around the world and collect things. I think her father started the shop to deal with all the things she brought back. When she died (I can’t remember when that was), quite unbeknownst to my brother Danny and me, she left the shop to us. Neither of us was living here at the time. Bob and I were in Mount Vernon and Danny was in Connecticut. We ran it together for awhile, but it really wasn’t his thing, and we saw things differently. He liked antiques and wanted to go that route so he ran a Kimball Shop in Connecticut. I found antiques dull and dreary and wanted to go lighter and brighter. We parted ways in 1988.


RW: How did the Northeast Harbor Kimball Shop evolve? 


NH: Honestly, it just evolved. You just go to the shows and you have a certain taste that you like. You sort of go for that and you learn as you go. 


RW: Did you get a lot of input from your summer clientele here? 


NH: Well, yes – feedback is always essential. Also, my parents had pretty good taste so I guess I started there and learned as I went.


RW: I gather a lot of the business is now online?


NH: We are online. We do a lot of weddings online these days.  


RW: Even during this Covid pandemic has the wedding business remained strong? 


NH: Yes, people have been very supportive so it’s really nice. I think there is more of a sense of reaching out and trying to support local businesses. I do the same thing. The more we patronize local businesses, the more businesses will flourish. 


RW: Can you talk a little bit about the business? Are there certain big decisions you made that worked out well and others that didn’t?


NH: They’ve all been fun decisions. The whole thing for me is to keep it modular so you can lead with children’s toys one year, but be flexible, because it’s a fickle business. For example, gardening one year was huge and everybody wanted all these garden things. The next year it waned, and the following year gardening was a non-factor. 


RW: Clearly, it is a business where you have to be nimble.  Do you have to throw a dart on the board to guess what will be popular the coming year?


NH: You have to get a sense of it. The whole market place has a sense so I don’t make it up. Maine is always slow to catch on. Things that are currently popular in metropolitan areas will likely be popular in Maine in a year or two.


RW: I would have thought that your wealthy summer clients would accelerate trends up here compared to the rest of Maine. 


NH: Oh absolutely more than the rest of Maine. It’s such a short season so you always have to tip toe into things that are very avant garde and the rest of it you just back up with steady things that people need. 


RW: Given that most of your summer resident clients have already furnished their houses, I am always amazed how well the Kimball Shop does. 


NH: When houses turn over, we often see new business. And then there is always the need for new bedding – new pillows or new whatever. It’s fun to upgrade sheets and lampshades, things like that. They are staples. On a dark day you suddenly need a lamp. Everybody changes a little bit and it all adds up. 


RW: Talk about some of your non-business activities, such as volunteer work and other things you do here. 


NH: Well I’ve been involved with the Maine Seacoast Mission. I was on their board for 12 years until I was termed off. It was interesting to do that with the family connection. My grandfather Angus Mac Donald and his brother started it.


RW: Are you pleased to see it now in Northeast Harbor?


NH: I’m thrilled.  It is so logical to me. The Sunbeam is moored right here in Northeast Harbor so they now look out at their boat. While we have donors from all over, which is wonderful, our big supporters are here. 


RW: What are some of your other activities? 


NH: We just sold some property next to the shop to College of the Atlantic. I think this will be very positive. A lot of the COA students have integrated into the community. Sue, our manager, is a COA grad as is Pancho Cole, our IT guy. It’s nice. Now COA and the Seacoast Mission will be in Northeast Harbor year-round. I think it is wonderful.


RW: You have been on the Town of Mount Desert Economic Development Committee too?


NH: Right, and on the Board of the Medical Center. I also was on the library scholarship committee for a long time, but then I was doing scholarship work for Maine Seacoast Mission. 


RW: I’m coming to the end of the interview but any thoughts on things about the Kimball Shop? The Kimball House? Nancy Kimball Ho? Interesting people?


NH: At the Kimball House, there were tons of fascinating people who went through. A young John F. Kennedy stayed there. 


RW: Do you remember him when he was there?


NH: Yes. I’m not going to go into that, but yes I do. There were so many other interesting people, from writers to people who would bartend. We had a bartender who was a professor writing a book at the same time. As a young girl of maybe sixteen or seventeen, I overheard a lot of fascinating conversations. It exposed me to a wide range of thinking.


RW: My last question: are there any unusual accomplishments or experiences that you would like to share?


NH: No, not really. 


RW: Well thank you, Nancy for wonderful insights into your life, both here and elsewhere, the Kimball House and the Kimball Shop.