Margaret Staller, left, works with Colby College students to gather data in the rocky intertidal zone along the coast on Allen Island in July. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

ALLEN ISLAND — The tide is low, so the rockweed on the south end of Allen Island glints in the midafternoon sun. Margaret Staller climbs over the slick rocks, taking careful steps in her tall brown boots. She crouches over the tide pool and begins to count.

Staller, 22, graduated from Colby College in the spring. She is one of four students who are living and working on Allen Island for the entire summer. For weeks, she has been gathering samples of snails and analyzing them for what she hopes will be her first paper in a peer-reviewed journal. On this day, she joined a faculty member and three student researchers who were visiting the island for a week to gather data in the rocky intertidal zone.

“All the time I’ve spent out here, I’m thinking a lot about whether I want to pursue research as a career,” Staller said. “This summer has been super informative for me, not just in that I’m learning a lot about the snails, but I’m learning a lot about what I enjoy doing and what the realistic steps are to conduct your own research.”

Last year, Colby College purchased Allen Island and neighboring Benner Island, which had for many summers been home to Andrew and Betsy Wyeth. The natural environment featured prominently in Andrew Wyeth’s art, but Betsy Wyeth was the one who shaped this landscape with the same discerning eye that critiqued her husband’s paintings.

The college started working with the Wyeth Foundation for American Art and the Up East Foundation in 2015 to establish limited programming on Allen Island, but the mantle of ownership has greatly increased its possibilities. Colby expects to bring 2,500 visitors to the island by the end of the calendar year, five times as many as before the sale. In addition to the student fellows, the island has hosted research projects, retreats, and class trips. Now, the college is trying to figure out how to expand its programs on the islands even further while respecting its ties to one of the most prestigious families in American art.

“I want all of our students to have an opportunity to be on these islands,” said David Greene, the college president.


Colby is not the only Maine school to establish a coastal location for marine research or even to own an island. Bowdoin College, for example, has Kent Island in the Bay of Fundy and similarly offers student fellowships there for research or art. Allen and Benner islands were valued between $10 million and $12 million. The college paid $2 million, and the rest was covered by an in-kind gift from the two foundations.

Lee Gardner, a senior writer who covers university management at the Chronicle of Higher Education, said wealthier colleges like Colby are spending money on new amenities to attract students in an increasingly competitive market, while colleges with fewer resources suffered more during the COVID-19 pandemic and might now be interested in selling assets. In 2022, Colby had an endowment of $1.1 billion, ranking No. 124 among more than 600 higher education institutions included in a national survey.

“It certainly adds value to them in terms of mission, in terms of potential enticement to students, and those are both good and valuable things these days,” Gardner said of the new island campus. “And they are an institution with enough means to make something like that work for them and not be a financial burden.”

The student fellows on Allen Island this summer said the purchase received mixed reactions on the Waterville campus. Many of their peers were not confident that the islands would be accessible to them or did not see a way for their specific interests to be applied there.

“Getting 2,000 students out here would be a lot of boat trips,” said Lily Santomenna, who graduated this spring and is spending her second season on the island. “I think because we’re starting slowly and we’re cognizant of how delicate the relationship was, with not wanting to overstep when we just got it and making sure the Wyeths’ belongings were taken care of really methodically, I think people perceived that they would never fit into the island, and it was kind of an odd purchase.

“I do think as people get out there and we do increase our research in our second summer and we are really increasing the people out here, I think that the perception is growing more favorable.”


The Wyeths’ dining room in the home on Benner Island. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


Jake Ward steers the Otherworld away from Port Clyde and toward the islands 5 miles off the mainland, a 20-minute trip in this repurposed lobster boat. The name comes from a painting Andrew Wyeth made in 2002, which shows Betsy Wyeth looking down on the islands from a plane window.

These islands were inhabited first by Wabanaki tribes, and then by European settlers. Betsy Wyeth bought Allen Island in 1979, and then Benner Island in 1990. She set about creating natural scenes that her husband could paint, clearing pastures, and turning wet spots into ponds. Ward started working for the Wyeths in 2004 and is now the island manager for Colby.

Island manager Jake Ward talks about the dory boats in the fish house on Benner Island. Looking on at right is Colby graduate Lily Santomenna. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Also on the boat this morning is Santomenna. A history major, she was one of the inaugural fellows on Allen Island last year and spent her time researching the connection between Maine’s cod industry and the transatlantic slave economy. She found that plantation owners started buying refuse-grade cod to feed enslaved people, cutting their costs and enriching fishermen in the Gulf of Maine who used to discard the stuff.

Santomenna is starting a job at the Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts this fall, but she returned to the island for the summer in more of a logistical role, helping Ward manage the increasing number of visitors.

“You can see why I decided to come back,” she says, standing on the dock at Benner Island. “All my friends are working in offices.”


Benner Island, which had been home for many summers to Andrew and Betsy Wyeth. Last year, Colby College bought two islands off the coast of Port Clyde from the Wyeth family, Benner and Allen Islands. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The cluster of shingled buildings near the dock is where the Wyeths lived and worked in the summer. For that reason, Benner Island remains largely unchanged a year and a half after the sale, except that original paintings have been swapped with reproductions. Ward points to a smudge of gray-green paint on the wall in Andrew Wyeth’s studio, a mark that will never be painted over.

“We’re still trying to figure out how to best use Benner Island,” Ward says. “We need to move forward, but concerning where we’ve been.”


Across a small channel (called “a gut”), lobster traps are piled high on the commercial dock at Allen Island. The islands were a way station of sorts for local fishermen when Betsy Wyeth bought them, and she built this wharf for their use, an arrangement that continues today.

On this larger island – 450 acres to Benner’s 50 – Colby’s presence is more noticeable. Betsy Wyeth brought a sail loft scheduled for demolition from the mainland to become a family gallery; now, Colby uses the two-story building as a space for large meetings and presentations. She built a temperature-controlled vault to store artwork; Staller brought a microscope from campus and has set up a makeshift lab in the cool space. On a tree near blooming garden beds is a little box that contains a microphone, where student fellow Abdel Abdelsadig is gathering sound recordings for his research project.

The student fellows work 40 hours a week and are paid $15 an hour. They do two days of research and three days of work with the island crew, so on this day, Abdelsadig is helping to replace a fence. A sophomore, his project this summer is about soundscapes. His microphones are placed around Allen Island to capture its sounds: the crash of waves, the call of birds, the croak of frogs, the buzz of the weed whacker, and the hum of a golf cart engine. One way these audio recordings will be used is in a virtual reality model of the island.


Abdelsadig says his project has helped him explore his interests in audio editing and software. But this extended stay on the island has also given him downtime to read about other topics, such as personal finance, and contemplate his plans for the future without distraction.

Abdel Abdelsadig, a sophomore at Colby College, helps work crews replace a fence on Allen Island. The student fellows work full-time and are paid $15 an hour. They do two days of research and three days of work with the island crew. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“When you’re in school or you’re back home for the summer, you’re talking to friends or doing homework or at the gym or chowing down on McDonald’s or something,” says Abdelsadig, 19. “But now McDonald’s is a passing thought, and your friends are off doing their own thing, and you’re stuck on an island for the summer, and you have nothing better to do but read, and it’s so good. You don’t realize it’s good until you’re doing it willingly, and that willingness to do it is really what the island is blessing me with right now.”

That afternoon, Ward steers the boat back to Port Clyde to return crew members to the mainland and pick up Eden Mayer, a student fellow who was off the island visiting her family in Massachusetts for a couple of days.

Andrew Wyeth’s studio in a house on Benner Island. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Mayer, a junior majoring in environmental policy and minoring in art, first came to the island last year with her printmaking class. This summer, she is making a podcast about the islands themselves. One key theme is how the art Andrew Wyeth made here contributes to a romanticized but not always accurate idea of Maine. Her episodes will cover the history of the islands – the Wyeths, yes, but also the Wabanaki people who were here much earlier. She also hopes to explore how climate change might impact the islands and the art made there in the future.

She ends all her interviews with the same question: “How do you think the island can be used in the future?”

“The resounding thing is that there are an endless amount of possibilities,” she says.


But the fellows’ peers may or may not know about those possibilities. A spokesman said only eight to 10 students applied for the four fellowship slots last summer and this summer, and the college is trying to figure out how to better spread the word.

“Some of the sophomores I know and that I talk to, nobody knows much about the island except maybe the people who go and do research on the island,” Abdelsadig says.


During their downtime, the student fellows walk and run on the trails. They go bird-watching and swim. They watch movies like “Top Gun” on the projector in the restored sail loft. They cook for themselves with groceries from trips to the mainland and also fresh produce from the greenhouse on Benner Island.

Santomenna said she values the trust Colby placed in these four students to live and work for weeks on the island.

“To be really given a lot of freedom to follow where your interests lie has been really empowering for me and really bolstered my confidence in myself to trust that I have the capabilities to know what might be interesting and what’s worth putting my effort into and when to reach out for help,” she said.


Other people are constantly coming and going from the islands. Visits are somewhat limited by capacity – the boat can take 16, including the captain; the various buildings can sleep roughly 32 people – but the college estimates that 2,500 people will come for day trips or longer during this calendar year. Whitney King, a chemistry professor who manages much of the programming on the islands, said that’s up from an estimated 500 or 600 people in previous years before the sale. Most of the activity happens between May and October, but some come out in the winter as well.

There are ongoing conversations about how to create more lab or bed space, and one of King’s students will be surveying the existing structures and their energy usage in hopes of eventually creating a carbon-neutral campus there. But there are no immediate plans for new buildings.

“We have to be very respectful of any modifications that we make,” King said.

Colby is organizing regular field trips for faculty to explore the island and envision how they could use it. Students have visited with classes on art (one on nature photography, another on printmaking related to ecology), creative nonfiction, and marine science. Freshmen camp on the island during an outdoor leadership program during orientation.


At least six professors are conducting research here on topics that range from bumblebees to frogs to climate change. One is Allison Barner, an assistant professor in biology. She has three students on the island this week, and their group is staying in a small bunkhouse Betsy Wyeth built before she died in 2019.


Allison Barner, an assistant professor in biology, gathers data in the rocky intertidal zone along the coast of Allen Island. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

They collect data in the rocky intertidal zone twice a day during low tide. That means they leave the bunkhouse at 3:30 a.m. to record their observations, return to sleep for a few hours, and then rouse themselves again for a second round in the early afternoon. This data will contribute to an ongoing study about the consequence of species extinction on the food web and the ecosystem in the Gulf of Maine, driven in part by the near local extinction of the intertidal blue mussel.

This project started in 2021 before Colby purchased the islands, but Barner said the deal was critical to the future of the research. Ownership ensures access to the islands for years to come, which will allow scientists to create a continuous body of data. It also gives her team space to sleep, work, and maybe set up a lab in the future. If they had to find work sites in other areas on the Maine coast not owned by Colby, the cost of lodging and meals could have drained their funding or created barriers for many students.

“From a practical perspective, our research could not happen the way it’s happening without being on Allen Island and being sponsored by Colby,” Barner said.

The college has also started to expand opportunities for outside groups. Colby hosted a retreat this summer for Maine schoolteachers to help them implement Wabanaki studies in their curriculum. That program involved Penobscot and Passamaquoddy facilitators and was a collaboration between the college’s art museum, the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, and the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor.

The retreat was a nod to the deep Wabanaki ties to the islands, but the college will need to do more to address those in the coming years, in part because Colby now has a collection of Indigenous artifacts that were unearthed over multiple years when Betsy Wyeth allowed archeological excavation on the islands. A spokesman for the college said the museum intends to have the artifacts examined by Wabanaki experts and culture bearers to determine what should be done with them.

Another partnership is with the Herring Gut Coastal Science Center, which was founded by Phyllis Wyeth, the late wife of Betsy and Andrew’s son Jamie Wyeth. Kerianne Gwinnell, an aquatic science educator, said the organization was occasionally bringing summer campers to Allen Island before the sale, but this year, they facilitated end-of-year visits for the entire fourth and eighth grades from the local St. George Municipal School Unit.

“Sometimes it’s hard to pull them away from the beach and what we’re sampling,” Gwinnell said. “They’re like, ‘Why do we have to go?’”

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