Freeport filmmaker documents development of 'Rockefeller's Teeth'

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FREEPORT — Following a nine-year hiatus, a local filmmaker is concluding his work on a documentary on the Carriage Roads at Acadia National Park, to coincide with the park’s 100th anniversary.

Ronald Gillis is raising money through Kickstarter to wrap up “Rockefeller’s Teeth: John D. Rockefeller Jr., and his Carriage Roads to Paradise.” Gillis is editing the film, and hopes to have his longstanding project completed in the spring.

“From there I will enter it into a couple of film festivals,” said Gillis, who has lived in Freeport since 1989.

“Rockefeller’s Teeth” will tell the story of philanthropist John D. Rockefeller’s monumental expansion of 57 miles of Acadia’s Carriage Roads, which have 17 granite bridges and two gate lodges still in use. Gillis used never-before-seen archival photographs, contemporary footage, and photography to film the beauty and history that encompasses one of the nation’s oldest national parks.

He interviewed John D. Rockefeller’s son, David, at the latter’s Seal Harbor home. Author/historian Ron Chernow and historians Will Reily and Roxanne Brouse also provided material.

Gillis said he and his wife, Christine, who helped with the filming, thoroughly enjoyed their interviews with David Rockefeller.

“He was a really nice guy,” Gillis said. “He gave us all the time we needed, and welcomed us into his home.”

Gillis grew up in Boston, and pursued a career as a freelance photojournalist before settling in as an award-winning staff photographer at Maine Medical Center in Portland in 1986. He worked there for 15 years and became an independent photographer and filmmaker in 2001.

Gillis said he began filming in Acadia in 2003, but stopped two years later when grant funding dried up. He restarted the project two years ago, when David Rockefeller’s son Richard, a Portland doctor, died in an airplane crash.

“That sort of woke me up,” Gillis said. “It was sort of an eerie thing. He had gotten me in touch with his father to do an interview on the Carriage Roads. It if weren’t for the son, I never would have gotten that interview. It sort of woke me up that life is short, and that there are a lot of good things in that documentary I had started. I thought it would be an interesting tie-in to start the film with Acadia’s 100th anniversary.”

“Rockefeller’s Teeth” explores the development of the landmark Carriage Roads, and the man who designed, built and paid for them. The film’s title is derived from the construction workers’ affectionate nickname for the cut granite stones placed along the edges of the carriage roads as guard rails. Known as “copingstones,” they resemble molars.

The National Park Service at Acadia selected Gillis as its first filmmaker artist-in-residence when he began work on the documentary. Maine PBS had als broadcast Gillis’ documentary on the history of the Pettingill Farm family, which lived at the historic saltbox saltwater farm now owned by the Freeport Historical Society. “Words from Millie’s Garden” told the story of the farm’s history and of Mildred Pettengill, the last person to live there, in 1970.

Joseph Conforti, professor of American and New England Studies at the University of Southern Maine, said Gillis “fits the bill” when it comes to being a humanist and skilled artist.

“I do a lot of project and proposal evaluation, particularly for the National Endowment for the Humanities,” Conforti said. “ … I can simply assure you that he has the skill, knowledge, and commitment to perform excellent work.”

Gillis said he hopes to raise approximately $25,000 through the Kickstarter campaign, an amount that will not cover the time he spent on the film.

Ronald Gillis of Freeport looks into his camera as he begins filming a documentary on Acadia National Park’s famed Carriage Roads in 2003.Roland Gillis edits footage for his documentary on the Carriage Roads of Acadia National Park at his Freeport home.