Peter Ralston grew up in Chadd’s Ford, Penn., next door to Andrew Wyeth and his wife Betsy. The Wyeths liked islands and owned three in the nearby Brandywine River. Ralston played on their land and on their islands and was interested in the famous painter. Unlike other dads, Wyeth did not go to work, but rode around in a Jeep.  Ralston and his friends would play soldier and stalk and spy on Wyeth.

The Wyeths divided their time between Pennsylvania and Maine, and in 1978 they bought the 22-acre Southern Island, complete with the Tenants Harbor Lighthouse. Betsy Wyeth invited Ralston to come spend the summer with them in Maine. He would never leave. Soon he would help her restore another island, and later, he co-founded the Island Institute.

When the 450-acre Allen Island came up for sale in 1979, Betsy Wyeth bought that too. Six miles off the coast, Allen Island had been visited by George Waymouth in 1605 and may be the site of the first Anglican Church service in America — a stone cross marks the spot. Buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries still exist on Allen Island, but the year-round community there had long since disappeared. The population in 1979 consisted of two fisherman squatters living in crumbling shacks.

Betsy Wyeth had big plans for Allen Island. She hired a man named Philip Conkling to manage clearing the overgrown fields and woods. About 500 cords of firewood were cut and hauled off the island, and sheep and goats were brought in to take care of the grass. Today, the island is an outdoor laboratory for Up East, a Wyeth family foundation that supports environmental and ecological research. It is often home to Colby College students who come to study ecology, climate change, aquaponics and even a rare species of bee found on Allen Island but rarely on the mainland. Painter Jamie Wyeth is often in residence, though his mother now lives on nearby Banner Island, which she bought in 1989.

Ralston and Conkling founded the Island Institute in 1983. At first, the institute focused on island ecology and conservation, but soon the mission shifted to general support of island communities. They help with challenges that isolated islanders can face, including education, energy costs and economic development. The institute has now grown to almost 50 employees, and they have expanded their influence from Maine to islands across the country and the world.

Source:, Yankee Magazine