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Standing the test of time, family-run inns are true Maine

By Hilary Nangle
Globe Correspondent / May 10, 2009
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Authenticity is in, say travel trend analysts. For the real deal, few places can compete with two family-run Maine properties, Seaside Inn & Cottages in Kennebunk and Libby Camps in northern Maine. The Seaside dates from Colonial times, and Libby from the late-19th century. Remarkably, each has remained in the same family for the duration.

Seaside Inn & Cottages
Tricia Mason is the 12th-generation innkeeper at the motel and cottages spread across about 20 acres bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, the Kennebunk River, and Gooch's Creek. "My parents made history a really important part of who I am," Mason says. "I know it sounds kind of corny, but I really feel tied to the land; it's part of who I am."

The Seaside has been in her family since at least the mid-1600s. That's when Mason's ancestor John Gooch answered the call of Fernando Gorges, agent for King Charles II, to ferry travelers across the mouth of the Kennebunk. Gooch sailed from England and settled here, most likely in the 1650s. Because travelers often needed to spend a night or two before the crossing, he offered rooms and meals.

Mason remembers taking a book from the family library when she was in her early teens and heading to Gooch's Beach, the long stretch of sand fronting the property. As she read "Arundel," a historical novel by Kenneth Roberts, an eerie feeling came over her. "Suddenly I realized that I was sitting on the land he was describing, and that some of the characters were my ancestors,"she recalls.

Mason believes the Seaside is likely the oldest family-run inn and the fifth-oldest family-run business in the country. "We have families that have worked here for generations, and guests who have been returning for generations," she says. Most are lured by the location. It's the only place in Kennebunk without a road separating it from the ocean. Accommodations range from The Homestead, a cottage dating from circa 1725, to a 1978 motel, with rooms overlooking the grassy lawn to the dunes backing Gooch's Beach and out to the open Atlantic.

Although Mason grew up on the property, her parents encouraged her to pursue her own interests. She studied animal science in college, and after graduation, managed a horse farm in Rhode Island, where she met her husband, Ken, who was then in the Coast Guard. In the mid-1990s her parents called and said, "Someday we want to retire; is this something you want to do?" After much deliberation, Mason realized she couldn't say no. "After 12 generations, you really can't say, 'I don't feel like it.' "

Although her parents still reside on the property, Ken manages the business. Mason has been working from home on projects, such as writing the property's history, while raising their son, Jack, 8, and daughter, Ellie, 4.

As they look to the future, the Masons' goal is to maintain the business and its family atmosphere and retain their employees year-round. "It is kind of an honor to be here, a beautiful spot. I feel responsible for it," Mason says. "We're stewards of the land. It doesn't really belong to us, we're just maintaining it for the next generation."

Libby Camps
It's not easy to get to Libby Camps, but it's worth the effort. Libby, located on the shores of Millinocket Lake, is an oasis in the wilderness north of Baxter State Park. Recreation-based hospitality has been in the Libby family blood since the late 1800s, when C.C. Libby and his wife, Elsie, great-grandparents of current owner Matt Libby, were innkeepers in Oxbow. With sons Will and Ike, C.C. purchased a set of trapper's camps. Ike's son Albion met Matt's mother, Elsie, when she worked at the camps. They married in the late 1930s, and shortly afterward, the Libby legacy was almost lost when Will died without a will. "My grandfather had nothing on paper that said he owned the camps," Matt says. "We lost all 50 camps in probate. It wasn't pretty."

Undeterred, Albion and Elsie bought three other cabins on Libby Island and began anew. When Maine Public Service Co. decided to flood the lake, they sold those camps and started yet again, this time from scratch. With their four young sons, they moved to a roadless, lakefront parcel on the mainland. Albion bought a washing machine, a gas refrigerator, a tractor to haul in lumber, and an Old Town lapstrake with a 10-horsepower motor. He put deposits on everything; then he died.

"Mom was really stuck," Matt says. "She got pressured to sell, but she had a lot of faith, and she just knew she belonged here." She persevered, remarried, and grew the business, despite the lack of road, telephone, or electricity. "We were so self-sufficient, we had to be ready for everything," Elsie recalls.

Matt grew up in the camps, but by high school, he'd had enough. "I said, 'I'm out of here.' " He had a change of heart while attending the University of Maine at Orono, where he met Ellen during his sophomore year. They married during their senior year, purchased the camps from Elsie, and opened the day after graduation. "We did lots of things wrong," Matt says, "but failure is the best teacher. I've never regretted it."

Little gets in the way of nature at Libby's. There are no phones, TVs, or video games. Fishing and hunting lure sportsmen in season, and during the summer, others come to canoe and kayak, hike, and swim. They can experience a wildlife-watching or orchid-viewing safari, learn to cast a fly, even take a floatplane to an even more remote cabin. Matt often flies guests to even more remote camps on isolated ponds or streams.

Matt and Ellen's children are active in the lodge. Daughter Alison assists from afar, but son Matt-John, and his wife, Jess, live on-site with their toddler, Kayla, and help operate the lodge.

Every morning Ellen and Jess whip up a hearty breakfast - their blueberry pancakes are legendary - and prepare pack lunches. After a day fishing, hunting, wildlife watching, or exploring the lake, guests share fish tales over dinner before retiring to their lakefront cabins to watch the Northern Lights and listen to the loons.

In 2007, the lodge was honored as the Orvis Fishing Lodge of the Year, a huge honor for a small property. "We'll continue the tradition," fifth-generation lodge-keeper Matt-John says. "It's a pretty good way of life."

Hilary Nangle can be reached at hilary@hilarynangle.com.