The Summer Colony
Camden has always been a special place to those of us who grew up here, and for many over the years who made it their summer home. At first, it was just a place to get away from the bustle and heat of summer. In the late 19th century, folks from nearby cities like Bangor and Boston would come to spend a few weeks in July or August to unwind and cool off. Often they went to the nearby lakes and ponds where they could swim and fish. Perhaps the ocean was a bit too cold for that activity, but soon people with deeper pockets began to buy up land along the ocean and build their summer cottages there, where they could have a sailboat or yacht. They were the “summer colony.”
Although Camden was a mill town by then, there were plenty from the days of building and sailing ships who were ready and willing to help with that. During the depression years of the 1930s, the shipyards were closed and the woolen mills were working half time or not at all and the whole community looked forward to the arrival of the summer colony.
About the middle of June we would begin to see some of the “help” arrive by train to open up the cottages, stock up the cupboards, and get the various vehicles out of Bay View Garage, where they had been stored for the winter. Year-round caretakers would hire extra people to trim up the lawns and shrubs, get out the boats, and make everything shipshape for the summer. Local merchants would likewise check their inventory to make sure they could satisfy every special order.
I would like to belabor the point a bit, that these folks were not tourists, neither the owners nor the servants. They were part of the community, families that had been coming for years and in most cases were much appreciated and respected by the year-round residents. They took an interest in the community and contributed in many ways to maintain and beautify “the prettiest spot in Maine.”
My mother was an Eaton who grew up in Deer Isle, and her father was chief engineer on J.P. Morgan’s yacht. He spent the winters in New York City ferrying J.P. to and from his home on the Hudson River to work on Wall Street. But in the summer they would be home on Deer Isle, perhaps ferrying the boss to Portland for a haircut, or to Rockland to catch a train for a quick trip to the city on business.
Gramps had a nice home overlooking the ocean in Deer Isle, and my mother worked for the summer people as a chambermaid when she was in high school. All of her brothers worked as crew on yachts; we had a sizable photo book of the various crews and memorabilia from those days that I left with the historical society in Stonington, plus excellent portrait pictures of Gammy and Grampa. It seems that the islanders were more apt to work as crew on those yachts than those here on the mainland, perhaps because we had the woolen mills and the shipyards here that provided better year-round employment. My dad was a weaver in the Knox Mill for some years before he bought out Stevenson’s Candy downtown.
As I said before, the summer colony here were a part of the community and had the means and interest to pay attention to the beauty as well as the local prosperity. That certainly was true concerning the Camden Yacht Club. When Cyrus H.K. Curtis, owner of the Curtis Publishing Company, needed a place for his steam Yacht Machigonne, he built the Yacht Club on Camden Harbor, which is still there; in 1907 he traded the Machigonne in for the bigger and better Lyndonia, which was 175 feet long and could travel at 20 knots.
When the large hotel on the corner beside the Baptist church burned, several of the summer colony joined to buy the property and make it into the Village Green. When the foundry and metal works on the waterfront burned in the early 30s, Mrs. Mary Curtis Bok bought the property and made it available for autos and boats. She also was primarily responsible for the Harbor Park at the head of the harbor, and Camden Public Library and amphitheater. And during the depression years, she gave free paint to anybody who wanted to paint their house; that is, provided you wanted to paint them white with green shutters.
I worked at the Bok cottage during World War II when I was in junior high school. Most of the young men were away in the service, and it was a good job for older retired men to supervise us kids in mowing lawns and other higher activity work. By then, Edward Bok had passed away and Mrs. Bok had married Efrem Zimbalist Sr., the world-renown violinist. I remember lingering over the yard ork outside his window where he would be practicing, violin in the morning and piano in the afternoon. He seldom missed that time.
Many of those in the summer colony settled in Camden as year round residents, such as Joseph B. Stearns, who built Norumbega, and R. H. Chatfield who bought the Barrett Farm, (now Aldermere Farm, “cookie cutter cows”) by Lily Pond, and Carey Bok (Camden Shipyard) or summer-only such as Chauncey Keep (Timbercliff) and John Gribbel (Weatherend), have invested over the years to keep Camden thriving and beautiful.