Made of Memories
For one family, a Southport camp represents the essence of summer.
Photography by Brian Vanden Brink
What draws us to live by the water? Very few modern people earn their livelihoods from the ocean, and yet the impulse to own a house along the seashore still runs deep. In their new Down East book, At Home by the Sea (hardcover; 200 pages; $40; www.DownEast.com), architectural photographer Brian Vanden Brink and writer Bruce Snider examine twenty waterfront homes from Carmel, California, to the coast of Maine. In the Cameron family camp on Southport Island, the authors found a beautiful yet simple building that had been passed like an heirloom from one generation to the next. This beloved camp reminds us that the truest inheritances are never material.
Juan Cameron has known this place for almost eighty years, so he should know what to call it. “A camp, that’s all it is,” he says. Not a second home or a summer home or a cottage. A camp. For those who remember summer on the coast of Maine before air travel brought it so much closer to the rest of the country, the word evokes a very particular set of images: simple structures, lightly built, furnished with comfortable old stuff; family life transplanted, in those summers before air conditioning, to the cool of the north; fathers slipping away before dawn to catch the 5 a.m. train to the city for a week of work; children falling asleep to the sound of a June bug’s buzzing against a window screen and the muffled laughter of adults out on the porch. Memories of such things cling to a camp like the wood smoke Cameron and his wife, Nora, smell when they open the place up in the spring.
“I spent every summer of my life there,” Cameron says, “from 1930 until today.” His great-grandparents had bought the camp the year before, for two thousand dollars. “It was very raw and primitive. The kitchen was on the back porch, and there was a three-seater outhouse. My family sank another five thousand dollars in it, to make a kitchen . . . and to get rid of the outhouse.” Cameron’s stories of those early summers are of childhood sailing adventures, a French governess “who hated it,” and a life along the coast very different from what one sees here today. Lobstermen still set their traps just offshore, Cameron says, “But when I was a kid, it was twenty-five traps watched by a rowboat. Now it’s become five hundred to six hundred traps, and the rowboat has become a power lobsterboat.” Life onshore was different, too. “It being Prohibition, there was a flourishing gin-making operation in the garage and in the house.”
Bathtub gin was history by the time Cameron brought his own children here for the summer, but he still rode the early Monday train to his newspaper job in Boston. And over the years, the camp has changed less than the world around it. A 1939 addition holds a living room downstairs and a master bedroom above. A deck extends from the “new” wing, perched on the ledges just above the high-tide mark. The Camerons remodeled again in the 1980s, removing partitions to create larger rooms and shifting the dining room from the back of the house to a position with an open view of the water.
But the building remains very much a camp. “It has no architectural pretensions,” Cameron says. “It was built by fishermen or lobstermen in the winter.” The cedar shingles come by their silver patina the old-fashioned way, by exposure to the weather. And the two stone fireplaces are not for show; with its open-stud walls, Cameron says, the building is “a thin strainer for the weather.” Which is as it should be. “The season is governed by when the water is turned on, the 15th of April, and off, the 15th of October,” he says. The rhythm of opening and closing the place each year sharpens the cycle of the seasons. The days between bring close the smell of the sea, the damp cool of the morning, the warmth of the fire. As it has always been for Cameron, so it is now for his grandchildren. This is what camp means.
- By: Bruce D. Snider