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The Daily Genealogist: The History Within Summer Homes

(A Note from the Editor) Permanent link
Betlock Lynn

Lynn Betlock

On my recent Minnesota vacation, my family and I spent a day at my aunt and uncle’s cabin on Fish Trap Lake, near Cushing, Morrison County, Minnesota. The cabin was purchased by my aunt’s parents in the mid-1960s, and by now many generations of extended family members have spent time at the house. I remember being there as a child, and now I’ve brought my own children. Revisiting the lake house made me realize how summer homes have the potential to remain more firmly rooted in the past than a permanent residence. While families may move their year-round home many times over the decades — in the process weeding out possessions and clearing out estates after deaths — the family summer home can remain more or less the same. And a summer place is much more likely to be occupied over time by many generations of extended family. Pictures on the wall, books on the shelves, and even spices in the kitchen cabinet might stretch back a number of years into a family’s past. My aunt’s parents died many years ago now, but the road to the cabin is still signposted with her father’s first and last names.

For more than fifty years, my husband’s family has enjoyed the hospitality of friends who own a lake home — a Quonset hut on Lake Travis, near Lago Vista, Texas. I made my first trip there in 1988, and our annual Labor Day visits are still highlight of our year. The patio features names and hand prints in the cement from 1947, and we can do puzzles and play board games that might be considered antique. Much of our weekend menu is predetermined: Saturday always features barbeque that has smoked all day long and breakfast is always accompanied by Sally’s coffee cake.

For a New England perspective, The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home by George Howe Colt, has been recommended to me. The author contemplates his family’s house, built in 1903 on Cape Cod, and the generations of family that it held during the summer prior to it being sold. 

In examining the history of a family, summer home histories, events, and activities are probably easy to overlook since they are somewhat removed from normal life. But it is precisely because these houses are out of step with ordinary time that summer places can become repositories for valued family artifacts, stories, and traditions. If you are fortunate enough to have a special summer place, think about mining this information for your family history the next time you visit.

Here are some stories shared by readers:

Lori Miranda of Fernandina Beach, Florida:
My great-grandmother bought a house in 1912 on Cape Cod which allowed me to check the “100 years or more” box in last week’s survey. While the world may have changed a good deal in that century, the house still exists at a slower pace; until two years ago, it still had a two-seater outhouse. And we still do the dishes by first boiling water.

Nancy (Hickman) Eldblom of Ojai, California:
My Boston great-grandfather, Alden E. Viles, built a summer home in the Phillips Beach section of Swampscott, Mass., about 1905. Alden died ten years later, but his wife Carrie Ella Simonds, daughter Barbara Viles, and her husband, Arthur Payne Crosby, lived in the house from Memorial Day through Labor Day each year until Carrie died in 1944 and the house was sold. Younger members of the family spent varying amounts of vacation time in that grand home over the years.

Nancy Buell of Brookline, Massachusetts:
I've vacationed in Georgetown, Maine, every summer since 1955. My grandfather, Sewall Webster, Sr., helped develop Indian Point there as a summer community. My family lived in Seattle and we visited my grandparents in Indian Point in the 1940s for a couple of summers while still living there. Then, in the fall of 1954, we moved back east, and my parents bought their own cottage. Now there are ten cottages belonging to relatives of mine on the Point. We love seeing extended family every summer.

Posted by Jean Powers at 08/17/2012 09:14:29 AM | 

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