“Good Yankee Cookin’!” beckoned the signs along Route 2 near Bethel advertising the Morrison Lodge, a family-run fishing camp and dining room on Howard Pond. The camp was established in the 1890s by the Holt family, who called it Indian Rock Camps.
In 1943, Cape Elizabeth resident Frank S. Morrison Sr. bought the property just as the nation was on the verge of a postwar travel boom.
A big surge in travel to Maine first occurred after the Civil War, as railroads expanded to the state’s interior. Rail companies produced reams of literature promoting Maine’s charms to urban dwellers eager to escape the heat and grime of cities.
Fishing camps and resorts advertised heavily in publications like the Bangor & Aroostook’s “In the Maine Woods,” highlighting fresh food and fresh air: “Vegetables from our own garden, milk from our own cows. Fine cooking a feature,” read an advertisement for Square Lake Camps near Fort Kent, and “bracing air; medicinal springs nearby.”
Big Houston Camps on Sebec Lake advertised its own fresh vegetables, along with “pure milk and fresh eggs. Clean, cheerful camps and good table. Pure spring water.”
The cook at Indian Rock Camps “prided himself on serving the freshest of foods, eliminating as many canned goods as possible,” according to a story in Maine historical periodical “Paper Talks.”
But as the trains helped create Maine’s tourist economy – after all, it was Maine Central Railroad that originated the term “Vacationland” – they also played a role in the decline of its agricultural base; by 1860, more than 35,000 Maine farmers had moved to the less rocky and more profitable farmlands of the Midwest, New York and Pennsylvania, according to Charles E. Clark’s “Maine: A History.” Produce, like passengers, could now travel by train to ever more distant locations.
Railroads brought tourists to Bethel or Rumford Falls as early as the 1890s. As late as the 1950s, Frank Morrison Jr. recalled picking up guests at the depots in the camp’s station wagon.
But rail travel was declining as the interstate highway systems improved and automobile ownership increased – from 54 percent of families in 1948 to 77 percent in 1960, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
KNOWN FOR HOME COOKING
The Morrisons improved their buildings and grounds near Bethel to appeal to midcentury tourists – “comfortable modern cabins with baths” a Duncan Hines travel guide from 1953 noted. But the original peeled-log cabins, with names like Camp Contentment and Camp Comfort, offered the same rocking-chaired porches and stress-relieving view of sparkling Howard Pond as they had for decades.
Nearby the five cabins stood the large central lodge, decorated with stuffed fish, game and wildfowl, which served as lodging for more guests and as a place to socialize in the evenings and on rainy days.
In the lodge’s kitchen, Frank’s wife Helen Morrison commanded a behemoth 12-burner, triple-oven industrial range with a flat-top grill, broiler and deep fryer.
She served up meals on heavy, green-striped white stone china, and hired local high school senior girls or young college women on summer break to help with the kitchen work and to wait on guests in the lodge’s airy dining room overlooking the pond. Luckily for whoever was on kitchen patrol – possibly one of the Morrison boys, Frank Jr. or George, the automatic Jackson dish machine had a nice view of the brook.
Morrison’s was iconic among Maine’s historic fishing camps. The family built the business not only on the abundant trout, landlocked salmon and other fishing in the area’s pristine lakes and rivers, but also on their reputation for laying a good table for hungry guests and visiting diners, who often came from nearby Rumford.
In contrast to the fancier resort hotels, which served European-influenced fare, camps like Morrison’s emphasized New England home cooking made with fresh, local ingredients.
Frank Morrison Jr. remembered that each night before bed his mother would write up the menus for the next day. She might turn to Marjorie Mosser’s “Good Maine Food,” recipes from Marjorie Standish’s Maine cooking column in the Portland Press Herald, or Fannie Farmer’s “Boston Cooking School Cook Book” when she wanted inspiration.
Diners dressed smartly for meals, as was the custom of the time, and Morrison’s offered a variety of entrees, side dishes and desserts. Menus varied depending on what was available and in season when Helen Morrison did her shopping in nearby towns, or when local producers or purveyors brought their goods up to camp in hopes of making a sale.
Quality and trustworthiness were key: When a local character of dubious sobriety brought produce of equally dubious quality for Helen’s consideration, and then was foolish enough to lean his arm on the scale, he reduced the odds of making a sale to approximately zero.
RELATIONSHIPS WITH LOCAL PROVIDERS
The Morrisons didn’t have their own farm, but they traded locally, developing lasting relationships with nearby producers and processors, some of whom are still in business today. Helen hand-picked her vegetables and fruits from the (still-thriving) Swain Family Farm in Bethel, but trusted them to pick for her when necessary. Eggs came from Stan Roberts’ poultry farm, also in Bethel.
Water came from nearby Mount Zircon Spring, bottled in South Rumford. Meats were bought from the Naples Packing Company meat shop in Mexico (also still going strong), and dairy products from the Rumford H. P. Hood Company terminal, where the family would pick up the milk order in large, metal cans.
The Morrison family ran the camp as a commercial enterprise until the early 1960s, when the pace of American vacations began to peel off the back roads and burn rubber on the interstates.
“Americans drive across the country as if someone is chasing them,” quipped journalist Calvin Trillin in “Travels with Alice.”
The tourists’ objective was less about rest, relaxation and home-cooked meals, and more about checking off as many of the nation’s attractions as could be crammed into one or two weeks of vacation time.
Some 50 years later, many modern tourists are slowing the pace to take in a little more of their surroundings, and to appreciate that local food and culture is as much a part of America as its historic monuments and parks.