February 25, 2013

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Susan Bennett, whose family owns Aimhi Lodge on Little Sebago Lake, says it is time to sell the property. The family tried selling the business but found no takers, so now propose to subdivide the land into eight lots.

End of an era looms for family lodge in Windham

By Leslie Bridgers
Staff Writer

WINDHAM -- On the same week each summer, the same families would convene under the pines on the shore of Little Sebago Lake year after year and, in some cases, generation after generation.

They each had their own cabin and their own slice of the shore. But they ate together in the lodge, swam together in the lake and formed lasting friendships -- for the teenagers, sometimes more.

Those summers of lobster bakes and puppy love are well documented in a pile of photo albums that sits on an end table in the Aimhi Lodge, now cold and full of cobwebs. No new memories have been made there since 2007, when the owners of the 25-acre rustic resort in Windham didn't think the business could recuperate from damage sustained during the Patriots Day storm in time for the start of the season.

Now, they want to knock down all but five of the two dozen cabins, subdivide the property into eight lots and sell the land -- bringing a permanent end to the traditions built there over nearly 90 years. The plan goes before the Windham Planning Board on Monday.

"We all just decided it was time," said Susan Bennett, who ran the family business with her brother, Stephen Holdtman.

It's a story that Greg Dugal, executive director of the Maine Innkeepers Association, has heard before.

"A lot of the time, it's a family thing," he said of the decision to shut down a business like Aimhi and sell the land.

Although there's still a market for the lodge-and-cottage type of vacation and several such facilities in the state that are thriving, he said, "there's not a tremendous amount of (resale) value."

An Associated Press story on these family-oriented resorts in the woods, published in 2007, attributes their decline in popularity to a shift toward shorter vacations and more plush accommodations.

Dugal agreed that standards have moved toward luxury, but said he believes people are still interested in the family camp-style getaway.

"People are still looking for that vacation, but are looking at it at different levels," he said. "They want to go back to their youth, but they may not want to sleep on a lumpy mattress."

Those that have been successful, he said, have adapted.

At Migis Lodge on Sebago Lake, which offers a higher-end version of the Aimhi vacation, there's a bathroom for nearly every bedroom -- a change owner Tim Porta said he and his wife made when they took over the business from his parents.

Wireless Internet is accessible throughout the resort and there's cable television in every cottage.

"Going to Migis is definitely not roughing it," Porta said.

At Aimhi, the cabins didn't have telephones and the one television at the resort was almost always kept out of sight of the guests.

Bennett said the point was to keep it a place to relax and get away from the rest of the world. But there was no one in the next generation of her family who was interested in carrying on the tradition and, when they tried to sell the business, there was no one interested in taking it over.

The lakefront land it sits on, however, is a hot commodity.

Dave Sawyer, assessor for the town of Windham, said the values of the nicer lots along Sebago Lake have risen faster than others in town when the housing market is good and gone down more slowly in harder times.

"Even in the recent downturn, there has been little, if any, loss of value in the better Sebago Lake properties," he said.

The temptation to give up the family business and cash in on the more valuable land beneath it isn't anything new.

It's a decision the owners of Severance Lodge on Lake Kezar in Lovell faced more than 40 years ago when they wanted to retire, said Michael Welch, general manager of what's now the Severance Lodge Club.

"Nobody could really purchase it for the short season to continue to run it as a resort," he said.

Around 1970, the owners split up the cottages and sold them as private vacation homes.

Doug McCafferty knows he might face that choice with Whisperwood Lodge & Cottages, one of four such campgrounds left in the Belgrade Lakes region.

He said he and his wife, who grew up on a sporting camp in northern Maine, have run the business for 14 years, not because it's a cash cow, but because it affords them a certain lifestyle that they enjoy. If they decide to sell, they won't necessarily find someone with the same interest, McCafferty said.

"Getting the value of what it's worth may be hard," he said about marketing the entire property, rather than splitting it up.

Initially, the owners of Aimhi wanted to sell the property in one piece, but eventually lost hope of finding a buyer.

The Windham Planning Board will consider a sketch of the proposed subdivision Monday.

For now, the cabins still stand, although the walls and roofs of a few have been splintered by fallen trees.

In the lodge, slated to sell as a single-family home, life jackets are piled in a corner next to shelves with stacks of board games.

"I'm sure there were a lot of people who were mad it closed," Bennett said earlier this month, walking the peninsula carpeted with pine needles.

But at least a few of the guests could have the opportunity to revive their annual Aimhi vacations -- by buying the lots and building houses.

"They'll be able to start a new tradition for their families," she said. "That would be awesome."

Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at: 791-6364 or at:

A stack of brochures and maps describe Aimhi Lodge and offer a guide to exploring the once-popular family lodge on Little Sebago Lake that featured two dozen cabins and a main lodge on 25 acres of waterfront land.

A colorful door leads into the main lodge’s playroom at Aimhi Lodge, once a popular family lodge on Little Sebago Lake.

One of the camp’s cabins sits on the shore of the lake.

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