From Rustic Camp to Year-Round Cottage
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From Rustic Camp to Year-Round Cottage

A Little Help from Friends

As the renovations began all those years ago – so also started the tradition of Watson inviting his congregants to provide labor and know-how in exchange for a weekend in Maine and sumptuous fare. While short on handyman skills himself, Watson is a jolly host, good cook and knows how to pour a drink.

This arrangement served to get all manner of projects done, including reconfiguring the entryway (which boasts the initials JW in the exterior handrail), adding a cast iron woodstove and even ripping walls down to the studs to lay sheets of insulation and hang wood paneling. These projects also extended to the tiny bunkhouse, which through the years has been treated to new windows, insulation and matching wood paneling interior.  

In 1985, after 15 years of making inroads into the community, Watson relied on his year-round neighbors and dear friends, Roger and Dawn Bickford, to help him assemble a cadre of skilled workers for the next phase. Watson found hiring local labor via native residents yielded a generous pricing scale not usually extended to “people from away” – a term Mainers use to refer to folks from out-of-state. Becoming, in some way, an honorary Mainer made Watson’s year-round cottage upgrade possible.
The transformation of this Maine summer camp into a four-season vacation cottage wasn’t like a bolt-of-lightning religious experience. No, this winning tale spanning more than 30 years is more like the tortoise and the hare saga. Slow and steady may not provide instant gratification, but it does eventually get you there.
In 1970, The Rev. James Watson and his wife Marjorie were in search of a family retreat that would allow them relaxation away from their home on Long Island, N.Y. Their search took them to Maine, where the pastor and teacher found their getaway: a somewhat primitive 38x20-foot camp that sat on 175 feet of Salmon Lake frontage. Seeing their new retreat’s potential, they began renovations almost immediately. Now finally, 35-plus years later, that summer spot is Maine-winter-ready.
A Solid Footing

The idea of converting the camp into something more began to take shape after installing a true foundation under the place. Twice, the structure had to be jacked up and straightened after hard Maine winters had shifted the camp on its block and post foundation. These repairs were precarious operations involving the use of eight car jacks built-up on scrap wood and exact precision to avoid structural damage – not a procedure the couple wanted to go through any more than necessary. “It was an ordeal to watch, really,” concedes Watson.

The new foundation is comprised of concrete pilings dug down 5 feet. Iron post beams rest on these supports and hold the cabin firm. “This was probably the most important project we ever did for the cottage,” recalls Watson.

Life’s Necessities

Now with a solid base underfoot, the process of making the space habitable year round could really begin. To fund the cabin’s restoration, the Watsons began renting out the space a few weeks every summer, pouring some of the proceeds directly into repairs – such as $5,000 for the double- and triple-pane windows throughout – while saving seed money for bigger dreams.

Marjorie Watson, who by this time was dealing with bone cancer, wanted a “less rustic” bathroom experience, so the primitive bathroom was expanded to accommodate a new shower surround and toilet. “Previously we had a teeny shower made of tin. This was a huge improvement,” recalls Watson.

At the same time a linen closet was added. In a classic display of New England thrift, Watson arranged for a teacher friend’s high school shop class to design the custom closet and the teacher to build it. Then Watson hauled it from New York to be installed in the cabin.

Along with the cosmetic and storage upgrades to the bathroom, an electric heater was added, exposed exterior plumbing was relocated to the camp’s interior and a new septic system was dug. The improvements of 1987 set the Watsons back $10,000, but put them much closer to four-season

The Big Push

Sadly, in 1989, Marjorie Watson succumbed to cancer and passed away. “She had always wanted a bigger kitchen than the little pantry-style one we had. Even though she wasn’t there, I still wanted to get it for her,” said Watson. Again, he turned to his neighbor, Roger Bickford, to find the right local talent. It came in the form of Dean Parker, an area carpenter, who was enthusiastic about working on the lake project.  

Watson, Parker and Bickford sat down and talked through the addition together. Their plan added a spacious 12x9-foot room with handmade oak cabinets and wood floors made with local lumber. A 14-foot cathedral ceiling was added and structurally secured with hemlock beams.

“The original design had a loft, but we couldn’t get it past the town planning board,” laments Watson.

Also taken into consideration were bleak Maine winters. Skylights were added to the plan to maximize natural light “and are wonderful for watching the full moon through,” says Watson.

Of course, the best-laid plans can go awry. Watson admits to continually expanding and changing the project until out of frustration, Parker quit work for approximately three weeks. Roger Bickford had to play middleman and extract a promise from the Reverend to stay out of the way of progress.

The patched up relationship held and Parker even added another small addition to the cabin’s master bedroom with a cathedral ceiling and a front gable to match the kitchen.

To ensure that the new exterior would match with the old, half logs were custom milled for a good blend and stained Cape Cod red for a true retreat aesthetic. 

With the new light-filled kitchen, complete with a stackable washer and dryer unit and gas heater, it was time to pull the hose from the lake, which had provided water to the camp for years – and dig deep. A well was dug in 1995, the vacation spot’s last step to year-round use.


After spending over a year teaching in Amsterdam, Watson decided it was time to winter in his Maine cottage. And he certainly chose the winter to test its fortitude.

In January of 1998, Maine was hit with an ice storm that leveled power lines for weeks. Watson himself was without electricity for 22 days. His old cast iron wood stove threw enough heat to keep the pipes from freezing, “but it was not a pleasant experience,” he confirms. The greatest difficulty proved to be the lack of water, which could not be drawn from the well without a functioning pump. Watson had to make daily trips to break the ice on the lake and bring it back to the cottage in buckets.
 “Truthfully, it was that winter that made me buy a condo in Phoenix,” laughs Watson. Now he splits his time between Arizona and Maine enjoying temperate New England summers and staying all the way through his favorite Maine season, fall. Then he flies south to ponder next year’s cabin project. “The cottage is truly a culmination of my life’s work, but it’s also still a work in progress.”

Lucie and Jason Amundsen enjoyed cabin life this summer in Belgrade, Maine. 
Rev. James Watson
After approximately 37 years of renovations, this lakeside cottage in Maine is fit for all seasons.
Rev. James Watson
Rev. James Watson
After the renovation, the kitchen grew to 12x9 feet.
Rev. James Watson
The original cabin’s cast iron stove still provides heat for the spacious remodeled retreat.
Rev. James Watson

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