Nancy Dyer Gray, owner of the Harraseeket Inn, would have told you that the hospitality gene has been passed on in the Dyer-Gray family for four generations, beginning with her great-grandfather, Alphonse Dyer, a sea captain who ran a mackerel business in Portland. People would often knock on the door of his Southport, Maine cottage looking for a place to stay. After his children left home, he and his wife started renting rooms. Eventually he built an annex onto the house and called it the Cove Cottage Inn. Nancy's aunt and uncle owned and ran the Pemaquid Hotel, at Pemaquid Point, Maine, and her parents, Bill and Beatrice Dyer, bought Birch Island Lodge, a set of sporting camps on Holeb Pond near Jackman, Maine, when Bill returned from the Navy after World War II. With their two daughters, Nancy and Joyce, they headed north from Portland to live their dream.
There were sixteen gorgeous log homes and a three story main lodge on the fourteen acre Birch Island, all built by wealthy members of the New York Fish and Game Club in the 1880's. In 1945, when Nancy's parents bought the camps, there was no road access to Holeb Pond. The Canadian Pacific Railroad skirted the eastern shore eighteen miles west of Jackman on its way to Montreal. Everything had to be brought in by plane. Fortunately, Nancy's father owned and piloted a two seater Taylorcraft. In April, nine months worth of supplies were dropped off at Boston Ranch, their own private railroad station across from the island, and hauled over the ice to the lodge. These "supplies" included a full complement of staff including a chef, head housekeeper, maids and maintenance people. The crew then set to work unpacking and organizing provisions, cleaning, jacking and readying the cabins and the main lodge while local woodsmen with teams of horses cut lake ice to fill the ice house for the summer. Readying the lodge and cabins and training the staff took about a month, during which time ice-out occurred and the reservation book slowly filled. By the end of June, the fishing was good and business was brisk, but because the lodge was so remote and there was no escaping the island except by train, the entire staff, bored stiff from the isolation, quit on July 4th. They boarded the train at Boston Ranch and headed for the big city lights.
At twelve years of age, Nancy became a waitress, dishwasher, cook's helper and window cleaner. Her sister Joyce (Jody) became the cabin boy, starting the wood fires in the morning, filling the wood boxes, delivering ice and helping clean all the guest cabins. Her father took over maintenance duties as well as some of the guiding. Her mother, Beatrice (Bea), was an excellent cook and prepared all the meals and did the laundry. There was no electricity at the lodge and the labor was endless and very physical. They pressed clothes and sheets with heavy sad irons heated on the laundry stove. Water for the gas powered washing machine was heated on that same hard working stove. All the laundry was dried on outside clothes lines. Occasionally, bears would try to swim out to the island to do some exploring and all chores were temporarily put on hold as everyone manned their canoes to head the curious bruins off.
That first year, Nancy made $500 in tips, in addition to her $8 a week paycheck. That was a mighty big chunk of change for a twelve year old girl in 1945. She dutifully loaned it all back to her father, who used it to buy provisions for their second season on the island, and by the end of that year he had paid it back with interest. During the school year, Nancy and Jody attended a one room school house in Holeb along with seventeen other students and one teacher. They walked one mile along the railroad tracks to and from each day, always carrying a shotgun in case they ran into bears. Taught to shoot by their father, both girls were excellent marksmen and liked to target practice, but Nancy never forgot her first (and last) kill. She was target practicing with a friend, and to show off her marksmanship she aimed and fired at a squirrel in a tree which tumbled to the ground, dead at her feet. She never shot another creature.
One day the scoot (train) stopped at Boston Ranch and off-loaded a motor boat and two young men. This aroused a good deal of curiosity on the island, so Nancy and Jody went over to investigate in one of the lodge's boats. The young strangers were Paul and Harry Gray, teenage brothers moving to Holeb with their customs officer father. The only way to get their boat to Holeb was by unloading it from the train at Boston Ranch and motoring up the Moose River to town. Paul and Nancy took one look at each other and were smitten for life. Nancy's father hired Paul as a maintenance man and hunting and fishing guide at the lodge, and six years later, when Paul returned from Korea and Nancy graduated from Tufts, the two were married. They remained deeply devoted until Paul's death forty-eight years later.
When Nancy's parents sold Birch Island Lodge in 1955, they bought the Gloucester Traveler in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Newlyweds Nancy and Paul built their home next door to the inn and raised four children there, three sons and a daughter. Nancy worked full time and helped her parents run the inn until it was sold, and when her father unexpectly died after building another inn in Mystic, Connecticutt, she and Jody once again found themselves back in the inn keeping business full time.
The two sisters were good at it, too, but the Gray family was homesick for Maine and in 1983, Paul took a job as head of the water district in Gardiner, Maine, and the company bought two adjacent pieces of property in Freeport that eventually became the Harraseeket Inn. Jody stayed in Connecticut to run the Inn at Mystic, and Nancy headed north to join her husband in Maine.
Twenty-five years ago there weren't many places to stay in Freeport. There was the Maine Idyll and the Half Moon Motor Court, the Dutch Village and the Freeport Inn. Nancy thought there might be room for one more inn. On the north end of town, within walking distance of all the shops and the legendary L.L.Bean store, was a run-down three unit apartment building called the Conant Farm, sitting on five acres of overgrown field. The original cape had been built in the late 1700s and served as a stage stop between Portland and Brunswick. Deborah Rose Dillingham would feed the passengers while her husband, the village blacksmith, tended the horses. Most people would have demolished the crumbling old cape, but Nancy loved the old building. The historic post and beam structure was completely renovated with eight guest rooms and is now called the Carriage House. The main inn was built in the adjacent field and originally had fifty-four rooms, incorporating a charming 19th century Greek Revival known as the Sullivan House on the corner of Davis Avenue and Main Street. That building now houses the Broad Arrow Tavern, which is why the tavern floors slope and creak just like an old house. The South Wing was added in 1997 and, with the adjacent nine extended-stay townhouses, brought the room count to ninety-three, with two eateries: the Broad Arrow Tavern, and the Maine Dining Room. Not bad for one determined little woman with a big dream.
Nancy was an amazing gal, all wool and a yard wide. She was the first woman chairman of the Resort Committee of the American Hotel and Lodging Association and served as president of both New England Innkeepers and Maine Innkeepers Association. Her highest achievement was being designated number 8 of twenty-five recipients of the Master Innkeeper of New England Award, given by New England Inns and Resorts. She tirelessly championed Maine tourism and was invited to give speeches at both the State House and Bowdoin College on numerous occasions. She was known for pitching in, volunteering for everything and working like a dog. Her seventieth birthday party here at the inn came as a complete surprise to her, but it was no surprise to us that the governor showed up and asked her to dance. She had more energy in her seventies than most forty year olds, and even in her eighties, she still came to work on a regular basis to keep an eye on things.
As for her kids, the hospitality gene runs strongest in her oldest son, Rodney (Chip) Gray. After a brief career in California as an aircraft and power-frame engineer for Air California, he returned to help his mother run the Harraseeket Inn and is now the general manager. Being of a mechanical nature, he keeps the power plants at the Harraseeket running smoothly and troubleshoots countless problems with guests' vehicles. He's never happier than when he's up to his elbows in malfunctioning machines.
Nancy's youngest son, Nathaniel, is a marine biologist working for the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Her second born son, Paul, followed in his father's footsteps and is currently the superintendent of the Gardiner Water District. Her daughter, Penelope, followed in her father's footsteps and is a Registered Maine Master Guide. She is also a writer and musher and manages a kennel of twenty-six sled dogs. She divides her time between the family business in Freeport and the north Maine woods. The fifth generation of innkeepers, Paul's daughter Jackie, is already working at the inn.
Family genetics aside, the Harraseeket Inn wouldn't be where it is today without our extended family of employees. Their unique talents and unswerving dedication to excellence are what make this place so special. We get letters from guests all the time raving about our great staff. If someone checks in at midnight and wants a cup of hot tea or warm milk, our staff sees to their every need. They willingly and routinely take the extra step and go that extra mile. Many members of our staff have been with us for more than twenty years, and if that doesn't constitute an extended family, I don't know what does. We're very fortunate to be surrounded by such wonderful people!