The last cottage on Plum Island

(This article was written by Beverly Perna before the cottage was torn down, and has been updated.)

An iconic Ipswich landmark, the last privately owned cottage on the Ipswich end of Plum Island, was turned over to the Fish and Wildlife Service  and was taken down in 2016.

Boaters and Great Neck residents were most familiar with the camp with its flag pole and red shutters. It stood alone for several years, the lone survivor and last testament to bustling seasonal Plum Island activity. The cottage has also been the subject of many photos and paintings. In the past, when such cottages and camps were turned over to the feds, they were bulldozed then burned.

As part of the federal government’s eminent domain takeover of the southern end of the island in the 1940s, cottage owners were given the option of fair-market payment for their properties or leasing their plots until the owner died.

Dorice Goodwin, owner of “Goodwin’s Camp” passed away a year ago, and family members have until May 23rd to clear the cottage of belongings. The Bluffs at Stage Island will seem sadly vacant if nature takes over the site. The mission of the Fish and Wildlife Service was to restore the island to natural habitats as part of the wildlife refuge. Although family members knew the time was coming when they would have to give up their camp, now that it is happened, they are filled with nostalgic sadness.

Amber Knowles Hovey of Rowley, Goodwin’s niece, spent many summers at the camp, purchased by her grandparents in the late 1930s. She shared memories of vacationing in the idyllic spot, despite the fact it has no running water or electricity.

“You were out of communication. It was like you stepped out of the world,” she said.
The Knowles family held an annual reunion there each year and met last August for what they knew would be the final time. Family members from Florida, Virginia, New York, and New Hampshire gathered with local relatives to celebrate their years at the cottage.

Hovey’s aunt was on the deed as a result of her loaning her father the money required to buy out his partner’s share of the cottage. Her father put her name on the deed. She was a young schoolteacher at the time, and her long life of 88 years granted her extended family many happy years of camp experiences.

Hovey recalled that in the early days, the camp, now accessible by a dirt road through the refuge, could be reached only by boat. The husbands of vacationing families would go to the Ipswich Yacht Club after work, toot their car horns three times and flash their headlights, and soon a boat was underway from the camp to pick them up.

“The kids were never bored,” she said, describing croquet and horseshoe tournaments in addition to fishing, swimming, and exploring the island. Evenings were filled with board games by lantern and candles. The camp was filled with treasures found on the island. “All the decorations in the place were things kids found and dragged back,” she said.

Everyone brought old sneakers to fill the “sneaker box” so there would always be footwear to protect from the rocky beach that surrounds the site. “We also had a big box of comic books that never left the place,” she said.

The camp could accommodate as many as 16-20 family members with four bedrooms upstairs each with multiple beds, and daybeds on the first floor. When pressed for space, Hovey recalled her grandmother putting up kids on cots in the attic. “In the morning we could hear the seagulls overhead on the roof,” she said.

She remembered boat trips over to the store on Pavilion Beach to pick up milk and other supplies. “But we could pretty much live off the land with fish, clams, oysters and little strawberries we gathered,” she said.

Because the family knew their time to enjoy the camp was drawing short, maintenance had lapsed, although Hovey said the inside was still in pretty good shape. Up until recently everyone pitched in to keep the place tidied. Initially, her grandparents brought out a goat to eat the brambles. Once cleared, all family members who visited were expected to keep the lawn with a rotary mower despite the bugs and heat.

The cottage was built in the 1890s when Stage Island was a hubbub of activity with hotels filled with pleasure seekers brought over on steamers. The Goodwin Camp was built by Nathaniel Dole who called it “The Anchorage.” It stood at the head of a large dock, long gone, where passengers walked up to the island.


5 thoughts on “The last cottage on Plum Island”

  1. This makes me really sad.The house has been there for so long it has become part of the habitat. Don’t see why it must be torn down.

  2. Yes, it is sad; but the removal of the cottage has been key to opening up Stage Island to public access. A trail now extends from parking lot #6 out to The Bluffs – about a mile and a half round-trip surrounded by beautiful views.

    In the early 1900’s, many structures stood across the southern end of Plum Island. Before the refuge was established, some had been abandoned by owners during the depression, and others were lost to storms or vandalism. There were only a handful of year-around residents by the early 1940’s; several hunting camps remained on Nelson’s Island and around Hale’s Cove, and cottages such as those on The Bluffs and Grape Island. They were cherished by their owners, some of whose families had used them for generations. We can thank Nancy Weare for telling many of their stories, and refuge volunteers are engaged in a project to record more of the cultural history. But the refuge exists to protect and preserve wildlife, not structures, and the remoteness of the area attracts people intent on mischief. Emergency responders faced a logistical challenge getting out there to fight a fire.

  3. I don’t know if you can help me but my father is 84 . His parents had a place on Plum island but he can’t remember where. He and his parents and one brother lived there during the summers. He speaks of treasure hunting on the beach as a kid and about the submarines that would pass at night. His last name is Gens. The property sold at some point in the 50’s I believe. I am asking because my father has not been to New England in over 40 years. He is coming here in August with my mother and I would love to be able to take him at least to the “area” where it may have been. Can anyone out there help me with this?

    1. Tamara, two possibilities for you to work with. The Newburyport Public Library Archival Center has many resources on Plum Island cottages/homes including a terrific collection of photographs; these are generally available only on site but perhaps one of their volunteers could do a little digging for you about your dad’s place. Their website is The Archival Center is open Monday thru Friday from 9 am to 12 noon and 1 to 4 pm, Saturday 9 am to 1 pm. If you are a Facebook user, you can join Newburyport History Buffs and post your question there, someone may have known your dad and his family. I am guessing that your dad’s place was on the northern end of PI which is split between Newbury and Newburyport. I checked the owners of record list from 12/31/1944 when the Federal wildlife refuge was being established and no one with the last name Gens was an owner of record at that time. If you happen to be here on Friday 8/3/18, there will be a free presentation on “Tale of Two Beaches: Plum Island and Salisbury Beach” at 7:00 p.m. at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge auditorium, 6 Plum Island Turnpike, Newburyport. Good luck!

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