Elizabeth Meyer was two years old when her parents first rented a vacation cottage at Asbury Grove in South Hamilton. Lacking plumbing, the cottage offered a chamber pot and a rocky trip downhill to the community bathrooms. Two years later, her parents bought a fixer-upper with indoor plumbing and enough improvement projects to fill the summer. That cottage is still in her family to this day.
As a 50-plus year veteran of the Grove, Elizabeth jokes that her husband, Bill, is the “new guy” in the neighborhood; he has been there for only 30 summers. Together they and their four children have gathered countless memories over the years.
“I feel bad for anyone who isn’t at the Grove on 4th of July,” she says about the best part of her summer. Beaming, she describes the annual cookout and parade, complete with costumes and brass bands.
“One year our whole family dressed up as Superman,” she laughs. “Our youngest was just a baby, so we decorated his stroller to look like a little phone booth. And luckily I was able to find queen-sized blue tights for Bill!” (Bill musters a strained smile when I later tell him I have been made privy to this fact.)
Asbury Grove is more than a summer camp community, however. It originated in 1859 as a Methodist center and the site of Camp Meeting, an annual week of Christian services held each summer. At that time, many cities and towns lacked their own churches, so sermons would run several times a day for a week, giving people from all over a chance to participate. As folks returned year after year, some decided to trade in their tents for simple frame cottages, and the community grew from there.
Today, Camp Meeting is still held one week per summer. The start of that week is marked by Illumination Night, another of Elizabeth’s favorite traditions.
“When the camp first started, there was no electricity; so residents would put candles out on their properties to light the way that night,” she says. “Folks would then walk the grounds, singing hymns, and stopping to pray at the homes of those in need.”
While cottages at Asbury Grove are individually owned or rented, the land on which they sit is leased from the Asbury Camp Meeting Corporation. Prospective cottage owners and long-term renters must be a member of the Christian church, have a reference from a church pastor, pass a background check, and be approved by the admissions committee.
Residents describe the spirit of the Grove as Christ-centered, and while participation in spiritual activities such as Bible study, Sunday vespers, or choir practice is not required, it is encouraged.
Non-religious, community-wide traditions like road races, the men’s auction, or the ladies’ pie social, however, were the greater draw for Ipswich residents Kerrie and Daniel Bates, who loved what they called the “Mayberry RFD” feel of the area when they bought their cottage five years ago.
“Truthfully, we bought the cottage as a place to escape with our young children during the renovation of our Ipswich home,” Kerrie says, “It then evolved into guest accommodations for friends who also had small children. We could all enjoy our days, and everybody could get a good night’s sleep!”
Now Kerrie loves to use her cottage for weekend dinner parties, laughter-filled “girls’ nights out” and summer days with her kids; days spent swimming in the community pool, riding the bike paths, catching frogs, and eating homemade popsicles. Kerrie sums up the appeal simply: “I always slow down there.”
Those who desire a community with less religious focus, however, needn’t look further than Little Neck, Ipswich. Ten miles northeast of Asbury Grove, on a small piece of land jutting out into the gateway to the Atlantic Ocean, Concord resident Doug Girdwood and his wife, Susan, also found their ideal summer retreat. When they first heard about the Little Neck section of Ipswich, however, Doug admits he wasn’t sure of the appeal.
“To be honest, I thought it was a bit weird,” he confesses with a laugh, “Some of these cottages are really small, and many don’t have air conditioning. Plus, they are all on land leased from the town.Â I thought, “Why would I want to buy here?””
The 27 acres of Little Neck have been managed for more than three centuries by a group of seven town landlords known by the medieval English term “feoffees.” Under a trust that was established in Colonial times, the feoffees are required to donate a portion of the land rents they collect to the local schools.
Despite the unconventional arrangement of this deep-rooted community, Doug and Susan bought their cottage and have spent the last seven summers there, along with their two young children.
“Little Neck is a time capsule of what summers used to be like,” he says wistfully. “My greatest pleasure is seeing my own kids have a really great, carefree summer.”
Kids on the Neck can find fun in any direction on any given summer day. In the mornings, coaches are on hand to lead games and activities; in the afternoons, swimming lessons are offered. Evenings at the community center mean kid dances or old-fashioned game nights.
Other activities get the whole family involved, like the Horribles Parade each June, or the annual Summer Olympics swimming races and field games. There is something for everyone. Who organizes it all? The Governor, of course.
“Every year a resident is ‘appointed,'” Doug chuckles. “Whether they want it or not, they have the job of overseeing the summer. But they also get a sign that says ‘Governor’s Mansion,’ which they get to hang on their cottage!”
Beyond fun in the sun, residents of Little Neck have a harmony that Doug says is magical. “There are no ‘lines’ here. Old and young mix, parents all watch each others’ kids; it doesn’t matter whether you are a new resident, or if your cottage was handed down through generations.”
This June, when their kids finish up the school year, Doug and Susan will have the family packed and ready for their annual move to Little Neck. Doug still works during the summer, but eagerly comes home to the cottage at the end of each day. “There’s just a magical feeling when I come home. I drive through those little stone gates, and I’m on vacation again.”