Long before tiny houses became a movement for those seeking a minimalist lifestyle, small one-room cottages were dotting Maine’s landscape as sought after accomodations for those looking to get away from it all Down East.

Think of them as the tiny homes of the Maine vacation industry.

“They are basically one room with an attached bathroom,” said Lynn Kelley, owner of Isleview Motel & Cottages in Trenton. “People go for them because all four walls belong to you so you have no neighbors just on the other side of the wall, no one slamming doors in the hall or kids running up and down the halls.”

There are a number of such vacation cottage “colonies” scattered around Mount Desert Island, some of which go back generations with current owners welcoming grown children of former guests.

The start of cottage vacations in Maine goes back to the early 1900s, according to Wally Gray, owner of Emery’s Cottages on the Shore in Bar Harbor.

“Back before people had automobiles there were three big hotels in Bar Harbor and wealthy people came in by trains to Hancock and then took the steamboat to Bar Harbor,” Gray said. “The attraction was the coast [and] they were coming mostly from New York and Philadelphia in the summer to get away from the heat.”

Once cars became a more popular form of travel, Gray said, working-class families could afford to drive to places like Mount Desert Island for vacations.

“After World War I, autos were more in play and more people were traveling but there were not inexpensive hotels for them here so they either had to pay a lot of money to stay in one or camp out,” Gray said. “And people like having a roof over their heads to sleep or prepare a meal, so groups of these less expensive cottage [rentals] started to spring up along the roadways.”

Hanscom’s Motel & Cottages were constructed as part of that vacation boom in the early 1950s, according to Marydeane Hanscom, who operates the site with her husband ,Mark Hanscom. Mark Hanscom is the grandson of the original owners, Elwood and Emily Hanscom.

“My husband’s grandparents ran the place for years, and then it was run by his parents,” Marydeane Hanscom said. “We started helping out and eventually bought it and we get so much repeat business from people who stayed here with Mark’s parents or grandparents.”

Part of the attraction, she said, is the fact guests have their own space in which they can relax and prepare meals on their own schedule without having to go back out after a long day.

“I know it sounds a bit cliche, but these cottages are really like a home away from home,” Hanscom said. “We provide all the amenities, it’s a quiet area, cozy and family-friendly.”

Over at Isleview, Kelley said she sees a variety of nostalgic vacation seekers.

“Some of them love the cottages because it remind them of when they were children and this is what they did with their parents on vacation,” she said. “Some of them just don’t want to do the chain [hotel] thing.”

But make no mistake about it, Kelley said, tiny vacation houses are not everyone’s cup of tea.

“Some people understand what they are booking and are really happy,” she said. “But some envision the large log lodges in the Smoky Mountains and when they get here say ‘these are so small.’ Well, yes, they are.”

Just how small?

“There’s not a lot of room,” Kelley said. “In our ‘queen cottage’ the bed is right up against the walls with not a lot of space around it, but people will try to fit as many as they can inside and let junior sleep on the floor.”

Gray estimates more than 80 percent of his business at Emery’s are repeat guests.

Among these repeat guests are Marty and Donna Szydlowski of Brunswick who have been going to Emery’s every year since stumbling upon the cottages in 1999 — save one year when they had to attend an out-of-state wedding.

“We knew we wanted to go to Bar Harbor,” Marty Szydlowski said. “So one Sunday after church I drove to the tourist center in Yarmouth and picked up a bunch of brochures.”

Among those brochures was one for Emery’s.

“Wally was the first [innkeeper] to call me back, so that’s where we went,” Szydlowski said. “From that point on we knew we’d go back again and again.”

Renting a cottage allows people to set their own itineraries that are free from having to make restaurant reservations or follow a hotel’s meal schedules.

“We always get one with a kitchen or kitchenette so we can make our own meals,” Szydlowski said.

Their son, Mark, was 7 when they first went, and Szydlowski said now Mark brings his own friends to the cottages during the summer.

“People who come here launch kayaks from our dock, sit on their decks, read a book, so for them it’s similar to owning their own camp, except they are renting it for a short period of time,” Gray said. “In some cases, we get groups coming at the same time every year so they can stay with guests they met here years ago.”

That spirit of cottage colony camaraderie is common, according to Hanscom.

“We recognize they like to socialize together so several years ago we built a fire pit in the middle of our property,” she said. “They gather around that at night to get to know each other and end up becoming friends who come back [and] it’s really a lot of fun to see that happening.”

Hanscom said that camaraderie extends to the cottage owners who are a tight-knit group in her area.

“We all know each other,” she said. “We do whatever we can to help each other out.”

Hanscom’s property is one of the only that is open year-round while Kelley and Gray follow the seasonal Bar Harbor schedule of May to October.

“Most of these cottages have been owned by multiple generations of the same family,” Gray said. “It’s a real tradition here.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.