Counting their Blessings

Four generations stay connected through their family camp in Gouldsboro

In 1935, Paul and Alta Valente finished building a simple camp on 20 acres of land on Joy Bay in Gouldsboro that Paul had bartered for a few years earlier. The industrious owner of a trucking business who had immigrated to the United States from Italy at the age of 16, Paul had acquired the property in exchange for barrels of sugar, flour, and other staples. The day after school ended for the summer, the Valentes loaded their seven children into the back of a pickup truck and drove the 90 miles from their home in Milo to the camp, which they had named Seldom Inn. “Every so often he would stop and ask us if we wanted ice cream or a hot dog,” recalls Orrin Valente—known as Dud to his family. “My father brought us here for the whole summer because he thought he was keeping us out of trouble.” That may have been true, but the remarkable place Paul and Alta created did far more than that; it continues to enrich the lives of four generations of their descendants.

It’s July Fourth weekend 2016, and photographer Erin Little and I are spending the day at Seldom Inn with 100 or so members of the Valente clan, who have gathered for their annual reunion. Because there are limited beds in the main house and guest cottage, a couple of campers are among the cars lining the dirt road leading to the camp, and several tents are pitched in a grassy area next to the barn. A wide swath of lawn stretches in front of the house, and beyond it, the blue water of Joy Bay. About four of the original 20 acres have been lost to erosion, so apple trees that were once surrounded by field are now perched at the edge of the rocky shore. A few lobster boats are moored in the distance—the only sign that anyone else inhabits this part of the bay. The view across the water to Lobster Island looks much like it must have when Paul first stood on the point and decided this would be his family’s summertime Shangri-La.

Our invitation to Seldom Inn came from Windham resident Renee Valente Tringali, one of Paul and Alta’s grandchildren, who has jokingly warned us in advance about her “loud, crazy, Italian family.” From the porch on the side of the house, shaded by a large maple tree, we can see a group of adults playing bocce, while others lounge in the sun. American and Italian flags wave lazily from a tall flagpole, and a stone fireplace is piled with wood, ready for this evening’s bonfire. “This is a pretty tough crowd,” she says. “They were going until four this morning and up at 5:30 to get the most out of every minute here.” Many family members still live in Maine and elsewhere in New England, but some have made the annual pilgrimage from as far away as Florida.

Renee leads us inside the house to check out “the wall,” an extraordinary family tree that covers the length of the main room and features plaques with names and numbers for every member of the family. Paul and Alta’s plaques, numbers one and two, are at the very top, up against the ceiling, followed by a row of green plaques for their children, nicknamed the Big Seven: Angela, Georgia, Mary, Lewis, Henry, Orrin, and Virgil. Next to their names are plaques for their spouses, and underneath, their children, their children’s spouses (red plaques), and their grandchildren (blue plaques). Near the bottom are a few white plaques for great- grandchildren. “My grandparents didn’t have money; they had foresight,” says Renee. “They knew they were building something that would last.”

Every family member we meet at the camp introduces themselves by both their name and their number, except for the remaining members of the Big Seven, Georgia, Lewis, Orrin, and Virgil. (This was Lewis Valente’s last Fourth of July. He passed away in November 2016.) “I’m 15 and I’m still meeting new cousins,” says Brendan Byther, #141. John Somes, #45, is married to Angela’s daughter Judy, #14. “I came down in ’66 and really saw something marvelous here,” he says. “My first summer job at 17 was Judy and I taking care of all these kids, cousins. I finally found out what family was, and I embraced it.”

Renee, #34 (her husband, Paul Tringali, is #111), gives us a tour of the house, which is modest and homey—I can feel the joy that has been nurtured here. Photographs, certificates, and humorous mementos dot the walls, including an illustrated limerick: “There once was a couple from Maine/Who made passionate love in the rain/The results were 7!!!/Bimbos from heaven/Who drive all their children insane.” In front of the main room, an enclosed porch is furnished with long tables and benches for family meals. The first floor also has a roomy kitchen with two stoves and two refrigerators, a full bathroom, and a bedroom reserved for the most senior member of the clan. Upstairs, the kids’ bunkroom is flanked by a row of five tiny bedrooms, each just large enough for a double bed, with a curtain for a door.

We head back outside to find a group gathered around one of three picnic tables digging into trays of steamed Dungeness crabs procured from a local fisherman, who delivered them to the camp by boat. Orrin explains that when he and his siblings were kids, clamming and fishing for crabs and lobsters were regular activities. “We would get hot dogs and rolls and row over to the sandbar out there, make a fire to cook them on and go swimming,” he says, pointing to a spit of land out in the bay. As we chat with various family members, a child comes running up with a question for his mother—“Is it OK if Kullen sleeps in the top bunk?”—then dashes away again. There are at least a dozen children here, and I haven’t seen a single electronic device. “It’s always been an unspoken rule that camp is a cell phone-free zone,” says Renee. “My father wanted a place where kids could play, and we’ve got it,” says Lewis. The group laughs as they share memories of Paul and Alta, and the arrangement that keeps Seldom Inn alive with the couple’s spirit. Each of the seven “branches” gets to use the camp for two weekends every summer, with the exception of July Fourth holiday, when the whole clan is invited. If there is room, other family members join their aunts, uncles, and cousins for “their” weekends at camp. “Before our father died, he said, ‘Don’t fight or I’ll come back and haunt you,’” says Virgil. “And we never do.”

From the beginning, Seldom Inn was not just a place for family. Paul and Alta encouraged their children to bring friends, and the couple was known for inviting nearly anyone they encountered. “Our mother and father would go shopping and meet people and say, ‘Come on down,’” says Orrin. “Somebody drove down the road looking for directions and my grandfather got him and his wife out of the car,” says Dickie Hall, #17. “They had lunch, they had supper, we had after-supper activities, and they spent the night. That’s the DNA of this place.” The hospitality gene was inherited by successive generations. Renee’s father, Henry—who coined the family slogan, “Ain’t it great?”—once met a couple in Ellsworth who had just gotten married but didn’t have a place to stay for their wedding night, so he invited them to the Seldom Inn. “We’ve taken family trips to Italy three times, and the tour director has been here,” she says. In the house are stacks of notebooks signed by everyone who has visited the camp; she estimates that combined they contain at least 2,000 signatures. There’s one exception to the open-door policy: dogs. “Last year we had 14 dogs, so we decided no more,” says Virgil.

Later in the afternoon, Virgil presides over one of the holiday weekend’s time-honored activities, the children’s auction. With a few dollars from their parents clutched in their hands, kids cluster around the table on the porch, bidding with gusto for sparklers, stuffed animals, and other toys. The adult auction is held at night, after dinner. There are always a few special, sentimental items in the mix—this year it’s maps of Maine painted on panels made from one of the camp’s old picnic tables. As for the rest: “You bring anything you don’t want,” jokes Orrin. The money raised at both auctions goes toward upkeep of the camp.

Steamed lobsters and corn on the cob are served at four, and dinner preparations get underway not long afterwards. For the holiday weekend, each family group is responsible for one lunch or dinner: purchasing the food, cooking, and cleaning up. Tonight is spaghetti night, with meat and non-meat sauces, garlic bread, and salad. In the kitchen, Dean Martin croons “Volare” from the stereo, and the cooks sing along while stirring pots of sauce on the stove and chopping lettuce for a huge tub of salad. Family members begin showing up sporting eye patches and bandanas tied over their heads—every reunion has a costume theme, and this year it’s “pirates and wenches.” “One year our kids dressed up as us,” says Virgil. “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie—that’s amore,” two women sing with glee as they link arms and dance around the kitchen. Bottles of red wine are uncorked, and amid teasing and laughter, everyone circles around the kitchen table to pile up their plates. Food and drink are so much a part of the Seldom Inn legacy that the family has produced two cookbooks of favorite recipes.

More family lore emerges as we tuck into our plates of spaghetti. The older generations chuckle at the memory of wet paper towel fights in the kitchen. “My mother would start them,” says Orrin. “My brother Lew one time got pissed off, ran out the front door, and got the hose and sprayed the whole kitchen. We never let him have the hose again.” The stories about their father focus on his generosity. “He’d get a whole box of watermelons, and he’d call all the kids in the neighborhood over,” says Georgia. “He had such a good philosophy of life.”

The sun is low in the sky when I begin to say goodbye. There are lots of hugs, and everyone urges me to stay for the bonfire and fireworks. I’m tempted, but my own family beckons. Steff Valente, #44, jokingly threatens to put holes in my tires so I can’t leave. On her left arm is a tattoo of the Seldom Inn with the words “Family Tradition 1935” inked above it. Her cousin, Angela Mercieri, #97, is tattooed with her parents’ numbers and the coordinates of the camp. “If you put these into a GPS it will bring you right to the fire pit here,” she says. “This place means more than anything to me.” As I pull away, it occurs to me that while the setting of the camp is gorgeous, that’s not what makes it so special. It’s the love that Paul and Alta Valente’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have for each other that provides the real beauty. On April 30— Alta’s birthday—the newest member of the family was born. The baby girl was named Alta Grace, and this summer, a white plaque with her name and #190 will grace the wall at Seldom Inn.