By KATHRYN FLAGG
SALISBURY — On a sunny Tuesday morning, Karen Rockow and her cousin John Marlin sat on the porch of the North Cove Cottage’s front office — a red house hunkered down beside Lake Dunmore Road among a smattering of cozy white cottages.
“It’s just a fantastic place,” said Rockow, a 59-year-old Brooklyn native who has been vacationing at the lake since she was four years old.
She sat facing the water, looking out at a lone paddleboat on the cove and two small girls swimming at the water’s edge — imagining, perhaps, the north cove of Lake Dunmore as it was 50 years ago. Rockow, whose family bought these cottages in 1958, is celebrating the business’s 50th anniversary this year — an especially notable occasion for a business Rockow believes is the oldest group of cottages under continuous ownership on the lake.
“We’re really a relic,” she said. “These are retro vacations.”
Rockow made her first trip to the lake in 1954 in the two-tone, green-and-white Buick that her parents bought that year. The car — a lemon, Rockow said, that knew the inside of every Buick repair shop from Atlantic City north — ferried the family to Vermont for that first summer vacation. The weather was gorgeous and the accommodations filthy — and her family, Rockow said, was hooked.
They spent the next several summers returning to the lake, pleading with the owners of the cottage that now serves as the business’s front office to sell them the house.
They succeeded at long last, and soon also owned the half-dozen cottages south of the main office. Rockow’s parents set to fixing up their little resort, painting the cottages and hauling furnishings from New York. Motels were still a novelty in those days, Rockow said, and her parents caught the bug early, throwing themselves into the work of upkeep and hospitality.
That gusto kicked off the family’s five-decade affair with North Cove Cottages. Today, the business has 11 lakeside cottages.
Rockow and Marlin, 55, spent their childhoods on this lake and know as well as any the changes that have come to Lake Dunmore over the last half-century.
“It was a different world back then, to some extent,” said Rockow.
Among the greatest changes? Rockow and Marlin glanced across the lake toward the Kampersville campground and R.V. park, which offers a different lake experience.
“They came in 1969,” said Marlin. “Changed the whole flavor of this part of the lake.”
Marlin is a high school English teacher in New Jersey during the school year, but he escapes up to the lake whenever he gets the chance, he said. He bought a cabin on the cove a few years ago.
There are fewer trees and more houses, they agreed — and more lights along the shore — than when they were kids. An astronomer used to come every August to stay in one of the North Cove cabins, but when light pollution interfered with his telescope he had to call an end to the annual trips. The cove is shallower now, so shallow that one can walk its width in places, and the bite of the cold on late summer nights is a little softer, they said. And both Rockow and Marlin bemoaned the loss of Palmer Dairy’s “Java Nip” coffee milk.
The business has seen its fair share of changes, too. After her mother died in 1976, Rockow set to winterizing a few of the cabins. A few of the cottages are now open year-round, and some have satellite television. The North Cove Cottages main office is equipped with high-speed Internet.
But the cottages are the cottages, Marlin said — the business’s real charm is in the people who come back year after year.
Rockow remembered Miss Parker and Mary Wheeler, schoolteachers at a girls’ preparatory school, who returned to the cove every summer. Miss Wheeler brought a suitcase of books each year to read — and a stack of Christmas cards to address well in time for the holiday season. When sweet corn first cropped up for sale each season, she’d buy herself a half-dozen ears to eat in one go.
“We knew not to disturb her the next morning because she had one hell of a stomachache the whole night,” Rockow laughed.
After Sept. 11, 2001, she said, she had visitors come up to escape the city and decompress. Some had watched the World Trade Center towers collapse from their bedroom windows on the Jersey side of the river.
“They think of this place as a haven,” she said.
In other cases, three generations of some families have vacationed at North Cove Cottages — and watching the children grow up, said Rockow, is one of the most enjoyable parts of what is a very taxing job.
“The bottom line is that we try to give people a good time,” she said. They don’t aspire to be a resort — the visitors have potluck dinners and ice cream bashes, and scramble out to marvel at a few big fish a camper might have landed.
It’s a difficult job, one Rockow holds on to out of family stubbornness, Marlin joked. She’s seen owners of other camps and summer accommodations come and go, and watched rates rise astronomically.
“We’re looking for good people who enjoy the lake who want an affordable vacation,” she said. “And we get them.”
But, she said, it’s not really a business — North Cove Cottages is part of her history.
Just down Route 53, a little bridge crosses over another little inlet. A few lily pads list on the water. As children, Marlin and Rockow pushed boats under the bridge, laying flat in the bellies of the boats to squeeze under the low road. They caught frogs and newts and turtles, and Marlin had his first kiss there, with a girl named Barbara who lived on the lake.
Beyond the bridge, the rest of Lake Dunmore stretches out for three miles to the south.
But the North Cove is a quiet, still corner of the lake — a respite from the speed boats on the main lake. And, while this year’s down economy has made for slow business — the cottages seeing vacancies during July, which Rockow said is almost unheard of — she looks forward to many more summers on the cove.
“If it gets in your blood, it’s home,” said Marlin.