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The woman and the lake

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BEA ACKERMAN SITS on the porch of her Lake Dunmore summer home. The 96-year-old is reflecting this summer on her 70th year on the lake.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell


September 3, 2007

By MEGAN JAMES

SALISBURY — From the screened-in porch of her summer home on Lake Dunmore, Bea Ackerman watched a red and white sailboat catch the wind, a copy of Bill McKibben’s “Hope, Human and Wild” on her lap. She has trouble walking around by herself these days, but she still reads voraciously and always without glasses.

“How many 96-year-old ladies can read without glasses?” she said, defiantly.

Labor Day Weekend marks the end of Ackerman’s 70th summer on the lake. In the coming weeks, she’ll leave her waterfront house nestled in with the cabins of Camp Songadeewin, and return to New York City for the winter months.

It was the 1930s when Ackerman first came to Lake Dunmore with her husband, Sidney, and their three children. She says the waterfront has hardly changed since then.

Sidney was a lawyer for the state of New York and Bea worked part-time in daycare, so they both had a long summer vacation, perfect for getting away from the city. Sidney suggested a place on the ocean. But Ackerman put her foot down.

“I’m sorry,” she told him. “I hate sand in my house.”

She wanted the country. “I must have trees, I must have flowers, I must have a bit of lawn,” she said.

They opened up The New York Times one Sunday and noticed an advertisement for rental property on Lake Dunmore. It sounded perfect.

So they called Mrs. Dunaway, the woman who had placed the ad in the paper, and began looking at pictures of the cottages she rented near Waterhouse’s Campground. They were immediately smitten.

When the Ackermans arrived that first summer, Dunaway — or Dunnie, as she was known in these parts — picked them up in Brandon, where the train stopped in those days. It was a hot afternoon so she gave them a quick tour, breezing by Branbury beach and taking them back to their rental.

That’s when Ackerman said she and her family showed their true city colors.

“We all got undressed and went back to the beach to swim, and Dunnie said, ‘You don’t have to do that. When you live here you can swim in front of your house.’ We didn’t know that,” Ackerman said, laughing. 

They spent $50 a month to rent a cottage that summer, and began looking for a place to buy right away. Margaret Waterhouse, whose father opened Waterhouse’s Campground, helped them pick out the house Ackerman lives in now. She and her husband bought it for $8,000 from the original owners of Rosie’s Restaurant in Middlebury.

It didn’t take long for Ackerman to fall in love with Lake Dunmore. She had come to find the country, but she discovered much more, including a strong sense of community with her neighbors.

“About three quarters of the city’s schoolteachers gravitated to the area and lived around the lake,” she said. “We were very friendly with all of them. We would have square-dancing on someone’s porch and then we’d have tea somewhere else.”

She remembers trying to avoid the lake’s busybody, another Margaret, who had decided to make Ackerman her best friend.

“She got into everybody’s hair,” Ackerman said.

At a meeting of the Salisbury women’s group one day, Ackerman recalled someone asking her, “How in the world can you stand Margaret?”

“It’s very easy,” Ackerman replied. “I’ve created a man friend.”

Whenever Margaret would call, looking for gossip or for a companion to go flower picking around the lake, Ackerman would make up a story about an imaginary friend from California who, once again, was visiting. 

“I had to give him a history, a name and a birthday, and I had to put it all next to my telephone so I wouldn’t say the wrong thing,” she said, with a mischievous smile. “She never caught on.”

And of course campers have always been a part of Ackerman’s life on the lake. Before Songadeewin and Keywaydin, there was Camp Dunmore for Girls, and later Camp Dunmore for Boys.

“The boys’ camp we used to be able to hear more clearly than the girls’ camp,” she said.

She recalled many summers ago hearing one counselor at the boys’ camp singing to his campers when they went to bed.  

“He’d sing ‘Lullaby and Goodnight’ and it resonated over the lake,” she said. “You’d hear him every night, singing the boys to sleep.”

Many of her Dunmore friends have died in recent years. And 12 years ago, her husband died. But Ackerman doesn’t get lonely at the lake, she said. She has two children, a daughter-in-law and plenty of grandchildren who visit her often.

She has her books, too. And the trees and flowers and the little bit of lawn that drew her to Vermont so many years ago.

“I was watching the moon last night from my bedroom window. It was full, very full, to such a fullness you almost thought it was going to burst.”

She still finds beauty at her special spot on the lake, she said, and like every year, she doesn’t want to leave.

“Before you see the moon, you see the reflection of the moon, the moonlight, on the water. It looks like snow and it’s just so beautiful.”

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