CAMDEN — The Camden Riverhouse Hotel & Inn marks its 25th anniversary this year, of welcoming guests and groups to the town where the mountains meet the sea.
The three-story, locally-owned hotel is on Tannery Lane, off Main Street in downtown Camden, a short walk from the harbor, shops and restaurants. The hotel offers a newly-renovated exterior, entrance ramp and lobby, contemporary rooms, elevator, heated pool, complimentary breakfast and concierge services.
Outside, there are hundreds of flowers and vegetables, like cherry tomatoes and squash, growing in raised beds and large wooden planters. The vibrant colors and variety of flowers, vegetables and towering sunflowers are an attraction for many visitors as they walk through town.
On the hotel property is 8 Tannery Lane, overlooking the Megunticook River, with two luxury suites and a four-bedroom, three-bath apartment on the upper floor.
The in-town property is bordered on one side by the river, which flows over dams, between buildings and through a stone and concrete-lined channel. The hotel’s footbridge over the river is lined with colorful plank seats and an abundance of flower-filled hanging planters. The bridge leads to River Ducks ice cream and the Riverhouse Inn, an extended-stay hotel with eight suites with separate living and sleeping areas and fully-equipped kitchens.
David Dickey built the hotel in 1994 and opened in the early summer of 1995. He comes from a family that owned businesses, invested in properties, headed business groups and supported the Camden community for generations. His grandfather on his mother’s side was Harold Corthell, “a huge promoter of Camden before it was a tourist town,” Dickey said, and part-owner of Haskell & Corthell, a department store on Main Street that lasted for a century. His father was president of the store for 30 years.
The Riverhouse property was half-owned by Corthell, and passed down to Dickey’s mother, and Dickey had bought out the other half-partner in the 1980s. There was an aging supermarket on the lot, built in the 1950s, and a large parking lot. Before the supermarket, it was the location of the Ordway Plaster Company. Dickey, who loves history, has a collection of the plasters that were sold to alleviate various ailments before aspirin became popular.
Dickey initially divided the supermarket building into retail stores, but he wanted to do something more with the property and started exploring hotels.
Along the way, he found out there were connections in his family to the hotel business. Corthell had owned Tamarak Lodge in Rockport, which later burned down and became the Children’s Chapel, and his great, great grandfather owned the Washington Hotel and several dance halls on the old Route 1, which connected the coast to Augusta. Dickey had owned the Taylor Inn, the last boarding house in Camden.
Dickey connected with the Best Western company, and was invited to a convention as a non-owner. “It opened my eyes up. I knew what to build. I had plans, supplies, I had everything,” he said. He said he could not propose building a Best Western in Camden, where chains are unpopular, but he planned on it anyway.
At the time, there was a lot of change going on in Camden, and many people in town did not like change, he said. This was when the Knox Mill was bought by MBNA, and nobody in Camden knew what MBNA was, he said. Dickey describes the permitting process for the hotel as involving lots of lawyers and appeals.
A sticking point during permitting was Tannery Lane itself. One Board member wanted a sidewalk, while another came up with the compromise of putting in wooden planter boxes and trees between the lane and parking lot. This, along with some volunteers and sunflower seeds, started Dickey on the gardens. “I say I’m not going to build another garden. I built three more this year,” he said. They are his relaxation and “it’s good for business – read our reviews,” he said.
One year after the Riverhouse opened, it became a Best Western. “That gave me a whole ‘nother education on the hotel business. Then you’re playing with the big dogs,” he said. He kept that relationship for five years, before going back to individual ownership.
The Riverhouse Hotel’s “very first guests were the entire cast of [Steven King’s] “Thinner.” We opened up to almost a full house with directors and actors,” Dickey said. “It saved me because we had opened at the end of a recession that was still going on.”
“ ‘Thinner’ was great for that year, and it was so much fun having those guys here.”
In 2000, in preparation for a big turn-of-the-century New Year’s Eve party, Dickey went out and bought “tons of champagne.” People were expected to come from all over, but “no one was going out because it was thought that a bug [Y2K] in computer clocks was going to take computers down world wide,” he said. The champagne was stored in the basement, until the Toboggan Nationals race in February 2001 became a big party.
The race was four years old at that point, and it wasn’t anything special yet, Dickey said. But a lot of guests showed up, including four lawyers dressed in costumes with dead president masks. He decided to feed everyone hot dogs and got the champagne that wasn’t used from New Year’s. The party went on until 4 to 5 a.m., he recalls.
”That’s when this place became toboggan race central. We’d have kegs of beer and chili and from then on out, everyone stayed here because this is where the party was, and it’s still going on to this day.”
Camden has a number of events that have been good for the Riverhouse, according to Dickey. “The Camden Conference, Pop Tech and now the Camden International Film Festival have been very good for business,” he said. For the Windjammer Festival, also good for the hotel, Dickey pays to bring in a group of professional pirates. “I support the pirates because that’s the one thing we have to do for the kids,” he said.
This year, he had planned a big 25th anniversary party for June, with friends all around the area and the country. There was going to be lots of food, local bands, and a big jam with all the generations of bands from the decades. This was going to be a reunion, unlike any high school reunion the area has seen, according to Dickey. And everyone was invited.
But like the champagne that wasn’t consumed on New Year’s 2000, the party now has to wait until another year, 2021. COVID-19 stopped the party, and closed down the entire lodging business in the state of Maine from March until June. The Riverhouse has been open since July 1, with many new procedures in place to keep guests and staff safe.
Looking back over the 25 years, Dickey said “the absolute best part” was getting to know his customers from “the greatest generation.”
“Almost everyone of them was in the war. I miss those people. You pumped them for information, and they just loved the conversation. They all stayed two or three days. You got to know them, and they returned year after year.”
There was New Hampshire Senator and Attorney General Moe Murphy who told him about suing to keep the Hells Angels out of Laconia, and then later being hired by motorcycle gang, because he was a good lawyer. Jane Nelson would stay at the Riverhouse, year after year. Her husband was part of the “Skunk Works” with Kelly Johnson who built spy planes and her father was manager of the Samoset, Dickey said.
There were people who came back so many years, he didn’t charge them, including a couple from Dixville Notch, N.H.. At some point, their kids began driving them to Camden, he said. Four years ago, the wife got out of the car by herself without her husband. Dickey said he started crying and had to walk away, and couldn’t see her for a day. “They’d been here from day one,” he said. Another man and his wife came every year, and his wife has a bench dedicated to her on the harbor. After she died, the husband came back every year to visit her at the bench.
Over the 25 years, Dickey has been on the hotel property in the morning and at night, behind the front desk, watering the gardens and making sure there’s no cigarette butts on the ground. That’s what owners do, he said.
The variety of the job suits him: from going into the office and looking at the numbers, doing projections and figuring out rates, to fixing something, to a meeting, to a project he wants to do. The hotel’s longtime employees are like extended family: Ralph Walker has worked at the hotel for 26 years as assistant manager, Jen Wiley who ran the front desk, had started in housekeeping and Jackie Gamage, who runs the front desk now, started as the breakfast lady. Years ago, Dickey dove into internet marketing, buying up all kinds of domain names, including his primary site, camdenmaine.com. Now, Kristen Bifulco has joined the team, taking over marketing and the hotel’s internet presence.
The year, would have been a good year, with renovations completed and beautiful weather through all of June, Dickey said. He estimates business would have been up 25% in June alone. He has weathered recessions, including the economic downturns after 911 and the 2008 crash. He will survive whatever COVID-19 will do the economy, but he worries about others in the business.
“We all rise and fall on the same tide,” he said, referring to the beds and breakfasts, the motels and the hotels in the region. In Camden’s clothing and department store business, competition wasn’t bad, it was always good, he said. Variety meant you could come to Camden and buy shoes and clothes for everyone in the family, he explained. The same applies to the town’s hospitality businesses, according to Dickey. “People come to Camden because there’s plenty of choices in hotels and lodging.”
For more information about Camden Riverhouse Hotel and Inn, visit camdenmaine.com or call 236-0500.