How TV’s ‘Maine Cabin Masters’ tries to preserve a tradition

MANCHESTER, Maine — Even in the chill of winter, tourists show up at the Kennebec Cabin Company just outside of Augusta, directly across from Mulligan’s gas station and the town’s only Dunkin’. It’s a specialty gift shop, it’s a restaurant, it’s a brand — and it’s the home base of the TV show “Maine Cabin Masters,” which, for devoted viewers, has become a touchstone for all that is Maine.

The show’s premise? So simple, friendly and warm it could bring on the spring thaw: Home builder Chase Morrill, 45, his sister, Ashley Morrill, 48, her husband, Ryan Eldridge, 49, and their friends and colleagues Dixie (Matthew Dix) and Jedi (Jared Baker) work together to transform aging, sagging and often dangerously leaning Maine cabins into beautiful three-season properties.

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Each episode of “Maine Cabin Masters” — which is wrapping up its ninth season on the Magnolia Network — follows Chase and his crew through several weeks of their busy spring and summer seasons spent working on properties that have often been handed down through generations: droopy-roofed retreats that face impossibly beautiful lakes or are set deep in the woods, staving off permanent decay.

With a cacophony of saws, nail guns and heavily accented (but good-natured) bickering and ribbing among the siblings and the crew, the magic happens over and over. What hooks viewers are the family dynamics but perhaps also just the Maine of it all. Typically at an episode’s end, drone cameras offer long, luscious, interstitial looks at Vacationland: The trees begin turning in autumn, the light glints off the water, the views stretch on forever. And all a viewer wants is to be there.

Instead, I came to Manchester in the dark of December — my fingers frozen to the steering wheel of the borrowed, beaten Volvo belonging to my sister — to get the Cabin Masters to at least clear this matter up: Why does the show’s title say “cabin,” when everyone in Maine calls cabins “camps”?

“We didn’t name the show,” Chase quickly says, while sitting in a cozy backroom of the Kennebec Cabin Company store with Ashley and Ryan.

“It’s hard for us to say cabin,” Ashley says.

The pair are generational Mainers. Their father was a home builder. They grew up spending some time each summer at a camp, which most non-Mainers would call a family cabin. Explaining it verges on the existential: How is a cabin really a camp? When is a camp not a cabin? And how is it different from a regular house?

Cabins stir thoughts of well-manicured second homes; camps are not that. To Chase: “Camp is a place you go where you just don’t have any worries and can relax. You’re not worried about how many people show up. You’re not worried about how scratched the floors get or —”

“How clean they are,” Ryan interjects.

Camp is not a second home. It is a place to be with the people you love and not worry whether the chairs match, or what’s on TV (because you usually don’t have cable, and in some camps, you may not even have electricity). But, as you see in the show, there is a large disparity between budgets and camp conditions. This monetary shift has caused Chase to reevaluate what he considers a camp: “I do think my understanding of camps has changed for the show, because we all grew up [with] not a lot of money. So camp was an old camp, but we see different budgets now.” Take, for example, a sprawling camp in Season 2 that had a budget of $50,000 and ended up having a life-size, outdoor checkerboard.

With higher budgets and bigger homes, you can see the disparity of homeownership in Maine, where, as of 2022, some 10 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. Camps are often passed down through generations, which sometimes gives “Maine Cabin Masters” a whiff of privilege — until you see the toll that the years of wear and tear (and Maine winters) take.

“It doesn’t take long,” Ryan says, for cabins to fall into disrepair. Even if the structures are still functional, they may not be practical for a modern, growing family.

“We see it a lot of times where these kids who grew up going to camp every summer are now having kids, and they want them to have that same experience. But the camp might not be big enough and might not have modern amenities that make it possible to stay there for a longer period of time,” Ryan says. “We try and come and say: ‘Okay, what’s going to make this camp usable again for you?’”

Not every family gets the opportunity to make their camp usable. Ryan laments the coastal Maine cabins that were passed down through generations, only to be lost because the property taxes got too high.

He finds it particularly special when families are able to pool their money to prevent the loss and when “Maine Cabin Masters” — with its low-budget, authentic Mainer ethos and Chase’s thrift-minded stockpile of salvaged building materials — can be a part of that rescue effort.

Part of the appeal of “Cabin Masters” is that the show is a road map for fixing up your own camp, Ashley says: “So when people inherit [camps], they’re able to do the simple things that you see on the show with these guys — jack and leveling it, to get it out of the dirt so [there’s] not so much rot.”

In addition to the unbeatable scenery, the show also has an easygoing, community vibe. Family stories are shared. The crew teases one another about the rival high schools they attended (Cony vs. Gardiner) and who got the better education in measurement math.

The ever-resourceful Ashley visits local artisans to help with decor ideas. She used to run a home goods store in Hallowell that sold upcycled furniture, and she often uses items belonging to an episode’s featured camp owners to add personal flair to the cabins. “Recently we did a camp, and this family is very musical,” Ashley says. “They had this old run-down piano — not fixable — so I ended up taking it apart completely and then used the piano keys to make a breakfast bar.” (Yes, you are now trying to picture this, but if you’ve ever seen “Maine Cabin Masters,” you just believe it.)

The show is a little more rugged than what’s usually shown on the relatively new Magnolia Network, but, in general, it’s in line with all carpentry TV, where, with some ingenuity and power tools, something run-down gets restored to its meaningfully rustic essence.

“Maine Cabin Masters” premiered in 2017 on the former DIY Network, a grittier offshoot of HGTV. DIY became Magnolia, the network of Chip and Joanna Gaines, who turned their home-renovation show, the Texas-based “Fixer Upper,” into a bespoke media empire of simple elegance and shiplap walls. Magnolia rolled out a lot of new programming with a farm-to-table vibe. When asked how their show managed to fit in with all that, Ryan joked: “We’re more like dandelions.” Much like how dandelions can grow through concrete, they thrive in the harshest of conditions (Maine winters) to make something that brings joy to those who see it. They also don’t spend a lot of time prettying up for the cameras. A typical “Maine Cabin Masters” season can be clocked through the infrequency of Chase’s haircuts and beard trims.

Chase, Ashley and Ryan are distinctly Maine. It’s hard to describe, but watching their show, or being around them, reminds me of getting a flat tire on my way to my own Maine high school. Multiple gruff, flanneled people halted their journeys to help. Maine kindness and Maine realness without airs: It radiates off the trio.

Chase, the central figure of the show, credits his connection to the work with his childhood experience with cabins. “Everybody has a spot. Whether it’s a family, a friend or just a place you go for a week in the summertime. Our family camp is up there right outside of Farmington. We grew up going there, and camps always need work,” he explains. “So I would be following around my grandfather and father, helping him work on his cabin, their camp and camps down the camp road.”

He and his colleagues had long been in the business of camp restorations when his oldest daughter, Maggie, learned through a friend’s mother that a production company was looking for a carpentry crew in Maine for a possible show. After checking it out, Chase applied, and soon enough, his gang found themselves making television.

The Cabin Masters don’t decide which properties will be featured on the show; the network does. To make the cut, a camp has to have a realistic budget, a good story, a good location and a TV-worthy before-and-after amount of work to do. And the masters don’t always get it right.

In 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency alleged that the building company completed five renovations in residential properties built before 1978 without complying with federal lead requirements. Since then, the team has secured a Lead Renovation, Repair and Painting Rule certification, has dedicated more showtime to diving into regulations, paid a $16,500 penalty and agreed to follow the guidelines in the future. “I’d say we try to be smarter, … because we are in the public eye and people are looking to us for tips and advice,” Chase says.

Along with following regulations, securing permits can also be a problem. Doing so can take up to a year, depending on where the cabin is located.

If this sounds like a lot, it was to the masters when they first started filming as well. Chase wasn’t used to running on TV time or seeing the daylight hours and crew wages flash before his eyes. “When the film crew is here, we’re on their schedule. They set the call sheet: when things start happening and there’s just a lot of standing around waiting. When we were first starting out, all I could see were just dollar signs,” he said.

After nine seasons and countless restored camps, the Cabin Masters have realized that not every treasured camp can be saved. Maine is popular. Chase said he hates hearing stories of families selling their cabins — only to decide they want a space like that 15 years later. With rising home prices, especially in southern Maine and along the coast, he mourns the family sanctuaries that are sold, because it’s almost impossible to get back in the market.

“It’s harder to find,” he says. “It’s like once it’s gone, it’s so hard to get back.”

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