LOVELL — An abandoned house in a small picturesque town 60 miles northwest of Portland became the stuff that dreams are made of for thousands of people over a 40-year span.
The internationally known Center Lovell Inn and Restaurant gave more than 12,000 dreamers the opportunity to gamble on their destiny by writing an essay that could win them an inn.
Susie and Bil Moscas have written a memoir about holding that contest and spending the previous 20 years as the owners of the historic Center Lovell Inn in a self-published book called “Passing Along Our Dream.” The couple will have a book signing at Books N Things on Main Street in Norway on Saturday, July 18, from 11a.m. to 1 pm., and at Charlotte Hobbs Library, 227 Main St. in Lovell on Saturday, July 25, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
It all began in August 1974, when the newly-wed couple from Connecticut happened to see an abandoned and rundown property in Yankee Magazine’s popular House for Sale column.
“We left a wedding in New York and drove overnight to Maine for a tour,” said Susie by phone this week. “We sat on the granite slab steps leading up to the front porch entry, looking at the White Mountain range and knew we’d found our dream.”
Susie, then a school teacher and her husband, Bil, who was in the restaurant business, paid the owner $39,500 for their dream.
Their “dream” had been described by Yankee Magazine as “not being in the greatest of shape.”
It had holes in the plaster, a run down porch and many areas of isolated renovations projects that needed to be tackled. The magazine also noted that that the property appeared to be too close to a “two-lane, winding country road,” unless a new owner wanted to establish a commercial enterprise.
By 1975, the couple had renovated two rooms for guests and began serving Bil’s northern Italian dinners as they lived in the unheated third floor for the six months the inn was open. Working tirelessly, while raising two children and running an antiques store out of the adjacent 1795 barn, the couple began to receive national and international attention for their fine inn.
Eventually, the 1805 inn encompassed 10 guest rooms and the adjacent Harmon House, which was moved to the site in 1985, a 40-seat dining room and a screened-in wrap-around porch overlooking the White Mountains. The barn is one of the largest and oldest standing post and beam barns in Maine.
Their story was heralded as the American dream when almost 20 years later in 1993, again with the help of Yankee Magazine, the couple decided to gift the property to the winner of an essay contest.
They met with Barry Hathaway of the Maine Attorney General’s office first to discuss their idea.
The essay contest method of selling property was not new at the time the Moscas announced their contest. In fact a dozen or more contests — ranging from an essay contest to give away a renovated farmhouse to a jingle contest to win an oceanfront home near President George H. Bush’s compound in Kennebunkport — flourished during a decade of sluggish real estate economy in Maine and New Hampshire.
It was the oceanfront home near Kennebunkport contest that sparked the essay contest idea for the Moscas.
Despite the lure, only two contests had been successful prior to the Moscas’, according to newspaper reports at the time. But the Mosca contest raised questions from about 1,000 people who wanted to sell their properties in the same way.
Assistant Attorney General Wayne Moss warned consumers at the time that the the contests must be based on skill, rather than chance. Entrants enter the contest “at their own risk,” said Moss, who monitored the contest.
Janice (Sage) Cox and her husband, Richard Cox, were selected as the winners.
Janice subsequently ran the inn for the next 20 years, until she, too, decided it was time to retire. She decided to pass the inn forward in an essay contest in the same manner in which she won it.
Susie said she was not surprised by the controversy that swelled last month after 15 of the more than 7,200 entrants contacted the Maine State Attorney General’s office saying the contest was rigged.
“I think the state of Maine has the obligation to check out any contest like ours and Janice’s,” Susie said. “We know there can be sour grapes by some entrants. Why would anyone enter the contest if they didn’t think they had the best essay?”
State Police assigned current state police Gaming Inspector Barry Hathaway to head up the probe of Sage’s essay contest when 100 unsuccessful contestants who organized as the Center Lovell Contest Fair Practices Commission called for an investigation.
They claimed judges favored contestants with a background operating an inn because the winners — a couple from the U.S. Virgin Islands — ran a restaurant.
State police determined that Sage did not violate state gambling laws. The Attorney General’s office also reviewed the findings and concluded there were no violations of the state’s consumer protection laws, he said.
“We had independent judges, who picked Janice, and although we were not part of Janice’s contest, we believe she did the same,” said Susie. “She carried on our tradition of being at the inn for 20 years, carrying on exactly what we hoped would happen when we turned the inn over.”
The Moscas and Sage live within a couple of miles of the inn. Susie now works for COACH in nearby North Conway, N.H., while her husband, Bil, is retired and does some consulting.
“When we moved here, this little Maine town became home,” Susie said. “(Sage) loves the inn, and will retire just around the corner, about two miles away — history repeating itself. … We think what she did was wonderful, and we are excited to have a new family in town to carry on the tradition at the inn that we started 40-plus years ago.”