FRYEBURG, Maine — All Maine cabins have a story — it’s just that some are a bit more interesting than others.
The quest for the cabins that are both in need of a little TLC but also have a compelling backstory is at the core of the hit DIY Network reality TV show, “Maine Cabin Masters.”
Ahead of their scheduled appearance next Saturday, May 18, from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. at the Home Garden Flower Show with Cannabis at the Fryeburg Fairgrounds, Cabin Masters crew boss Chase Morrill, 41; his sister, project designer Ashley Morrill-Eldridge, 43, and her husband, Ryan “the Voice of Reason" (as he’s billed on the show) Eldridge, 44, recently served up some behind-the-scenes details about making the show.
In a recent interview in Fryeburg, the three described how a cabin gets selected and talked about what it's like working with the TV production crew as they work to fix up lakeside camps and backwoods family retreats.
“For us, there has to be the ‘wow’ factor when we look at a potential project, making for a more dramatic ‘before-and-after’ presentation,” said the red-bearded, flannel-shirted Chase.
It all started four years ago, when a family friend put them in touch with a producer from Dorsey Productions of Denver, who was looking for a carpentry crew in Maine that restored old log cabins and cottages for a new TV show.
They contacted Chase, whose company, Kennebec Property Services LLC, is based in Wayne, Maine.
Chase approached Ashley and then Ryan and fellow crew members Jared “Jedi” Baker and Matt "Dixie" Dix to see if they would be interested. It was a cold January day, and the crew was working on a timber barn project. They thought he was kidding when he asked if they wanted to be on TV.
Next thing they knew, they were being interviewed via Skype by the producers. The show was a go. They filmed their "Cabin Masters" pilot in early spring 2015.
“Maine Cabin Masters” now has millions of viewers around the world, turning the self-effacing cast members into bona-fide Pine Tree State celebrities, ranking them right up there with Stephen King, Downeast humorist Tim Sample, Bill Green of WCSH’s “Bill Green’s Maine” fame and Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King.
“Whenever someone recognizes me when we go out to the mall or somewhere, my kids always give me a hard time and have fun with it,” said Chase, noting that his four young children (all age 12 and under) keep his ego in check and the celebrity part of the job in perspective.
Chase and his crew share a down-home sense of humor and friendship that not only is real, but really makes the show tick.
With or without the TV show, they’re craftsmen and close friends, and that authenticity certainly adds to the show’s appeal.
“We’ve grown up together in the Augusta area," Chase said. "At the end of the day, we’re still family and friends, just as we’ve always been.”
Ashley agreed that the crew’s sudden celebrity status did take some getting used to, but it’s all part of the ride.
“It’s all right — depending on what day it is,” she laughed. “I mean, sometimes, you just want to pop into the grocery store and be in and out, but hey, we all signed up for this, and I’m OK with that. I’d want to talk with someone I had just seen on TV, too. We’re appreciative of everything.”
Ryan says he's amazed by the show's popularity.
“The show just really took off. Ashley and I were traveling in Italy last year, and people recognized us, and in Costa Rica!” he marveled.
“Friends in Australia said they had seen the show on TV there. It seems so surreal," he said.
When production started, Morrill said it was tough for the carpenters to get used to the TV crew that comes to film at the beginning of every project, then halfway through and finally for the “reveal,” when the fixed-up cabins are unveiled to their owners.
“It was … different,” laughed Chase when asked what that was like. “We’re builders, carpenters — we knew NOTHING about film production. They would make us do things that we had no idea of why they were asking us to do it.”
The crew would take shots from multiple angles, which added minutes if not hours to each chore, compared to what the carpenters were used to.
Then there were the GoPro cameras placed on their tools. They would try to act normal on camera as they discussed a project, but it was difficult at first.
“Like us (as carpenters), they (the producers) have a vision for what they are after," said Chase. “We did not at first understand that, so it was quite eye-opening for us when we saw Episode One at the start of the first season. Because we had not viewed the footage yet, so we were seeing it for the first time, too, with the audience!”
Each project has a budget in the $35,000 range, with the homeowner paying the price that appears on each show.
In selecting a project from applicants that submit them to the producers, applicants are screened out for a number of reasons. A cabin can’t be too nice, because that won’t make for very dramatic television; conversely, it can’t be too far gone, given the budget and time constraints of each show.
Aside from replacing rotted timbers, cleaning out years of animal droppings and adding a new roof or fixing a floor or porch, a lot of pride and respect go into each project by the all-Maine cast.
Added Ashley: “The goal could be to restore or update: That comes from the owners. A lot of the time, it just needs maintenance work and the colors or floors need to be updated.
"I like to meet with the owners to get a sense of what colors they like (and don’t like), and I see what they have for existing furniture and pieces to use to decorate," she said.
The show's format, Ashley said, "is they give us the keys and they walk away, and don’t come back until the ‘reveal.’ That’s the biggest reward for me — when Chase and I are waiting for the homeowners, and they come up and see the place when we’re done, and they have tears in their eyes, screaming with joy because, hey, we’re nervous: We don’t know if they’ll like it!”
Part of her job is to serve as a liaison between the production company and the cabin owners.
As a designer with a degree in graphics design from the University of Maine, Ashley is the driving creative force. She will often add a decorative touch with new pillows and paint.
It’s also about removing the kind of stuff that clutters up a retreat.
“I sort through all that stuff and try and keep it to the time period that the camp is, but with a modern feel because I want a camp to be comfy," she said. "And just because they had old horsehair beds doesn’t mean I have to bring those in!”
Ryan said that preserving parts of Maine history, one cabin at a time, is what the show is all about.
“I think the show is successful because it showcases Maine, and we are lucky to get to do that,” said Ryan. “As for preserving this aspect of Maine history, people are too fast to tear stuff down these days, so a lot of times, we are saving memories because these camps have so much family history and a lot of Maine history.”
For the shoots, additional crew members are hired, with the crews working on four projects at a time (four, four-man crews tackling 16 cabins in a six-to-eight-week filming season).
They generally try to do the four concurrent projects close to one another in order to save time and money.
The Cabin Masters have done 40-plus episodes so far and expect to cross the 50-show mark this season.
Projects have included restoring a cabin in Lincolnville in Season 2 owned by Phish drummer Jon Fishman (Eldridge and Baker are both huge Phish fans). That same season, they also built a handicapped accessible ramp to make a lakeside cottage into an ADA-compliant event center for veterans and their families for the Travis Mills Foundation.
They have tackled coastal properties as well as cabins in the Maine woods.
They’ve got a website (mainecabinmasters.com) with a full lineup of merchandise, and Ashley says they are looking to open a brick-and-mortar store, possibly with a bar and restaurant, near Augusta this summer.
“This way, we can hold events and sell our merchandise there. A lot of times, we do events at other people’s restaurants and go there to watch the show, so why not do it at our own place?” she asked.
“Maine Cabin Masters” airs on the DIY Network on Spectrum Channel 161 Wednesdays at 10 p.m. For more, go to mainecabinmasters.com.
For information about the Home and Garden Home Show with Cannabis, set for the Fryeburg Fairgrounds May 17-19, go to homegardenflowershow.com.