Retiree Claire Henthorne enjoys life as vacation rental host

Scott Swanson

At an age when most people are contemplating retirement, Claire Henthorne and her husband decided to take a flyer.

Today Henthorne is the operator of a small but bustling tourist destination, Santiam Cottages, located a couple of miles east of Foster Lake at 45501 Highway 20. She’s enjoying life in a way she didn’t anticipate 10 years ago, she says, and the road has taken some unexpected turns.

Henthorne, 67, is a native of Sweet Home. Her dad, Clair McIntire, was the manager “forever” at Epps Furniture, she said. She graduated from Sweet Home High School in 1968 and attended Linn-Benton Community College “ before it had a campus.”

After a short stint in college, she decided to get a job as a certified nursing assistant.

“That was kind of tough when you weigh 90, 95,” Henthorne said. “I did that for a few years and then I met Sam Henthorne.”

They married and moved to eastern Oregon, where their daughter Lisa was born in Baker.

Eventually, they returned and she got a job at Hewlett-Packard in Corvallis, where she spent “20-some” years, she said.

Meanwhile, Sam had started working as a handyman for the owner of three rustic cottages built along the South Santiam River in the 1940s, one of them on a tree stump.

“Sam expanded them and fixed them up,” Henthorne said.

Sam also developed a strong friendship with the owner who, when he decided to sell them, gave the Henthornes first chance at the property. They moved there from Sweet Home in 2004, rented for a few years, then “scraped together the money” and bought the place in 2007.

“Then we tried to decide what to do. Somebody suggested a bed and breakfast but I said I didn’t want to do that.

They decided to rent two of the cottages, which they called Red and Green, out to vacationers. They’re now called the South Santiam Cottages.

Meanwhile, things changed for Claire, who decided to take a company offer of early retirement from HP in 2009. The package included alternative education at Linn-Benton Community College, from which she graduated in 2012 with a degree that qualifies her to be an educational assistant.

“She finished what she’d started years before,” Lisa Chase, her daughter, said.

Claire hasn’t pursued that, though, because the cottages have kept her – and Lisa – busy, particularly after Sam’s death in 2015.

“Housecleaning is not my passion,” she told a visitor.

“However, she does a marvelous job,” Lisa added.

Over the years they’ve worked on the cottages. On the walls are paintings by Lisa, a professional artist who has taught art at the college level.

The cottages are self-sufficient, with everything guests need except their own personal necessities. Perched directly above the river, they give guests easy access to the water. The water is ankle-deep below the cottages and guests often tether their floatation devices so they can float in the current, or set up their lawn chairs out in the middle of the stream.

Downstream there’s a swimming hole and a lot of guests like to kayak on the river.

The cottages are also pet-friendly. Thus far, they’ve had dogs, cats “and a bunny,” Lisa said.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Claire said – a phrase she repeats often.

“It’s pretty chill here,” said Lisa.

Many are regulars as well and most stay for three or four days.

“I could list 20 sets of people who make regular visits,” she said.

One couple visited for “probably years in a row,” Claire said. The husband was a dedicated fisherman who loved the river and they began house hunting on their visits, finally settling in a “nice place” in the Courtney Creek area.

They’re careful, when taking reservations, not to impose on regulars’ favorite dates, Claire said.

The cottages are particularly useful for people headed to the mountains for skiing or otherwise.

“They’re good for wife cottages for hunting season,” Lisa said.

The cottages offer such a secluded feeling, once a visitor is inside, that it’s easy to forget that Highway 20 is only yards away.

“A lot of (guests) wonder what they’ve gotten themselves into when they come through the gate,” Claire said. “What you see on the other side is pleasant.”

“When they come through the door, they’re always amazed in some way,” Lisa said. “So cute!”

The two said they frequently switch décor around, which gets guests’ attention.

“Sometimes people bring little things themselves,” Lisa said. “Sometimes you find little homemade souvenirs.”

Claire said her enterprise has gotten a lot of local attention as well.

“I did not expect the amount of people who were wondering who the heck I was and how I came up with this,” she said. “There are so many people who have known ‘so-and-so who once lived here.’”

“They tell us, ‘I used to come here all the time to visit my friend,’” Lisa said.

The clientele is growing steadily, with guests coming from all over the world, Claire said – Russia, Germany, Australia, New York, “and a lot from California.”

One comes from Virginia for a month at a time each year.

“She has family and friends in the area,” Claire said. “They come to visit her.”

She said the customers are what have made it a pleasant experience, running the South Santiam Cottages.

When she took them over, “I wasn’t expecting anything specific. I just didn’t want to go back to work.”