A Catskill Catalog: July 29, 2009
Somewhere in upstate New York, the word camp changes meaning. As a college freshman from the metropolitan area, I was confused by an upstate classmate who spoke of a family camp in the woods, a rustic retreat used to get away from it all. What he called a camp, I called a cottage. To me, camp meant something entirely different.
What I had in mind was a rustic campus in the country, a place to which my suburban elementary schoolmates seemed to go every July and August. I never went to camp, but grew up 45 minutes from Broadway in a train-line suburb where spending six or eight weeks in an upstate or New England summer camp was considered essential for most of my schoolmates.
“Summer camps – overnight camps attended by children without their parents – were first established in the 1880s in North America, fueled by Victorian convictions about nature’s moral and physical benefits,” the Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society tells us. The first summer camps were established in northern New England, far from the temptations and complications of city life.
It didn’t take long for summer camps to reach the Catskills. Harry W. Little ran the region’s first summer camp, up in Woodland Valley. In 1904, Little, a graduate of Wesleyan University, was hired by Edward Miller to set-up and manage a children’s camp as an adjunct to Miller’s hotel business, The Roxmor Inn. Little operated Camp Wake Robin on the Roxmor grounds in Woodland Valley for the next 25 years.
Camp Wake Robin, of course, was named after John Burroughs’ first book, Wake-Robin, published in 1871. Summer camps took their inspiration from conservationists and naturalists like Burroughs, who reminded late 19th-century Americans of the importance of the natural world, a natural world threatened by urbanization and industrialization. Most camps also offered their young male charges a good dollop of military-style order and discipline, a kind of muscular masculinity thought needed by boys some worried were in danger of being “over-civilized.”
The horror of World War I made a military model less appealing, and in the 1920s, summer camps began to structure themselves around Native American lore as the model and inspiration for childhood interaction with nature.
At the same time, camping for girls became more common.
In 1930, Camp Oquago was established on Perch Lake in Andes as a girls’ camp. Louis Mirsky and Ben Steinberger, founding partners, also established Lake Tunis as a boys’ camp on the small lake of that name between Andes and Delhi. For the next 19 years, Lake Tunis-Camp Oquago, Inc. operated the two camps, with 170 or so girls at Oquago and about 150 boys at Tunis.
In August 1937, Camp Oquago made news as the first summer camp to produce and perform a modern opera. The German composer, Paul Hindemith, had visited the United States the previous spring. Inspired by theatrical visionary Bertolt Brecht, Hindemith, wrote a number of compositions intended to be played by amateurs. One, “Let’s Build a Town,” was designed to be played entirely by children, which the Camp Oquago girls did.
Dr. Paul A. Pisk, a Viennese composer who had immigrated to the United States in 1936 to escape Nazi persecution, was the music director of Camp Oquago in that summer of ’37. He directed the production. Pisk was already a celebrated composer, having written 36 musical opuses in Europe. He went on to become a professor at the University of Texas, an important 20th-century composer and musicologist. The American Musicological Society awards an annual Paul A. Pisk Prize for an outstanding scholarly paper by a grad student.
In 1948, Henry and Fromma Wellman bought Camp Oquago and made it co-educational. David Stern, commissioner of the National Basketball Association, was one of their many campers who went on to successful careers. The Wellmans, in 1977, turned operation of the camp over to Laura and Stuart Chase, who ran it until Camp Oquago closed in 1993.
Camp Ta-Ri-Go was founded by Louis Wilder on the grounds of his New Orchard Hotel in Fleischmanns in 1935. The co-ed camp featured a man-made lake, recreation hall, infirmary, and campers’ cottages “equipped with baths and showers,” that made it, in the words of the Catskill Mountain News, “one of the most complete and up-to-date recreational centers in the mountains.”
Pary Salzman, executive director of the Union, New Jersey YMHA, brought his professional expertise to the direction of camp activities, making Ta-Ri-Go, in the words of its owners, “a model of discipline and refinement.”
Camp Ta-Ri-Go operated on Red Kill Road until 1977. A housing development now occupies the site.
Ta-Ri-Go opened its doors in July 1935 only to endure one of the wettest Julys on record, with flash flooding and lightening strikes causing problems all month. Fortunately, the campers remained safe, although, over in New Kingston, lightening struck and killed a cow.