A Catskill Catalog: June 25, 2008
A friend of mine, native to the mountains, will, as we tour the hills together, frequently point to some stray roadside basketball court, one that’s weed-infested, seen-better-days, and say: “Played a lot of basketball there when we were kids.”
It seems that the mountains were home to a number of summer camps, and local kids provided the camp basketball teams with spirited, and talented, competition.
I was one of the few kids in my class at suburban Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School who didn’t go to camp. In the ’50s and ’60s, most of the kids at my school went to sleep away camp, and, evidently, a lot of those camps were here in the Catskills. There are still a few here, of course. Timber Lake Camp in Shandaken is a world-class facility. Check out the video on their website sometime to see an enticing array of facilities and programs for children and teens. Frost Valley YMCA camp is also state-of-the-art, and its programs and facilities are available, year-round, to locals, young and old.
I remember Camp Ta-Ri-Go on Red Kill above Fleischmanns and Camp Oquago on Perch Lake in Andes. The latter operated on that crystal-clear lake from 1930 to 1993. Their campers could overrun the local bowling alley on a rainy summer day. The students at Fleischmanns’ summer yeshiva, Moshe Y’oel, think of themselves as being at camp, although they do a lot more studying than my elementary school classmates did at summer camp back in the day.
Phoenicia’s Woodland Valley has a summer camp history that can, I think, rival that of any place in the country. One of the first campgrounds for children was established there in 1903 when the headmaster of a private school in the city brought his students to camp on the property of Roxmor, an inn and vacation community founded by New York City amateur photographer and entrepreneur Edward Miller six years earlier. They called their temporary camp on the inn grounds “Camp Burroughs,” after one of the Roxmor Inn’s more celebrated guests, the great writer and naturalist John Burroughs.
Mr. Miller found the idea of a sleep away camp for boys both worthwhile and profitable as he sought to develop his hostelry, so he hired a teacher, Harry W. Little, a recent graduate of Connecticut’s Wesleyan College, to establish and run a permanent summer camp. Camp Wake Robin was born in 1904, named for one of Burroughs’ well-loved book titles.
Mr. Little operated Camp Wake Robin for 25 years, retiring on doctor’s orders in 1928. The Roxmor had grown by that time into a full-scale vacation community, a colony of leased lots where the tent platforms and cottages of summer residents shared the 70-acre hillside with the camp and the inn, which soon went the way of Camp Wake Robin, closing in 1930. The Roxmor community still thrives.
Perhaps the competition from a second Woodland Valley camp contributed to Mr. Miller’s decision to close Camp Wake Robin upon Mr. Little’s retirement. In 1913, Erwin S. Spink established a boarding school for boys on a 300-acre farm at the head of the Pantherkill, on the western ridge over Woodland Valley. He called his school “The Woodland School,” built a home school and a dormitory high on the hill, and set up a curriculum rich in outdoor activity and farm chores, as well as in academics. In the summer, he operated a camp, which attracted local children as well as those from far away. I’ve talked to one former camper, now in his 90s.
Camp Woodland, once located on Irondale Road, was surely the most famous camp of all the Woodland Valley operations. It was founded in 1939 by Norman Studer, a teacher and director of New York City’s Downtown Community School, who had been a student of the educational philosopher John Dewey at Columbia. Camp Woodland was a workshop for the ideas of progressive child-centered education taught by Dewey. The camp was ethnically integrated, unusual for the time. At its peak, 200 campers attended, boys and girls, ages eight to 16.
The essence of the Camp Woodland philosophy was the importance of children knowing their roots and understanding democracy through an investigation of the traditions and backgrounds of the American people. Thus, campers at Camp Woodland were consistently exposed to “culture bearers,” singers, dancers, fiddlers, and storytellers: mountain men and women who shared with the young the traditions of rural life. Locals would come to the camp to demonstrate such country crafts as bark stripping, blacksmithing, water witching, shingle splitting, and square dance calling.
Music and folklore were central to the Camp Woodland program. Music Directors Norman Cazden and Herbert Haufrecht were composers, as well as teachers and musicologists. They and their campers collected Catskill Mountain folk songs, a camp activity that later led to the publication of A Catskill Songbook in 1958, and the two volume Folk Songs of the Catskills in 1982. Every August, the camp held a Catskill Folk Festival, open to all.
Camp Woodland’s progressive, integrated, and democratic approach became a victim of the paranoia of the McCarthy witch-hunt of the ’50s. Studer was called before the state legislature’s Un-American Activities Committee, and Cazden was blacklisted, unable to find academic work for 16 years. The trustees withdrew support and Camp Woodland closed in 1962. Its legacy lives on in the music and folklore its campers collected.