Excerpts from a future book chronicling the history of YMCA Camp Hi-Rock and the town of Mount Washington, Massachusetts by Marc Romanow, alumnus and board member.
Shortly after Weldon B. Hester joined the Bridgeport YMCA staff as Boys Work Secretary in March, 1946, Howard Haag, General Secretary (Executive Director), announced that the “Y” wanted to build a boys’ camp. This idea generated some individual support among “Y” board members. However, there was no thought of a major project that would cost more than $20,000. Mr. Haag further advised that a proper camp site would have to be found first. In August, 1946, Mr. Hester informed Mr. Haag that he would like to spend the next month in a concentrated search for a camp site.
Mr. Haag offered his blessing.
Mr. Hester secured several maps that encompassed Connecticut, New York State, and southwestern Massachusetts. He marked them into sections, each including several bodies of water, and each of which could be investigated in two- to four- day trips.
The sections were systematically covered and each body of water rated. When possible, real estate brokers were contacted. Several stream sites and several spots where small dams might be erected were considered. Weldon’s car was equipped with food, cooking and sleeping equipment. For several weeks, he made two trips a week, with mid-week visits to Bridgeport to monitor his other program responsibilities.
The big break came when Mr. Hester contacted Allan MacDowell of Kent, CT. The two surveyed the Kent area with no luck. Mr. MacDowell suggested that they drive to Great Barrington to see real estate agent, Frederick L. Preston, who dealt with “specialty” real estate. Mr. Preston informed the two that he had two pieces of desirable property, one on Big Pond near E. Otis, MA and the other at a place called Plantain Pond up in Mount Washington.
The latter, he said, would be perfect because it represented 1,000 acres of wilderness surrounding a 67 acre lake. Unfortunately, some New York folks had virtually closed a deal for the camp property and a deposit had been received from them as well. Before Weldon left, he asked Mr. Preston to contact him if the deal fell through. He also suggested that they look over the Big Pond property. Mr. Hester found this land to be an abandoned Boy Scout camp and unsuitable for the Y’s use. It had a large swampy area. Ten days later, Mr. MacDowell informed Weldon that he should call Mr. Preston. The two spoke and, indeed, the deal had fallen through. Would Mr. Hester be interested in Plantain Pond? They met in Mr. Preston’s office the next morning at 9:00 AM. Although the property sounded good, the price was prohibitive and Weldon stated such to Mr. Preston. Then, Mr. Hester asked to see the lake and Mr. Preston brought him up to Mount Washington.
Weldon Hester fell in love with Plantain Pond the first time he saw it. It was a gem of a Clearwater pond, nestled between two heavily forested mountains and far from the limitations of civilization. Inspection of the existing buildings, the waterfront possibilities and the general lay of the land convinced him that a fine boys’ camp could be built there. He left the property thinking that his search had ended, that any other property would be second best, but also sure that it was completely out of consideration because of the price tag. Weldon’s survey had included checking about 150 bodies of water in western and northern Connecticut, eastern New York and southern Massachusetts. None of these others compared. In addition to the original cost of the Plantain property ($75,000), it would cost $25,000-$35,000 to put the camp in operation. Mr. Hester was so convinced of the desirability of the location that he personally couldn’t say “no” to Mr. Preston and decided on the way home from Mount Washington that someone else would have to if it was said.
The next morning, Mr. Hester walked into Mr. Haag’s office and announced, “Well, I’ve found our camp site, but you won’t be interested in it”. He replied, “Why not?”
Mr. Hester answered, “The price tag; it’s $75,000.” Mr. Haag didn’t faint, but wanted to know what sort of place it was. The General Secretary proceeded to lay everything aside, assembled a couple of men from the board and the group drove up to Plantain Pond the next day. To see was to be sold on the place and this small group declared it shouldn’t be turned down without more investigation, so other groups were brought there within the next few days. All were enthusiastic about everything except the price. Without some strong personality who would rally support for this project, it would have undoubtedly died at this stage.
The logical man to broker a deal for the camp (if he was interested) was Mr. Parker Seeley, Esq. and President of the YMCA Board of Directors. At the time, he was on vacation in New Hampshire. Mr. Haag called and arranged for him to see the property on the way back from his trip. Mr. Hester met Mr. Seeley and his family in South Egremont. On that day, the fate of the project was decided, for Mr. Seeley liked what he saw.
He was able to visualize the possibilities and became enthusiastic about it. Undoubtedly, without Parker Seeley’s leadership and guiding hand in the months to come, there would be no Camp Hi-Rock. Mr. Hester remembers him saying, “If I only were a younger man, there is nothing I would like to do more than to see this project through myself.”
Mr. Seeley sought someone to handle it, and not finding the right person, he ended up doing it himself despite lukewarm support and opposition from some quarters.
The Board of Directors, in regular meeting, talked it over and, because the matter involved finances, referred it to the Board of Trustees (without recommendation).
Mr. Hester was invited to attend the meeting of the Trustees in which the project was discussed for 40 minutes. Most of the arguments presented were negative: It was too big; it was too expensive; the Bridgeport Y could get along without it, etc. Mr. Hester’s spirits were low, but then suddenly like a bolt out of a clear sky, Chairman Lucien Warner (of the Warner Brothers Company) remarked, “Nevertheless, we must do it. We’ve talked about this for years. Now, the right thing has come along and we simply cannot pass it up.” Amazingly, all agreed with him and then Mr. Warner expressed the thought that the Y might take a six month option on the property. A sum of $5,000 would be offered to Mr. Preston. This would give the YMCA enough time to decide whether it really wanted the camp and could handle the situation. The committee quickly agreed, but thought that the YMCA should not risk its money on such an action. Mr. Warner concurred and stated he thought the members of the committee could personally subscribe this amount and that he would lead off with a $1,000 gift. Someone else said, “Count me in for a $1,000.” Another said, “That’s a little rich for my blood, but I’ll take $500.” The next person pledged $500 and so it went until $4,500 had been pledged. Mr. Warner remarked that two or three other men would supply the balance and the matter was closed.
Mr. Parker Seeley was delegated to contact Mr. Preston in order to finish the transaction. Their handling of the matter astounded Mr. Hester as he was certain that nothing would come of his discovery. Without doubt, there was much behind-the-scenes contact work that Howard Haag and Parker Seeley were largely responsible for.
No immediate direct steps could be taken to raise funds to purchase the property because of the YMCA’s annual participation in the Community Chest campaign, which took place shortly afterwards. Then, in early February 1947, came the annual YMCA campaign for funds, so nothing could be done until there were just five weeks remaining in the original six months. However, there was much quiet “ground work” that had been completed. When Mr. Hester expressed concern one day over the matter, Parker Seeley responded, “Well, I wouldn’t worry about that if I were you.” Subsequently, sufficient funds were generated to handle the down payment (with a substantial mortgage that was eventually paid off by the Plantain Pond Mortgage Club established in 1950) and the property became the Y’s on July 1, 1947. According to deed records available at the Great Barrington Town Hall, Sara L. Preston (Frederick Preston’s wife) transferred the deed to the YMCA for a sum of $55,000 with 4% interest.
Several trips were made to camp during the fall and winter of 1946–1947, using the South Lodge (now Bear Rock Lodge) as the headquarters. Steps were taken to create a separate Boys Camp Committee which would have the responsibility of laying out long range plans, decide on the necessary work to open the camp for a full 1948 season, arrange to have the work completed, decide on overall principles of camp operation and program, create publicity and sell the camp idea to the public, place the camp in operation and supervise its continued operation and expansion. Mr. Norman Edwards accepted the chairmanship of the new committee and the following men agreed to serve with him: Gordon Howes (Boys Work Committee and former Camp Hazen State Committeeman), Roy S. Case Sr., Huntley Stone, Carl W. Sword, Harry J. Neal,
Dr. Stewart Joslin, Richard C. Keeton, Frank B. Lucas, Ted Sommers, Carl Van Etten, T.N. Wakeman, William B. Coulter and William O. Gardner.
In June, 1947, a work crew was sent to Plantain Pond and, for six weeks, brush was cleared away, trees were axed and sawed down, picks were swung, shovels handled, brush hooks swung, etc. The purpose was to open up camp, trail-blaze some paths through the woods, and find necessary locations for the buildings, cabin areas, athletic and waterfront facilities. The crew labored for six to seven hours every day, but also swam, fished, boated and hiked. Mr. Hester commuted back and forth between the Bridgeport Y and camp several times. Homer Tucker, the Community Services secretary, led high school crews to accomplish much of the work. He was an inspiration to everyone involved, as he worked harder and was more skilled. The toughest assignment was to convert the swamp to an athletic field. It contained up to a couple of feet of water and up to five feet of mulch. The work group waded in, cut down trees, sickled down the ferns and vegetation, cut the trees into convenient lengths and piled them, and allowed the sun to shine in. Then, the crew used crowbars, picks and shovels, lowered the outlet and cut trenches back into the mulch to drain the swamp. When they left camp in mid-August, the soil was firming up. Much credit should be given to the men who formed the first work crews at Plantain Pond in the summer of 1947, which included George and Allan Bailey, William Kresge and Don Duncan.
The Mothers’ Club of the “Y” Boys Division, under the direction of President Katherine Kruzshak and Project Chairman, Anna Watch, brought the club to camp by chartered bus in mid-August. This began a relationship that resulted with the Mothers’ Club building and equipping the camp health lodge, and mechanizing the camp kitchen with an electric potato peeler, a power mixer and a mechanized tank dishwasher with an attached hot water tank. The group made a five year $3,000 commitment, which was paid off in three years.
In light of the summer’s developments, final plans were organized by the Camp Committee and presented to the Board of Directors at their October meeting, 1947.
In addition to the remaining monies in the Burritt Fund, the Board voted that an additional $20,000 be allocated for the Boys Camp development. This funding would be borrowed from Association reserves with the understanding that both principal and interest be paid back when possible.
Tentative plans and arrangements had been made with Mr. E. Mortensen of Norwalk, a camp building contractor, to remodel the existing structures on site and build other necessary items such as a power and pump house, a camp hospital, kitchen extension, tent cabins, waterfront structures, etc. The contract was quickly signed and Mr. Mortensen and his crew moved in for a six week building session in the fall of 1947.
Pete Straleau had agreed to work on the roads and to build an athletic field where the swamp then existed. The Health Lodge was virtually complete before bad weather forced the workers out. The fall weather was abominable, with it often raining several times a day. Mortensen and his crew were forced to perform as much inside work as possible and Pete’s men had a difficult time working with two bulldozers in the open.
After hauling out the piles of cut logs and brush on skids, the machines started eating into the side of the hill below the tennis court and pushing it to the swamp’s edge.
Thus, they built a leading edge further and further into the swamp forcing the stream water from the two small mountain brooks ahead of it. The big difficulty was rain turning this filled area into mud. It was necessary to spread more and more dry dirt on the completed area to prevent the bulldozers from getting mired. Once started, Pete committed to finishing the job regardless of the obstacles, which he did the day before camp opened the following summer. He and his men even snowshoe’d themselves to camp in the dead of winter to check the batteries in the bulldozers. The building program was considerably behind schedule by December 15th when winter conditions forced a work stoppage.
A camp folder was developed during the fall-winter season of 1947–1948 and copies were given to all interested boys in the Bridgeport, Fairfield, Stratford, Easton and Trumbull school systems by Weldon Hester. He spoke at many of the 45 schools he visited in addition to adult groups, luncheon clubs, PTA’s, Fathers’ Clubs, etc.
Members of the Camp Committee performed countless phone solicitations as well. Registrations were slow as parents exhibited a “wait and see” attitude during the first year before entrusting their boy to camp. The public had to be educated on the idea of sending their sons to a brand new camp set in the wilds of the Berkshires. Phillip Allen of Bridgeport was the first child to register for camp.
Much equipment needed to be located. The entire committee and many of the “Y” board were on the lookout for bargain camp items. War surplus sales yielded double-deck wooden bunks, four gas-engine driven generators, three water purification units, first aid supplies, army pyramidal tents, sleeping bags, mattress covers and more. 96 of the dormitory mattresses were rebuilt to camp bed size. Dr. Alderson, Board Member and Pastor of the Bridgeport Methodist Church discovered a good boat builder in New Hampshire and an order was placed for spring delivery. In May, 10 boats were procured by the Camp Committee at a cost of $55 each and transported from New Hampshire on the camp truck.
The scarcity of funds forced the committee to seek gifts from interested persons and organizations. This proved beneficial over many years because of the many people who continued to have a stake in the camp. William Scholtz, Public Relations Manager of General Electric, developed a special printed folder outlining the camp’s needs.
This, together with the persistent efforts of several people, resulted with a substantial amount of gifts allowing the camp to open in much better shape than previously anticipated. These donations included: the chapel and hymnals, an organ, chimes, bibles, collection plates; the council ring; seven of the eight aluminum canoes; two guard boats; a fully equipped health lodge; motorized kitchen equipment; a flagpole and overnight camping equipment.
Mr. Mortensen moved into camp with his men and equipment during late March, 1948 (before the road had yet to thaw out). The race to open camp on July 4th was on.
The spring weather was wet and cold until June 23rd, and after this date, it became warm and ideal for camping. The final grading of the athletic field wasn’t completed until the day before camp opened. The backstop arrived later in the summer. Mortensen set up a power saw in the dining hall and ran it from one of the army surplus generators. With it, he quickly cut pieces for tables and benches. Three days before camp opened, the camp crew halted all construction work and started cleaning up. Truckloads of scraps, trimmings and junk were carted away to the dump. Pete Straleau had promised a nice tall steel flagpole and on Saturday, July 10th, he came into camp with his crew and the flagpole dangling from a crane truck. Visitors were impressed when they saw it the next day.
The first campers were grand sports and took the experience in a pioneering spirit. For a week, campers and staff swam from the short dock and raft in front of the Parker Seeley Lodge, until the main dock was installed. The brush was cleared from the chosen chapel site and improvised seats with some fallen chestnut logs and a rough altar were manufactured by Homer Tucker. “Log pile” duty was common and boys learned camp discipline quickly if they wanted to avoid a tour of rough duty. The boys did a great job clearing their own cabin areas which brought much favorable comment from visiting parents.
On the day of Camp Dedication, Sunday, July 11th, nearly 200 people were in attendance.
In three separate ceremonies, the camp, Parker Seeley Lodge and the Mothers Club Lodge were all dedicated. According to the official “Program of Dedication”, the ceremonies began at 3:00. The locations where they took place included The Water Front by the Main Lodge, inside W. Parker Seeley Lodge and in front of the Health Lodge.
Several parents remarked how well behaved and fine appearing the boys were.
Mr. Rudolph Bannow had cast two bronze plaques, one for Parker Seeley Lodge and the other for the Health Lodge. Mr. Albert E. Diem delivered the invocation and others who participated in the services included: Mr. W. Parker Seeley, Mr. Weldon B. Hester, Mr. Howard L. Haag, Dr. William H. Alderson, Mr. Huntley Stone, Mr. H. Almon Chafee, Mr. Norman Edwards, Mr. Frank Lucas, Mr. Stephen Wach, Mrs. Frank Kruzshak and Mr. Gordon Hawes.
The 1948 staff included: Dick MacNulty, Fred Canfield, George Lazar, William Coulter, Homer Tucker, William Knight, Jo Coulter, Ed Judson, Jalil S. Karam, Larry Scott, Richard Fox, George Pieger, Gilbert Agronis, Don Duncan, Waymon L. Grimes, Joel Mann, Howard Van Iderstine, Charles Harwood, Kenneth Buchanan, James Alexander, Anne (Happy) Hester and Weldon B. Hester. It should be noted that Mr. Tucker led the construction of two rustic bridges and provided ongoing spiritual support to staff and campers alike. In the early years, the staff was housed in the “Wheelhouse” and the Central Lodge (Parker Seeley).
The normal capacity was seventy boys per period for the first two years. 324 boy weeks or 59% of the camp was filled the first summer. There was some consideration of closing out the fourth period due to “slender registration”, but instead, a special trips and hikes program was launched.
Research is being conducted to determine who pioneered the land that is YMCA Camp Hi-Rock. Deeds have been discovered that go as far back as the early 18th century.
The Salisbury Iron Works owned a significant amount of property, which was used for charcoal development. The road that begins at the Garrett property and extends into camp was built around 1825, although there was a charcoal trace over approximately the same right of way before this.
Individual land parcels that now comprise camp were used as a “playground” for 10 families who had shared the property as a hunting camp from approximately 1910 to 1945 (when they decided to sell). Three of the families each owned a lodge on the premises. When the land was sold to the YMCA in 1947, the land interests of all the families were consolidated. These owners included Stoeckel, Scoville, Cone, Wehner, Holdship, Becker, Rea, Shannon, Robison and Hann.
The Garrett family, whose Mount Washington residency dates back to 1882 when they built their summer home adjacent to the camp’s property, owned a portion of the camp road and “right of way” until Hi-Rock built its new road in 2008. (The family was gracious enough to lend the YMCA access through this road, which was the only viable entryway to the camp, via a “handshake easement” agreement for many years.)
There was no original lake, simply a small stream meandering through a swampy area. The dam was built around 1850 to furnish additional water supply for power for the Hammertown Scythe Works in Connecticut. The large rocks of the dam were hauled in by oxen. The original dam featured a sluiceway with a wooden gate that heightened to release impounded water in times of draught. The dam was raised about 22 inches in 1917 and contained a concrete core with dirt fill on the front side and a rock face on the back side. In 1948, the height of the dam was raised 30 inches by adding dirt fill on top and rip-rapping it at critical points with rock. The spillway level, and hence the lake level, remained the same.
The Glen Hunter Cabin, marked by an old rock fireplace on the small point to the west of North Rock, represented the first structure on the lake. Mount Washington resident Morgan Bulkeley Sr. lived a Thoreau-like existence there for a year after graduating from college. Amazingly, he even bathed in the lake during the winter, cutting away blocks of ice. The Central Lodge (Parker Seeley) was built in 1912. South Lodge (Bear Rock Lodge) was built in 1917-1918. The old North Lodge was originally constructed in 1915 with an extension added in 1925. It was demolished in the 1970′s. The Wheelhouse was built some time in the 1930’s.