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The First 100 Years: Camp Mohawk's History

From the 100th Reunion's Event Program; Presented in Three Installments

Camp Mohawk’s Founding Fathers came from three local Connecticut YMCA chapters: Roy Saxton of Fairfield; Bill Tyler of Litchfield; and Jim Collins of New Haven. In addition to their year-round programing duties, these men worked together to create a summer camp facility that allowed the regions’ young boys to experience nature and devote time to their religious studies.


Founded in 1919, Camp Mohawk’s first camping season was held at the Pootatuck State Forest in New Fairfield, CT. Camp made its way to its existing site along Mohawk Pond in 1920. This land was initially tied up in a contested will, but the Clark family agreed to have the Town of Litchfield sell the land to the State of Connecticut to avoid estate taxes. The proceeds of the sale were put into trust for the Clarks, and the State allowed the YMCA to use the land to run Mohawk’s summer camp programs. As a thank you for the family’s generosity in providing them with a site for camping, girls from Mohawk held a concert on the front lawn of the Clark house each August in the 1920s and 30s.

Mohawk’s first season was attended by 180 boys for 4 weeks, housed in tents of nine campers plus “tent leaders.” The 1921 Camp Mohawk brochure lauded the 16’x16’ Army tents as being the “permanent type of tent used at Mohawk” with “double deck cots with springs and mattresses.” Our waterfront boasted a fleet of four boats and three canoes. Registrations fees were $14 for a two-week session; visitors could dine at camp for $0.50 a meal, with Sunday supper costing $0.75. Thanks to Bill Tyler, in 1921, a four-week girls’ camping session was held in addition to the boys’ four-week session.


Even 100 years ago, prominent Mohawk traditions had already been established. There was a camp store where campers could purchase stamps, stationery and “pure candy,” with a $0.15 daily limit (doubled on Saturdays). Campers ended every two-week session with a banquet, at which songs, awards, and stories were shared. Central to the Mohawk experience then as now, the dining hall was an important focus of camp life. From 1920 to 1922, Berry Hall (so named after Chef Berry) served as Mohawk’s kitchen, while campers and staff ate meals in a large tent next door. Improvements promised to Berry Hall in the 1922 season included running water, hot water, and another cooking range. Built next to the current changing rooms at the waterfront, Berry Hall went on to serve as camp office, nature nook, and crafts building before it was razed.


Many of Mohawk’s early structures were dedicated to Fredus M. Case, a benefactor and volunteer who “gave hundreds of hours of labor and service” to Mohawk. A donation from Mrs. Case was later used to create Mohawk’s chapel, with a memorial stone for the Cases’ daughter, Nathala Merwin Case, dedicated on August 8, 1937. In addition to their own contributions to Mohawk, the Cases interested a friend, Mrs. Nanette Pond, in camp’s mission. Mrs. Pond donated the funds to construct Pond Lodge, a combined dining hall/lodge. At the end of the 1933 camping season, Pond Hall burned to the ground following a lightning strike. Insurance proceeds funded the replacement building and Pond Lodge II was ready for use in the 1935 season. Pond Lodge II was also doomed, burning down on August 3, 1949. An edition of Mohawker, one of Camp’s newspapers, notes that it was the second night of the girls’ four-week camping session when the building was destroyed. Bread and milk deliveries arrived to feed campers for breakfast and lunch, while churchgoers in nearby Cornwall prepared a hot supper for the 250 campers and staff. By August 5, the dining hall was replaced with a circus tent from Hartford, and utensils, plates and other necessities and equipment were in place to feed campers for the remainder of the season. On July 18, 1950, Pond Hall III, Mohawk’s current dining hall, was dedicated. The building was intentionally constructed of fire-resistant materials and created with more exits.


Through the 1940s and 50s, the buildings and infrastructure on Camp’s land continued to grow, but the land itself still belonged to the State of Connecticut. At any time, the State could rescind its agreement with Mohawk and order it to find another site. In 1952, the organization running Camp Mohawk bought 25 acres of land now used for chair lifts at the Mohawk Mountain Ski Area and arranged with the State to do a land swap, with the Ski Area going to the State and Mohawk finally being owned by the YMCA.


In August of 1955, Hurricanes Connie and Diane hit the East Coast a week apart. Connie brought four to six inches of rain to Connecticut. A week later, Diane dumped another 12 to 20 inches of rain on already saturated ground, causing some Connecticut rivers, including the Still River in nearby Winsted, to overflow their banks. The 50th Anniversary Program makes mention of this flooding, which would have occurred while campers were in residence, stating while there was no damage at camp, the water supply was turned off for a period of time to ensure there was no contamination from the flooding.


Campers routinely bathed in Mohawk Pond, until the Lighthouse was constructed in 1957. This building is the same structure that stands today, but with a much different interior, with trough sinks and less-private showers. Each successive improvement to the facilities was well received by campers.


While the buildings leave a more permanent mark on Mohawk and our memories, the leadership and guidance of Camp’s Directors and staff through the years leave a less tangible, but no less indelible, mark on Mohawk and its campers. Mohawk’s founding fathers—Roy Saxton, Bill Tyler and Jim Collins—acted as program and camp directors through 1926. Mrs. John C. Kielman was director of the girls’ sessions over those years. From the mid-1920s through late 1940s, Tug Lewis, Mrs. Russell and Harry Beers provided oversight to Camp’s programs, staff and campers. In 1948, Guy Hendry became the Executive Director, followed in 1953 by H. Rowland Weaver.

In 1960, the Litchfield County and Torrington YMCAs merged and the Torrington YMCA received a fifty-percent interest in Camp Mohawk. Tom Q. Moore became the Executive Director of the Town and Country Branch of the Torrington YMCA and Camp Mohawk. He had previously been program director and assistant director of YMCA Camp Hi-Rock (for boys) in western Massachusetts.


In 1962, the Plotkin family donated money to build the infirmary, still in use today. The former building, now Camp’s oldest structure, has since been used as the Staff Lounge and the CIT Palace. 1964 saw the construction of the kitchen at the back of the dining hall. Our current Rec Hall, formally named Mead Hall, was dedicated in 1967 to Judge Stanley P. Mead. He was President of the Board in 1930 and a Trustee into the 1970s, with fifty years of dedicated service to Mohawk.


George Corban was the camp caretaker for twenty-five years until his retirement in 1965. Mr. Corban was responsible for constructing many of the buildings we still know and love at Camp Mohawk, including the kitchen storehouse and chef’s quarters outside the dining hall, the feed shed and stable staff cabin, the Cedars cabins, the ballfield backstop, and the Program Director’s Cabin to the right of the Marchand family house. He was honored with a special program and a dedication monument at the waterfront in August of 1971 for his quarter-century dedication to Mohawk. Upon his retirement, George was succeeded by Oscar Richards, who served as Camp Mohawk’s caretaker for the next twelve years.


The circle of red cabins closest to the dining hall (now the Ute unit) was built in 1968 and used by the Jawaks for many years. The Senior cabins were built behind the Lighthouse, while the other units resided in small cabins forming three sides of a square and called the Quad. The Quad housed the Mohicans, Utees (spelled then with two Es), and Oscadees (founded in 1965).


In 1968, Mohawk transitioned from being a girls’ camp for half the summer and a boys’ camp for the other half to being an all-girls camp for the entire summer under Executive Director Tom Q. Moore.

Prior to 1969, there was an honorary camper recognition called Daughters of Mohawk (similar to Sons of Mohawk), which happened during the Indian Ceremony and honored a select few campers. In 1969, that program was dropped and all campers became Daughters of Mohawk “by living in harmony with nature and each other and by exhibiting the true spirit of Mohawk.” Staff who wished to participate, and later some CITs, learned a few dances, some using bamboo poles and requiring agile footwork. The ceremony began at the waterfront with the performers coming across the lake in canoes. One of them would tell the story of the founding of the Mohawk tribe. A procession was led by torchlight to a special fire circle beyond the tennis courts. Torches were made by tying old-style Kotex pads around large sticks that were secured with chicken wire then soaked in kerosene. The chief would call on Woconda to give us light and a magical chemical fire would erupt. Cindy Morse was the fire maker for many years using volatile chemicals that could only be purchased through a local pharmacy. Mary Humeston Coutant, Parker Prout, and Nick Prout did the job in prior years. The performers (dressed in costumes and slathered in a paint made with Jergens lotion, red tempera paint and water) would perform the dances and a Native American story was told.


In 1969, Mohawk revisited its long relationship with the nearby Clark family, purchasing additional land to build a septic/draining system, riding rings and stable. A year later, the building next to the office (which is now the ceramics studio) was built as a counselors' lounge. It had a toilet close to the office, which was particularly appreciated by Marion Zinser, the camp registrar for many years in the 1960s and 1970s. That building also had a pay phone, which was the only way staff could call family and friends.


Mohawk’s wooden dock was constructed in 1971 of South American greenheart wood. This dock provided a safe launching pad for hundreds of Mohawk swimmers over the years. However, it also served as the site of punishment for campers guilty of minor infractions—campers caught breaking rules were sent to weed the dock during their free time. Seasons of staff also have lasting memories of this dock—anyone ever tasked with putting the dock in at the start of the summer or hauling it from the pond at the close of the season are not likely to forget the experience. The Oscadee cabins were built above the Quad before the 1973 season, the same year the Mugwump Unit was founded, occupying the Oscadee’s former cabins in the Quad. Cindy Morse was the Unit Leader for the first two years (and is credited with naming the unit).


There was a Special July 4th Bicentennial celebration during the first session of 1976, starring Cindy Morse as Ben Franklin and Jack and Holly Trumbull as George and Martha Washington. Campers were split into 13 colonies and designed their own flag, song, and decorations for their parade float. Celebratory events included a greased watermelon game, all-camp counselor hunt, a bicentennial ball and camper Ms. Bicentennial contest, “hairy cherry,” and arts and crafts. Campers were awakened on Sunday morning by Paul Revere on horseback warning of the British invasion. A time capsule was buried at the Chapel near the stone marker, to be opened in 2076. Other notable events in 1976 included the construction of larger cabins for the Mohicans adjacent to the Quad.


The Jawak cabins were built near the archery range largely by Maintenance Director Jeff LaPlaca, who came to Mohawk in 1978. Jeff also built the pole barn at the stables (with help from later Mohawk Trustee Wilbur Pike and Wilbur's father) and renovated the Lighthouse. With the Jawaks move to their new cabins in 1979, the small Quad cabins were no longer used. Jeff built a maintenance shed using three of the old Quad cabins. Over the years the remaining Quad cabins were sold or moved to other parts of the camp as storage buildings. One of them still sits behind a house in Milton, CT.


In her 1979 annual report, Cindy Morse (as Program Director) gave special thanks to Holly Trumbull (Program Assistant) for her excellent work in writing, editing, and publishing The Grasshopper newsletters each session, as well as organizing special programs, Indian Ceremonies, weekend programs, and handling all the office supply requests.


Executive Tom Q. Moore retired after the 1982 season when he moved to Pennsylvania. In 2015, the Moore Lodge was constructed and dedicated to Tom Q. Moore’s service to Camp Mohawk for twenty years. Lee Kinkade served as Camp Mohawk’s Executive Director for the next two years.


In the spring of 1985, the camp trustees decided to end the brother-sister relationship with Camp Hi-Rock at the end of that year. Elaine Gustafson was hired as Mohawk’s Executive Director before the 1986 season. In the Spring of 1986 Jeff LaPlaca and his then wife Colleen Kube tapped maple trees on their own nearby property and made Mohawk Sugar House Maple Syrup as a fundraiser. According to the November 1986 Alumni Newsletter, they brought in about $1,000 on 46 bottles. Jeff left Mohawk in the spring of 1987. He returned to help with repairs after the 1989 tornado. In the Fall of 1987, Elaine resigned after a precipitous drop in enrollment.


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