Looking back to the recent long, hot days of summer, memories remain of wonderful vacation interludes, weeks when time rolls by slowly, filled with daylight hours at the beach or pool, early morning matches on the tennis courts or golf course, or pleasant afternoons in the shade spent with books designated for summer reading pleasure. Our Victorian ancestors took summer seriously and “camping” in the country was a favorite way for city folk to get back to nature and the simpler life. This episode of Lewisboro Life came via a donation of historic memorabilia from the Orlofsky family of South Salem. What follows is an updated version of a Window into History column that I wrote for The Ledger more than a decade ago.
Part of the contents of a decrepit old leather case inscribed in gold with the word Lewisboro included within its decaying leather covers, a couple of wonderful news articles from the Tarrytown Argus, one dated Sept. 6, 1890, the other undated, but obviously from the same time frame. One was titled Camp Life at Waccabuc, which outlines a week of camp life, 1890s –style; the other, longer piece, Camping Out, details all there was to do in the camp and in the surrounding towns. Both articles tell the tale of Camp Nemo, situated somewhere near Lake Waccabuc, amongst the whispering pines and bright waters. I am not sure of the exact location of Camp Nemo, but there are clues in the articles that might spark recognition. I am not even sure the camp being described is still extant. I know the residents of the Three Lakes area will smile at the descriptions.
A summer place
We will start with a quote from Camp Life at Waccabuc… “The camp is situated about eight miles from the Village of Katonah. After a long drive over a dusty road, one is greeted by the word, ‘Welcome’ over the porch of the old farm house at the camp. On the front of the house is a large veranda, which, with six or seven hammocks hung from its posts affords good solid comfort to the ‘campers’ at all times during the day. At night these hammocks are taken down to make room for promenading and dancing. Three pretty lakes are within a short distance from the camp, each of which is connected with the other by small narrow channels. Rowing and fishing on these lakes, driving (and for the younger generation reading this, driving meant by old-fashioned real horse power, not cars!) over the roads of the country, playing tennis and taking tramps in the woods occupied the time of the ‘campers’. Isaac, the colored cook, attended admirably to the recurring wants of the ‘inner man’.” (Please pardon the presently unacceptable description of Isaac in the quote.)
An excerpt from the Camping Out piece details Isaac’s fine qualities. “We breakfasted at seven, dined at one, supped at seven. Our Caterer was an experienced hand from Danbury, Ct., Isaac Cooper. Every meal seemed to surpass each preceded one; home made bread, biscuit, fresh corn, tomatoes, vegetables direct from the adjoining farm, butter, golden from a dairy of Jerseys, and milk, – we only drank 220 quarts while in camp.”
Camp Life at Waccabuc described, “A pleasanter party could not be found than the one that assembled at Camp Nemo, Lake Waccabuc last week. It consisted of some thirty persons, worthy young people, hailing from Tarrytown, Sing Sing, New Haven, New York, Brooklyn and Wallingford, Vt.”
The campers were, in part, “Julia Brooke, Mamie Brooke, Nellie Lawrence, Fanny Powell, Mr. and Mrs. Charles C. Studwell, Clifford Powell, Will V. Kelly, Fred B. Studwell and Robert Brooke, all of Brooklyn.
“Carrie Hunt of Lake Waccabuc, ‘Nan’ F. Van Duesen of Wallingford, Vt., Mabel M. Studwell, M. Josephine Close, Eloise Linson of Tarrytown, Robt. Fancher, Charles Robinson of Sing Sing, George Lawrence of South Salem, Dr. Archibald McNeil of New Haven, Ct., James N. Andrews, Lewis A. Storrs, J. Hathorne Thompson, John Quinn and Paul C. Morton of New York, and our pleasant good ‘Aunt Mary’ Pierson of Brooklyn.” Aunt Mary Pierson was the chaperone of the camping party. She, apparently, was the perfect chaperone, with “the keen eye of a watchful mother, at the same time she was, while fulfilling her mission, really one of us in all our enjoyments.”
Many of the campers’ names can be found in the annals of South Salem and Waccabuc. Many had personal ties to the area; others were friends from the city, dying to come to the country for a good ol’ summer time.
Friends and neighbors came to call on the campers, especially on the weekend, at the end of a long week’s work in the hot, teeming city. The Camping Out article describes an unexpected visit and the easy hospitality the visit inspired.
“Others from the surrounding neighborhood for miles around called for an hour or so, but on Friday night about lamplight in drove three vehicles, with a ‘heigh-ho!’ the camp at once was all life, and ‘who’s there?’ Well, we soon found out, for a livelier old party I guess never drove up to that house before. Dr. and Mrs. J.J. Linson, Mr. and Mrs. John Henry Hull, and Mr. and Mrs. E.A. Studwell were there.”
Since there was “no room at the inn” so to speak, lodging was found for the visitors at the neighboring Pardee home on account of most everyone being related to the Hulls (Mrs. Pardee was a Hull) in one way or another… And a Hull certainly can’t turn away another Hull! So let the partying continue!
That was the good old summer time in late Victorian South Salem and Waccabuc. The lakes were surrounded by farms and the occasional summer camp, a rustic place to spend a couple of weeks. The beautiful lakes enticed visitors from the big city, and lower Westchester. Over time, new lake communities welcomed even more people to their shores and our town grew from a summer destination to a bedroom community. Farms are no longer part of the countryside. The camps are for the most part gone. The Three Lakes Waccabuc, Rippowam and Oscaleta might still boast of several camps, but they are small, not on the grand scale, cook included, that the camps of the nineteenth century saw. Times and priorities have changed. More exotic places beckon families nowadays. Leisurely canoe rides through the three lakes channels don’t provide the thrill they once did.
Suggestions for the location of Camp Nemo are welcome. I can pinpoint two Pardee homes, one at the corner of Oscaleta Road and Old Pond Road, the other on what is now Old Oscaleta Road, but was once called Pardee Street. The house on Pardee Street burned down in the 1920s, but its property bordered on the lakes, as the crow flies.
The Camping Out article appeared in the Sept. 6, 1890 Tarrytown Argus. The article was signed by Em Jay. Could this be the M. Josephine Close mentioned above?
The writer ponders, “It is a mystery that these three lakes are not more widely known. Here within a short distance from New York, in a historical section of our Revolutionary struggle, are these three clear, transparent, connecting gems, nestling along the mountain that rises abruptly from the water’s edge to an altitude of several hundred feet…”
A day’s ride
The campers spent their days exploring the environs, visiting the villages of North and South Salem and Ridgefield.
“From our camp we rode westerly along the southerly side of Lake Waccabuc upon a ridge of land, farm lands of Mr. Elbert A. Mead, that commanded an extensive view north, west and south, a distance of 20 miles. What a site for a villa. The Waccabuc House was in full view to the north. This house was formerly the farm house of Mr. William Benedict of Unionville. Mr. Benedict sold the property to Mr. M. Rockwell Mead, who rebuilt and enlarged it for hotel purposes and when Mr. Mead was living no stranger was ever turned away hungry and footsore…”
A travel guide published by the N. Y. & N. R. R. contained a travelogue by one of the inhabitants of Camp Nemo. The following quote describes a marvelous ride through the charming village of South Salem starting from the vicinity of Mead Street.
“From this point we rode southerly over hills and through beautiful valleys, passing the Stone Chapel and the ‘New Burying Ground,’ where rest the beloved ones, and are at South Salem, a small village without any special mark of interest to a stranger; it antedates the revolution a century. The residents are and ever have been noted for their longevity and strictly moral and religious habits, a license for liquor having never been granted in the township.” (The Stone Chapel referred to was St. John’s Episcopal Church, built about 1840. The new burying ground was the South Salem Cemetery across the street from the church, which was established about 1870.)
From the village, the explorers “drove to the summit of the East Mountain, which borders the smaller of the two Waccabuc Lakes, to see the cave formerly occupied by Sarah Bishop, the hermitess, who was crossed in love by an English officer during the Revolutionary war, and left Long Island in 1776 for this mountain retreat, where she lived until 1810, having been frozen to death during a severe snow storm while on her way to a small cabin near the lake…From the summit of her cave Long Island Sound, villages in Connecticut, and Westchester County and the highlands are distinctly visible. It is a view well worth the journey from New York.
“Returning to the valley, we rode between the lakes, (our camp) crossed the mountain range through upper North Salem, passing the famous boulder, weighing from 70 to 80 tons, tilted upon three pointed rocks, about two feet from the ground, to Dingle Ridge and Peach Lake, one of the sources of the Croton River. This lake resembles, in its surroundings, Lake Mahopac, missing the bold shores and heavily wooded mountains of Waccabuc Lakes.” So said the railroad guidebook.
The Camp Nemo pleasure seekers of Sept. 1890, according to the article, planned to follow the jaunts suggested by their friend and so invitingly outlined in the railroad pamphlet. Here is a summary of their exploits. “Quite a large portion of our party desiring to see the points of interest mentioned in the guide book as quoted started out with every requisite for a long ride, over the ragged hills, through the cultivated valleys and along the high plateaus of rich farming lands that everywhere abound in this vicinity. From the camp, we rode in a southerly direction, winding along, crossing and re-crossing the serpentine outlet stream of the three lakes as it goes murmuring on to join the many streams that hereabout abound in the famous Croton watershed. The scenery along the highways and by-ways of this entire section is remarkably picturesque and beautiful… We first halted near the stream to visit an old Indian burying ground that lies adjacent to the road; only one white man is buried here, and he was killed at Bedford during the Revolutionary struggle…(In the vicinity of Waccabuc River Road)
“We then took the old Boston Post Road to South Salem. West of the village stands a stone chapel, erected in the fifties by the Episcopalian Church in hopes of building up a parish, but there was too much of Presbyterianism here for its growth, and now the building is going to pieces.”
After stopping in the old White Church churchyard, the group continued toward Ridgefield. Here they passed the large white colonial house at the corner of Rtes. 35 and 123. “The house erected by Major Keeler over one hundred years ago is vacant, but in a good state of preservation; it is on a peculiar site. The old Major used to say, ‘The water that runs from the south roof runs into Long Island Sound, and the water that runs from the north roof runs into the Hudson River,’ So it is today… “
“It would be impossible to describe Ridgefield, but must say that it is a pretty village, handsome villas, large grounds and streets well shaded by mammoth Elms.”
The party doubled back after their exploration of Ridgefield and ended the day exhausted. “After hours of riding we reached our camp, ready for Isaac’s good supper.”