Camp Alumni Revisit Summers Past

At Fireplace Lodge they learned ‘purpose, love, loyalty,’ and survival skills
Former campers revisited a property in Springs on Saturday that was once home to the Fireplace Lodge girls camp. Carrie Ann Salvi

    A group of 41 former campers from around the country reunited and reminisced on Saturday about their annual eight-week sojourns at the Fireplace Lodge Girls Camp, a waterfront campsite at the end of Fireplace Road in Springs that dated to 1935.                The group gathered for lunch in Montauk at Gurney’s Inn, and afterward visited the old camp, now owned by Mary Ryan, who invited them to walk the property and have a campfire. The strong winds did not allow for a fire, but the women delighted in exploring the place that brought back fond memories, singing camp songs arm in arm on the bluff, and sharing laughter and tears on the beach below.
    Whether they camped at the same time or not, it was apparent that the women all felt a connection through their shared experiences.
    As they walked toward the bluff, Jane Ross, a camper for 13 years who had lived in Garden City and here, in Barnes Landing, as a girl, pointed to a field where she remembered goats, donkeys, and an infirmary.
    Even though she splits her time now between the South Fork and St. Petersburg, Fla., Ms. Ross hadn’t visited the spot since she was a girl. “Sometimes it is not fun,” she said, because things change too much. She showed her friend a place on the bluff where the junior bunks used to be. Other bunks, as well as the dining and recreation rooms were also along the bluff, which the girls used to climb up with a rope as part of their survival training, she recalled.
    “It made us really strong,” Ms. Ross said. A former canoeing counselor at the camp, she said she used the valuable water skills she learned there throughout her life.
    The roots of the camp were in music and drama, Shannon Cunniff of Arlington, Va., the reunion’s primary organizer, said on Monday. “We would sing all the time,” said Ms. Cuniff, who spent over a year searching for campers, counselors, and “kitchen men” on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and through Google, word of mouth, and old correspondences.
    Some of the campers also received individual lessons for voice, violin, piano, Cunniff said, there was a musical show in a converted barn called Antler Hall, and the last night before parent pick-up each year there was an operetta.
    There were also arts and crafts, archery, and horse riding on the property, which was equipped with a barn and two riding rings. Ms. Cunniff said that advanced riders would go around East Hampton, or take the horses swimming in the bay.
    Of all of the activities, what seemed to stick with the women most, aside from the words to their camp songs, were the swimming and survival skills learned under the direction of Bill Dunn, a former Marine and high school teacher who served as the waterfront safety director. Ms. Cunniff said that he may have been the most influential person on their childhoods.
    “He drown-proofed us,” she said. “We swam every day unless there was lightning.”
    The most advanced swimmers had to swim seven times between large rocks in the bay, sometimes in wet jeans with their legs tied together.
    “ ‘If there is water in the bay, we are swimming today,’ ” was the phrase she recalled. The girls practiced safety drills for various situations such as being knocked out of a sailboat, where they removed their pants, blew into the legs to make a raft, and “survival bobbed” with their feet tied together. She said they learned to be so comfortable in the water that they would never panic.
    They also learned to make fires and went on secret nighttime drills for which they would be awakened and sent on rescue missions in the woods, for example. Mr. Dunn would watch from the trees to be sure they were okay and applying their lessons.
    While packing for the camp’s only other reunion in 1990, Mr. Dunn suffered a massive heart attack, and sent his regrets via a letter, that told the women how important they were to him. He died a few days later.
    In Montauk on Saturday, Ms. Cunniff presented a slideshow of archived photos and a DVD of memories collected from former campers. Tables were filled with memorabilia that felt “almost like a living museum,” with badges and medals, sweatshirts and caps, and books filled with photographs.
    In return, the group surprised her with a gift basket of vintage products reminiscent of their days at camp, such as Lemon Up shampoo and Close Up toothpaste.
    “That was a hoot,” said Raleigh Mayer of New York City, who attended the camp as a child. She said on Tuesday that she had visited only once before this weekend, in the 1980s, when the abandoned dorms were still on the property. “It was kind of sad,” she said.
    Ms. Cunniff was ecstatic to walk the property on Saturday, she said, and see that it was preserved and protected, not covered in condos. “It still had that sense of place,” she said. The ladies were excited to learn and hear about how the Peconic Land Trust preserved and protected the land, too, from Pam Greene, vice president of the trust, who joined them for a presentation.
    Ms. Cunniff attended camp for seven years in the ’60s, when her family would come from New York City to their beach house on Collins Avenue in East Hampton from Memorial Day through Labor Day. The campers came primarily from New York City and New Jersey, and from all income brackets, she said. Some parents saved all year, and some visited by helicopter.
    At the site on Saturday, alumni sang the camp song, which included the motto “living life with a real purpose and with love and loyalty,” and also sang a song specific to the “chief,” Adelaide Purcell, the camp’s founder and director. Tears were shed as Ms. Mayer read a poem about the camp that was written in the 1980s.
    “She was ahead of her time,” Ms. Cunniff said of Ms. Purcell. “I folded my clothes,” Ms. Cunniff said, “completed chores, and learned independence, responsibility, respect, and how to function in a society.”
    “It was liberating,” she said. “I was never as happy as when I was at camp.”
    Ms. Ryan joined the women in song down on the beach and was accepted as a “Fireplace Lady,” and presented with memorabilia including two historic articles about the camp from The Star. The gift that brought Ms. Ryan to tears, however, was that of a large cast iron cauldron, approximately three feet wide and high, that was a historical piece of the property. During camp days, Ms. Cunniff remembered it upon a stone base, always with fresh flowers.
    The artifact ended up on another property, taken there by someone looking out for its best interests, but the women knew that Ms. Ryan wanted it returned to its home. “It was always there,” said Ms. Cunniff, and now it is “a piece of Fireplace that will continue to exist.”
    In appreciation of Ms. Cunniff’s efforts, Gwen Miller, the camp’s most senior counselor and musical director, presented her with the Honor Camper of the Year Award, which was a highly coveted award back in the day. “I can guarantee there will be another, sooner than later,” Ms. Mayer said on Tuesday. “People were so thrilled.”