Roughing it for the rich: Camp Awosting on the Shawangunk Ridge (1900-1934)

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How do you make a man of a boy? At the turn of the last century, the answer for some was, “Send him to Camp Awosting.” The rustic boys’ camp, in operation from 1900 to 1934 in what is now Minnewaska State Park, was designed to toughen up young men from the privileged families of New York City and beyond, preparing them for their future lives as captains of industry. Boys who usually lived in luxury with the benefit of household staff were sent by their parents to the Shawangunk Mountains for two months to live under the guidance and supervision of counselors, temporarily shedding the mantle of privilege to learn discipline and other character-building habits that the boys wouldn’t have learned otherwise in their advantaged daily lives.

The isolated location of the camp and little contact with the neighboring communities reinforced the life lessons learned. “It was very competitive, from the first day the camp started,” says Susan Stessin-Cohn, one of New Paltz’s two town historians (the other is Carol Johnson). “That really was a reflection of how they were raising these kids and what they thought was important. From the first day they got there, they were divided into groups and scored points for what they did. From Day One it was all about which team was going to win at the end of the season, and everything they did – every sport, every activity – was competitive.” Many of the young men who attended Camp Awosting would go on to become the Who’s Who of their time, she says. Not many local boys could afford the fees to attend the camp.

Stessin-Cohn recently put together an online exhibit about Camp Awosting (https://omeka.hrvh.org/exhibits/show/camp-awosting), hosted on the Hudson River Valley Heritage portal. The Hudson River Valley Heritage umbrella site (https://hrvh.org) functions as a digital library that provides free access to search and browse the collections of more than 35 cultural and educational institutions in the Hudson Valley – a historical treasure trove that includes photographs, documents, maps, letters, diaries, oral histories, memorabilia and other ephemera.

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The material at Hudson River Valley Heritage (https://hrvh.org) can be accessed in a number of ways, from performing a search by name or topic to exploring an institution’s collection to viewing one of the themed exhibits on the site, many of which were created by Stessin-Cohn. The inspiration to produce an exhibit about the history of Camp Awosting came about, she says, through talking to her fellow New Paltz town historian Carol Johnson, who coordinates the Elting Memorial Library’s Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection. “Carol mentioned some scrapbooks from Camp Awosting that a former camper named William Faber Davis, Jr. had brought into the library a few years earlier, and the material in these binders was incredible,” says Stessin-Cohn. “I could have made a giant website from everything there, and I still may post more material in the future.” The binders included dimensional items like badges and pieces of a uniform, along with menus, photographs and programs from the camp’s annual summer theatrical productions.

The scrapbooks donated by William Faber Davis, Jr. are now part of the permanent archives of the Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection. According to Johnson, the former camper, who came up from his residence in Williamsburg, Virginia to donate the materials, had considered giving the binders of memorabilia to the current owners of Camp Awosting (which moved its operations to Bantam Lake, Connecticut in 1934), but because the camp doesn’t have the proper archival storage for the items, he entrusted them to the care of the New Paltz library instead.

Stessin-Cohn was assisted in putting together the virtual exhibit by interns Francis DiChiara, a SUNY-New Paltz History major who has since gone on to grad school in Germany to become a Holocaust researcher, and Lucia O’Corozine, who Stessin-Cohn says has been her intern since she was 13 years old. “She’s worked with me on projects since I was at Historic Huguenot Street [where Stessin-Cohn was formerly director of education]. I can’t say enough good things about her; she took it upon herself to do so much outside research. She and Francis did a super job.”

 

Camp Awosting: A Boys Camp in the Shawangunk Mountains, 1900-1934, virtual exhibition on the Hudson River Valley Heritage portal; https://omeka.hrvh.org/exhibits/show/camp-awosting.