Humble Contributions to the Peoples' History

Rite of Passage: the Summer Camp Experience 1957

For many children in the U.S., the summer camp experience has become a right of passage: separating from parents, friends and a familiar neighborhood to live in “the great outdoors” and learn life strategies of how to get along with adults and other children. According to the American Camp Association, nearly 11 million kids attend one of the 7,000 overnight camps each summer, with stays ranging from a week to two months. I had classmates whose parents sent them to camp for the entire summer. Research suggests that camp can build confidence, social skills, and independence. Probably for most kids, the experience is a mixed bag, like life.

Girl Scout camp Hidden Falls provided that experience for my sister, Jean, and her two friends. Jean wrote my parents the quintessential camp letter, “Please, please come get me! I hate it! . . . almost mimicking to a tea Allan Sherman’s hit single record years later, “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh,” a comic song in which a camper bemoans his experiences to the tune of Ponchielli‘s Dance of the Hours.

Take me home, oh Mudda Fadda
Take me home, I hate Granada
Don’t leave me out in the forest where
I might get eaten by a bear

Camp Nik-o-Mahs, in the Mountains of Central Pennsylvania 

I remember being intrigued by the Camp Nik-o-Mahs brochure. The camp was once a scout camp founded in the 1920 and named for the nearby town of Shamokin, spelled backwards, that is. The Hall family, who lived in my hometown of Springfield, operated the camp. The list of activities sounded exciting: archery, swimming in a creek, campfires, canoeing, all in a woodsy atmosphere. The cabins resembled little clapboard houses with porches. The camp sponsored overnight hikes and a trip through a water cave. In 1958 the brochure read that campers can “frolic to their heart’s content” in the creek. [1] An adventurous 11-year old, I loved all of that so I begged my parents to let me go. They were not so enthusiastic. My folks were protective and not convinced that the experience would be as joyful as I was imaging. The begging paid off, however, and they submitted the application what I think was about $35 for a week. What could happen in a week, after all?

First Day of Camp (me in the back)

First Day of Camp (me in the back)

Introduction to Latrine Duty

After a four-hour drive, but which seemed endless–due to my excitement, we arrived at the camp. Each cabin had three sets of bunk beds, with four to six sharing girls the quarters. About nineteen cabins lined along a dirt path, the girls’ cabins grouped together, then the boys’ cabins further down. I think there was a rule about not being allowed on the boys’ side.

After saying good-bye to parents, counselors explained the rules and regulations and gave us a tour of the camp. They pointed out the shower room. You could take a bath, but you had to do something with water, like build a fire, to make it hot. I didn’t take any baths.

I was nervous about getting along with the counselor and other girls in the cabin. I recall that I thought the counselor was a bit bossy, but I soon became friends with the other campers and enjoyed their company.

The next morning we dutifully cleaned our cabin, as instructed, and awaited inspection. Beds had to be neat, clothes put away, and the floor clean. Counselors marched in with clipboards and pencils and snooped around the corners of the cabin and found two “dust bunnies” under my bed. For the offense, they assigned our cabin the dreaded latrine duty. Later I would tell my mom about what happened, and she was quite indignant that she was paying good money only to have her daughter clean toilets. The job wasn’t that bad, actually, it was more the idea of cleaning toilets. Our cabin passed all subsequent inspections.

Campfire Philosophy

At the first evening campfire, the camp director introduced us to the hierarchy of swimming privileges. The top place was reserved for the members of the Walrus Club, who carried a card with their special designation and were permitted to swim in the deep water. I made up my mind that night that I would take the swimming test the next day, as I wanted to enhance my status with a Walrus Club membership.

Campfires were held almost every evening, and we would sing the typical camp songs.  Looking back on these songs, I’ve realized that the theme of mortality ran through the lyrics of many of these songs.

Titanic
There was a ship Titanic that sailed the ocean blue,
And they thought they had a ship that the water wouldn’t go through,
It was sad when the great ship went down.
Husbands and wives, little children lost their lives (in a high voice)
It was sad when the great ship went down.

Can’t Get to Heaven
Can’t get to heaven on roller skates, you’ll roll right past those pearly gates.
I ain’t going to grieve my lord no more, no more.

Found a Peanut
Found a peanut, ate a peanut, got a stomach ache, called the doctor, died anyway, went to heaven, said go the other way.

Maybe these songs were trying to tell us we wouldn’t always be carefree kids and that we’d better wise up to the ways of the world.

Not sure if singing these other lines from the Titanic song also put a psychological bent into my head for class consciousness, which I’ve been confronting of late?

They were nearing to the shore, when the water began to pour.
And the rich refused to associate with the poor,
So they sent them down below
Where they’d be the first to go.
It was sad when the great ship went down.

Food, Glorious Food

Reveille played over the intercom to wake us in the morning, and we lined up at the mess hall for breakfast. We sat on benches in front of long tables, food served in large bowls. At home, we didn’t usually have bread with our dinner, but here everyone scoffed up the bread. Mom told me that after I returned from camp, I ate everything. The camp experience had expanded my palate!

The camp operated a little store, and parents left an allowance for incidentals. I became totally addicted to string, red liquorice, which I considered the yummiest of candies and spent just about all my allowance on the red stuff.

Jumping into Penn's Creek

Jumping into Penn’s Creek

Notoriety on My Second Day: “Can’t get to Heaven”

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At the bottom of the slide

Standing on the pier over Penn’s Creek, I asked the adult counselor if I could take the swimming test for the Walrus Club. She said ok, and pointed to a wooden raft in the creek. Part of the problem may have been that I am nearsighted, and I wasn’t wearing my glasses and couldn’t see where she was pointing. Two rafts floated on the creek, one just beyond the sliding board and another way down the creek in the deep water. “Well,” I thought, “that raft beyond the slide couldn’t be the destination, it was far too close for any test for the Walrus Club.” I jumped into the water and swam toward the far raft. I was a good swimmer, I knew I could do the swim. On my return trip, I passed by the sliding board, and at that very moment, an inexperienced camper took off down the slide and panicked, grabbing me for support, pulling me under the water. I was tired by that point and could not cast him off. I told myself, “If I could just get one breath . . ..” Then realizing that was hopeless, I thought, “This is it.”

I blacked out. I came to as the lifeguard carried me to the shore. I was crying, but not sure why as I couldn’t remember deciding to start to cry. The waterfront came to a standstill as I sat sobbing on the sand. From that moment on, I was known as “the girl who almost drowned.”

By the next day, I had completely recovered from the ordeal. I wasn’t fussed over, not even sent to the infirmary. What occupied my thoughts now: did I pass the Walrus Club test? I was ready to retake the test. When I asked the swim counselor, she told me, yes, I had passed, and remarked, “It was a good thing I had been watching you.”

Summer Romance 

One serendipitous happening from the almost drowning incident: I met my first love. A seasoned camper at Nik-o-Mahs, “Plottsie,” as everyone called him, approached me on the path to the waterfront, “Are you the girl who almost drowned?,” he asked. Thus, began the romance. Plottise was a thin boy with glasses and usually wore a plaid shirt. We hung out and sat together, and of course, we were teased by the other campers for our attachment.

A special event on the night before we left marked the end of our stay. The counselors handed us candles on little cardboard floats, and we gently placed them on the creek, watching them glide downstream until they fell over the waterfall. The flickering lights in the dark forest reflected on the water, and Plottsie and I held hands as we walked along the path that followed the creek. All was perfect.

Then Plottsie popped a question, “Can I kiss you?” Thrown into confusion, I asked myself, “Was I old enough to kiss?” “Was I allowed to kiss?” “What did this mean?” I replied, “I don’t think right now,” and with that remark, coolness came over the night. The next day, I went looking for Plottsie as I wanted to take his photograph before I returned home. He stood at a distance as I snapped the photo and hurried off. When I returned home, I mistakenly opened the camera, exposing the picture to light. Plottsie had disappeared in a cloud of whiteness.

The Following Year

The next summer I returned to Camp Nik-o-Mahs. The red liquorice had lost its appeal, and the trips and hikes were no longer new experiences. The candle ritual on the last evening was still beautiful, but I stood alone looking through the silhouettes of the trees thinking I probably wouldn’t be back.

De Ja Vou, Returning to the Camp, 50 Years Gone By

For whatever reason, I decided that I wanted to return to Camp Nik-0-Mahs, which had been closed for years. I wasn’t sure what I’d find there, but a road had been named for the camp. I thought that I might be able to recognize the place along the creek, even if the buildings were no longer standing.

Returning to the camp meant a road trip through the Allegheny Mountains, part of the Appalachian Range that runs through the eastern United States. Traveling in mid-October the leaves were at their colorful best with reds, yellows and oranges between dark green trees not yet turned. The sun would occasionally peek out from behind heavy cloud cover, casting a glow on the landscape, highlighting nature’s pallet of colors. The road twisted around the mountains as we drove upward, only to come back down on the other side. Farmlands spread out in the valleys with fields of dried cornstalks and sunflowers against meadows of green clover. Barns, some unpainted and rustic, others vivid red, dotted the landscape. Little villages of clapboard houses clustered along crossroads.

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Penn’s Cave

An outing to Penn’s Cave was one of the trips we made during our stay at camp, so on this trip, I planned a stop there. Penn’s Cave had been a popular tourist stop back when I was at camp and is still is today, as it is one of the few caves accessible only by boat. Since my camp days, the cave had been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Entrance Penn's Cave

The area looked much the same, with the Penn’s Cave House, the three-story frame house built in 1885, standing near the entrance. Steep stairs still led down to the cave and the familiar flat-bottomed boats that took us through the watery cavern were the method of transport. After gliding through the cave, we came out on the other side to a large pond and then returned through the cave again. The tour was almost exactly as I had remembered it.

Finding The Camp

We followed Route 235 through the towns of Laurelton and Glen Iron, making a turn at Creek Road, near the end of which we found Nikomahs Drive paralleling Penn’s Creek. We drove until the road disappeared into the forest, so we got out of the car to look around for any sign of the camp. The house at the end of the road looked very much the era that I had remembered, painted cream with green trim. A sign confirmed the name of the house, Windy Inn, which the Mifflin Times reported was built sometime before 1920. [2] We found several stone structures, now abandoned and left to the elements. One lone building stood intact with a slab inscribed with the date, 1926. A stone sign above the door read: “Erected in Honor of our Mothers.” I guessed that the building may have been the old mess hall. I couldn’t find any trace of the cabins.

I walked to the edge of Penn’s Creek, which looked quite impressive as the current moved swiftly from the heavy rains on the previous day. I guess those many years ago I could have been lost in those waters, but the fates prescribed that my destiny would be to stand here on the bank of the creek decades later.

[1] “Camp . .  Nik-o-Mahs, In the Mountains of Central Pennsylvania,” Millmont Times, Vol 14, Issue 2, June 1, 2013, p. 1-12.

[2] Ibid.

<a href=”http://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/finite-creatures/”>Finite Creatures</a>

Epilogue

Since writing this post, I’ve learned more about the history of the camp, from the comments here and on About Me.  Many thanks to everyone who shared their histories. Tom Hall, whose parents ran the camp, wrote me about some of the other camp traditions. The citing of the ghost of Penn’s Creek was always a favorite. Can never go wrong with ghost story. Besides the Walrus Club, campers could join the Old Timers Club. Another camp event was the funeral service for Jake Hopper (the outhouse that got too full). Tom relates about the “big time campfires where the fire would come out of the sky to light the main fire.”  I recall that we hiked somewhere out of the camp, maybe in was to to Tall Timbers. One of counselors took a wrong turn, and we wandered around a backroad until we were rescued.  Campers visited Rolling Green Amusement Park, which went out of operation in 1971. The camp closed its doors in 1966.

Comments on: "Summer Camp, Fifty Years Ago, and Almost Not Making it Back Home" (20)

  1. Thank you for sharing your memories!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful post! Fantastic photos!! This brought back my memories of girl scout summer camp, I loved it and even went to a winter session.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I stumbled upon this today and so happy. I attended this camp with a girlfriend at the wonderful age of 8 in 1957. What a wonderful time we had with the great counselors, activities and friendships….warm memories. My friend and I still are buddies and often talk about the ghost stories and midnight outings to the lake.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Rita, glad you were able to find the post in the vastness of the Internet. Someone on my hometown Facebook page wrote of his fond memories of the camp. I guess that’s why I had to tell the story after all these years. We must have been at the camp at the same time. Thanks for commenting.

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  4. […] the summer, we sometimes would go off to camp, Jean with the twins to girl scout camp, Hidden Falls, and for me, Nik-O-Mahs in the mountains of […]

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  5. John McWilliams said:

    Just stumbled on this. Thanks. I also attended Nik-O-Mahs. This was in 1959 and 1960.I also was from Delco. Chuck Hall of Springfield was a good friend made there. Unfortunately he was taken from us at 23 due to Hodgkins disease. I also returned to the camp many years later. I was at that time a Pennsylvania Deputy Waterways Conservation officer. I was in uniform which allowed me to roam freely along Penns Creek. I did locate some of the foundations. I am sure we experienced many of the same memories and I can’t help but wonder how our path may have crossed. Thanks again for the photos and the memories. That was so long ago yet the thoughts can be so vivid.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi John, always great to hear from a fellow camper, as we share so many of the same memories. Thanks for commenting. Sorry to learn about Chuck’s passing. I was surprised that we could find few traces of the cabins but the forest had claimed any remnants of the structures. Also, we could hear guns going off in the distance so were a bit nervous about staying too long to investigate. It was satisfying to find the location, after coming all that way. Was truly a pilgrimage back in time as well as returning to place.

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  6. William Bryan said:

    I must confess, I too was a Walrus!
    I lived in Springfield directly across the street from Memorial Park and not far from the Hall’s.
    I found your piece on Camp Nik O Mahs.
    A flood of memories returned in an instant.
    I attend during the mid to late fifties, if you attend for 3 years ( I did) you earned the right to be called………….I can’t remember, help me out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi William, I did reply to your previous comment on the About Me page, not sure if you saw that. Here it is: (Glad you found the blog! Might still be lots of fish in Penn’s Creek, as it was flowing well. I couldn’t exactly pinpoint our old swimming hole. All the landmarks were gone. Thanks for jogging my memory about the headless Indian. I seem to remember several other tales from the campfire, which I’ll probably remember at 3am. Did you see the post about Springfield school memories: https://psalmboxkey.com/shs-1965-remembrances/. My sister was in the class of ’68.)

      Thanks for stopping by and letting me know other former campers are still out there . . . and remembering the same shared experiences. We lived on Briarhill Road, and I have yet another another blog post about growing up in Springfield. https://psalmboxkey.com/2011/09/16/briarhill-road-springfield-looking-back/ Many times we would come to Memorial Park for the parades.

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  7. Don Fair said:

    I went to Nik-O-Mahs in the 60’s. Loved it there, and had great memories of the sports games – “green v white” — The Ghost of Penns Creek (which I played gurgling “I want my money back.” The Hall family provided a strict, but great atmosphere – and at a very young age, they trusted me to become a counselor. “Coach Don” was a very impressive title. I often wonder about the people who were there – and what happened to them…. Linda Beatty, Lynn Abrams, Bob Yokum, “Fish”…….they were all classic types. Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I tried to find the camp about 15 years after it closed ….. there were remnants there making it a sad experience ……….Cheers …….”Coach Don.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, Coach Don! I forgot about the ghost, did the apparition appear floating down Penns Creek in a boat? Something like that? Nothing like camp legends and myths to fire up kids’ imaginations. Maybe that’s why we have to return . . . asking, was it all real? Since the camp has been long abandoned, does make the experience otherworldly as memories from those many year ago come flooding back against the overlay of the present. I guess the ghosts of Nick-O-Mahs will stay with us. Thanks for sharing. K

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  8. David Hall said:

    Hello All! So glad to read this article and the comments posted! Chuckie Hall was my brother, with my sister Barb, Tom and my parents Chuck and Jeanne Hall. My parents are now deceased, along with my brother Chuck and sister Barb. Only my brother Tom and I remain. All of the Uncles and Aunts, along with cousins are still living. I was practically born at camp, attending just 1 month after my birth! The Hall family is smaller now, but those of us that remain remember camp fondly! My grandparents, parents, uncles/aunts., cousins and siblings were all involved in running the camp! So glad there are still Nik-O-Mahs campers out there! Most of the camp is gone now, but occasionally we will go up to remember those that have gone before us! God bless you all, and thanks for the great memories and pictures!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Greetings, David, and so glad that you found this post. What a wonderful experience to have spent your childhood summers at the camp. Camp gives a bit of freedom and responsibility that can’t be duplicated in home neighborhoods. As you can read from the comments, Nik-O-Mahs made a lasting impression on all of us. Maybe that’s why I had to return. Being in the forest was always magical to me, and I had to experience that once again. Thanks for writing and adding to the camp story.

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      • David Hall said:

        Greetings to you and all the fellow Nik-O-Mahs campers as well. Thank you for the kind response. We have also made the trek to camp many times since its closing. Even with the destruction and decay of the camp itself, there remains a beauty that is quite magical! Brings back many memories, mostly fond, of the campers, counselors and family members that made it such a memorable place. Thank you again for writing the article!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. John person said:

    I was at Nik o mahs 1953-1965 last few years as counselor. Enjoyed your account of camp . My brothers also went there . My nickname at camp was fish. Have run into fellow campers at college etc over the years. Have been back to camp a few times over the years. Lots of good memories

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  10. John person said:

    Hey David, you were a little feller my last couple years. I was at camp from age 6-16,basically grew up in summers with your family. Stayed whole summer after first year. Brothers also there. It was a wonderful time. Have been back numerous times to recall old memories. Only mess hall there now.often thought should have camp reunion. I spoke with your father in mid to late 90s when I was in Philadelphia for summer. Also spoke to Barry street ear when my son was looking at schools-talked about nik-o-mahs. Good hearing from you

    Liked by 1 person

  11. David Hall said:

    Hi John,
    Yes, I was a little guy during those years, but the memories are quite vivid. It was a beautiful place to spend your childhood summers! My Dad lived until the age of 71, and passed away from cancer in 1998. You mentioned my brother in law, Barry Streeter: He is still the head football coach at Gettysburg college, and is the longest active coach in Division 3. My sister Bard also passed away from from cancer in 2006. Their son Brandon is the quarterback coach at National Champion Clemson University! The acorn did not fall far from the tree!

    Liked by 1 person

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