What brings preschoolers, preteens, senior citizens, New Yorkers and young people from far-off places such as Australia to a wooded tract along the border of Deep River and the Ivoryton section of Essex?
The answer is Incarnation Center, owned and operated by the Episcopal Diocese of New York and the oldest continuously operated church camp in the United States. The facility, off Bushy Hill Road that began as a summer camp, now offers a variety of programs year-round.
One of the camp's main attractions is Bushy Hill Lake, a mile-long, deep-water lake that predates the camp opening in 1929. The lake, man-made 128 years ago, was restored after it drained dry when the original dam broke in the June 6, 1982, flood.
Most of the Incarnation Center property, which totals 642 acres in Deep River and 38 acres in Essex, was once a sheep farm operated by the Clark family. The lake was created in 1873, when the farmers allowed the Comstock, Cheney and Co. piano makers to build a 20-foot dam that impounded a brook flowing through the property.
Water flowing from the lake powered the main shop of the company, which became Pratt, Read and Co. after a 1936 merger with a similar operation in Deep River.
Incarnation Camp was founded more than 100 miles away, at Mohegan Lake in upper Westchester County, N.Y. Established in 1886 by the Church of the Incarnation in Manhattan, the camp began as a fresh-air program for mothers and children seeking an escape from the crowded tenements of late 19th-century New York.
After serving as a convalescent home for veterans of the Spanish-American War, the camp relocated in the early 1900s to Kings Point on Long Island. It moved to Ivoryton in 1929, beginning as seven tents on wooden platforms along the lake shore. A pavilion, called the Tumble Inn, and a kitchen facility, called St. James, were built before the camp's first major expansion in 1947.
That was the year several buildings were constructed, including the caretaker's house near the road and a lodge that now houses the center's elderhostel program. The camp grew during the 1950s, through mergers with other church camps, but remained a seasonal operation. Children, mostly Episcopalians from New York, would spend about a month at the camp. Boys would come in July, and the girls would arrive in August.
In its early years, the camp was run by the vicar of the Manhattan church. Andrew Katsanis was hired as the camp's second full-time director in 1956, succeeding a man named Rudolph Giuliani who was not related to the New York City mayor.
In the early 1960s, the camp began attracting senior citizens who viewed a two-week stay in the "vacation lodge'' as an alternative to the Catskills and Poconos . Arriving in 1964 was Lucy Weed, a Baltimore, Md., native recruited by Katsanis who served as the camp's secretary and bookkeeper for the next 34 years.
Weed, who eventually moved from New York City to Ivoryton, said working at the camp was "the most fun I ever had.'' One of her fondest memories is of taking a group of campers to an early presentation of "Man of La Mancha'' after it premiered at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam.
The camp expanded to year-round operation by the mid-1970s. New programs that continue today include Pioneer Village, a camping program for teenagers on the remote north side of the lake, and Nature's Classroom, a Massachusetts-based environmental education program.
The camp began attracting counselors from Australia, New Zealand and the Scandanavian countries through the Camp America exchange program. The Bushy Hill Nature Center, offering a summer day camp and related environmental education activities, opened in 1981.
In 1982, Mother Nature intervened and forced the facility's directors and staff to focus on saving the camp's major attraction, Bushy Hill Lake.
A slow-moving storm brought more than 12 inches of rain to Ivoryton on Saturday, June 5, 1982. In the early morning of June 6, the original dam gave way, sending forth a wall of water that breached a second dam on Clarks Pond, nearly gutted the Pratt Read complex, and destroyed several homes downstream along the Falls River.
But the camp carried on, despite the disaster. The summer swimming program moved to nearby Messerschmidt's Pond in Deep River for two seasons. The church began a major fund-raising drive called "give a dam'' that raised $1 million to rebuild the dam. The new dam was completed in the fall of 1983, and by the spring of 1984, the lake was restored.
The camp's facilities continue to expand. The Rev. Douglas Schwert, the camp's current director, said a new $1.2 million building will be completed this fall. It will house counselors during the summer months, and the Nature's Classroom program and various conferences during the rest of the year.
Schwert said the last vestiges of the original 1929 camp, the platform tents along the lakefront, will be demolished to make room for a larger beach area. One thing that will not change is the positive memories of Camp Incarnation that linger for generations of campers and staff.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun