Local legends and a remarkable camp


Orson Slack demonstrates a tool for Camp Woodland youngsters

A grizzled Mike Todd was a favorite of Camp Woodlanders

The Historical Society of the Town of Middletown (HSM) will hold its Annual Meeting and Luncheon Saturday, Oct. 21 at its meeting hall, 778 Cemetery Rd., Margaretville.

The luncheon, catered by Anna Blish, will begin at noon. Seats are $20; reservations may be made by calling 845-586-2860.

A brief business meeting and annual report will start at 1 p.m.

Following the meeting, Bill Horne, author of The Improbable Community: Camp Woodland and the American Democratic Ideal, will provide an illustrated talk, “It ain’t nice fer purty: Tales from the age of homespun.”

The talk will focus on Orson Slack of Arena and Mike Todd of Dry Brook who became close friends of Camp Woodland, a remarkable summer camp near Phoenicia that operated from 1939 to 1962. Young urban campers came to know many of their mountain neighbors through a program of collecting songs, lore and local history.

In the mid-1940s, camp director Norman Studer drove a group of campers along the East Branch of the Delaware River to meet and learn from residents who remembered the homespun era. Orson Slack welcomed them into his carpentry shop and related tales about lumber rafting on the Delaware and winters in the woods. Mike Todd captivated campers with stories about bear hunting and his woodsman’s skills and entertained with harmonica tunes accompanied by the rattle of hardwood maple bones.

Once, when someone complimented Mike on a tool he had forged, he said, “It ain’t nice fur purty, but it’s hell fur stout.”

Annual Folk Festivals organized by Studer and music director Herb Haufrecht were held nearly every summer of the camp’s existence, and featured storytellers, fiddlers and artists from the Catskill region. In 1948, Orson Slack told stories and recited his poems alongside folksinger Pete Seeger and many others. Mike Todd appeared at the 1954 festival, held at Simpson Ski Slope.

The Margaretville program will include audio recordings of the period. An Improbable Community will be available for purchase.

Bill Horne is an attorney who practiced in Washington, DC and Boston. He grew up in Queens and was a camper at Camp Woodland from 1950 to 1960.

For information on HSM programs and to become a member, visit www.mtownhistory.org.