Stefanie Zink Dobrin ’47 and step-daughter Susan Dobrin Spevak ’67 tune up skis and snowshoes at Holly House. Courtesy of Barnard College Archives
Martha Harris Moskowitz ’57, a born-and-bred New Yorker who was raised on the Lower East Side, had “never had a country experience” when she entered Barnard. The allure of getting away from the city was compelling, so she eagerly signed up for a barbecue at Barnard Camp (the original name) during her first-year fall semester. She was sold. “It appealed to me,” says Moskowitz. “It was something that was out of the ordinary.”
Indeed it was. Barnard Camp, opened officially on October 15, 1933, was located in nearby Westchester County in Ossining. Students had to pump their own water, heat it on a propane stove for cooking and cleaning (the cold-water outdoor shower was brisk) as well as buy and prepare their own meals. Socializing was simple, focused on telling stories around the living room, or at an outdoor campfire, singing folk songs. Moskowitz recalls, “I learned a lot of folk songs. Living in Alphabet City, you didn’t learn a lot of folk songs.”
The desire to offer Barnard students (many of whom were urban New Yorkers) an experience that was distinctly different from the pressures of the Morningside Heights’ campus developed as early as 1918, when students had been able to retreat to a farm in Bedford, New York. During the 1920s, Barnard students escaped to campsites around the metropolitan area, ultimately asking the administration for a permanent place to call their own. The original 10-acre site was bought for $9,000 with funds raised by alumnae through ticket sales to Greek Games, donations, and benefits. By 1938, the camp was 20 acres with one main cabin; two rooms with bunks could sleep 15 to 20 students. There were outhouses connected to refuse pits; the lake was considered the best option for getting clean. Seasonal activities included hiking, ice-skating, swimming, and skiing. After the retirement of the physical education department chair, Margaret Holland, who was an adviser for the camp, the cabin was renamed “Holly House.”
Neither the Forest of Arden nor the Garden of Eden (Holly House was surprisingly close to the Sing Sing state prison), the camp was especially valuable for commuters who enjoyed the opportunity to get to know dorm students in a non-classroom setting.
“As a city person, it was so nice that we could go someplace,” says Millicent Alter ’57, who was raised in Flatbush, Brooklyn. She vividly remembers the food—pancakes for breakfast, cold cuts for lunch, and hot dogs and baked beans for dinner. As a relatively inexperienced cook, Alter recalls how she bought coffee beans at the local supermarket but didn’t know they needed to be ground. No matter. With her camp mates, they put the beans into a pillowcase and tried to pulverize them; but three students still had to walk back to town to get the beans ground so they could brew coffee.
Holly House had other attractions. “It was a way to get out of the house,” laughs Gaya Feinerman Brodnitz ’57, who commuted to Barnard from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. She also liked the modest cost, $5 for the weekend, which included food, and the chance to watch the Tappan Zee Bridge being built as she rode the train north to Croton-on-Hudson.
There was a lightheartedness and simplicity to the camp’s activities, not to mention assorted pranks, she recalls. One Halloween, some senior girls were at the camp with a group of first-years. “All of a sudden, things were going ‘bump in the night,’” says Brodnitz. Nervous first-years (who had let their imaginations run wild thinking about escapees from Sing Sing) were consoled with roasted marshmallows from the seniors who had pulled the prank. There was also a day when the students decided to have only blue food, including blue mayonnaise. “It was very old-fashioned, and very relaxing,” declares Brodnitz.
By the 1960s, the quaint charms of Holly House were less attractive to undergraduates, and the camp was ultimately sold in 1992. But, for those who had spent memorable weekends in the woods, the appeal was undeniable. “You got to know people who went to camp with you,” says Moskowitz. “It added to the Barnard experience. I have fond memories of going up there. It made us feel closer to the College. We made friendships across the classes.”
—by Merri Rosenberg ’78