LYMAN – In a large, rustic cafeteria adorn with lots natural wood and screening over looking an idyllic summer camp setting, a sea of middle age or older people are devouring their lunch. As the meal wanes, an unlikely scene emerges; a speaker, on a small stage behind a microphone, wonders aloud where everyone is from.
The gathered people – Scandinavian fiddlers and dancers — shout out various locations and the denizens raise their hands to be counted. There is a competition of sorts to see which location is most prevalent and which participant has traveled the furthest. “California” someone shouts and then counts the hands and reports “nine,” and the scene repeats itself with nearly two dozen state (not one person is from New Hampshire) and even a handful of countries (Japan being the most distant).
Every summer for 85 years, people have traveled the twisting and turning road that leads to Ogontz camp in Lyman. It is a 350-acre with 99 rustic buildings gathered around a pristine lake, shadowed by ancient pines and sweeping lawns. Today, it is a Mecca for aspiring musicians hoping to hone their skills under the guidance of distinguished masters.
It wasn’t always that way. It started as an elite girls camp to develop, as a vintage camp brochure says, “good sportsmanship, gentle manors, high morals, honest friendships and good citizenship,” but in time, the camp slipped out of favor and began to decline and nearly close. Then in a burst of serendipity, George and Lynn Kent, who used the camp for their local choir group for many years, became the camp’s owners and saviors. Since 1993, they have put the camp on sound footing – by developing it as a place for musical groups to gather and by restoring the camp to its original condition. Now, they are engaged in building a large, all purpose grand events hall, which will allow them to offer more services and programs, including private weddings, retreats and events.
Built in 1923, as the brainchild of Abby Sutherland, then the principal of what was then known, as the Chestnut Street Female Seminary in Philadelphia, which later became Ogontz School for Girls and now is Penn State Abington. The name came from the estate that housed the school, and refers to a much admired Sandusky Indian Chief. The White Mountain Ogontz camp, as it was formally known, became a sort of summer extension of the school.
The camps popularity grew and with it the number of buildings – including many unique open side cabins which are built side by side and resemble at first glance of a shanty row. These small sleeping quarters are essentially full-roofed skeleton buildings, which are open to the elements. Tarps can be unrolled for privacy and mosquito nettings can be draped over the beds. The fact that privileged girls and now adult musicians occupy these structures is a testament to the simple, at a times (especially in wet weather) cumbersome camp life. The luxury is in the setting and life style that they promote, but they are not for everyone so there are also a few similar aged cabins with four walls and windows, as well as newer, more comfortable accommodations.
The 1960s brought change to the country and the camp. In 1965, the Sutherland family sold Ogontz to Miss Bette Huber, the long-time camp director. Summer camps were struggling with the changing times, and the focus of the camp shifted to equestrian training.
In 1967, George and Lynn Kent convinced the Miss Bette to allow their church’s choir group to use the facilities at the end of summer in exchange for closing up the camp for the winter. The choir of the Christ Episcopal Church in Westerly, RI under the leadership of their choir master, George Kent, used the camp for many years. As the camp declined, the Kent’s began to assume a large role and expanded their use, including hosting a choral symposium with renowned British choral director and musical editor, Sir David Willcocks. Mrs. Kent remembers the declining condition of the camp and the ultimately razing of the large, central pavilion. It was assumed that Hubert would leave the camp to the Girl Scouts, but then she decided to sell it. In 1993, despite marrying off three of their children, the Kent’s were able to secure an agreement and purchase the camp. Then they went to work restoring the camp and, as Mrs. Kent notes that every single roof was replaced.
George Kent, who is a music professor at the University of Rhode Island, used his knowledge and network to tap into the arts community and to attract more group events to come to the camp. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the camp now hosts ten different organizations ranging from choral singing to horn and dance camps. “On a given week musicians from all over the world converged on camp,” explained Andrew Lidestri, the camp’s chief operations officer.
Lidestri, who spends the off season working in the arts in New York City, leads a small, but diverse group of summer employees that range from 87-year old baker Nora Spens , a retired pathologist, to 16-year old Noah Yean, a junior at Lisbon High School, who also plays violin, cello and piano. The common link for most of the dozen or so staff members is their long association with the camp and Kents. Thirty-year old Lidestri, who was part of the Kent’s choir camp in 1987, when he was eight years old, has been coming to the Ogontz each summer for twenty-two years. Many of Lidestri’s staff of young people, who prepare meals and keep the place running smoothly, have similarly long tenures despite their young ages. This year the camp planted a larger garden and began a small poultry operation.
One of the highlights of the operation is the requirement that each camper complete roughly 30-minutes of daily chores that range from working in the kitchen, gardening or cleaning. These manual duties are administered by the young staff members. Yean says it is ironic when he gives instructions to someone, who is three or four times his age. He tries, he says, to use positive reinforcement and modeling to guide his older underlings. Yean, who moved to Lisbon with his parents a few years ago, celebrated his Junior Prom at the camp last spring. This occasion introduced him to Lidestri, who in turn hired him as part of the summer staff. Yean marvels that this experience is so close to home, and ads, “the people who are teaching (here) are world renowned musicians.”
Lidestri really sees the staff’s role is giving campers the kind of experience that he had as a youngster. “We love it,” he says, “when they love it.”
As a tribute to the camp’s revival, the construction of an impressive performance and events facility is well underway. It features heavy timber framing made from trees from the property. The construction of this building will bring the grand total of structures on the vast property to 100. But, Lynn Kent doesn’t dream of big changes at Ogontz. Asked what she would like the camp to look like twenty years from now, she answers, “I hope it’s just the same.”