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ON THE SCENE: Putnam Camp still charms visitors

August 30, 2019
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

Putnam Camp, located at the base of Roaring Brook Falls in Keene, is a gem. It's for people who like to step away from the hustle of society, get close to nature, and live simply and communally with others of a similar mind and spirit.

When Putnam Camp was formally established in 1877, it was located at the end of a cul-de-sac. State Route 73 that links Keene to the Northway didn't exist. Nor did the thousands of visitors pouring through to climb the High Peaks, visit or compete in Lake Placid, ski Whiteface or canoe the Saranac Lakes. Back then, the road stopped at Beede Farm, which took in lodgers; just a rough trail extended up to Chapel Pond.

"Charles and James Putnam, Henry Bowditch, and William James, all doctors from Boston, were hiking here," said Bill Joplin, a long-time member. "They liked the site so much they ultimately bought the place from the Beedes. They agreed not to use it as a hotel, but rather as a place to invite their friends with whom they'd share expenses."

Article Photos

Above are current Putnam Camp managers Justin Doro and his wife Heather Bizon. Below are John and Katie Case, who managed the camp from 1981 to 2005.
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

In the 1920s, as the founding members died off, their kids were not interested in staying at Putnam for a month at a time, so they turned it into the nonprofit retreat that it remains to this day. Today Putnam Camp consists of a dozen buildings centered around the original Beede farmhouse tucked tightly against the base of Giant Mountain. Though Route 73 runs nearby, once you step across a bridge to reach the compound, all the noise of traffic and hikers goes away, hidden behind the sound of water tumbling down Putnam Brook and a wall of dense trees.

Putnam Camp has welcomed such noteworthy guests as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, who came during Freud's only visit to the United States 110 years ago. His visit included giving five lectures at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, a visit to Niagara Falls and a couple of days relaxing in Putnam Camp. While Jung enjoyed the experience at Putnam Camp immensely, Freud did not. He later complained that one meal, a steak cooked over a campfire by "culinary savages," resulted in digestive problems he experienced for the rest of his life. Worst was that American women gave him insomnia, an outcome of erotic dreams they inspired. By contrast, Jung poetically praised the intoxicating women he met in the Putnam Camp visitors' book.

In my mind, the most anxiety-vexing element of Putnam is the undulating and sloping boulder- and bush-strewn croquet course that's short on rules and without boundaries. The wooden mallets all appear to have been used to pound circus stakes into the ground. I noticed a few balls and mallets some distance from the wickets. Lost you might think. No, just the combatants taking a break during a game still in play.

No two cabins are remotely alike. One, The Ark, is not much more than a small sitting room and closet attached to a sleeping porch. Another, The Coop, looks like a square wooden wigwam. Inside is a pulldown ladder for reaching the sleeping spaces higher up. Each cabin has a charm all its own. Some are tucked away in the woods, or over by the brook, while others are centered around the central open space that includes the garden.

Putnam Camp has several gathering spots, most importantly perhaps is the dining hall where meals are served on tables arranged to form an open square. According to several campers, Freud would be pleased as the food is now excellent, a gift from the quality of the chefs and the produce available at the Valley Grocery store and the weekly farmers market at Marcy Field along with other vendors.

Another vital spot is The Stoop, where they have their weekly cookout made infamous by Freud, sing songs, play games, read, and enjoy each other's company. It's a rustic gazebo that overlooks the grounds, is backed by the brook and is located between the "Upper" and "Lower" camps. Above the fireplace, a quote from Horace reads, "This corner of the world smiles to me above all others."

"This place is great," said Jason Cha, visiting Putnam with his family. "It's hard to leave. It's wonderful to be in nature and have a place where my kids can run around, explore and play."

About 40 or so people are in residence, most just for a week, some longer. Most come the same week each year, though not always. Deep friendships have evolved, and new people are invited via friends and family.

"The purpose of Putnam Camp is to cultivate a community of people who have a deep love of coming up here, being a part of the wilderness, and being with others who share that passion," said Justin Doro, who manages the camp with his wife, Heather Bizon.

The cost of staying is modest, but that's an outcome of volunteer weekends to open and close the camp, contributions of money and skills, and valuing less is more. If you're looking for a place with all the latest amenities, Putnam's not for you. The prime amenities are the people and the rustic venue itself, nestled in the Adirondack wilderness. Children love Putnam. They have woods to explore, pools in the brook to cool off in, and three dozen pairs of eyes keeping watch as an unobtrusive safety net.

The people and businesses of Keene serve as a broader safety net. Many a camp manager has arrived not knowing how to solve every problem 150-year-old buildings and infrastructure present.

"When I first started, I vastly overestimated my skills and knowledge," said John Case, who managed the camp with his wife Katie from 1981 to 2005. "During my time here, I met so many kind, generous and skilled people who taught me a huge amount about plumbing, electricity and carpentry. That was fun."

"We learned so much from the guests as well as from those at the Valley Gro, the Valley Hardware, and so many others that were just great at teaching us things we didn't know," said Katie Case.

"A huge part of this place is the support we receive from the community down in Keene Valley," said Doro. "There is a deep love and respect for what we bring to the town. That love and respect go both ways. This value of supporting and sustaining each other, be it campers with each other, with the staff, or with the community is a big part of this place. It pulls that out of us. It connects us. Those connections are different for each individual and each family, but there is something about this site and the people who come here that helps that a lot."

If you are interested in being a part of this community, the first step is a visit so they can get to know you and you them. The details are on their website: putnamcamp.org.

 
 
 

 

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