Inside the Brown Bag

By Peg Brown

Buttercups, Queen Anne’s Lace and Indian Paint Brush

These were the centerpieces of the sliver of land located along a small piece of the 700 miles of shore line stretching from Lake Ontario to the Atlantic Ocean owned by my grandparents. Officially described on a yellowed piece of paper folded neatly into thirds still among my grandfather’s documents as 2.65 acres.

Written in pencil at the bottom of this scrap of paper–$150.00 purchase price.

With nothing more official, my great grandparents purchased what would become the site of four camps, each owned by one of the Cordwell brothers, that would house the memories of four generations of the family. The plans had been simple—take this tract of land, divide it into four parcels and build four identical cottages, creating a compound for grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins and assorted friends to share the adventures of summer at camp. The “compound” concept continued into several adjacent lots, purchased and developed by the Mosier family, my grandmother’s sisters, brother, spouses and children.

We never used the more popular word, “cottage”, to describe these structures—they were truly camps. The architecture was of a simple box design, large windows on three sides, and nothing more elaborate than cement steps leading from a single door. The windows were things of terror. One opened the window from the bottom, raised the whole frame with 12 panes of glass toward the ceiling, and hooked what was in hindsight a very flimsy metal arm through the eye screw. When sitting or lying under the open windows, one always considered the possible threat of a guillotine action and very bloody results. The windows were covered in great lengths of maroon cloth with giant grey flowers, sewn on Grandma’s treadle Singer and strung on plastic rings on a wire that surrounded the entire room.

The interior was never covered in sheetrock—the open and unfinished studs provided storage niches in unexpected places. There was one large room, with four beds lining the outside walls, one for each grandchild. I use the bed term loosely—one of the cots was actually a chaise lounge, more suitable to a patio—and always the choice of the oldest grandchild who clearly had no back problems.

The space was dominated by a large rectangular oak table, lit by a slag glass lamp that likely was intended to imitate the popular Tiffany style of the era. Various sized chairs, in at least six different styles and finishes were scattered around the room, and assembled in the evening when as many as a dozen gathered for dinner. There were two bedrooms, each petitioned from the main room with just a curtain as a door.

The kitchen featured the modern conveniences of a farmhouse sink, served by a large pump that transported water for cooking and cleaning directly from the river. The refrigerator stood about five feet tall, had a single door and was dominated by the round motor coils on the top, a style left over from the 1930s. At some point a second refrigerator of the exact same vintage was added in the great room. There was no bathroom. Any hygiene that took place involved a dip in the river for bathing, boiling water for cooking and dishwashing, or a trip to the outhouse for other functions. Under each bed was a chamber pot for nighttime emergencies or a flashlight for those old enough or brave enough to journey to the backyard in the dark.

The camp did have a large gas stove, one of those white and black porcelain models where Grandma insisted on cooking elaborate evening meals. We always had boiled potatoes, stuck on the end of a fork and peeled by her before being placed on each grandchild’s plate. Other standard fare included corn on the cob in season—at least two dozen, slathered in butter, held by tiny corn handled prongs, and stacks of white sliced bread. You could certainly tell we had no clue on carbohydrate loading, starch overdose or the possible effects of gluten. There was always dessert—apple pie accompanied by sharp cheddar cheese or whatever berry was in season that we had picked in the woods that day.

The camp, located just above the Boy Scout Camp (now Jacques Cartier Park), was reached by a very narrow and winding road running just along the river—in fact so close to some camps that Grandpa Cordwell would always shift his old Packard into first gear as we rounded each bend. The cars that journeyed to camp were always loaded with supplies—we had to bring in all of our water in clear glass gallon jugs, and there was always a pet or two of some sort anxious to escape into the wild. We never had any choice about what was on the radio—Grandpa always had it tuned to the Yankees game, as the rich and distinctive voice of Yankee’s announcer Mel Allen entertained us all. The access road to the camp itself was never paved, and early in the season the grass strip down the center of the dirt road would tickle the car’s undercarriage as we bumped along.

We did have electricity, but no television or telephone. Entertainment consisted of an occasional radio program, the usual summer river activities—boating, swimming, fishing—and hours spent reading, playing capture the flag or cutting out paper dolls. My Aunt and Uncle, Beverly and Bill Draper of Morristown, owned a restaurant on Main Street and were always able to supply an endless bundle of comic books—our favorites in those days were Archie and Veronica stories.

We rarely got actually dressed. We put on our bathing suits when we awoke and our pajamas when we hung our suits on the clothes line to dry. We never wore shoes—those were deposited in the city closet on the last day of school and sneakers, if any foot covering at all was worn, were the order of the day until September. I think we always wondered why we thought our feet had suddenly grown when we returned to leather shoes in the fall.

Was everything always perfect? Of course not. In hindsight does it seem that it might have been—you’ve got that right!

Author’s notes:

Oh, and by the way—The tax bill for the Town of Morristown, paid on December 23, 1937, on the camp–$11.82 (which included a Collector’s Fee of 12 cents). The property with 110 feet of waterfront was valued at $400 for 1/8 acre—the general tax was $9.06—the extra $1.60 was highway tax.