AN EXCERPT from “SUMMER CAMPS” – August 2022

With permission of the author, Bill Birns, from A Catskill Catalog,
Recently re-printed by Purple Mountain Press

“Summer camps—overnight camps attended by children without their parents—were first established in the 1880s in North America, fueled by Victorian convictions about nature’s moral and physical benefits,” the Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society tells us. The first summer camps were established in northern New England, far from the temptations and complications of city life.

It didn’t take long for summer camps to reach the Catskills. Harry W. Little ran the region’s first summer camp, up in Woodland Valley. In 1904, Little, a graduate of Weslyan University, was hired by Edward Miller to set up and manage a children’s camp as an adjunct to Miller’s hotel business, The Roxbury Inn. Little operated Camp Wake Robin on the Roxmor rounds in Woodland Valley for the next 25 years.

Camp Wake Robin, of course, was named after John Burroughs’ first book, Wake-Robin, published in 1871. Summer camps took their inspiration from conservationists and naturalists like Burroughs, who reminded late nineteenth-century Americans of the importance of the natural world, a natural world threatened by urbanization and industrialization. Most camps also offered their young male charges a good dollop of military-style order and discipline a kind of muscular masculinity thought needed by boys who, some worried, were in danger of being “over-civilized.”

The horror of the First World War made a military model less appealing, and in the 1920s, summer camps began to structure themselves around Native American lore as the model and inspiration for childhood interaction with nature. At the same time, camping for girls became more common.

In 1930, Camp Oquago was established on Perch Lake in Andes as a girls’ camp. Louis Mirsky and Ben Steinberger, founding partners, also established Lake Tunis as a boys’ camp on the small lake of that name between Andes and Delhi. For the next 19 years, Lake Tunis-Camp Oquago, Inc. operated the two camps, with 170 or so girls at Oquago and about 150 boys at Tunis.

In August 1937, Camp Oquago made news as the first summer camp to produce and perform a modern opera. The German composer, Paul Hindemith, had visited the United States the previous Spring. Inspired by theatrical visionary Bertolt Brecht, Hindemith, wrote a number of compositions intended to be played by amateurs. One, “Let’s Build a Town,” was designed to be played entirely by children, which the Camp Oquago girls did.

Dr. Paul A. Pisk, a Viennese composer who had immigrated to the United States in 1936 to escape Nazi persecution, was the Music Director of Camp Oquago that summer of ’37. He directed the production. Pisk was already a celebrated composer, having written 36 musical opuses in Europe. He went on to become a professor at the University of Texas, an important twentieth-century composer and musicologist….

In 1948, Henry and Fromma Wellman bought Camp Oquago and made it co-educational. David Stern, Commissioner of the National Basketball Association, was one of their many campers who went on to successful careers. The Wellmans, in 1977, turned operation of the camp over to Laura and Stuart Chase, who ran it until Camp Oquago closed in 1993.

For more about Andes summer camps go to our website ( for August 2009 articles on Andes summer camps. Use search terms “summer camps” and “Lake Delaware Boys Camp.” ~