OSWEGO — Perhaps Oswego County Legislative Chairman James Weatherup said it best July 8 when reading from a county legislative resolution commending Camp Hollis on its 75th anniversary as “a place where innocence is celebrated and protected.”
And certainly, celebrated it was as speaker after speaker got up to express congratulations and look back on memories of summers long past throughout the camp’s remarkable 75-year history.
The words were all fine, but as author and former camp director Jim Farfaglia asked of and reminded the assembled guests, “You know what I love the best? Hearing the sound of those kids. I’m glad we have them here today to remind us what camp is about.”
That sound was special as campers played basketball, played tether ball, played on swings as old as the camp itself, and ran around, and laughed and played as only kids do. It was a great reminder.
Of course, adults no longer play in a way that makes such beautiful sounds, but still, they often bring beautiful memories and share those with others, and in their own way make for a beautiful day.
Assemblyman Will Barclay remembered mowing Camp Hollis lawns 35 years ago as a camper himself.
“I think we can all agree that the importance of a camp experience back in 1946, as important as it was then, it is now,” Barclay said.
And County Administrator Phil Church reminded all of the county’s unfailing dedication to the camp over all its years.
“Five thousand people a year use this facility for residential camp, day camp, special events, family reunions, graduations, and tour groups,” Church said.
“We have kids here who are third generation Oswego County residents who’ve used this place and loved it and have great memories.”
Indicating a possible future camp upgrade, Church said, “We’re going to have a longer season and are even talking about year-round events here.”
But, perhaps most meaningfully, he spoke of the last year, during the pandemic, being concerned with expenditures and safety, asking for operating options for the camp. He was presented with three or four, he said, one of which was to completely close the camp for the year. When presented to the Legislature, “the closing went right off the table, first thing,” Church said. “The commitment to this place is overwhelming. We decided we could run this place safely as a day camp and continue the operation. Last year, this place served 280 children despite the pandemic. This year, also as a day camp, it is sold out at 420 children.”
Jim Farfaglia said a 75th anniversary committee had hoped for a big reunion celebration of all past campers, but it couldn’t happen in this COVID year. “That party’s going to happen next summer,” he said. “We’re going to have a big bash and invite former staff and campers back.”
Then the writer of much of Oswego’s history returned to the story of Camp Hollis.
“July 8, 1946 was the first day of Camp Hollis,” Farfaglia said. “So, we are exactly 75 years from that first day, and here’s what those children saw and heard when they were here.” And he read from his book on the history of the camp. ‘Twenty-seven girls and as many boys were selected from orphanages and recommendations by school nurses, probation workers, police officers, and county social servants,’ Farfaglia read. ‘On their way to claim a cot in the dormitories, the excited youngsters passed the humble playground of six swings, a Maypole, and a foot-propelled miniature merry-go-round. In the distance, they saw a trail heading into the woods and Lake Ontario’s welcoming blue waters.’
The present swing set may be the original, Farfaglia noted. “We are fundraising for a new playground here to replace that swing set and other things,” he said.
And he commented on something that is truly unique about Camp Hollis.
“In my time working at Camp Hollis,” he said, “I met one other camp director associated with a municipality. All other camps I ever met were run by churches, scouts, YMCAs. But Oswego County has owned and operated this camp from the beginning, and we’re very thankful for that.”
And then, again, back to history.
“I want to start by going way back, prior to Camp Hollis,” Farfaglia said, “when this was a health camp. The health camp that started here in the 1920s was really the catalyst for the start of the Health Dept. It was back when tuberculosis was a dreaded disease, and the county organized a public health in prevention of tuberculosis. So, we’re proud to be a part of today’s Health Department, which we know how much they helped us this last year-and-a-half. The man who started that camp was Dr. Leroy Hollis from Sandy Creek, and here today, we have members of Dr. Hollis’s family, including Dr. Hollis’s great-great grandson, Michael Short.
“The health camp ran until 1943,” Farfaglia continued, “and then it closed down for a variety of reasons, but in 1946, Judge Eugene Sullivan from the city of Fulton, who was a children’s court judge, saw many children who he felt needed a break in life. And he remembered this abandoned health camp in the town of Oswego, and it was him who founded the camp and the story is much too long to tell today, but I’m so honored to have here today a woman who I’ve known for 25 years now. I met her when we had the 50th anniversary of Camp Hollis, she was able to educate me about the Judge and his work and the Sullivan family. Jane Sullivan Spellman, daughter of Judge Sullivan is here.”
And then it was time for the campers to shine. They assembled in a long line singing, clapping, shouting, jumping around in a complicated and fun perfect camp performance.
Later, County Tourism and Public Information Coordinator Janet Clerkin gave me a little public information.
“Next year, hopefully,” she said, “they’ll be able to resume the residential (aspect of the camp). The kids come out for a week at a time. They’re done in age groups. A hundred come at a time. Typically, there’s 800 kids a summer.”
And what does a week at Camp Hollis cost? “It’s a sliding scale fee,” Clerkin answered, “depending on income, but the Friends of Camp Hollis have a scholarship program, so no one is denied.”
With the lake so readily in view, I asked her if the campers swim or boat there. She told me the kids don’t go in the lake. They have a swimming pool.
“Years back, they were allowed to go in the lake,” she said, “but the bluff is really steep, so, they don’t swim in the lake anymore.”
Some things change, and some things don’t ever seem to. One thing campers and staff have counted on for the past 40 years has been the camp’s kitchen. For those 40 years, it’s been directed by one woman, Lois Terminella.
“It’s got to be close to a million meals that Lois has served to campers here,” someone said, and she was presented with a framed proclamation praising her years of service. As an added honor, the camp kitchen has been dedicated in her name.
It was a moment very much in the spirit of a camp that makes memories and remembers them. Over the peak of a small red building, not far from the camp’s parking lot, is a large hand-painted wooden sign. “In loving memory of Jerry Rounsville,” it says. And the painted handprints of children in reds, whites, and blues surround it.