Friday, May 12, 2017

Camp Mattahoon

I'm proud to present another wonderful Guest Post from Dave Olsen, who's becoming quite the expert on the Mill Creek region north of Milltown. Although admittedly I was originally hesitant to cover topics too far into the 20th Century with this blog, I now realize that there are plenty of fascinating such stories. Dave's post here on Camp Mattahoon is a perfect example. I thank Dave for his great work, and feel free to add any of your own memories of the camp. I know there are still people out there who experienced it firsthand.


--Researched and Written by Dave Olsen
Tucked in along the side of Mill Creek, slightly north of Milltown proper off of Limestone Road are the remains of what was the 170 acre camp ground owned and operated by what we now know as The Boys and Girls Club of Delaware.  The county oasis and get-away was named Camp Mattahoon, supposedly after the Indian Chief from whom, it is said, the early settlers bought land which is now part of Wilmington.  For over 40 years beginning in 1930, the camp provided the opportunity for hundreds of boys to escape the confines of city and as former Director Alfred Kamm mentioned in his 1946 annual report,  “When it comes to fun, health building, self-development, learning of skills, knowledge and habits, there is nothing better than camping for a boy.  More good guidance in behavior and attitudes can be offered a boy in two weeks of camping under proper leadership, than in practically a whole club season.”

While a good part of the Mill Creek Hundred remained true to its agricultural and farming roots in addition to various mill related industries, by the early 1800’s populations were expanding, especially in urban centers like Wilmington. In 1837, railroads connected Wilmington with the larger cities of Baltimore and Philadelphia. Cotton, woolen mills, iron-casting, shipbuilding and numerous other industries were prevalent in Wilmington. For a one hundred year period, from 1830 until 1930, railcar manufacturing, shipbuilding, carriage manufacturing, and leather working (tanneries) were the four largest industries in Wilmington.  Communities of workers living in close proximity to their place of employment were growing up around these factories.  The manufacturing and industrial expansion during this period was also reflected in the population growth. There was an almost fifty percent (49.32%) population increase each decade from 1860 to 1900.


Around the middle of the nineteenth century, the economy, the social and political culture of Wilmington, Delaware, as well as the nation, changed. This was the start of “Big Business” and the time of Cornelius Vanderbilt and John D. Rockefeller.  There was still child labor, no forty-hour work week laws and deplorable working conditions.  The upper class was very aware of the dire straits some of their fellow residents were forced to live. In response, charities were organized and created by churches or the wealthy upper class. 

It was one of these charities, the Red Feather Agency, a direct descendant of The United Way of today that we can trace the origins of the Boys & Girls Clubs back to the early 20th century.  During this period, new immigrants were struggling to adjust to differences in language and culture and poorer working parents were forced to leave children to fend for themselves in the streets and the crime rate was high. Facilities for health and personal hygiene were scarce. The need for providing children from these families with access to constructive activities and grow up as responsible individuals was great.  What began as The Wilmington Community Service (WCS) evolved into what is today the Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware.  The WCS first met in 1919 with the goals of cooperating and coordinating the activities of existing community service agencies.  Mrs. Coleman DuPont, President of WCS, said, “We owe every child a chance to play in a safe and happy environment.” The organization aimed to promote playgrounds for ‘wholesome recreation’ that included promoting ‘health, safety and character.’

The Boys’ Club of Wilmington began its work in the fall of 1926 when the third floor of the Queen Theatre building on Market Street was rented and made into recreation rooms for boys. In December of 1927, the space was enlarged to include the fourth floor of the same building. By this time over 500 boys were members.  For the next several years, the Club provided the 1,592 children who were enrolled, various activities including summer playgrounds, classes in public schools and sports activities. 


Leaving for camp from in front of the Queen in 1930


In 1930, the club purchased 65 acres of land near Marshallton located about eight miles from the headquarters.  At one time this land would probably have been part of John Ball’s farm in present day Arundel which we have discussed in several other posts.  The boys would meet at the Club on Saturday mornings and then be bussed out to the camp for 1 -2 week sessions.  Upon your arrival at Camp Mattahoon, you were divided up into one of two groups or teams – you were either a ''Blue'' or a ''Gold'' and that was for life.  Almost every camping activity provided an opportunity for the Blues to score points against the Golds or vice versa. Every softball game, swimming meet, boxing match, horseshoe pitching contest and competition on the rifle or archery range, among others, resulted in points for the contestants and then for teams Blue and Gold.  Additionally, points could be scored for woodcraft, nature and other educational activities, as well as, daily housekeeping and camp related chores. The scores, a camp obsession, were calculated daily, weekly, monthly and finally at the end of the camping season.  The losing team then had to endure an entire fall, winter and spring of pain and despair associated with their summer failure.




Boys at the camp, 1932

As the camp prospered into the 1940’s and 1950’s, the facility was constantly upgraded and improved.  In 1955, a gift of 95 additional acres of surrounding land from S. Hallock DuPont increased the size of the facility to nearly 170 acres.  The original tents as seen below were replaced by cabins that housed 8 boys each.  Additional buildings were added including the care takers house, mess hall and kitchen, recreation hall, bath and wash houses, a small hospital and dispensary and craft and nature houses.  A formal swimming pool was added and a new dam on Mill Creek was constructed which resulted in a pond/swimming area approximately 40’ wide by 900’ long and about 5’ deep.  This allowed for canoeing, fishing, swimming and other water activities to also be enhanced.  During the war years, when many of the older teens that had served as counselors and instructors had enlisted and were serving our country, the program expanded to include more teen-aged boys.  The teen-age camp known as the Pioneer Camp, was a tent city adjacent to Camp Mattahoon and was limited to boys 14 to 18, with no more than 10 boys at the camp for four weeks at a time.  As the Director of the camp stated, “The principal purpose of Pioneer Camp is to give these boys, too old for Camp Mattahoon, a new experience in camping and through an in-service training program to provide us with a pool of skilled counselors”.



As the urban sprawl continued to spread west of Wilmington in the mid to late 1960’s, it eventually led to Matahoon’s demise.  In 1968, the contractor Frank Robino purchased the tract of land that butted directly up to the eastern boundaries of the Camp and started the construction of the Arundel Apartments and eventually the single family homes that presently occupy the area.  With the construction came physical challenges to the camp in the form of storm water runoff from the cleared land which quickly choked and clogged the creek killing the stocked fish and silting up the former rocky bottom.  A new factor also ruined the camp atmosphere according to a September 6, 1971 article in the Morning News that mentions the harassment of campers and repeated vandalism and theft of camp property and campers’ belongings by neighborhood youths or others gaining access to the camp through the development.  The resident camp closed in 1969 and the day camp in 1971.  Eventually, another developer purchased the land and built the current townhouse community of Walden.
Some additional highlights of the camps 40 year history courtesy of the various Wilmington newspapers include:
1943 – Thomas Angeline set a new camp record for long distance swimming.  Angeline swam a total of 268 lengths or 4.47 miles.  The Blue team made up of 22 members and the Gold team made up of 31 members combined to swim a total of 32.7 miles during the 8 week summer season.
1944 – William Jasinski was the first boy to achieve the “expert” marksmanship rating.  Nearly all of the 184 boys at the camp used the rifle range and 43 campers completed a total of 119 qualifications.


1947 – Dr. George J Boines, director of the contagious unit and president of the Wilmington Board of Heath, announced that Camp Mattahoon, now host to about 80 boys would be quarantined at once due to an outbreak of polio.  A doctor and nurse will examine every boy and the quarantine will last 10 days.  Parents are urged not to bring their children home until it is over.
1951 - Horseback riding instruction will be featured this year for the first time ever.  Arrangements have been made with the Truitt Riding Academy to provide horses and instructors and a riding rink will be constructed.  (I wonder if the Truitt Riding Academy coincided with the Truitt Farms named development that was built in the late 80’s across Milltown Road from the entrance to Sherwood Park I).
1955/1956 – On several occasions, members of the 16th Rifle Company of the USMC Reserves practiced small unit tactics including mock ambushes; simulated sniper fire; simulated mortar and artillery fire and counter attacks.  Blank ammunition, smoke grenades and harmless noise-making devices added to the realism.  Over 4,000 rounds of blank machine gun and rifle ammunition was expended.
1998 – I found a newspaper article written by Fred Hartmann who was the editor of the Jacksonville, FL Times-Union newspaper and retired in 1998.  The article detailed memories of his time at Camp Mattahoon during the mid 1940’s at Camp Mattahoon.  Mr. Hartmann was also the editor at the Wilmington News Journal and Morning News for a long time prior to moving to Florida.  Here is a link to that article that he contributed after formally retiring in 1998. It is a great read:  http://jacksonville.com/tu-online/stories/062298/dsf_0622camp.html#.WQsMsVXyupo  (I wonder if the Mike Walsh that he writes about is the longtime New Castle County Sheriff?  Coincidentally, I went to elementary and junior high with Fred’s son in the 1970’s).
2017 – So what is still there today.  Over the past 46 years since Camp Mattahoon hosted its last campers, Mother Nature has slowly taken back the ball fields, rifle and archery ranges, trails and other open areas, and Mill Creek has modified its course so that none of the three dams are of any consequence any more.  During the construction of the townhouse community of Walden in the late 1980’s, any of the buildings still standing were knocked down as part of the construction of the development.  There are still, however, and large number of ruins that give a great account of the various activities that made the camp what it was.  Below are some pictures with descriptions on what you can find now if you walk through old camp grounds.

Special thanks to Heather Pletcher, Executive Administrative Assistant for the Boys and Girls Clubs of DE for some of the historical photographs and camp brochure.
I also want to cite Carol Hoffecker’s Book – Wilmington: A Pictorial History for some of the historical information.


The Pioneer Camp

Remains of the piers from the tent platforms. Note the close
proximity of the Arundel house in the background.

Piers from several additional bunk houses in the Pioneer Camp area.
Note the fireplace from the Recreation Hall in the background.

First dam (closest to Limestone Road). If you look closely beyond the two
trees on the right bank, you can see the covered foot bridge and the second
dam right in front of it. Also note the wood planking on both banks.

Same view today
Dam #1 looking downstream, towards Limestone Road. Note the close proximity
of the Arundel apartments and how the creek has modified its course around the
original edge of the dam. You can also see the remains of the wood planks that
served as a dock or edge as noted in the old picture above.

Another view looking downstream at the first dam.
Campers posing on top of and below the first dam
The second dam

On the right bank of the creek you can see the remains of the foot bridge. This
dam may have been part of the dam that supplied the race to the Chandler Mill
Remains of the foot bridge

Remains of the truck bridge
Another angle of the remains of the truck bridge
Filter room/pit for the swimming pool
Water well in the vicinity of the swimming pool and pool filter pit
Basketball and volleyball court
Fireplace from the Recreation Hall literally in someone's backyard
Recreation Hall support posts and rafters
Remains of several buildings, most likely another wash house.
You can still see vinyl floor tiles in some spots

Remains of Dam #3, which is about 500 yards upstream of
Dam #1 and about 200 yards upstream of Dam #2

Dam #3

6 comments:

  1. excellent article!i went to day camp there,and still live close enough to walk around the area occasionally.

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  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  3. Wow, had no clue so many remains still existed! There is a very old abandoned playground along the creek about 20 feet from Limestone Road, right by the bridge where the creek goes under it, was this part of the camp?

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  4. I grew up in Sherwood Park II. As small kids we hiked over to the camp and snooped around. I never really knew any details about the camp so this post was really enlightening. Wow, have time changed.

    I believe the playground mentioned in the comment above was associated with Arundel. Back in the '70's there was a pond there too where we ice skated during the winter. Always tons of kids there. Unfortunately, the pond was drained long ago.

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  5. So this is as close a to personal connection as I can get to the camp. I just found out from my mother (Hi Mom!) that she had the chance to visit the camp when she was young. Apparently they lived next door to the president of the Boy's Club, C. K. Vander, in Fairfax. I never knew this. All I could find on him was this one article from June 1954. I assume that it occurred at Mattahoon, but I don't know for sure.

    Boys Club Head
    Burned at Camp
    WILMINGTON, Del.. June 15
    (AP).-^-C. K. Vander, director of
    the Boys Club of Wilmington, was
    seriously burned today in a gasoline
    explosion at the club's summer
    camp near here.
    Vander was using gasoline to
    burn out weeds when it suddenly
    ignited.
    He was taken to Wilmington
    General Hospital.
    Vander is a former director of
    the Trenton, N. J., Boys Club and
    is a national director of the
    organization

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  6. I walk back there a lot as do so many others. I have seen some remains but wasn't sure what they were from. It must have been a wonderful camp and so beautiful in the woods. Hard to believe the creek was so big as to swim in it and canoe.

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