The Whistling of the Winds and the Transformation of Camp Takodah

On September 9th, 1938, a beast was born in the Atlantic.

It was a monster with no name. It was a monster with no shame. It crossed the ocean, starting from the west coast of Africa, gained strength through the Caribbean, and then turned due north with its sights set squarely upon the eastern seaboard of the United States.

This demon would later be known as “The Great New England Hurricane.”

When it made landfall, at Suffolk County on Long Island, as a category 3 storm in the early morning hours of September 21st, it was in the midst of astronomically high tides. The effects were immediately felt far and wide. From there, it smashed its way through Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. It destroyed homes, devastated infrastructure, caused floods, flattened forests and, worst of all, it took hundreds of lives. With sustained wind speeds of 90 to 120mph and gusts exceeding 180mph, this ferocious cyclone moved quickly, at nearly 50mph over land, until it finally approached Southern New Hampshire and Vermont.

Lying directly in its path was a popular, rustic summer camp nestled in the quiet woods of Richmond.

Just two weeks prior to the storm, “Uncle” Oscar Elwell had commented in his annual report to the Cheshire County YMCA Directors that the summer had been “one for the record books.” Takodah had its highest attendance, they had benefitted from new activities for the campers, and they had enjoyed new program facilities on the property. The weather had been wonderful and the leadership was as strong as it had ever been.

“While we’re sad to move out of The Birches and we’ll miss the sounds of happy children,” he said, “Frances and I will be looking forward to next summer which we hope will be bigger and better.”

This was something he said at the end of each year. “Bigger and better.” The Elwells were always fiercely optimistic and relentlessly determined for Takodah to grow year after year. It was their mission. It was their life. And they knew the operation unlike anyone else. But, this time, Oscar had no idea what was coming at him. There was no weather service like we have today. There was no internet or television. There was little to no coordinated warning. There no way to fully prepare.

Nevertheless, the monster was on its way.

When the eye-wall arrived in the churning skies over Cass Pond late in the afternoon of the 21st, it unleashed its power in ways that are still visible nearly 80 years later. It easily leveled 200,000 square feet of hemlocks, pine, and hard wood trees. To give you a sense of what that means, the newly created gaps in the forest made it possible to see a wide open view from B-Field to Route 119 and from the Office to the Pond. You could clearly see cars on the road and boats on the water.

When the wind and rains had dissipated, it took a few more days until a group of dedicated Takodians, including Harold Dickinson, Leon Amidon, Red May, the Elwells and a few additional volunteers from the Normal School, could get to the camp road from Keene. Once they arrived, they discovered it was utterly impassable. They spent hour after hour that morning cutting a small path through the trees using hand saws until they made it onto the property. (It would take nearly a fortnight until the road had been fully cleared.) Meanwhile, George Ripley, President of the Cheshire County YMCA, and his nephew, Franklin, surveyed the site from an open-cockpit airplane that circled the area throughout the afternoon.

Besides the obvious damage to the forest, what they found shocked and surprised them. As Oscar said in a report a few weeks later, “this is not a pleasant story. Many Takodians will be sad. You can be sure it stirs us to the depths.”

Upon inspection, it was determined that a majority of the large buildings, including Friendship Hall, the Dining Hall, Twin Oaks, the Kitchen, the Office, and the Birches were not too badly damaged other than trees lying against the structures and some of the windows having been blown out. The Dining Hall alone had 26 trees piled up in front of it resembling a barricade from the revolutionary war.

The laundry, electric plant, Hobby Nook, and Cabin 7, however, were completely buried by trees. That made it difficult, at best, to assess how the structures had faired against the storm’s relentless abuse. With the property being nearly unrecognizable, Red May had to climb the Water Tower in order to get a higher vantage point so he could look down and try to find some of the buildings. Consider that point for a moment: the felled trees were so heavy, thick, and piled up high that they could not find some of the smaller buildings at ground level. They had been totally buried. The Water Tower itself had sustained moderate damage in the form of airborne projectiles (mainly branches and other debris) that penetrated the wooden cistern perched atop the tree line on a solid steel base. It had no cover from the winds and its top had been blown off. As it slowly leaked water, Red marveled at the random and destructive force of the hurricane and he was impressed that the tower hadn’t simply been knocked over or blasted from its footing. Even so, it would eventually have to be taken down.

“I suppose it could have been worse,” he called to Oscar. But, that was only the beginning of what they would find.

Eagle’s Pines and cabins 2, 3, & 4 down Camp Street (now the upper part of the road to the Waterfront) were pushed right off their foundations and damaged by a heavy tree that had settled upon their roofs. The Toadstool watering station, a favorite among the campers, positioned where the current water fountain near the Office now stands, was entirely obliterated. The Twins, which were nearly tipped over, suffered the worst and would have to be torn down as well.

As the team made their way to the shoreline, they discovered that a 35×12 foot section of the wharf – with the diving tower still attached to it – was ripped off the crib and deposited at the northeast end of the lake. Oscar would later comment that he believed it had flown that distance in the air as it “did not appear to have been submerged or pushed along the surface.” It was just… sitting there.

It quickly became apparent that the high winds had created mini-tornadoes and significant downbursts which would leave certain areas nearly unharmed while other places were demolished.

For example, the Chapel was in decent condition, including the beloved Twin Pines, but the nearby birch grove was gone altogether. After that, they cut their way back up the hill to find that a fringe of trees along A-Field had been blown down near the tennis courts but there was no other visible damage done to the field or to cabins 10, 11, & 12. Even the Teepee, one of the most fragile structures on the campus, was left totally untouched. The baseball diamond, with the backstop and bleachers intact, could have been used for a game that very same day.

The more they explored, the more they found that left them in a state of disbelief and shock. Through all of the chaos, Oscar never lost faith. He noted the following in his damage report to the Directors:

“Takodah may have changed in physical features but we maintained the same loyal friendliness and excellent cooperation. We miss those beautiful hemlocks but will get more sunshine and develop a larger parade ground. Camp will look different to we old timers but you can be sure the changes may prove to be a great advantage.”

Out of the darkness, all he could see was light. Out of the chaos, all he chose to embrace was opportunity.

Without missing a beat, the Elwells and their crew of dogged Hadokats immediately set to work ensuring that they were as ready as they possibly could be for the opening of the 1939 Camping Season. The clock was ticking. The race was on.

As volunteers and donations started to pour in, there was never, ever a doubt that a comprehensive rebuilding and improvement process would be undertaken at all costs. Camp was far too important to the region to be shuttered and abandoned. The cleanup was initially estimated at $10,000 (the equivalent of $173,000 in 2017) but it would soon dramatically rise from there to an amount that’s closer to an adjusted value of $500,000.

With the call immediately going out in a special “hurricane edition” of Takodah Whispers, a steady flow of money came in despite the waning effects of the Depression. The funds came from the alumni, the surrounding communities, local companies, lumber sales, and even a donation from the editor of the Boston Herald. Campers and parents sent in spare change, a few dollars, and sometimes even more, as they earned it. The older generation, both men and women, including a few long time financial supporters going right back to the very beginning of our Y, repeatedly cut large checks, sent in heavy equipment, built and repaired buildings by hand, upgraded the electrical and plumbing systems, negotiated with contractors, rallied the laborers, and did anything the Elwells needed or asked for.

In the Whispers edition dated October 20, 1938, it says that “one Takodah girl made a real sacrifice.”

“Mrs. Bott writes that her daughter Joan sends $1 which was her entire allowance for two weeks. Her little brother, Tommy, sent 10¢ which was half his entire allowance.”

And that’s how they did it. Cent by cent. Dollar by dollar. Day by day.

It truly took a village to bring our village back to life. The work went on, month after month, right through the frigid winter and rainy spring of ’39. But it took years until Camp was fully restored. Furthermore, it took decades for the memories to fade and even longer for the tree and shore lines to look healthy again. Throughout the early 1940s, thousands upon thousands of saplings, brought in by the truck load, were planted by hand all over camp. Those areas now comprise the locations of the current Ropes Course, the North Village, the forest behind the Craig Dining Hall, the areas surrounding the eastern side of May Lane, and beyond. If you look closely, you can tell by the unusual orientation, spacing, and age of the trees themselves.

The “larger parade ground,” that Oscar called for, was expanded, cleared, and graded that autumn in the area where our flag pole is currently located. For those of us who have enjoyed that space over the years, it certainly brings the sunshine to the central part of Takodah in just the way he and Frances envisioned. Although a large portion of the beautiful and tall evergreens were lost, some of them still remain scattered throughout the camp and they also live on in the spirit of healing. After all, that’s how the infirmary got its name: The Hemlocks.

Even today, the cement foundations of the old Water Tower, complete with rusting cast-iron eyelets for the guy wires, are still visible. You can find them near The Swallow’s Nest sitting among a triangular grove of trees that are noticeably smaller and younger than the bordering woods.

Legend says that if you hold on to one of the eyelets with both hands and close your eyes for a moment, you can still hear the whistling of the wind.

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Please visit or join the Camp Takodah Alumni Group on Facebook to see photos of the post-hurricane damage and cleanup.