Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Summer Camp

As a kid growing up in West Marin in the 1950s & 60s, I lived in a place where we never went to camp but kids from all over the US came to camp where we lived.

It was an uneasy mix as the Forest Farm summer campers were from the land of faraway (mostly the eastern seaboard—NY) and they had no notion they were guests in our land—they weren't nice to the natives. Nor was Old Man Gregg.

Camp counselors and campers hailed from the far reaches of the known world and descended upon Forest Farm Summer Camp each June, founded in 1944 by the Greggs. They may as well have been Martians.

The official story goes that the Greggs welcomed everyone—they built their own pool when a Chinese counselor was told she couldn't swim at the Woodacre Improvement Club. But we local kids were never invited to swim at the Woodacre Improvement Club or in the Gregg pool. Ever. No matter how much we drooled. Funny how that goes.
Somebody At Forest Farm Summer Camp must've had a sense of humor: SAN RAFAEL. Calif. (AP) —A sign posted recently on the office door at the Forest Farms Camp by owner Harold Gregg reads, please keep door closed so bird won't eat our cat." The bird is a turkey vulture. (Miami Herald/Lewiston Evening Journal/The Evening Independent, etc., July 26, 27, 1965). 
 I actually do vaguely remember the sign. Only I didn't get the joke at the time.

The FBI was interested in the Greggs for suspicious activities, but then anyone who moved to Marin and Sonoma from Hollywood or New York was under investigation during the paranoid era of McCarthyism—including my best friend Stephanie's mother, Johanna Stone, a former Russian translator for the UN.

Mrs. Gregg was OK—she was a former teacher who was originally from Petaluma, so she was nicer to the local kids than her husband, Harold.

Harold Gregg, a New Englander, dressed in plaid shirts, thin and dour as they come, taunted Jack Gilbert when his daughter Linda brought him home. The story goes: Old Man Gregg said Jack wasn't a real man, but a sissy poet.

Jack got his macho out and shimmied up a Doug fir to fell it with a chainsaw. Something went horribly wrong—the tree split in the middle and Jack came plunging to earth like a sad soft Icarus.

Linda Gregg ran off to Greece to care for Jack Gilbert whose wings were forever clipped. He was sentenced to the wheelchair—and she became a famous poet. Most people know Forest Farm Camp as Serenity Acres—the rehab place where Jerry Garcia died.

Forest Farm Camp was a commune before that. One of my high school classmate ran away from home and lived there in the 1970s when Claire and Jim Felson owned it from 1966 to 1976. She later told us wild stories of musicians who lived there and even wilder parties. Chalk it up to the times we lived in.

Mrs. Barbano—who also ran Barbano's summer camp on Arroyo Road, just down the hill from the Greggs, opened up her pool for swimming lessons—that's where I learned to swim at the ripe old age of ten. Old Man Barbano's daughter was killed in a car accident (or was she murdered?) in Mexico. He wasn't right in the head after that.

Old Man Barbano gave up the summer camp business and rented the dorms out to Big Brother and the Holding Company. Yes, Janis Joplin. When the grief got to be too much for him, he shot himself in the head. We were walking home from high school when they brought the gurney out. It was the first time I saw a dead man. But not the last.

There were other camps in the San Geronimo Valley but I don't know their names. Perhaps someone else will remember the stories of the summer camps. The transient folk. Certainly people came in droves from the Bay Area to Camp Taylor ever since the turn of the 19th century. Some families camped out all summer long along the banks of Papermill Creek and Devil's Gulch. Research fodder for another blogeen.

How this fragment came to be: We were sitting around a table at a Young Audiences think tank the other night, and everyone said how they loved summer camp—especially the arts. I felt vaguely left out. It seems a huge swath of the population (at least in America) have all got some form of summer camp on their kid resume. Me, nada.

Of course, one could also look at it that we lived in a year-round summer camp. And art was all around us. But I felt a little left out that I never had that experience. Our world was much more gritty and visceral.

There's surprisingly little information on the internet about Forest Farm Camp or Barbano's Summer Camp. So this is a placeholder—a piece I'll return to as I uncover more information. Meanwhile...

Some of my posts that mention Forest Farm Camp. Note that we called it Forest Farm Camp. It was also called Forest Farms Camp and Forest Farm Summer Camp.

Too Bright to See 

Helgar the Horrible 

RIP Jack Gilbert

Frances Gregg Marin Independent Journal obit 1999 Gregg spent 23 years operating the camp, which ran under the philosophy that "through exposure and understanding of different cultures, you become less likely to hate," said Gregg's granddaughter, Chloe Cook. The camp had international counselors as well as campers at a time when there was a strong anti-foreigner sentiment. The Greggs welcomed everyone - even building their own pool when a Chinese counselor was told she couldn't swim at the Woodacre Improvement Club, remembers Gregg's daughter, Susan Conard.

Jack Felson Marin Independent Journal obit 2009  During the summers throughout college and grad school, Jack and Claire directed summer camps. In 1966, they bought Forest Farm Camps in Marin County where their three children spent their formative years. Their father was a magical force, not only for them, but for a generation of children and counselors that attended for ten years.

YMCA SF Marin - History Mentions Harold Gregg as a board member in Sixty Years of Leadership: 1950 Brad Bayliss – Executive Secretary of the Marin YMCA. Louis Albrecht – program secretary; Jewell Pearson, Claire Bailey, Grace Alinor Baird, “Auntie” Iva Weitzman, and Mrs. L.W. Twist, assisting secretaries. First Board of Managers: Ward Austin, Caroline Livermore, John MacPhail, Walter E. Zurcher, Dr. John Siemens, Harold Gregg, Millie Dunshee, and Rex Silvernale. 

Some San Mateo Times ran some adverts March-April 1962 but I can't access them right now—will work on it. Here's the Google teaser: SUMMER CAMPS These camps subscribe to the best in camping with high Si ... yr olds REDWOOD yr For Harold Frances Gregg Forest Farm Forest Knoll Marin County ... express the idealism of his ...ular camp

Some backwards sleuthing: here's a page from one of the Forest Farm campers in 1973 (So we know that Forest Farm Camp was still operational in 1973.) "The picture of him on the left was taken at Forest Farms Summer Camp when Jake Ehrlich III was 7 in 1973. (Notice his dark blue jeans!) Jake's family owned a cutting edge photography gallery located in San Francisco named the Whiteside Gallery." (I wonder if it was then owned by Claire and Jack Felson. Read below.

Stone Soup Fall 2009 (dead link) Donna Snow [formerly Sloan]: (I used to babysit for Donna and Richard Sloan—MH) In 1969 [when the Center was formed], I was rearing a two-year old Bryn Sloan, still married to Richard [Sloan], doing free lance commercial art work and painting “on the side.” Being involved with community activities, including politics (sometimes sticky), and generally loving living in the Valley. We had some crazy parties and life was never boring.

Our family had moved to the Valley around 1966 and first rented a house on Barranca Road (they were my near neighbors MH) and then bought a home a few blocks nearby on Arroyo Road. (Bud and Marty Meade still own it, having bought it from me in the early 70’s.)

There were a number of us — all politically “liberal,” interested in education, many of us art- ists and teachers, young parents, connected one way or another through those activities. We had gatherings at Forest Farm Camp. Claire and Jack Felson owned the camp and we often met in their home to discuss whatever issues we thought pertinent at the time.

Judy Voets We moved to the Valley in 1963. I knew about the Valley because I had gone to Forest Farm summer camp from the time I was 6 until I was 18 when I was a counselor. Jean and Lee [Berensmeier] were also at the camp. We moved here because we could afford to buy a house in Woodacre.


David Rollison said...

Jack Gilbert recovered from the fall and was not confined to a wheelchair. It was The Greatful dead who lived at the other camp.

Maureen Hurley said...

Nope, the Grateful Dead did not live at Barbano's Summer Camp. That was Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Janis Joplin. Forest Farm Camp became a rehab center, Serenity Knolls, and yes, Jerry Garcia was its most famous resident. The handful of times I saw Jack read poetry, he was in a wheelchair.

richardj said...

I was a ciybsekir at Foresst farmcampin the summer of 1952.

Anyone old enough toremember txt year?

Emilie Gatfield said...

I went to Forest Farms camp several years - some of my best memories of my childhood. Thanks for remembering the good people who ran it.

ibray said...

I was counselor at Forest Farms the summer of 1970 (might be off a year or two) Fig ran the drama activities. Jack and Clare taught me a lot about working with children. I read a story every night in the tent before bed, that was one of the favorite things that they remembered at the last campfire.

Maureen Hurley said...

Dear Ira,

Thank you for posting a comment. Any other stories? How you got the job? Surprises? I’d love to know more about your experiences there, as would a friend of mine who was also a counselor there. Do you remember D’Arcy Corman? By 1970, I was no longer cutting through camp on horseback, as I no longer had my horses. Did you read my story on Helgar the Horrible? He was a Forest Farm pony.

ibray said...

Wonderful story about Helgar. That must have been the horse the tossed counselor Jeff while we were on a ride on with campers. Helgar saw a highway sign and attempted to jump over or around it as I remember the incident. Poor Jeff ended up with a broken collarbone. He continued to work at the camp that summer with his arm in a sling.
I remember the name D'Arcy but I'm a little fuzzy matching it up with a face.
Three other memories:
1) I was infamous for saying "Groovy" as a compulsive response to just about anything. One session at the ending campfire kids from my tent ended their poem about their time at camp and with me with "Groovy!" I loved it.

2)There was one incident that I don't like to remember. One of the experienced counselors who I respected very much and had worked their for more than one summer hauled off and hit one of the kids while we were on a hike. I was startled, didn't know how to respond. I know now how I should have responded but I kept silent. Still beat myself up about that.

3) I was going to UC Davis, saw the ad for summer employment at Forest Farms, , went to the interview. I did not think I presented myself well but I did get the job. A lifesaver...I was having a hard time at home with parents, the environment at camp was just what I needed to make it through the summer.

4) (one more!) I believe I fell in love with every female counselor and staff there. However it wasn't the place to spend much time one on one with other staff and certainly not the place for anything beyond friendly hugs. I must have looked and acted like the most yearning young man ever!