Summer Camp

Camp Beechwood Remains

An abandoned Girl Scout camp deep in the woods is something from a horror movie, and you can experience it yourself in Upstate New York. Though it feels like you’re trespassing through these eerie ruins, they’re actually part of a public park enjoyed by thousands of visitors a year. Beechwood State Park, along the shore of Lake Ontario, is located about 20 miles east of Rochester, New York near the small town of Sodus.

In 1929 the Girl Scouts of America purchased 150-acres between Maxwell Bay and Sill Creek for use as a summer camp. A bluff overlooking Lake Ontario, called Sprong Bluff, was an attractive focal point for gatherings. The camp had an in-ground pool, enclosed dining hall, sleeping cabins, and other amenities. Unfortunately, rising tax rates, declining membership, and environmental factors led to the camp’s closure and sale in 1996.

New York State bought the land but budget cuts forced it to designate the site as a preserve. The buildings were left to rot. In 2010 a partial solution was found when the Town of Sodus took over management and operation of the park. It now has several miles of trails and is popular with hikers and fishermen, and of course the curious who come to see the camp ruins.

There are two parking lots off Lake Road: one leads to a camping and fishing access site adjacent to Salmon (Maxwell) Creek. The other is located about 200 yards west near the ruins of the old caretaker’s house. A former road, now a trail, leads straight back to the Girl Scout camp’s remains.

The camp is remarkably well preserved for having been abandoned and accessible to the public for over two decades. I think the presence of other visitors, often heard but not seen, added to the eeriness of this place. It’s certainly worth a detour if you ever find yourself near Rochester.

Camp Napowan Gypsy Curse: An Analysis

This week, I brought you the legend of “Boot Hill” in three parts. Read parts one, two, and three. The legend of “Boot Hill” comes from Napowan Scout Camp, located near Wild Rose in the pine forests of central Wisconsin, next to Hills Lake and Lake Napowan. In the early 1990s, when I was a member of Boy Scout Troop 22 based in Des Plaines (now defunct), I went to Camp Napowan for two, week-long excursions, where I heard the legend told around a campfire.

Your humble writer/transcriber as a Cub Scout at Camp Napowan

An audio version was available in the mid-1990s. I searched for years to find it, until I finally tracked someone down who owned a copy and sent it to me as a .wav file. While every summer camp has its founding legend, the tale of Camp Napowan’s Gypsy Curse is compellingly rich in detail and carefully interwoven with historical events.

Legends are known as folk history, or quasi-history. They are retold as a way of explaining strange occurrences and are passed on in order to warn or inform others about these unprovable events. While many legends conform to certain general themes and motifs, they acquire their credibility from localized details inserted by individual storytellers. The more details there are, the more truthful the legend appears to its audience.

The tale of Camp Napowan’s Gypsy Curse and “Boot Hill” is a nearly perfect legend. Not only is it asserted to be true, but great care is taken to establish its veracity by tying the tale to specific  people and events, making it part of oral folk history. The listener is invited to check the record and examine the physical environment to prove the story is true.

“Go to Boot Hill and look for yourself,” the narrator urges. “At the top of the hill is Split Rock, the rock that the Chieftain melted through during that fateful summer. This split is not natural. It has a 4 inch gap going through the middle that could not have been caused by erosion, frost action, lightning, or any other natural occurrence.”

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Camp Napowan Gypsy Curse, Part 3

Join me for the conclusion of our retelling of the story of Camp Napowan’s Boot Hill. Owned and operated by the Northwest Suburban Council of the Boy Scouts of America in central Wisconsin, Camp Napowan is home to an interesting legend passed down one summer to the next. To my knowledge, this is the only retelling of the tale available on the Internet. It is an edited transcription of an audio recording made available in the early-to-mid 1990s. Click here to read Part 1 and here to read Part 2.

Your humble writer/transcriber and friends at Camp Napowan, c. 1990

The summers went by without incident, until 1959. During the fifth week of summer camp, a couple of Scouts went up to Boot Hill even though they were not supposed to. They saw a strange black cat with a white paw. It look at them with intense eyes, and ran away into the forest. The two Scouts suddenly fell ill, and went to the health office. After they told the health officer what happened, he too became sick. Before the end of the day, everyone in camp was sick with diarrhea, cold sweats, and dizziness. The Health Department was asked to come in and determine what was causing the illness, but despite their experience, it was a mystery to them. After two weeks of quarantine, everyone at camp suddenly got better.

In the early 1960s, the Northwest Suburban Council decided to open Boot Hill, because too many people were asking questions about why it was closed. Nothing out of the ordinary happened until 1969, exactly ten years after the previous incident. Two Scouts were wandering around the hill with slingshots when a black cat with a single white paw crossed their path. One Scout kicked at it while the other prepare his sling and began firing.

The cat screamed and hissed and ran up a nearby tree, where it looked at the two boys with a piercing gaze. Suddenly, the boy with the slingshot grabbed his arm in pain, while the boy who was kicking the cat felt pain in his leg. The boy with the injured arm was able to run down the hill and grab the health officer. The health officer later determined that one boy suffered from a broken arm and the other had a broken leg.

The camp administration realized there was a problem. Something needed to be done about Boot Hill. At first, they wanted to relocated Staff City, where all the staff members lived, to the base of Boot Hill, but the staff members refused to live there. Eventually, it was located near Boot Hill, with a line of trees separating the buildings from the hill. The idea was for the staff to be nearby in case anything else happened.

The next summer, the camp staff became very interested in Boot Hill, and set out to determine what happened there. At first, they only knew about the bizarre incidents that occurred on the hill. Some investigation filled in the rest. They began knocking on neighbor’s doors, but the people refused to talk about the history of that land. Except, however, for one old man. He told the staff about everything that happened in the summer of 1934. When he was done, he said, “I want you to know how I know all this. I was one of the farmers that killed those gypsies. It’s all true, I saw it with my own eyes. I’ve never told anyone, but I’m glad I was able to get it off my chest before I died.” Thee days later, he died.

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Camp Napowan Gypsy Curse, Part 2

Join me for Part 2 of our retelling of the story of Camp Napowan’s Boot Hill. Owned and operated by the Northwest Suburban Council of the Boy Scouts of America in central Wisconsin, Camp Napowan is home to an interesting legend passed down one summer to the next. To my knowledge, this is the only retelling of the tale available on the Internet. It is an edited transcription of an audio recording made available in the early-to-mid 1990s. Click here to read Part 1.

Your humble writer/transcriber’s campsite at Camp Napowan – c. 1990?

A week later, Joe Miller was awoken from his sleep. He heard a loud scream coming from the gypsy camp. He ran outside and saw a large fire on top of the hill. Listening closely, Joe heard the gypsies singing. They were chanting in Hungarian, their native tongue. Joe couldn’t understand them, but what they were doing seemed odd to him anyway. He figured they were just getting ready to leave and were throwing a celebration for themselves.

The next morning, when it was time for Joe to feed his animals, he discovered the hens were missing. They were in a secure cage and couldn’t have gotten out unless someone opened it. Joe figured it had to have been the gypsies, but he couldn’t flat out accuse them without proof, and he didn’t want to upset them. Still, the hens represented roughly a dozen eggs a week. He tried to remain calm and find out what he could. He went to the gypsy camp and approached the Chieftain. Joe said to him, “When I went to feed my animals this morning, the strangest thing happened. You wouldn’t believe this, but my hens are missing. You didn’t happen to see anything out of the ordinary last night?”

“Do you think I’m stupid?” the Chieftain asked. “How dare you accuse my people of stealing from you, after everything we’ve been through. Now get out of here and leave us alone.”
Joe turned around, his head bent low, and walked back to his house. He was ashamed of himself for what he had done. As he walked home, he realized they were just hens after all, and the gypsies wouldn’t admit to stealing them even if they had.

A week later, the Millers were awoken from their sleep by another shrill scream. The family looked towards the gypsy camp from a window, and they saw a massive fire stretching 20 feet into the air. Again the gypsies were chanting as they held hands and danced around the fire. Joe had a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach, and he prayed that everything would be okay the next day. It came as no surprise when we went to feed his animals and the pig was missing. Joe was infuriated, but he didn’t know what to do other than tell the gypsies to leave. This seemed fair to him anyhow, since it was time for them to leave according to their agreement.

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Camp Napowan Gypsy Curse, Part 1

Napowan Scout Camp is located in the pine forests of central Wisconsin, next to Hills Lake and Lake Napowan, off 24th Avenue. Each year, thousands of Boy Scouts from around the country enjoy camping, fishing, boating, nature hikes, archery, and much more at one of the most exemplary summer camps in the Midwest. It is owned and operated by the Northwest Suburban Council of the Boy Scouts of America, of which I was a part.

Your humble writer/transcriber as a Cub Scout at Camp Napowan

In the early 1990s, when I was a member of Boy Scout Troop 22 based at St. Mary’s School in Des Plaines (now defunct), I went to Camp Napowan for two, week-long excursions. On one occasion, my dad and I were sharing a tent when we were hit by a torrential downpour. We didn’t realize what a poor choice our campsite was until water started building up several inches deep! We ended up sleeping in the car that night, and I don’t think my dad has gone camping since.

One of the most interesting things about Camp Napowan was the legend they used to tell about its founding. The Boy Scouts of America established the camp in 1946, right after the end of World War 2. Prior to that, the legend goes, it was local farmland. During the Great Depression, the farmer that owned that land got into an altercation with a tribe of gypsies he allowed to temporarily settle on his property. Local townspeople killed the gypsies on a place called “Boot Hill,” but before the last of them died, they put a curse on the land. To this day, every time a black cat with a single white paw appears at Camp Napowan, trouble follows.

Our camping trips culminated with a retelling of this story over a bonfire, and at one point an audio version was even available on CD. I searched for years to find it, until I finally tracked someone down who owned a copy. The following three part series is as close an approximation of the tale as I’m able to record. I hope there are others out there who read this story and recall fond childhood memories.

The story of Boot Hill begins on October 28, 1929, a day known as Black Monday. On that day, the economy crashed, sending this country into the largest economic depression we’ve ever seen. For most people, making ends meet was a difficult task. Jobs were hard to find because there were so many people in need of them, but not enough of them to go around. In central Wisconsin, the Depression was as bad as it was anywhere.

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