by Douglas M. Smith, Jr.
Along the path from the cabin to the waterfront, blueberry bushes were plentiful, and in autumn, there were wild cranberries growing in a patch. Wild wintergreen with its flavorful leaves and delicious, but rare, red berries grew along the path nearer the camp, and sassafras bushes for making tea were plentiful below the front porch....
My grandfather, Dr. Robert C. Woodman, M.D., of Middletown, New York, owned a “camp” on the east shore of Yankee Lake, which is located near the top of the first mountain in the Catskill Mountain range. The camp was built in 1913 by Bean Austin and a Mr. Brown, both likely locals to the area or to Middletown. Dr. Woodman named it “Windy Bush,” presumably after a road by that name that led from Doylestown, Pennsylvania to The Blue Anchor, a business at an intersection of major roadways that was near his childhood home in Mozart. I imagine that he drove a cart loaded with produce from the family farm down that road many a time, listening to the wind in the bush.
Windy Bush, the camp, had no electricity until June 1929, when Woodman’s future son-in-law, John Nye Eckert, a jack-of-all-trades, electrified it. Until around 1950, when an electric refrigerator was purchased, the kitchen contained a wooden icebox that depended on block ice cut from the lake in winter and stored in a sawdust-filled barn. The ice barn was a dilapidated affair of dark colored weathered wood located at the foot of the hill below the intersection of North Shore Drive and Yankee Lake Road (County Road 162).
Bunk beds, of importance to me since I got to sleep on top, also arrived in 1950. When the township of Mamakating outlawed outhouses in the mid-1950’s, indoor plumbing arrived at the camp, along with a sheet metal shower stall that my father put in unused space behind the fireplace. Prior to that, we bathed in the lake using bars of Ivory soap, which floated.
About the same time, a faucet replaced the indoor pump at the kitchen sink. The water was sourced from the well, which we shared with the Seelman family next door.
The cook stove used propane gas from a “bottle” about 5 feet tall and a foot in diameter that was kept outside.
The exterior walls of the camp were of 2 x 4 construction that were never insulated as long as the camp remained in the family. Thus, the place was never used in the winter when temperatures could plunge to 20 below zero or more. The roof was covered with tar paper that required periodic tarring, a miserably hot job beneath the intense summer sun. Naturally, that task that fell to me once I was old enough to undertake it. Beneath the stacked-stone foundation of the camp, on the Seelman side, was a small root cellar where fruits and vegetables were stored in screened cabinets that let the cool air in and kept the mice out. It was a creepy place, with lots of spiders and their webs.
Our neighbors on the waterfront were the MacGowans on the north side and, on the south, the Seelmans and Medricks. Beyond the Medricks, on the point, was Dr. Friend, a Middletown dentist, and then the Steiningers.
My first memory of life at Windy Bush is being wheeled down a flagstone path in a wheelbarrow at the age of three or four. The wheel was steel and made for a very uncomfortable ride in the wooden barrow bed. At the time, my father and grandfather were attempting to level the flagstones in the path next to the front porch, using crowbars to pry up the large flat slabs while smaller pieces were added or removed below. It was a very rough and bumpy ride.
About the same time, I learned to fish with help from my Great Uncle Will Davis, my grandfather’s brother-in-law. He was a tall thin man, always dressed in a well-worn suit, but no necktie, and a fedora typical of the day. He was a consummate fisherman who possessed a large variety of rods, reels, lures, flies, lines and hooks. He outfitted me with a bamboo cane pole about six feet long, to which was affixed 10 or 12 feet of fishing line with a short length of catgut at the end, to which was attached an Eagle Claw fishhook. Uncle Will had a can of night crawlers and baited the sharp hook for me. We would fish from shore, or he would row us out a short distance into the lake, where I could catch sunfish, bluegills and yellow perch. To detect a bite, I had a cork “bobber” that would twitch on the water if a fish were nibbling. Not much luck was involved in catching, as the fish were plentiful and voracious.
Back on shore Uncle Will would scale and gut our catch on a crude wooden bench long ago constructed for the purpose, and my mother would fry them up in butter for lunch or dinner. They were a true delicacy! Thanks to Uncle Will, I am a fisherman to this day, but the gear has changed from bamboo pole to graphite fly rod.
By the time I entered grade school, I had begun to take more notice of my surroundings. In springtime I could find red efts crawling about in the damp forest floor. Later, in summer, they would transform into olive-colored newts. Bobbing up and down on the waves washing against our waterfront were baseball-sized masses of a gelatinous material that contained frog eggs, and frogs were plentiful in the wetland between the Medrick and Friend properties. Sadly, by the time I entered junior high school, acid rain from steel and coal-fired power plants in Pennsylvania, Ohio and elsewhere had lowered the pH of Yankee Lake to a level where newts and frogs could no longer thrive and propagate.
On shore along the path from the cabin to the waterfront, blueberry bushes were plentiful, and in autumn, there were wild cranberries growing in a patch of sphagnum moss between the path and Seelman’s waterfront. Wild wintergreen with its flavorful leaves and delicious, but rare, red berries grew along the path nearer the camp, and sassafras bushes for making tea were plentiful below the front porch.
Speaking of the front porch, it was equipped with wicker-and-wood rocking chairs on one end that were used by my elders for reading and napping, while at the other end there were hooks in the rafters from which hung two sturdy canvas hammocks. These were rainy day hangouts for my younger brother, Bob, and me, but our mother also used them for punishment time outs, as well as for the obligatory one-hour waiting period following meals that she imposed before we were allowed to go swimming. Something we both chaffed at.
In my early years we had several rowboats built by my uncle John Eckert who was by then married to grandfather’s eldest daughter, Betty. He used planks of dense oak to build boats that had a seat for the oarsman and one in the stern for a passenger or two. The oarlocks were fixed to oars that he fashioned of a lighter wood. It took a lot of strength to propel those heavy craft through the water, and even more to haul them up onto the waterfront for the winter.
In late spring we came up to Yankee Lake to open the camp for the summer and return the boats to the water, whereupon they would promptly sink. Gaps had opened up between the planks as they sat on land over the winter. It was my job to bail them out a few weeks later, after the wood had once again swelled shut. Nevertheless, we always kept a bailing can handy, since none of the joints were perfectly watertight. All this weight and leakage finally weighed sufficiently on my father that he broke down and purchased an Alumacraft rowboat that was not only much lighter but didn’t leak!
Before I was old enough to row a boat and for a few years after, my father would choose a nice clear day in summer and row us across the lake to the larger of the two small Heyny Islands near the dam. He would build a campfire and we would bake foil-wrapped potatoes in the coals and grill hamburgers or steak. An annual treat I looked forward to each year. However, the rowboat outings that I remember most fondly were our expeditions to pick high-bush blueberries along the shore behind the Big Island. Each trip was followed by breakfasts of blueberry pancakes smothered in real maple syrup, or warm blueberry muffins. When grandfather’s friends, the Ackerlys, came for a picnic, bringing corn from their farm on Crystal Run, we would grill hamburgers and always have blueberry pie for dessert. The grilling fireplace, and a long white picnic table, were in a little nook located to the right of the path and about halfway down to the lake.
By the time I was in junior high school I had a friend, Robert “Pixie” Wexler, who lived on North Shore Road not far from us. Both he and I were avid fly fishermen and cast our lines not only on the lake but also on streams in the greater vicinity. We liked to go to the clubhouse to roller-skate or watch movies, too.
My grandfather’s journal had an entry for 5 August 1947, marking the death of Irving Van Inwgen. He had been the keeper of the store across the road from the clubhouse, in addition to being the milkman and ice man at Yankee Lake. When I was young, my parents would give me some money and send me up the road to Mr. Van Inwegen’s store to buy two or three pints of ice cream, usually Rocky Road, if available, otherwise vanilla (we had a can of Herseys chocolate syrup to spruce it up). My father would cut the pints in half with a knife and everyone at the camp would get half a pint of ice cream in its original packaging. Mr. Van I’s store had a pinball machine that consumed the spare change I rarely had, but not the change from the ice cream purchase! Someone else took over the store after he died and kept it running for a few years. I think it was closed by the time I reached high school, probably the victim of the new Route 17, which made it easier to get to the supermarket in Middletown.
In addition to the rowboats, Windy Bush had a canoe that, until I was old enough to use it, simply hung upside down from the rafters of the barn (nowadays called a detached garage; grandfather was a farm boy, so we called it a barn). My great uncle Robert, husband of grandfather’s younger sister Grace, built the canoe. He taught woodworking at The Friends School in Newtown, PA and used cedar for the structure. It was covered with canvas, and the dark green paint made it waterproof. Not until I was in high school was I strong enough to shoulder the yoke and carry the canoe from barn to lake. I much preferred to paddle a canoe than row a boat, and spent many happy hours fishing and exploring as I glided silently across the water.
Another watercraft in our fleet for a while was an 8 foot plywood sailboat that my father built from a kit. It was not much fun to sail, and was eventually replaced by a 16 foot Comet. That Comet was similar to the one owned by the Steiningers who had generously allowed me to sail their’s until we acquired our own. Sailing a boat with a keel on Yankee Lake, I quickly learned where the submerged tree stumps were located; the same hidden stumps that could snag fishing lures.
One Final Note: For as long as I was a visitor to Windy Bush, there was a very large black snake that lived under the largest flagstones on the waterfront, and another of similar size that resided in the slab foundation under the front porch. I wonder if their descendants live there still, or if the changing climate has done them in, too.
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