A History of East Boston Camps
By: Marian Harman
Research assistance by: Denise Brunelle
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The Hyams Foundation
The Hyams Foundation web site states that Godfrey Hyams grew up in Boston and attended Harvard College. He was a Metallurgist, engineer and financier. He was responsible for the growth of the Anaconda Mining Company and the Virginia Railway. He lived in Dorchester with his two sisters, Sarah and Isabel, both of whom were active in social work in Boston. None of the siblings ever married. In 1927, Godfrey established a charitable trust, to which the major portion of his estate was given. Smaller grant-making trusts were set up in his sisters' names. For many years, the Godfrey M. Hyams Trust and the smaller Sarah A. Hyams Fund had identical trustees, grant making purposes and processes. They were merged in 1993, and were then called the Hyams Foundation, Inc. The Isabel F. Hyams Fund, Inc. provided support for many years to the East Boston Social Centers, Inc. In 1996, all three funds became merged.
The mission of the Hyams Foundation is "to increase economic and social justice and power within low income people in Boston and Chelsea, Massachusetts." Its grant-making guidelines focus on four community priorities: Increased civic engagement, with a special focus on immigrant communities; more affordable housing, especially for very low-income families; increased family economic self-sufficiency; and enhanced opportunities for low-income teens. In the last few years, the Hyams Foundation has disbursed more than $5 million each year, in such diverse areas as after-school programs, voter participation, housing production, diversity initiatives, job training and English as a second language classes.
In the 1930's, tuberculosis was a great scourge, especially in East Boston. Isabel and Sarah Hyams thought they could help the inner-city children by providing a "Fresh Air Camp" in the country. They hired a private firm to look for just the right location for this camp. In 1937, they purchased 16 parcels of land between Stony Brook and Keyes Brook in Westford. The land contained the pristine 25-acre Burge's Pond. Parcels were purchased from the following owners: Oscar Spalding, Allister MacDougall, Charles Hildreth, trustee for Mary Heywood, Eli Burbeck, Alex Fisher estate (formerly of Cummings and Fletcher), the Boston and Maine Railroad, Lapham and Boyd, the Stony Brook Railroad, Frances Fisher, Amelia Brown, Louis Lescard, Hiram and Everett Fernald, Ada Mudge, Edward Fisher, Frank Johnson, and John Hornbrook. Interestingly, the land near the boggy area to the south of Burge's Pond, owned by Mary Heywood, was known as "The Old Growth".
The sisters immediately set about having the land for the camp buildings cleared, and the cabins built. The cabins were built of lumber obtained from the land itself. It is hard to imagine how all this could be done so quickly, but it is said that the camp opened in the same year, 1937. The hurricane of 1938 hit the area hard, taking down many trees. Two sawmills were set up on the land, and the lumber was milled right there. Since then, selective tree cutting has been done about every twenty years, the last time being in the 1980's. The East Boston Social Centers, Inc has run the camp since 1937. The Hyams Foundation sold the East Boston Camps land to the Town of Westford, in 2005.
The East Boston Social Centers, and East Boston Camps
The East Boston Social Centers, Inc. was founded in 1918. It is a multi-service agency, serving clients from Boston. It provides childcare, after- school programming, programming for at-risk teens, summer day and overnight camps, nutritional support for the elderly and meeting space for numerous community groups. The Social Centers provide programs for over 1,000 children in their formal programming. Their motto is "When All Give, All Gain". Since East Boston Camps opened, it has been run by the East Boston Social Centers.
When the camp opened in 1937, families paid $2 for a two-week session. Most of the campers’ families in those early days were of Italian descent. George Fletcher, caretaker at East Boston Camps for 31 years, remembers when he helped his father at the camp. He remembers that the campers' families would all pitch in to the camping experience. The mothers would come out early and clean the cabins and make up the cots. The fathers would do necessary repairs to the buildings. A few of the mothers would stay on to be the cooks. There were always plenty of freshly baked pies and cookies, and lots of food to go around. George fondly remembers the good cooking he got there. George's father, Walter, was caretaker at East Boston Camps for 26 years, before George took over. Walter, and later George, ran the Stoney Brook Farm, a local dairy farm. They often brought the campers to the farm to see the animals. Arnold Wilder, Westford resident and friend of the Fletcher family, delights in telling the story of one of these visits. After showing the campers the milking process, he said,"That's where your milk comes from. One of the campers made a wry face and retorted, "Maybe that's where your milk comes from, but mine comes from the market!"
George remembers that during World War II, the children came by train to the Westford Depot. An extra coach was added for these trips. After the war, the children were bussed.
Originally, there were three camps: one for the 6-9 age group of boys and girls, a separate boys camp for ages 10-15, and another girls camp for ages 10-15. There were four two-week sessions in July and August. Approximately 80- 125 children would attend each session. There are now seven weeks of camp, one week of day camp, and three two-week sessions of overnight camp. The one-week day camp, Camp Cielo, serves boys and girls aged 6-14, including children from Westford and surrounding communities. Girls, 8-14 attend Camp Waki, the overnight camp for girls. And Camp Nashoba, the overnight camp for boys, serves ages 8-14. According to the East Boston Camps Social Center website, close to 350 day and overnight campers attend each summer. The website states, "East Boston Camps strives to provide a safe and happy summer for a diverse group of children and help children of all cultures to live with and respect each other." They also host a weeklong Senior Picnic and Senior Camp. Traditionally, they have hosted Westford's 5th grades for a very popular weeklong nature day camp, free of charge, as a thank-you to the Westford Community.
All who come into contact with the campers and staff at East Boston Camps rave about the happy family atmosphere. Many campers return year after year, and become counselors when they "graduate". George Fletcher tells of many campers for whom their experience at East Boston Camps has been a life-changing event. Campers have become doctors, lawyers, and even a Senate President! Senate President Robert Travaglini attended East Boston Camps. His son is now an East Boston Camps counselor. Other campers have married and returned to Westford to buy homes and raise their families. East Boston Social Centers will continue to run the camp for the 2005 season.