Seventy summers of the St. Pierre Camp
Photo courtesy of Emily Coggins
For her ongoing "Vineyard Voices" Project, Linsey Lee (LL in the transcript), the oral history curator at the MV Museum, interviewed Barbara St. Pierre (BSP) and her daughter Emily Coggins (EC) in October of 2012, and she has shared excerpts from the transcripts with The Times.
Barbara St. Pierre's parents founded the St. Pierre summer camp in 1938, and generations of children came during 70 summers to their Vineyard Haven locations on Main Street and the old Marine Hospital on Hines Point. The camp closed in 2007; Barbara St. Pierre died on January 3, 2013. More oral histories are available at the Martha's Vineyard Museum; some are posted on the museum's YouTube channel.
LL: And so — the St. Pierre Camp. What were the first beginnings of the camp?
BSP: My dad, in the 30s, — first he started a winter sports school for boys, in Jamaica Plain, which then became for girls. But it involved football, skiing, hockey. I think when my dad met my mom, he thought, "Gee. If Dorothy's going to the Vineyard during the summer, I need to go to the Vineyard during the summer, and I need to have a plan." And so I think that the camp started [in 1938] because my dad wanted to be near my mother.
LL: And how many students that first year, and where were they from?
BSP: There were probably 12 or 15 boys. And they were from all over — it was a boarding camp. And he taught them American Red Cross swimming program, and archery, fencing, tennis, badminton, riflery... My mother married him in 1941. It took two really unique people to run this camp. Other than that first summer that we spent on Skiff Ave. there, then my parents moved the camp to right here in Main Street, right opposite the Unitarian Church.
It was probably 75 boarding children at that time. It became quite big in the 50s.
LL: Did you know your grandfather?
EC: Oh, yes.
LL: He sounds like a remarkable man.
EC: He was. He could learn anything. When he decided, "Okay, now our camp needs to have some sailing," he taught himself how to sail. And then he taught the others. And then they went on to compete.
BSP: Eight a.m. was the morning bell. 8:15, the counselors or the wait staff — that was a very prized job, to be a waiter — would come down and get things on the tables lined up. And then at 8:30 was breakfast. 9:15 were chores. Everyone in the camp had a chore. In that way the whole place was kept beautifully by the kids themselves. Then at 10 we'd have morning sport. At 11 we'd have the Red Cross full swimming program right there on the beach. We'd come down for a full lunch, a full dinner, actually, that would be prepared. And after that there was what was called the "rest hour." We're not sure how much resting went on. At 2 o'clock would start the afternoon sports. And then at 3 o'clock we'd start the swimming. And then we all came back to that house and we had a before-supper sport, followed by supper which was a lighter meal than the lunch. And then we had an after-supper sport.
We went to Katama for overnights. Remember, this was the 40s, 50s, 60s. And Katama was the other end of the world.
LL: Would you camp?
BSP: We would start a fire and be right in there in the dunes. And dig a big ditch. We would have brought firewood and have a fire, have a cookout, and then maybe we'd go to sleep. We'd all be lying out, but those nights were so wonderful because you just look up at the stars, and you'd just talk and talk and talk with your friends, and the counselors. It was marvelous. And then we'd maybe all sleep maybe three hours...But the next morning we were raring to go because we were going to have breakfast, which consisted of fried eggs over the campfire, along with a slice of either fried baloney or fried salami, and bread. And then we'd have a swim there at South Beach, and then we'd come home about 12:30 and start the afternoon at camp. Those overnights were very, very memorable.
The property on Main Street was becoming closed in with construction. So we moved, the summer that I was 14. And moved into that big, old place [the Marine Hospital on Hines Point, in 1959].
LL: Tell me about the Saturday night dances.
BSP: Yes, they were always there, since the camp's inception. The boys would play with the girls all week long and have sports and then go to their sleeping areas. But then Saturday night came, and it gave the girls a chance to dress up in their skirts or their dresses. And for the boys to put on a tie. And long pants. And so that when the girls would come down the stairs for the dance, the boys would say, "Ooh! I hardly recognized you!" And the girls, of course, were very proud of themselves for looking so different. And it was quite a wonderful feeling, too, for me as a child to come down to the dance and, "Oh, look at the boys!" The boys were all like, "Oh, look at the girls! Where have they been all week?"
LL: Would there be records, or music, or what would be the music?
BSP: Records. 78s when I was a kid. Then we got really with it in the 50s and had a 45 record player. And then a big speakerphone – a big thing, like the RCA with the dog with the big speaker? We had one of those. They played 45s — The Rolling Stones when Emily was a child.
Probably 80 percent of the children stayed for the whole summer, and 20 percent would change [stay for either the July or August session.]
We also had 10 or 15 day campers who were Island children, who came for the day. In 1977 my dad died. Without him it was hard to run a camp with 40 kids, my mother and I. So we thought, "You know, why don't we have a day camp instead?" It was good timing, because it was at the time when a need for double income came in. And both parents would have to work. And we filled that spot on how they can take care of their children during that time.
EC: I want to say also that Mr. [Gene] Baer [long-time counselor and camp director] was really good at getting everyone together and playing music. He had his guitar and his leg would be really going, and it was just – contagious.
LL: What would you sing?
EC: Oh, we'd sing songs like –
BSP: "You Can't Get To Heaven. You can't get to heaven on roller skates, 'cause you'll roll right by those pearl gates. I ain't-a gonna grieve my Lord no more."
You kids were really healthy with all that walking and all that dancing and running around.
EC: There was archery, badminton, volleyball. There was kickball and sometimes baseball or softball. We also did levitations. The room would be filled with kids in the lounge, everyone sitting in a seat. There was an open space in the middle of the room, and there was a plank of wood 12 inches wide by maybe 2 or 3 feet long. They would pick a child and blindfold the child. And have them stand on this circle [Mr. Baer had painted]. And say that they're going to be levitating that child. They're going to go way up in the air. So everyone else can see, they know it's okay. But the one child who's blindfolded really thinks, "Oh, this is it. I'm going to fly up to the ceiling now." So there are two counselors, one on each end of the board. And they slowly start to pick up the board, with the child standing on it. And they only raise it up maybe two or three inches. But meanwhile, the counselors are saying, "Wow! You're getting higher. You're getting higher."
BSP: And then they'd kneel down so that it sounded as if their voices were coming from way down on the floor.
EC: And the whole room is going, "Oh – he's getting higher!" They're in on it, and they're not giving away that it's only a few inches off the ground. But the child is dumbfounded.
LL: And so did you have to do that for a new kid each time that wasn't in on the secret?
EC: Yes, yes. That was really fun. I remember one night – it was such a hot night. I was probably 7. Everyone was so hot from dancing that Grammy and Grampa and the counselors all said, "Let's just go for a swim." Because it was dark, everyone got into the cars and went down to Owen Park. And we all went swimming in the dark.
BSP: It was July. And it was steaming hot — the hottest night on record for the summer. So we went down and swam in the moonlight with the counselors all watching us.
EC: It was wonderful. I think about that when I look at Owen Park sometimes. When I'm on the boat, leaving. I think about that. It was so much fun.