Forest Friend Timothy Hawley recently sent us this fantastic essay:
Recollections of Camping at Cook Forest State Park in the Early-Mid 1950s
[These reminiscences are written over 50 years after the fact, so it should be understood that there are inevitable distortions and imperfect memories embedded in this narrative. It may not be absolutely accurate from a factual point of view, but it is an accurate report of what I remember.]
I grew up in Sandusky, Ohio, the son of a Presbyterian clergyman. The tradition in the 1950s was for clergy to get a full month’s vacation, and my father always chose to use that month to go camping – one of our favored sites was Cook Forest State Park, where we camped for three or four summers in the early- and mid-1950s. I was probably about four years old the first year that we went to Cook Forest.
We would pack everything into our 1949 Oldsmobile (later switching to a 1952 Buick) with a top carrier where the tent, tarps and other paraphernalia were stashed, the trunk jam-packed with clothing, an icebox, a little cook stove, lantern and other necessities. My father, mother, two brothers (with a third brother being added in later years) and myself would head off on the drive of about 210 miles or so, which would take in those days some four to five hours. We would always pack a picnic lunch, and would stop at the same little triangular roadside park about midway on the trip to eat our baloney and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
While a long drive like this was not much fun for a bunch of little kids, we did always look forward to driving through the long tunnels that we would have to traverse in Pennsylvania as we approached the park. These narrow tunnels would seemingly go on forever, my recollection being that you couldn’t even see the light at the other end when you entered them. There were at least two, and possibly three tunnels on the trip, and they were always the highlight of the drive.
Arriving at the park was always a big thrill, and we wanted to immediately revisit our usual haunts. We would pull into the Ridge Campground off Route 36, which at that time consisted of a single circle of campsites around the perimeter, with a circular gravel road and a large open field in the middle. My brother, David, tells me that a gravel road led into the woods at the far end of the loop, where additional campsites were located, but I have no recollection of that – I think that I never ventured back into that area, or perhaps I’ve just forgotten. Immediately on the left as you turned into the campground was a large log building that was a ranger’s cabin. As you entered the campground, the bathrooms were on the left – we appreciated the fact that the bathroom had regular flush toilets, because many of the places that we camped had only outhouses. The bathrooms did not, however, have any accommodations for bathing – no showers. My recollection is that the bathroom building was a log-cabin building, but it may have been just made out of wood. Outside the bathroom was a drinking fountain and a spigot from which we could draw water.
Driving in to the campground we would circle to the left, and we would always take one of the first few campsites to the left, which backed up to the forest which surrounded the campground. It was an advantage to be in one of these campsites because this placed you nearest to the toilets and the water supply.
My father would, of course, not let us do anything else until the camp had been set up, so we would help to set up the tent, blow up the canvas air mattresses that we slept on, put up a tarp over the picnic table to keep off the rain when necessary, and set up the icebox, stove, lantern, etc. When everything was in place, we were then allowed to run off and start exploring. Invariably the first thing that we wanted to do was to run back into the woods where we would pick up a trail that went behind our campsite and follow it to the water pumping station, which was off some distance to the right from where we hit the trail. At several points along the trail were little wooden boxes in the ground with covers that could be removed, revealing sections of the pipes that carried the water from the pumping station to the campground, and possibly to other locations in the park. We would always stop at each of these and put our hands on the pipe – if the pump was operating, we could feel the vibration on the pipe, and this would spur us to run faster. There was also a cinderblock cistern built into the ground with a wooden roof covering it that we would peer into.
I have no idea why we were so fascinated by the pumping station. It was located at the intersection of this trail and a little forest road. It was a tiny little building with a gasoline-powered pump that had a large flywheel, probably about four or five feet in diameter. If we were lucky, we got to be there when the ranger (or whoever it was who operated the pump) would be getting ready to start the engine up. He would start the engine by kicking the flywheel, putting one of his feet on one of the flywheel’s spokes and pushing down on it violently. One year when we arrived, we found that the ranger was sporting a large cast from his hip to his ankle – in the process of kick-starting the engine a week or so earlier, he had gotten his leg caught in the wheel, badly fracturing it. We loved to stand there and chat with the ranger, watching as the engine loudly chugged along, the flywheel spinning dangerously – and thrillingly – close to us.
Camping was not the popular pastime in those days that it has subsequently become. Most people who went camping wanted to really rough it, and almost everyone stayed in tents – camping trailers were quite rare, although we greatly envied those who had them. Tents were hot in the daytime, damp and cold at night, and were often subject to flooding if there were heavy rains – on more than one occasion I remember being awakened in the middle of the night as I was carried by my father to the car to escape the rising water in the tent. I can still conjure up in my mind the smell of damp canvas that was such a part of the camping experience in those days.
Cook Forest had a set of regular campers who could be depended upon to be there every year, so we would always have some families to re-acquaint ourselves with. The most reliable of these was someone who would always set up at a large campsite at the far end of the campground, opposite from the entrance. This campsite was astonishing to my young eyes, because whoever it was – their name might have been Shannon – would construct a crazy-quilt of overlapping tarps, held up with long poles, that seemed to go on forever – it was almost like a small circus tent. My brother David actually remembers it as being an old sideshow tent, which it may have been. I think that there were one or more actual tents incorporated into the interior, and a kitchen area had been created with a linoleum floor and a refrigerator – you felt like you had entered the abode of the Sheik of Araby when you walked in. It was my impression that whoever set up this camp did so at the beginning of the summer camping season and stayed until autumn arrived – I know that it was always there, no matter which month we made our visit.
On Sundays, there would be a church service in this ramshackle construction, and my father would run the service when we were there. A Mr. and Mrs. Earl Leisure (according to a diary written by my father) hauled in a trailer full of folding chairs and an old pump organ for the church services, and if the weather was really nice, the chairs would be set up in the circle in the center of the campground rather than in the large tent. Our family’s fee for our campsite – normally fifty cents a night – was waived in return for Dad conducting the Sunday worship services. In 1956 a Reverend Huff from Erie, Pennsylvania also performed some of the services.
There were actually relatively few things to do at Cook Forest if, like us, you didn’t spend any money whatsoever on anything like renting canoes or engaging in other activities that cost something – filling your time for a whole month could be a challenge for a little kid who didn’t really want to just sit around and relax. We would always make several visits to the fire watchtower, where we would climb up the long staircase and sometimes (not always) be able to get into the little cabin at the top where we could look out over the amazing forest. Sometimes the trap door in the floor of the cabin which allowed entry would be locked, so we would crouch on the steps just under the floor and gaze around.
Several times a week we would leave the campground in the car, turning left and driving down the hill to where the Clarion River crossed Route 36. Just on the other side of the bridge, which was outside the park, was a little store that sold some food, souvenirs, candy and odds and ends. We got a nickel a week allowance, so we would generally use this nickel to buy candy. For some reason I remember in particular buying little sticks of hard candy that were hollow in the center. We loved to drink water through these ersatz straws, imagining that the candy was flavoring the water.
We would frequently go swimming in the good old swimming hole. This pond had been created by damming a large stream, thereby creating a small swimming area. There was a “beach,” so to speak – an array of small stones lined one side of the pond. As I recall, the water became deep very suddenly, so you really had to watch yourself if you didn’t know how to swim. The water was always very cold. Our favorite activity was to swim across to the far side of the pond (or walk along the top edge of the dam itself) and climb down the edge of the dam to the stream below. The water spilled across the top of the dam, and you could slip in behind the sheet of water at the foot of the little dam – which was probably no more than thirty feet wide and only about five or six feet high – and hide there in the shade. We thought that this was the greatest fun. My mother, who was quite a large woman, had the uncanny ability to float on her back on the surface of the water without any effort – she was extremely buoyant, so much so that she could actually go to sleep while floating in the middle of the pond, which amused the other swimmers. It was amazing!
Of course, one of the reasons that we frequently went swimming was that this was our only method of bathing. My father would bring along a bar of soap and make us wash up while we swam. When we didn’t bathe in the swimming hole, we were subject to the dreaded sponge baths that Mom and Dad would give us, standing us naked on the picnic table in a shallow plastic tub and washing us down in full view of the entire campground, rinsing us off by pouring a bucket of frigid water over us.
Other than just fooling around at the campground, hiking was the primary activity that we engaged in. Across on the far side of the campground from where we usually had our campsite was an entrance to a trail. This trail led through one of those stands of old growth pine that Cook Forest was so famous for (I may be conflating this with another trail, however – perhaps it was a different trail that visited the old growth area). I wish that my children and grandchildren could some day experience what it was like to walk in this kind of forest, because there was nothing like it. The huge trees towered high into the sky, creating a canopy that allowed little or no direct sunlight to filter through. As a result, there was very little undergrowth, other than a plethora of gorgeous ferns. The enormity of the trees was overwhelming, and I can only liken the environment to that of being in a cathedral – that’s a bit of a cliché, but it is nevertheless absolutely apropos. It was quiet, dim, and magnificent. When we arrived for the final year that we camped at Cook Forest, in 1956, a huge storm had roared through just weeks earlier, knocking down many of these stupendous old trees, leaving gashes in the canopy that allowed the sunlight to stream through to the ground far below. We were deeply saddened by the loss of the formerly pristine forest, with the trunks of trees that had been there for centuries now lying across the path.
Romping around the campground filled much of our time. We loved to play on the stage that stood in the circular field in the center of the campground – I think that there is now an amphitheater where the stage once stood. The stage was just a raised wooden platform, perhaps three to five feet high, depending on which side you were on. My childhood perception of it was that it was about twenty feet square, although it may have been larger or smaller than that. I have no recollection of ever attending any sort of event at this location, like a pageant, speech, concert or anything else. My memory is that it just stood there, unused, except when we kids were gallivanting around on it. Mostly we’d just climb up the steps and run and jump off the edge, rolling on the ground like we’d been shot – cowboys and Indians stuff. On other occasions we might spend some time pretending that we were actors on the stage, although this didn’t last long because we had no script and weren’t adept at improvising. Scrabbling around underneath the platform was also fun. We’d catch grasshoppers, frogs, toads, lizards – any living creature that we could lay our hands on.
I am certain that we saw many deer, and possibly bears on occasion, but I have no specific recollection of these events. I seem to remember that perhaps there was a totem pole in the campground, but that may not be correct – we camped in many different parks across the eastern part of the U.S. over the years, and it’s easy to get them all mixed up.