Boys who attended Kiwanis camp in early 1900s hold dear the life’s lessons they learned

Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski Bob LaMorte (left) and Ron Schirf, both of Altoona, reminisce about the Altoona Kiwanis Health Farm camp. Schirf was a camper and counselor, and LaMorte was a counselor. For six weeks between 1928 and 1964, boys left their homes and families in Altoona and found a way, with the help of camp counselors, to enjoy the outdoors and good food at what was called the Altoona Kiwanis Health Farm.

SINKING VALLEY — Between 1928 and 1964, the Altoona Kiwanis Club provided groups of young boys with the chance to grow up and grow stronger during a summer stay on the grounds of Fort Roberdeau.

For six weeks, the mostly 11 and 12 year old boys left their homes and families in Altoona and found a way, with the help of camp counselors, to enjoy the outdoors and good food at what was called the Altoona Kiwanis Health Farm.

“I remember when the bus came to the camp and brought the kids from the city,” said Bob LaMorte of Altoona, who in 1960 worked at the camp as the swimming pool lifeguard. “A lot of them were crying. They were away from home for the first time.”

LaMorte also remembers the boys faces six weeks later when they were boarding to return to Altoona.

“They were crying even worse because they didn’t want leave,” he said.

Before Fort Roberdeau became a restored Revolutionary-era fort, the Altoona Kiwanis Club owned acreage there and set up a camp for underprivileged boys by building a large frame two-wing structure with rooms for sleeping, eating, laundry and recreation.

The site also had a ball field and later added swimming pool.

“There was no fort there at that time like there is now,” said 76-year-old Ernie Bonsell of Altoona, who attended in camp in 1951 or 1952. “But there was a camp building, and we all had bunk beds.”

Mirror articles indicate the Altoona Kiwanis Club bought a 155-acre farm in 1928 and began building a “health farm,” which had been a club goal over several years, with some money raised by holding vaudeville shows at the Mishler Theatre.

While the club later sold a large portion of the farm it bought, it retained 30 acres and bought a few more to preserve water rights for the camp. From that start, the Altoona Kiwanis Health Farm grew into a well-recognized venture that lasted more than 35 years and drew repeated praise.

“It was a wonderful, wonderful endeavor,” said Richard Nuse of Altoona, who said he thought he attended the camp after finishing the fifth grade, probably in 1952 or 1953.

“This was a way of giving young boys an opportunity, for six weeks, to get out in the fresh air,” he said. “The kids who got to go to that camp, we all came from very underprivileged or poor families. When my family came to visit me at camp, they had to borrow a friend’s car to make the trip.”

Seventy-four year old Ronald Schirf went to camp as a youngster, probably in 1954, he said, and he had the chance to return six years later as a counselor, the summer before his senior year in high school.

“I know I was about 11 or 12 when I went to that camp, and at that time, there were six kids in the family and my father would work, then get laid off, then work and get laid off again,” he said. “The camp was a great opportunity for me.”

Six years later, it meant even more to a teenager who was hired as a counselor and worked with LaMorte, Dick Nixon and Kenny McGeary.

“We kept those boys busy,” Schirf said. “We played baseball with them, we went swimming with them. It was a combination of good kids and the four of us. There was happiness there because we all meant something to those boys, and they meant something to us.”

LaMorte said the counselors that year made $10 a week.

“For a high school student back in 1960, that was good money,” LaMorte said. “But really, I think we counselors had just as good of a time as the kids did.”

Other memories

Seventy-nine-old Clair Runk Jr. said he attended the camp in 1948.

“I remember it as the funnest six weeks of my life,” Runk said.

Some other boys didn’t see it that way.

“There were ones who ran away,” Runk said. “And I had a friend who hitch-hiked his way back to Altoona.”

John Gority of Duncansville said he, too, recalls a few unhappy youngsters during his summer there, probably in 1957.

“I remember one kid kept running away, trying to get home, and they kept going after him and bringing him back,” Gority said. “I don’t know if he lasted.”

There was an adjustment to be made.

Upon arriving in camp, all the boys heads were shaved, probably as a way to limit the potential for the spread of head lice.

“They buzzed your hair down to nothing,” Runk said.

And there was no sleeping in.

“Every morning we fell out for calisthenics and the Pledge of Allegiance,” Runk recalled.

Beds were inspected for square corners and tight blankets, based on a 1962 camp picture taken by the Mirror.

The boys had chores too.

“We cleared some trails,” Bonsell recalled. “And up back of the camp, there was a softball field that we cleaned up so we could play. They always had us doing something.”

“They drained the swimming pool the summer I was there,” Gority remembered. “Then we had to go down and scrape the slime off the sides. Then they refilled it.”

“The water in that pool was cold, really cold,” Bonsell said. “When you jumped in, you woke up in a hurry.”

LaMorte has another memory associated with the spring-fed rural pool.

“I was the morning lifeguard,” LaMorte said. “So one of my responsibilities was to check the filter, and I regularly found frogs and snakes I had to remove.”

Lessons learned

Former campers recalled learning a lot during their six-week stint away from home.

“I learned to swim there,” Runk said.

“I remember learning about the different kinds of trees,” Gority said. “And seeing different kinds of birds.”

Gority also learned never to again pick up a skunk, something he did while on a hike to get the camp’s mail.

“I caught it by the tail and it bit me, then sprayed me,” he said.

Back at camp, Gority said the bite was judged to be “not too severe,” and he doesn’t recall anyone being worried about rabies.

“Oh yes, they said I stunk,” Gority said. “And I just kept washing and washing.”

Bonsell also remembers learning about the crazy farmer.

“I think it was a way to keep us from getting into trouble because they told us we didn’t want the crazy farmer to come after us. But one night when it was storming … somebody said they saw the crazy farmer, and that led to mayhem in the camp. All the counselors were up, trying to calm everybody down.”

Good camp food

As for the food, the camp typically had a pair of cooks who prepared and served three meals a day.

In 1960 when Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Nicodemus handled that task, they told the Mirror they were toasting 15 loaves of bread every morning for breakfast.

Bonsell said he remembers eating oatmeal for breakfast. One of his favorite meals was roast beef sandwiches with gravy.

Gority recalls a corn boil and barbequed chicken.

Mirror articles about the camp often referred to plenty of milk and fresh produce for the boys.

The camp always had milk and ice cream, LaMorte said.

“And after the boys went to bed, we counselors would go get cantaloupes, cut them in half and fill them with ice cream” LaMorte said. “That was so good.”

The end of the camp

Despite the success of the summer camp, the six-week summer stints came to a close in 1964 because of state regulations, prompting the Altoona Kiwanis Club to instead offer daytime programs for boys which continued until 1968.

About five years later, the Altoona Kiwanis Club brought back its Buddy Club, which had been introduced in 1931 as a companion program to the health farm camp. Unlike the summer camp, the Buddy Club provided fall and winter activities for boys at the Altoona YMCA.

Since that 1973 revival, the Buddy Club has continued to grow and now involves both boys and girls. It now receives accolades that the club members embrace, but maybe not like one the health farm received in June 1963. That’s when Landis Barefoot of Irwin, the son of a widowed mother and brother to three sisters, spoke before the Altoona Kiwanis Club about being among the first group of boys sent to the health farm in 1928.

“That camp truly was an experience for me and had a great impact on my life,” Barefoot said, as reported in the Mirror. “For it was there, having no brothers, that I learned to live with other boys, learned concern for my fellow man, the act of sharing, the importance of cleanliness and neatness when away from home, association with other boys at the dinner table, importance of right manners and the wonderful togetherness that surrounds the health farm life,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.