A summer camp that was Jewish by nature, not by design
Camp Machigon was not a Pittsburgh camp, nor really a Jewish camp, and yet it plays a part in local Jewish history.
You’re looking at the members of the Woodbine Boys Club. They’re sitting on the steps of Colfax Elementary School, where they met for swimming, horseplay and other good times. The club was informal — no charter or constitution or officers. The official-sounding name was simply a way to foster a spirit of belonging among the boys.
The photograph was taken on March 27, 1948, but these boys all seem ready for summer. They’re stripped to their undershirts and squinting against the slanted sunlight.
A lot of them already knew what they would be doing for the summer. Their plans can be found on the tattered T-shirt of Jimmy Cooper. He’s the middle of the three counselors taking a knee in the back. His T-shirt reads “Camp Machigon.” His left arm is covering up the camp logo: the profile of a Native American man in a full headdress.
Camp Machigon was not a Pittsburgh camp, nor really a Jewish camp, and yet it plays a part in local Jewish history. Throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, a fair number of Woodbine boys spent their summers together at Camp Machigon. Readers of a certain age might even recognize their friends (or themselves) among these faces.
The earliest reference I’ve found to Camp Machigon is the 1924 edition of Porter Sargent’s “Handbook of Summer Camps,” which lists it as a Boy Scouts camp in Bonny Eagle Lake, Maine — nothing about Jewishness, nothing about Pittsburgh. The next 20 years produced little documentation, aside from evidence that the legendary University of Pittsburgh back fielder Marshall Goldberg was a counselor there in the late 1930s.
Camp Machigon appeared in Pittsburgh publications in the February 9, 1945, edition of the Jewish Criterion, which ran an advertisement and a brief news item announcing that a local Jewish communal fundraiser and youth worker named Alex Levin was “reopening” the camp at Crescent Lake in Raymond, Maine. The revived Camp Machigon would take 100 boys between the ages of seven and 16 and would offer an array of athletic and cultural activities. “For the first time in history, Pittsburgh will be [the] official headquarters for an exclusive Maine Camp for boys,” the notice claimed.
Nothing in the newspaper mentioned anything Jewish about Camp Machigon, aside from its new director. Blair Jacobson — seen here in the second row, second from the left, head in his hands — attended Camp Machigon and recently donated a collection of photographs and letters from his summers there. He recalled very little in the way of explicitly Jewish activities at the camp, aside from the occasional Friday night service.
The Maine Jewish Museum keeps a database of known Jewish summer camps in the state. It includes places like Camp Modin and Camp Naomi, where Jewishness underpinned the entire camping experience. Camp Machigon isn’t in the database.
Camp Machigon was different. It was a secular camp that became a de facto Jewish camp through the personal affiliations of its director. Levin advertised in the Jewish Criterion, and therefore many of his campers ended up being Jewish kids who lived in Pittsburgh. A photograph published in the Criterion in August 1949 showed all the local Jewish boys attending Camp Machigon that summer. All told, it came to 15 kids and 11 counselors, which accounted for about a sixth of all the campers and about a third of the staff. Even the camp photographer, Mervin S. Stewart, who also took this photograph of the Woodbine Boys Club, was a young Jewish guy from Pittsburgh.
A string of directors managed Camp Machigon between 1945 and 1953, when the last notice appeared in the Criterion. Some of these directors were from Pittsburgh and some weren’t, but they all maintained the habit of advertising in the Criterion. They even occasionally held camp reunions in Pittsburgh during the colder months of the year.
There have been many Jewish youth programs in Pittsburgh, and often they have been used to express the aspirations of Jewish organizations in the city. Camp Machigon instead reflected the actual structure of Jewish life in Squirrel Hill after World War II, when many Jewish families read the same community newspaper and sent their kids to the same schools. A camp in Maine was a byproduct of a community in Pittsburgh. PJC
Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Sen. John Heinz History Center. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-454-6406. Follow the Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter for the latest stories.