In an interview with Vicky Erdmann Burgman, we explore the relatively unknown history of camp, which features the ice house, the generator hut, and a few other quirky things about camp from the 50s and 60s that we bet you had no idea existed!
Back in the 50s and early 60s, camp electricity ran off a generator, which at best worked half the time. We used kerosene lamps for lighting as well. In a sense, we were our own little civilization in those days. The generator only ran at night, when we needed lights. My father, Charlie Erdmann, was not an engineer or electrician, and so every time the generator stopped he’d piddle before heading into town to find the caretaker who worked in the mines. This guy would have made the perfect CV Clue or WELK Radio show character. He’d work on the generator housed under a pole shed between the old tennis court (now the bombardment court) and the rec hall. In the late 50s Dad built a more accessible generator house next to the mess hall, which morphed into the tool shed when we buried power poles along the camp road to put camp on the grid. Like a hero Dad slogged that heavy copper wire across the narrows shallows littered with logs and stumps to bring electricity from the Fall Lake power dam.
Electricity kept the water running, and my father would get so exasperated when Mim would say, “We’re out of water again!” He would reply, “Heck, there’s a whole lake out there!” Dish washers used to tie big dirty pots and pans to the dock or branches and leave them soaking in the lake for days. The fish and critters would pick them clean. Some of the dishwashers would conveniently forget about them, but eventually bring them in and dry them off. That certainly wouldn’t be up to code these days!
We kept food cold in wooden ice boxes which were almost as cold as the fridges. Dad would bring great big blocks of ice from the Ely Ice Locker, which we’d chip apart and put in the middle of the ice box. We inherited an ice house behind the trip hut where we used to play as kids. The ice house was where canoes are stored today. Dad would wrestle the blocks of ice into the ice house using iron tongs, dig a hole in the sawdust and then cover the ice. Buried in sawdust, the ice blocks melted very slowly. The movie of the Root Beer Lady shows her crew harvesting winter lake ice for her summer brew.
Dad picked up milk at the Ely Dairy in 5 gallon cans. We’d scoop the cream off the top and then dip the milk off into pitchers. Many people living in the woods probably did that back in the 50s. We didn’t at home, but I remember this beautiful cream on top of the fresh milk. Alberta Wheeler (Babe’s wife) and Mom would sit and dip milk into pitchers and set them on the tables in the mess hall.
One of the 5 gallon milk cans was used for carrying water from the hand pump well beside the generator hut. Campers drank daily from this well until the 80s. One kitchen boy, Steve Cawelti (who slept in the trip hut) loved getting the water. Have you seen the big round military pale with a faucet underneath the trip hut? It has been used in some of the Gong Shows at camp. Cawelti would fill that up with water and, using a tumpline, haul it into the mess hall. Most of the time it took two people to do that job. That’s how we got fresh water in those days!