The Galloway Township Historical Society is looking for information from people who may have attended Little Indian Day Camp from 1958 to 1980. The camp, founded by former Margate school psychologist Richard Cohen, provided what he called “urban” children from the Atlantic City area with a “woodland experience” on the banks of Lily Lake in Galloway, where the Noyes Museum of Art was later built.
Historical society secretary Steven Fiedler has taken the lead in compiling a history of the campground and is hoping to create a comprehensive display of artifacts, photographs and memories from campers and counselors.
“The camp has always been a topic of conversation during our society’s roundtable discussions,” Fiedler said.
Conversations about the campground with friends and relatives led him to Cohen, who lived in Margate for most of his life.
“I met Richard about six months ago, and that was key to opening the floodgates about the campground,” Fiedler said.
Fielder, who has met with Cohen several times to record his accounts of establishing and running the campground, said he has just scratched the surface.
“I’m looking for more people to come forward to share their stories, memorabilia and photographs,” Fieldler said.
One artifact he is seeking are copies of the campground newsletter, which was called Smoke Signal. The publication provided details of camp activities, along with the names of campers and counselors. Fiedler said he has two editions, but believes at least 30 were published.
Cohen, 89, said he discarded most of his camp documents when he sold his Margate home recently and moved to Egg Harbor Township.
“We had the newsletter we did mimeo-style about the ‘tribes’ represented and wanted to make sure all the kids were mentioned,” he said.
All he has left is a copy of one newsletter and vivid memories of his early 30s.
“For some unknown reason, I decided I wanted to own an overnight camp for kids,” Cohen said.
He and a partner, Matthew Weiner, a school superintendent and attorney, looked at properties in Pennsylvania but couldn't afford them.
“We didn’t have $5 in our pockets, so we came home and talked to Dr. Barnard Shuman, a local pediatrician,” Cohen said. “We told him about the idea, and he said he knew of a property on the Mullica River that had a dock.”
Weiner purchased the property and started the camp and Cohen joined him two years later, becoming a partner in 1958.
When Weiner had a heart attack a year later, Cohen mortgaged $15,000 to buy out his interest.
“I didn’t know any more about operating a camp than I did about building buildings,” he said, but developed the camp nonetheless.
“It was really strictly a business proposition, but I have always had a personal fascination with children, both as a psychologist and as a Scoutmaster at Margate Community Church. Children simply made me feel good."
Known by campers as Uncle Richard, Cohen was the school psychologist in Margate for 16 years and had a private practice in Linwood until he retired at age 82.
The camp started in a small building on 10 acres at the edge of the lake, and over the years, he added cabins and eventually a large mess hall. Cohen had the parking lot paved to create a basketball court, and offered archery and swimming lessons, arts and crafts, canoe trips and roller-skating trips to Young’s Skating Rink in Mays Landing, mostly for the children of Margate.
Several years later, the camp welcomed children from Atlantic City, transporting them door to door in four school buses and four station wagons, he said.
“Atlantic City schools Superintendent Jack Eisenstein came to see me about starting a camp that would improve reading for children of the Atlantic City schools,” Cohen said. “We had to make additional improvements and get trailers to serve as classrooms. The camp was very successful and improved their reading level by 1 1/4 years in an eight-week session.”
The reading program was funded with an $80,000 federal grant, which allowed Cohen to offer the camp at no cost to 200 Atlantic City children.
When a child drowned in a pool at another Atlantic County camp, Cohen turned his focus to water safety.
“I became preoccupied with teaching children to swim and required all the children to learn how to swim,” he said.
Cohen said he often runs into former campers and counselors from Little Indian Day Camp.
A 25-year member of the NAACP, Cohen said he recently attended a meeting where he was “the only white guy in the room.” He was seated at the front table alongside a woman who had been a counselor at the camp, listening to a speaker.
“The speaker stopped in the middle of his speech and stared at me. There was dead silence in the room. Then he said, ‘Are you Uncle Richard?’”
The speaker asked how many other people in the room knew Uncle Richard, and 10 people stood up, Cohen said.
He recalled the day he sold the property to Fred Noyes, who established the Noyes Museum at the site. It took a total of five minutes to sell the place, he said.
“He literally came walking up Lily Lake Road with two blondes and two lawyers, and said he understood the place was for sale. Atlantic City was interested in buying the property for $125,000, so I asked him for $250,000 and he didn’t blink an eye. He just said, ‘Where do I sign?’” Cohen said.
Fiedler said there are many more stories to tell about the camp, including some from the perspective of campers and counselors, and he is hoping to hear more.
“It truly is an inspiring story, and one that has gone largely untold,” Fiedler said.
He aims to make the exhibit as complete as possible.
"Eventually I would like to put together a document that can be put into the Galloway Historical Museum. It would be a big help if we could tickle the folks in Margate that may have attended,” he said.
Fiedler asks anyone who has a campground story to tell to call him at 609-464-0413.