At the end of the day, they gathered in a circle on the East End bluffs overlooking Gardiners Bay. Clasping hands, the women began to sing. In voices strong and clear -- almost as if they'd been rehearsing for this moment for decades -- they sang songs from a part of their youth that had transpired on these now-vacant acres of tall grass and winding trails in the Springs section of East Hampton.
On the shores of Gardiners Bay
Stands our Alma Mater dear
Strong ideals of friendship true
Make our summers happy here
Living life with a real purpose
And with love and loyalty
And dear Fire Place, we do pledge that
We will ever faithful be.
That pledge to Fire Place Lodge, a summer camp for girls from 1935 to 1972, was honored recently by a group of faithful campers, now ages 51 to 78. In total, 36 former campers plus seven tagalong spouses and friends, arrived from all over the country for a weekend reunion -- the first since 1990 -- drawn by the power of memory and the wide net cast by social media.
"When I first got on Facebook, I thought, 'How would I use this?' " recalled reunion organizer Shannon Cunniff, 54, a camper from 1965 to 1971. "Then it struck me . . . a Fire Place alumni group." Cunniff started the group in January 2011. Former campers already on Facebook started "friending" right away; others spread the word conventionally, which prompted still others to join Facebook to gain access to the Fire Place page.
It was decided to hold a reunion. Using Facebook, LinkedIn and Google, Cunniff -- who grew up in Manhattan and now lives in Arlington, Va. -- began searching the Internet for Fire Place girls. She was helped by a few other tech-savvy alumni.
"We stalked people shamelessly," joked Raleigh Mayer, 52, who lives in Manhattan and attended the camp from 1969 to 1972, the year it closed. But it didn't take much convincing: Whether they'd spent one summer there or many more, the former campers were eager to reunite and to embrace social media as part of the experience.
The idea of finding old friends through social media has become common among people of a certain age. "The research shows the fastest-growing group on Facebook are older adults," says psychologist Lilli Friedland of Beverly Hills, Calif., who specializes in social media and reunions. "What does that tell us? They want to reconnect."
That's especially true for those, like the Fire Place girls, who shared an important experience. "So many people have told me that their lives were changed because of this camp," said Cunniff, an environmental scientist.
"It was absolutely formative in my development," Liz Johnson, of Wilton, Conn., said of her camp days. Johnson, who grew up in Old Bethpage and attended Fire Place in the early 1970s, is now 53 and has had a career in banking. She attributes her ability to flourish in a traditionally male bastion to the confidence she gained at the camp, which emphasized vigorous sports and physical activity, as well as arts and crafts.
A diverse schedule
The camp alumnae say credit for the positive influence Fire Place had on their lives goes to founder Adelaide Mershon Purcell, who was remembered in a nostalgic PowerPoint presentation at the Oct. 6 reunion luncheon held at Gurney's Inn in Montauk.
During the 1850s, Purcell's grandfather was a Presbyterian minister in East Hampton. After she became a music teacher in Montclair, N.J., Purcell decided to open a camp for girls in her ancestral village. "Fire Place Lodge is distinctly different from any other summer camp," noted a 1942 article in the Long Island Forum. "Its motto -- Friendship, Purposeful Living, Loyalty -- best expresses its aims."
During those long-ago summers, campers followed a diverse schedule of activities: morning flag-raisings, dorm inspections, horseback riding, archery and swimming, as well as an annual operetta that was produced and performed by the girls.
Many years later at their reunion, former campers were still eager to put on a show. But first, lunch was served. "We wanted the old camp favorites, like fried blowfish, corn fritters and cinnamon toast," said Mayer, "but they weren't on Gurney's menu!" They settled for clam chowder, Waldorf salad, various entrees and a red velvet cake decorated with the Fire Place logo.
Throughout the meal, there was hugging, laughing, a few tears and spontaneous singing. Someone had dug up a compilation of no less than 29 camp tunes, many of them paeans to counselors and staff members ("Way down on the seashore, Mary Lou is seen / She helps us in swimming and we think she's keen.") Despite the years that had passed since they were campers, they crooned the songs they had learned by heart and there was instant recognition of their summer friends. "I'd know my Fire Place Lodge family anywhere," said Mayer, though she had not seen many of these women since 1972. "I recognized voices, laughter, teeth and even feet. It only took a split second to recalibrate for the current hairstyles and new outfits."
As the luncheon ended, the women went out to a deck overlooking the ocean and performed a synchronized "Hokey Pokey," a Fire Place favorite. Nearby, guests at a wedding reception looked on curiously. Asked if the former campers might be shy about hopping around on one leg in front of strangers, Mayer laughed. "Do these women look to you like they're easily intimidated?"
'God bless you, Mary'
On the agenda was a visit to the old campground. That the 17-acre parcel was still accessible was a happy surprise, especially for some who had not visited Long Island in decades. The land is now owned by Mary Ryan, who, working with the Peconic Land Trust, has preserved 11 acres of it. When the campers arrived in her driveway, Ryan was there to greet them. She was applauded by the group, some of whom had been expecting to find old Fire Place Lodge replaced by expensive, new condos.
"God bless you, Mary," cried one appreciative returnee.
"I think it must have been a special place," said Ryan, who has heard much about the camp. "It had to be, because people keep coming back."
It was then time to follow the old trail up to the bluffs where much of the camp's activities had taken place. With the buildings gone, there was momentary confusion among some of the women. As a few of the husbands stood clustered at a respectful distance, small groups of former campers wandered the grounds, trying to reorient themselves without familiar landmarks that had long vanished.
"Where were the tennis courts?"
"Was this the hill where everyone did cartwheels?"
"Wait. Those trees weren't there, were they?"
After a few minutes, though, Cunniff and Mayer called the group to join the Friendship Circle -- another Fire Place tradition. Tears flowed as Mayer read a poem from an original camper, now deceased. As the waters of Gardiners Bay shimmered with the late afternoon breeze, songs were sung, and it was clear that the prescient words of Adelaide Mershon Purcell had come to fruition.
In 1972, the camp's final season, Purcell -- who was then 82 -- told a Newsday reporter, "Summer camp is a place for fun. But it is also a place where we reinforce the important values in life. We want to train the girls in valuable pursuits so that years from now, they can look back and know their time here wasn't wasted."
It wasn't. Ask her girls, who attested to that upon their return, 40 years later.