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100 Years Ago: a Mess Hall is moved to Camp

Graeme Noseworthy — March 18, 2022

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In the Spring of 1922, an interesting site would have been seen on the road into Camp. It was a sight that, as far as we can tell, only happened once throughout the century in which Takodah has been nestled in the woods of Richmond, New Hampshire. By all accounts, it was truly an amazing sight to behold.

It was a team of horses pulling a small building perched upon a flatbed being moved along on top of a series of wooden wheels and greased beams.

A team of horses in the 1920s moves a building similar in size and shape to the Mess Hall.

This was no small feat. It would have been slow. It would have been labor intensive. It would have taken a group of highly experienced movers and carpenters. It would have been extremely complicated if not downright dangerous and it definitely would have been dirty. But the building was moved, and it came from just over the border in Massachusetts.* Originally a Dance Hall set in the center of a small town, “Uncle” Oscar Elwell acquired the simple structure the same way he did everything else. He didn’t ask. He told.

Using his connections from his years at Springfield College and his near superhuman knack for local outreach and professional networking, Oscar, most likely along with Elgin Jones, found out that the building was due to be sold or possibly even destroyed. It had been in use for around 25 years prior. It was basic with no interior walls, no utilities, no floor, no windows, no foundation, and it was missing a door. And yet, it still had plenty of life left to it. Takodah, only a few years old at this point, needed the building as they had plans to rapidly expand camp’s population and programs.

The Elwells smile with their fellow Takodians outside the “new” Mess Hall, likely soon after it was moved to Richmond in 1922.

Oscar arranged for the “donation” to take place soon after he took the reins as Secretary of the County YMCA the previous year. He worked with a small crew of volunteers and a local carpenter he hired to clear and prep a site for the building, which they planned to use as a new “mess hall.” It was set to be located not too far from the Bunkhouse,  one of the only other permanent structures on the campus, which was near a small grove of lovely hemlock trees.

Once the site was ready, it took a few days to prep, lift, load, secure, and move the building. It must have been a moment of tremendous excitement as they heard the sounds of horses clopping down the dirt road into Camp as the men called out the turns and times to move the beams from back to front over and over again. They passed the Bunkhouse – now known as the Office – turned slightly left and parked next to the clearing that had been made. The building was carefully lowered, slid from off the flatbed, rolled into position, leveled, and settled onto the ground that it still sits on today. Oscar would have beamed his famous wide grin knowing he was putting another stake into the ground that Takodah was here to stay. Frances would have shared an equally broad smile as she knew she was breaking ground on something tremendously special that year and she would need full use of the building to make it work.

That’s because the new Mess Hall was to be one of the first buildings used by Frances’s new program that would go on to become an important and highly recognized staple of the Cheshire County YMCA: Girls Camp.

The Mess Hall with improved trim and grounds, circa 1923.

Now that Takodah had boys in July and girls in August, the need for good food and more space to cook, eat, clear, and sing was paramount. Within a relatively short amount of time, they added a perpendicular addition to the side of the original Mess Hall in order to create a space that could hold more tables, more campers, and more staff. They also added an ice room on the back, which was partially below ground, where they would put large blocks of ice harvested from Cass Pond in the winter, cover them with hay to stay cool, and use them to keep food preserved throughout the summer months. It worked perfectly… for a while. But, camp was getting “bigger and better,” as Oscar loved to say, year after year.

The Mess Hall would eventually be transformed into its current use once the original Dining Hall, now called TPAC, was constructed in 1928 in order to accommodate a larger summer camp population. The kitchen equipment was moved out of the original section, the tables were removed from the addition, the ice room was moved to the side of the new Dining Hall (it’s now the Camp Store) and the “old” Mess Hall became the central hub of creativity at Camp.

In fact, it became the Hobby Nook.

Hobby Nook as seen in the autumn of 2021

It would go on to be used extensively throughout the summers, slightly modified over the years, improved with electricity, plumbing, gable vents, windows, a new roof**, and more. It would survive a devastating hurricane in the late 1930s. It would be partially collapsed by heavy snow loads and rebuilt in the mid-1950s. It would freeze in the winters and bake in the summers. Nevertheless, for decade after decade, from then until now, thousands of campers have signed up for classes within its walls, enjoyed the sun and rain just outside its door, and sat down at its tables to engage each other in conversation and song as they produce as steady stream of handmade items that are scattered throughout the world. You probably have one or two (or more) in your home right now.

Candling in Hobby Nook. Girls Camp, Summer 2019.

Hobby Nook started out as place where kids learned how to be better campers and evolved into a place where campers learned how to be better kids. They did that by harnessing their inner talents to make something beautiful while learning a new skill. To this day, it still looks, feels, smells, and sounds very much like it did in 1929. It is one of the most beloved and instantly recognizable buildings on the entire site. Even though it didn’t start out its life in Richmond, it is by far the oldest structures we have. And yet, it still has plenty of life left to it.

Here’s to another 100 years of creating wonderful things in a special little Nook we’ve all been lucky enough to know and love.

 

 

*Our official records differ on the precise original location of the building. It either came from Royalston, MA or Warwick, MA. We’re working with the historical societies in both of those towns, along with the Richmond Historical Society, to try and prove, once and for all, where Hobby Nook came from. The rest of the story has been confirmed mostly from Oscar’s extensive records.

 

**If you enter the front of Hobby Nook, turn right and walk a few steps into the “addition,” stop, turn around, and look up at an angle. You can still see parts of the original roof and shingles from the “Dance Hall” in the rafters. It was covered by the “new” roof when the addition was built and has remained untouched ever since.