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A legacy of improvements: the evolution of Takodah’s plumbing from primitive to modern

Graeme Noseworthy — October 25, 2023


Camp Takodah is often described as “rustic” and it’s absolutely true. It is that way by design.

But what we consider that term to be these days is nothing compared to what it was if we go all the way back to the beginning of our Y. With the construction of the new Buffalo Twins completed for the 107th summer, let’s look at just how rustic camp was when it came time to “do your business” back in the day.

Camp Primitive on Swanzey Lake, 1914

In the two years before Takodah, Camp Primitive thoroughly lived up to its name. Under the direction of Howard T. Ball, a dashing young graduate from Dartmouth University, this encampment was set up on the northwest shoreline of Swanzey Lake. It was nothing but tents, boys, food, fire, and fun with plenty of swimming, hiking, classes, and fellowship. Campers took a train ride and then walked to reach the site. They also had to bring their own supplies and, as far as we can tell, dig their own latrines. There were no facilities or conveniences of any kind. It was extremely basic.

There were also no complaints as the records from that era report an enthusiastic group of campers and staff who were determined to come back year after year.

Camp Takodah on Tolman Pond, 1916

When Camp Takodah was first organized at Tolman Pond in Nelson, NH in 1916, it was the same story. It was purposefully spartan with no buildings or plumbing of any kind. The only issue the boys reported to Daniel E. Lorentz, Second Secretary of the Cheshire County YMCA, was that, similar to previous years, the walk from the train station while carrying their duffle bags in the middle of the summer heat was much longer than the campers anticipated. Once they got to Picnic Point on Tolman Pond, as it is called now, if they had to go to the bathroom, they were pointed in one direction to go #1, or towards a specially shaped wooden bench set back from the tents to go #2. We have very few photos from those years and regardless of the simple setup, it sure looks like a good time was had by all.

In 1919, of course, everything changed.

The “Office” at Takodah, one of the only buildings on the property, circa 1920

When we arrived at the Richmond site, there were a few permanent structures from what was originally intended to be a private school for boys. It was our luck that the plan to establish that program did not work out. Nevertheless, the conditions were not much better than the previous locations. There were only two wooden buildings, a small open space for play, and a lovely little beach. In fact, one of the buildings didn’t even have a floor! There was, however, a small water storage tank and a manually operated pump that would slowly bring drinking and handwashing water up from the lake. We set up three canvas platform tents and hoped for the best. The nearby trees were likely used for relieving oneself and the lake was used for bathing (as it was for many years to come!) It’s possible a temporary outhouse was constructed but there is no mention of it in the records.

When Oscar Elwell, a bright YMCA professional from Springfield College, arrived in 1921, he set himself on a path of aggressive expansion and modernization of the property and facilities. He knew that Takodah was perfectly positioned for growth, but we needed substantial improvements in order to attract additional campers and top quality staff. Plus, Frances, his devoted wife and partner, wanted to include girls equally in the program. That requirement drove additional need for facilities.

The first mention of anything related to new and improved plumbing was an entry in our historical records dated July 7, 1922. A “hot air engine” was given to Takodah by Robert M. Burnett of Southboro, MA. He helped run a different summer camp in Stoddard, NH and he donated the gently used asset to our Y after he had purchased a bigger one. It was a rudimentary piece of equipment that converted heat into mechanical motion and was sufficient to power a small pump connected by a hose to the lake.

It didn’t do much, but it was a good start.

One of the earliest known photographs of plumbing being installed at Camp Takodah. This is a distribution box for fresh water, mid-1920s

Throughout the early 1920s, we see very few mentions of plumbing in the records. Instead, we see references to “old style sanitation” and other gently worded ways of referring to things that would be a very tough sell these days. It wasn’t until 1926 that the large capacity Water Tower & Storage Tank was proposed and eventually built (behind what is now Hobby Nook.) Those critical pieces of infrastructure opened the possibilities of using water in the original Mess Hall, Lodge, Birches, and the washing stations, later called the Toadstool, that were centrally located between the office and A-Field, roughly where the drinking fountain near Cabin 14 is today.

In 1927, a large septic tank and a chlorination unit was added to comply with requirements from the NH State Board of Health. These improvements drove rapid change and soon after the first flushing toilet at Takodah was installed in either the kitchen or the “Director’s Cottage” (now known as The Birches.) The records are a bit conflicting on which one came first. It was quickly followed by an order for ten more toilets furnished by C. B. Pierce to be used in the #1 Toilet Building, later converted into a Plumbing Shop and then the Monadnock Leaders Laundry.

Elgin Jones recorded that November that “taking it all in all, we now have in Takodah a camp second to none in the state.” He was right about that and yet we were just getting started.

Example of a Kholer Plant, circa 1928

In 1928, our Y purchased a state-of-the-art Kholer Plant (Model K, 2,000 watts automatic, 110v DC) gas powered generator which provided the first electricity on the property. Interestingly, the generator was installed in the same building that housed our first two shower units. We have no doubt that getting cleaned up in that room could be a shocking experience, to say the least. While we’ll never know why they made that decision, our best guess is that they had the space so they made the most of it!

The following year, a full decade after we took over the site, the #1 Toilet Building received its first incandescent lights. From that point on, we see mentions here and there about new pumps, toilets, showers, wells being dug (one of which was behind Friendship Lodge and was nearly 400’ deep), bigger storage tanks, additional drinking fountains, more distribution of water, and improved or expanded septic systems. It turns out that Oscar’s philosophy of each season needing to be “bigger and better” was very much a reality and it took a lot of time and considerable expense to keep up with the rapid pace of innovation.

After all, if there is one constant at Camp, it’s change.

As the 1930s took hold, Takodah had grown to the point where the cabins needed to be split into three divisions. That meant more Toilet Buildings were needed as well. We’re not entirely sure what year the #2 Toilet Building was constructed but we know it was prior to the Great New England Hurricane of 1938. Takodah’s unique term for our bathrooms, Twin or Twins, came after Frank J. Amarosa, our long-time plumber, installed the waterworks and hardware of both Toilet buildings side by side. Because the buildings were, as first constructed, identical, they were referred to as Twins (although we don’t know who actually coined the phrase.) The name stuck and has been applied to all bathhouses or toilet buildings we’ve had constructed since that time.

“The first Twin” as seen in the aftermath of the Great New England Hurricane, 1938

The first recorded written use of the name can be seen in a photo from the aftermath of the devastating September 1938 hurricane. It’s labeled “ten trees fell on the first Twin!” Subsequent photos show how the building was torn apart both inside and out. Another early use is an entry in the records from over ten years later that says “proposed twin building for the Midget Division is our project for 1949. Will replace smaller building and should have two showers and at least six toilets.” This most likely refers to the old Crowninshield (formerly Monadnock) Twins, which was demolished and replaced in 2021. The records from the 1940s state it was built to serve campers in Cabins 14-18 and it cost a whopping $1016 to build it!

Sports Shack, which was originally built as the “Monadnock Shower House” was built in 1952. The old Kingfisher (formerly Penacook) Twins were built in 1953, partially because the Y had received a donation of a 1000-gallon high pressure tank to serve the rapidly expanding division that was somewhat off on its own. That building was demolished and replaced in 2017.

The new Buffalo Twins as seen in October 2023

Sinks, showers, and toilets were added to The Hemlocks in 1953. The following year, the lagoon was added in approximately the same place it still can be seen on May Lane, along with more distribution pipes and storage tanks around the property. The Buffalo (formerly Cherokee) Twins was built entirely from donations of money, materials, and labor in 1958. It cost $5068.95 and it lasted until the fall of 2022 with only minor modifications and slight improvements over the years. It certainly was exciting to “cut the ribbon” on the new Twins this past summer with a firm hope that it will last even longer than its predecessor!

In 1961, Oscar wrote “we hope that thousands will enjoy these improvements in the future.”  From that point on, it was a steady pace of improvement that would eventually see examples of plumbing all throughout the active parts of the property. Some features, like drinking fountains on Memorial Lodge’s porch, would come and go. Others, like the Public Twins, were there to stay.

The fact is that we don’t always think about or fully appreciate places like the Twins. And while we all know that without them there would be no camp, it’s easy to overlook how essential they are to every single Takodian who has stepped foot on the property since they were first opened.


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