I’m currently working on a book that will cover the history of Camp Hollis, the children’s residential camp located on Lake Ontario, in the town of Oswego. My personal history is intimately woven with the camp’s, stretching all the way back to the 1930s, when my dad attended the Health Camp located there. By the 1960s, I was a camper at Hollis and then worked my way through college as one of its counselors in the 1970s. Most of my adult career was with the county of Oswego’s Youth Bureau, which owns and operates the camp. Writing Camp Hollis’s history will not only be an honor, but also personally fulfilling.
I’m researching the camp back to its earliest years, including details about Dr. LeRoy Hollis, of Sandy Creek, who oversaw the Health Camp from 1928 until it closed in 1943. But today I want to tell you how, three years later, one man put forth great effort to reopen the camp for children in Oswego County. That man was Judge Eugene Sullivan.
Born in New York City in 1899, Eugene made occasional visits to Fulton because his father, Richard Sullivan, ran our city’s Hotel Fulton. By the time Eugene had graduated from Albany Law School, he and his wife Ruth had settled in Fulton. Here he practiced law, became active in politics and in several community organizations.
A new job Sullivan began in 1944 set the stage for the founding of Camp Hollis. Appointed to be Oswego County’s Children’s Court Judge, Sullivan met many youngsters who’d already endured great struggles in their life. “My father oversaw cases involving families who didn’t even have the basic necessities,” Eugene’s son, Mike, told me. “Things like running water for bathing or fresh milk for meals. Dad thought those children needed something special in their lives. ‘If they could receive some kind of reward, we might not see them back in the courts,’ he’d say.”
What the Judge imagined for children came true a thousand times over throughout Camp Hollis’s nearly 75-year history. When the camp officially opened in 1946, some of the first children to attend were those whose family lives were so troubled that they ended up in an Oswego County orphanage. A few years before I retired, one of those former orphans, Frank Fisher, stopped by to visit the camp that had given him many fond memories.
“I was nine years old when my brothers, sister and I were sent to the Oswego Children’s Orphanage,” Frank explained. “But two weeks each year, the college-age counselors at Camp Hollis won our hearts. They noticed when a child was having difficulty and would throw an arm around a shoulder, give a hug or an encouraging word. The counselors had no special training, but they cared and we children knew it without being told it was so.”
Judge’s son Mike was one of those Camp Hollis counselors and he told me a little about what working there in its earliest years was like:
“I started off as a handyman to the cook. Later, Dad sent me to a Red Cross Aquatic School and we lifeguards had the important job of making sure the children swimming in the sometimes rough Lake Ontario waters were safe. We taught a lot of kids how to swim who’d never been near water.”
As I research Camp Hollis’s history I’ve learned how the Judge struggled to financially support the camp. Sullivan spoke at Oswego County Legislative meetings, convincing them in the camp’s first year of the need for healthy recreational activities for children. He spoke to the orphanages’ staff, school nurses, police departments—anyone who might support his idea of creating a camp for children in need.
Convincing those influential people wasn’t easy, as Mike explained. “I’m still not sure how my father managed in those early years to supply the camp with food, needed supplies and pay for the staff. The camp started when I was nine years old and I often rode out to Hollis with my father so he could check on how it was running. My job was to make sure he did not fall asleep on the way home. I also remember attending dinners where he gave the Camp Hollis pitch for funding. Money ran out the last two weeks of that first summer and Dad covered the paychecks for everyone.”
Sullivan didn’t just look for support at the local level; he also sought it from state officials. He’d learned that Governor Thomas Dewey had started a committee to study juvenile delinquency that became known as the New York State Youth Commission. Judge pitched them the idea that a summer camp for needy children could be a method of curtailing a youngster’s wrongdoing and the newly-formed committee agreed. In the camp’s inaugural year, New York State agreed to provide funding, making Camp Hollis the first such recreational program to receive support from the state.
Sullivan put state and local money to good use. The camp’s original building was repaired, playground equipment was installed and a staff was hired to prepare meals, provide medical care and supervise children. In July of 1946, 27 boys and 27 girls from local orphanages and all over Oswego County climbed off a school bus onto the campgrounds, ready for three weeks of fun, food and friendship. Over the years, Camp Hollis would evolve into a camp that’s open to all Oswego County children. This summer, hundreds of boys and girls will step foot on the campgrounds for the first time, looking to enjoy the life-changing experience of going away to camp.
What a joy it will be to write Camp Hollis’ full history, with stories from former staff and campers like Mike and Frank helping me preserve the memory of Judge Eugene Sullivan, who saw children in great need and found a way to make their lives a little happier.