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Camping on the Farm

By Linnea Anderson, Archivist, Social Welfare History Archives


One of the most enjoyable aspects of teaching with archival collections is participating in the students' discovery process as they uncover unexpected documents and stories in the archives. It is a chance for staff as well as students to gain new insights about collections.

While preparing materials for an honors seminar on Summer Camps, I discovered Minnie Walker, the "camp cow," in the Hartley House records at the Social Welfare History Archives. Hartley Farm camp in Towaco, New Jersey was the summer camp for children from Hartley House settlement in the "Hell's Kitchen" neighborhood on Manhattan's West Side. Settlements such as Hartley house served as community centers for urban neighborhoods with large immigrant populations. Among many other services, they offered recreational activities and stressed the importance of exercise and the natural environment for children raised in an urban setting. Many settlements sent children to summer camp - often at property provided by a donor. 

Minnie Walker Certificate of Registration.jpg

In addition to being a charming peek at the history of camping, the story of the Hartley Farm cows is also a wonderful example of how much information can be gleaned from only a few documents. The Hartley House records include two registry forms for Holstein cows at the camp. The first is a certificate of registry from The Holstein-Friesian Association of America for a cow named Minnie Walker. Minnie's sire was the illustriously named Sir Hengerveld Prilly Walker and her dam was listed as Minnie Abbekerk 2nd. She was born in December, 1915; purchased for the camp from W. S. Phillips of Huntsville, New Jersey; and registered in May, 1919. Using the diagram provided on the back of the registry form, someone carefully drew Minnie's markings in blue ink.


But, why keep cows at camp? Milk, of course! The children needed a steady supply of fresh milk. Settlement houses were often a source of milk for children in the neighborhood. Many ran "pure milk stations" and provided instruction for mothers on how to purchase and store milk. Settlement staff members were concerned with poor nutrition and adulterated or spoiled milk as a source of disease. This concern extended to the diet of summer campers. 

There is no record in the file of how long Minnie provided milk for the children at Hartley Farm camp, but a second registry form provides a clue about her legacy. Sometime in the early 1920s (the document is not clearly dated), someone filled out a registry form for another Holstein cow named Daisy Walker. Daisy was born in 1923 or 1924. Her dam is listed as Minnie Walker, suggesting that this is the same Minnie listed on the earlier form. 

Hartley barn.jpg

It is even possible to get an idea of Minnie and Daisy's home, thanks to notes and hand-drawn plans of the barn on the property and photographs showing fields and outbuildings. Other photographs show chickens, dogs, cats and horses at the camp in addition to cows. There is no clearly identified photograph of Minnie or Daisy, though there is one tantalizing image of a horse and three cows resting under a faraway tree. Another photo from the 1910s shows campers and staff milking two Holstein cows. It is possible that one member of this small herd is Minnie. Hartley Farm appears to have functioned as a combination camp and working farm. In fact, staff at many settlement house camps considered gardening, light construction and other forms of outdoor work as healthy character building activities for youthful campers that should be part of camp life along with the usual activities such as hikes, games, sports and skits. Other collections in the Social Welfare History Archives help to create a vibrant picture of a lost era of summer camping. Do these other files contain hints about the lives of camp pets and livestock? You never know until you starting looking!



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