Permission has been granted the Berwick Boys Foundation to reprint “TWO MILES OFF MAINE” by Elisabeth Logan Davis 1970 issue of YANKEE.
TWO MILES OFF MAINE
by Elisabeth Logan Davis
“When I first heard of Berwick Boys Foundation, my impression was one of puzzlement. It was hard for me to believe that a group of boys were spending their summers on an island two miles off the coast of Maine and running a camp all by themselves. Nevertheless, I decided to find out more about it, because I am a boy who lacks not only finances but a definite decision about my future. What boy my age feels sure of himself? “These were the words of Mike Barker who had finished two summers at Camp Berwick.
A visit to the unique work camp automatically creates a curiosity about its conception and its history. The idea for Berwick Camp was in the minds of two young surgeons who were interning at Roosevelt Hospital, New York City. In summer, during their two weeks’ vacation they began a search for a permanent place where they could relax in peace and quiet. “There is nothing like an island,” said Dr. Walter Wichern. “I found that out one summer on Forbes Island where I worked with a professor of anatomy who was making a study of the antlers of deer.”
To find an island the two surgeons began scanning newspaper advertisements as real estate listings were too expensive. At long last they saw: Dyer Island off the coast of Maine, owned by the Seaboard Paper Company. Pulpwood supply has been cut. Will sell the 1000 acres.” Correspondence flew back and forth until the young doctors, who were making a combined income of $50 a week, agreed to pay monthly $25 each on a five-year lease toward buying their dream island.
It was there on Dyer Island that Dr. Wichern, now Chief of Surgery, Roosevelt Hospital and Dr. Meredith Berry, a directing head of Goddard Memorial Hospital, Brockton, Massachusetts began nailing down their multiplying ideas.
Dr. Berry was already interested in the Big Brother movement, which is normal to him because of his parents, who were teachers, often brought to their home difficult boys and helped them.
The two doctors became interested in a problem boy who habitually ran away from home. Wisely they decided to put him on their island for the summer. Dr. Berry went up on week-ends to check on him and reported to his partner, “He is doing what every boy dreams of, pitting himself against wilderness. He fishes from our row boat and is learning to peel bark from the trees he has cut for his cabin.”
The doctors were jubilant over their first experiment with a “Little Brother.” Putting their heads and hearts together, the question was, “Why keep the island just for our own peace and quiet? Let’s give it to deserving boys, rich and poor alike, who need help in growing up.” In 1949 they hammered so effectively on their idea that 10 boys from the Boston area and some from New York were brought to Dyer Island for summer camping. The project was financed mainly by doctors at Roosevelt Hospital and other deeply concerned individuals. Camp Berwick was a sensible place for boys who could develop through hard physical exertion, special counseling, and few dull moments.
These boys were rally explorers coming to a totally undeveloped camp on an island furnished only with an abandoned lobster fisherman’s shack. Fortunately, in the decade and a half since the cutting of the valuable pulpwood, another stand of trees had grown up which was available to the newcomers. There was plenty of sand and rock, and a power boat to bring cement and roofing from the mainland. With these supplies, with grit and determination and plenty of strong back muscles, the campers built a large substantial cabin. This was the start of Camp Berwick, the name a combination of Drs. Berry and Wichern.
Often new ideas come to the surface, requiring new equipment. When a truck is needed, two boys, undaunted, built one at home out of old automobile parts. Sometimes the camp is used in winter by small groups of boys led by Dr. Berry. At Thanksgiving a crew goes up to cut Christmas trees. One winter, 1500 were ferried across to the mainland and then trucked to headquarters in Brockton and sold. A nature group of boys planted seedlings of pine and spruce for future generations.
An after-camp project for older boys is picking blueberries on the mainland, where they can make a good sum of money for their college expenses.
Another broadening experience is provided when Dr. Berry takes some Berwick boys to the island during the winter and spring vacations and teaches them how to hunt deer and duck. Living amid low temperatures amid icy and stormy weather is an exercise in endurance and real adventure.
Ingenuity was shown when, for instance a heavy tractor was acquired. Two scows were tied together to make a platform ferry to bring it from the mainland. All kinds of equipment is floated across the two-mile stretch of ocean from the Berwick dock at Milbridge.
Another demonstration of creativeness is the island’s buildings, which were planned and erected by the campers. Those completed include a marine shop and equipment for repairing tractors and other machinery, bath house with showers, sleeping cabins, infirmary, a dining hall with kitchen annex, and an electric power plant. Other projects undertaken over the past 20 years were two rock-ballasted piers. They are sturdy enough and high enough to deal with 20-foot tides and rough seas. Also built was an air strip for small planes, and a swimming pool.
The leader, George Hoffman, now says, “I look back thrilled at our success. We worked long hours, dividing the time, sometimes 36 or 48 hours straight, and in perfect unison. Everything else seems easy after that experience.”
Mike Barker found out all of this history indirectly. He was introduced to the Berwick Boys Foundation by the president of the local NAACP who lived in Brockton. He said that the Foundation was seeking a boy eager to go to college but who needed financial help. “Soon I had an interview,” said Mike, “with the camp director, George Hoffman, a medical student at Tufts Medical College in Boston. He amazed me with his poise and tact and he encouraged me to participate in the Berwick program, saying that if I made good in the summer camp and kept my marks in school, I would be given a scholarship for college. All of this came true.”
Mike, like other boys, finds few rules and a relaxed atmosphere at the camp, where a fellow may choose the kind of work he likes to do. He may sign up for maritime projects and learn boat craft and eventually become Harbor Master. He may participate as an engineer and achieve the goal of being in charge of tractors, trucks, pumps, and other machinery. If he joins the crew of lumbering operations, he would eventually become the overseer. There is never any difficulty in getting volunteers for camp cooks, one head cook is now a chef in New York City. Mike, in his last year at camp became manager of the kitchen crew. He declared that it was a good chance to learn responsibility of leadership and self-determination.
The ideas being constantly nailed down are due to the constant concern of the two doctors who give money and a faith that moves mountains. As the story of Camp Berwick spreads, friends in industry and the professions are continually providing many things, such as stainless steel kitchen equipment. These work items seem to entice the youngsters to a greater extent than their conventional recreations such as baseball, tennis, and swimming. Work becomes play when it is creative. Also donated by patients of the doctors are motor boats, sail boats, a yacht, and a sloop. Instruction is given on the art of handling them.
At the end-of-summer banquet, which parents and friends attend and can enjoy the overnight accommodations, awards, and emblems are given out. Scholarships are presented to boys who have “done their thing” and kept their grades up in school. Each recipient rises and pledges his word that, when he is financially able, he will help some other boy attain his best, preferably through the Berwick Foundation. This fund is envisioned as a self-perpetuating community of boys operating as an incorporated foundation.
At the banquet also younger boys are presented lapel emblems representing their special field. Recipients are chosen by the group leaders and rated according to their progress in functioning under the Berwick Characteristics: (1) Persistence and industry; (2) Altruism, giving others a helping hand; (3) Sincerity and integrity – “his word is good”. A further objective of the two doctors is to challenge the boys to accept courageously whatever happens.
A Berwick Mariner Camp for still younger boys, ages eight to fourteen, is now an added feature which is managed by veteran Berwick boys on a fee basis to help support the entire project. These young campers are encouraged to help with a small part of their expenses by earning some money to bring to camp. One youngster brought little chickens from his father’s chicken farm. In reporting his donation at the annual banquet, he said; “I took care of them all summer long until they were big and fat, then you know what became of them? “Well. . . you et um.”
A new camper is often initiated by pranks on the way back to his cabin after dark. Sometimes he sees moving black animals and runs with fright, sure he has met a black bear; and he writes to his mother to that effect, “there are black bears in the woods here,” only to discover that they are the large, friendly Newfoundland dogs, camp mascots.
To add to the spookiness of the island, now and then a new camper is scared half to death when someone drops from a limb of a tree onto his shoulders as he walks the dark path at night. This stunt was pulled on several occasions – until one victim turned out to be the local minister.
“When at the age of 15 I first arrived at the Berwick dock I found myself in the midst of strange and mud-covered boys carrying lumber and rocks for a new building and kinda enjoying it. If my mother could have seen what I was facing!” This was the beginning of George Hoffman’s five years at Berwick where he was voted the hardest worker. He became Camp Directory, won a scholarship and is now a doctor.
What goals have the alumni reached because of the Berwick experience and inspiration? One boy has completed a college course in wildlife conservation; another is studying at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; several are becoming industrial engineers; one served six years on a submarine. Among those who have chosen a profession are two doctors, one minister, and an architect who selected that field after spending two years at Berwick camps, cutting down trees and building his own house including a fireplace. Anyone who completes his cabin may come back and occupy it.
Many young campers are finding that the Berwick program is an attempt to help boys become young men without losing their youth in the process and with full appreciation of the maturing experiences which are taking place. The final result is hopefully a wholesome young man, aware of his assets and weaknesses, with confidence to use the former fully and a desire to recognize and strengthen the latter.
The brisk weather on the Maine coast makes the boys hustle to keep warm; the isolation and ruggedness of the island terrain gives campers a feeling of independence; dense fog and rough waves under a boat manned by themselves stimulate a great interest in the survival course. This is given to all ages with the warning. “Don’t try to beat nature.”
Growth of the camp is always in the planning of the alumni and the founders. Their next step is the building of a Memorial Chapel for all faiths. The site has already been staked out with an enchanting view from all angles, allowing indoor and outdoor services.
Mike, now using his scholarship in college says. “Berwick is no longer a puzzle but a solution to group up in a big way.”