“We are the girls of Fire Place you’ve heard so much about . . .”
We are a multi-generational sisterhood of women and our lives were transformed at Fire Place Lodge, a summer camp for girls along the northeast shore of East Hampton, NY facing Gardiners’ Island. From 1936 until 1972, ‘FPL’ stood for Friendship, Purposeful Living and Loyalty.
We are the proud legacy of our beloved “Chief”, Mrs. Adelaide Mershon Purcell Cook (1894 – 1977).
Chief had a sharp mind, keen business acumen and remarkably large heart and deployed all those traits to good use. She established more than one successful business in Montclair, NJ including a music school with two other teachers and a visiting vocal coach who was a prominent opera baritone.
Chief’s family had old ties to East Hampton, and Springs in particular. Her grandfather was the Rev. Stephen Mershon of the First Presbyterian Church of East Hampton. She traced her ancestry back to one of the original founding families of East Hampton, the Talmage family. The Talmages have lived in Springs for centuries.
She had grown to cherish the natural beauty, abundant nature and the lovely waters. In this idyllic environment, Chief dedicated 36 years of her career to nurturing the development of young women. There is no question that she wanted us to have the same opportunities as boys, exposing us to rugged challenges, yet not give up sensitivity to the arts in its many forms. We loved her like a mother and revered her like a heroine.
History of Fireplace, 1600-1700
Fire Place Lodge sat high on a bluff on 51 acres spanning Kings Point Rd., Hog Creek Lane, Springs-Fireplace Rd and Gardiner’s Bay. Native Americans first used the land (an ancient burial ground is preserved there). As a woman with convictions of tolerance and diversity well ahead of her time, Chief had a deep respect for the indigenous peoples. She enthusiastically arranged annual visits from local tribes to share their culture, including Chief Red Thundercloud (known locally as “Tez”) of the Catawbas.
In 1717, the Montaukett sold the property to one of East Hampton’s early settlers, the Miller family. Daniel Miller purchased the land for his son Timothy, who started a farm. The Miller homestead was also the new site of signal fires to the residents of Gardiner’s island when supplies or visitors were ready.
The old location at the end of Old Fireplace Road was inferior, with a smaller, low-lying beach that backed up to marsh. Atop the bluff at the Miller homestead, these fires were easily fueled from the plentiful woods and made smoky for better visibility with plentiful seaweed from the wide beach below.
Down where the bluff ends and the road meets the beach, at the very end of Springs-Fireplace Road, was Fire Place Landing where supplies including produce from the Miller farm and visitors were loaded onto boats for the 3 mile trip across Gardiner’s Bay.
The landing was wide and backed up to a vegetated dry land such that a warehouse could be built to further streamline operations. The warehouse structure is still in use today as a summer cottage. A plaque set into a boulder 100’ up from the beach on the bluff side marks the general location of what was once a hub of activity. Back down where the road meets the beach are the remnants of the original Fire Place Lodge main gate, a traditional ranch-style pole structure.
The Gardiners have the distinction of being the very first English settlers in New York upon purchasing their island in 1636 from Chief Wyandanch of the Montaukett.
Lion Gardiner, the “First Proprietor”, acquired the large anchor-shaped island for “a large black dog, some powder and shot, and a few Dutch blankets”. Gardiner made an intrepid decision to inhabit an island whose eastern shore looked towards the open waters of the Atlantic while the closest mainland was three miles out at the East Hampton peninsula.
They persevered and survived, thanks in large part to Fire Place Landing. Although their island was quite isolated, the family’s presence had a profound effect on the evolution of the region at the east end of Long Island. They seeded growth in the fledgling colony by entertaining New York’s wealthy families, many from Manhattan, who in turn developed the tonier side of “The Hamptons”.
The Gardiners helped ensure peace between the Native Americans and the new colonists by maintaining a strong alliance with Chief Wyandanch. As the sachem, Chief Wyandanch was the peacekeeper including the authority to approve all land transactions and settle all disputes.
The Gardiners’ ties to Wyandanch are best appreciated by Lion Gardiner’s act of generosity in 1652, during skirmishes between the Montauketts and other tribes. Wyandanch’s daughter was taken during a raid at their Lake Montauk outpost. Gardiner brought her home, paying the ransom. Chief Wyandanch was eternally grateful, calling Gardiner a father in his final years. Hence Fire Place, and its indigenous peoples, and the habitants of the mystical island three miles out at sea, all spawned deeply intertwined roots that fostered the growth of one of the most important US colonies — New York.
A Camp for Girls, 1936-1972
We — the girls of Fire Place — were nourished by the same land and waters that were once home to the Montaukett and a lifeline to the Gardiners. And with similar proclivity for quality in all things such as the immense wealth of the Gardiners provided, we were afforded the best opportunities to realize potential and pursue success in later life.
We were challenged to aim for the highest level of achievement in sports and the arts, including survival skills. These were measured and celebrated. The operating framework of the camp was not laid back, but military style including daily bugle calls to activities and meals, bunk inspections, Honor Camper competitions, and daily roll call and flag raising/lowering ceremonies.
Today, many stories of gratitude are told in reverent hindsight, acknowledging the loving gifts of so many FPL experiences that garnered fortitude and real life success.
Fire Place Lodge, or FPL, was well-appointed with over a dozen structures including a large lodge with stunning 2 story fireplace where meals were served followed by singing from the camp songbook, often extolling love for FPL and the benefits of Friendship, Purposeful Living and Loyalty.
We sang everywhere, including during “marches” up Old Stone Highway to Springs General Store, and down Fireplace Road to Gerard Point — a thin peninsula along the shores of Accabonac Harbor and Gardiner’s Bay. There were docks on Gardiner’s Bay for swimming, canoeing, rowing and sailing. “If there’s water in the bay, there’s swimming today”, was the familiar mantra of beloved swim and survival skills instructor Bill Dunn.
Bill Dunn was a former Marine who, by consensus, was the single most influential person in nurturing the spirit of determination to achieve. It did not matter if there were red jellyfish or white caps or freezing temperatures – we were trained to go in and master the waters. Canoes were flipped; rowboats gave up oars; sailboats capsized; after which pants and shirts were stripped off, tied up and blown up as survival rafts.
One of the boating tests required us to circle around the far rock at sea, out of sight from instructors for a few terrifying minutes, unaware of the safety boat watching over us from a short distance away. It may just have well been the Space Shuttle out of touch with NASA while burning up on re-entry. All in the design plan to foster true grit and the belief that any problem was surmountable — any goal was achievable.
FPL instruction was academically-oriented with merit assessments to see if we had memorized all the parts of the sail, the hull, etc… after which small, colorful felt badges were awarded to us, similar to Girl Scouts badges. These were sewn upon blue and orange camp pennants that rested on bunk beds.
We played on tennis on clay, asphalt and grass — just in case anyone might make it to a placed called Wimbledon, it was said. Though there were boys from Springs and Long Island who came to mow the lawns and run errands, tend stables and help in the kitchen (fondly, “the kitchen boys”), we were charged with maintaining the courts with big rollers and push mowers.
Archery was another of our unique challenges, utilizing professional bows and arrows. Horseback riding was a favorite of many of us in the corrals at the rear of the property. As with each activity, the finest instructors were sought and FPL was proud to have riding instructor William Woolnough, who also taught a young Jacqueline Bouvier to ride in East Hampton. There was a large barn where we learned to tack, clean tack, and feed/water as many as a dozen fine horses each season.
Equestrians were challenged in the ring with jumping courses and dressage, took turns with special projects like breaking in a difficult pony, and went on overnight trips. We often rode through the trails in the Whispering Woods over to Maidstone Park or down to Hither Hills for a brisk canter and the most glorious of pas de deux — a bareback swim.
Among the classic grey weathered shingle style rustic buildings, with pine frames gaily painted in red, were the arts facilities. If any of us arrived thinking we had no fine arts skills, we were wrong. Leaders like Valerie Curtin took us step by step through the magic of creating a landscape with just a little perspective and then simply painting what you saw.
Centrally located Antler Hall was the site of weekly rehearsals for our shows and the end-of-season operetta. Naturally, since Chief was a music teacher, private music instruction was also offered to us. She often played piano for us for our sing-alongs as well as our talent shows in the Lodge.
She promoted the creation of original performance art including the annual 4th of July floating parade in rowboats on the bay with each group executing their own modern day theme. We performed traditional works like The Merry Widow and Cinderella. Her philosophy, espoused in the marketing brochure for FPL, was to augment the rugged outdoors experience with deep appreciation for the arts in all its forms.
Sunday was “whites” dress day, and we attended the First Presbyterian Church of East Hampton, where Rev. Stephen Mershon once preached, or other places of worship, adding one final layer to the general spirituality felt by us all.
Mysticism was celebrated again at Sunday vespers in the chapel in the woods which had no walls, no encumbrances, and no limits. Then, with a spiritual gesture borrowed from Asian origins, in the still of the summer’s eve, when the calmed water would form a glass-like reflection under the moon and the shooting stars, we floated private prayers and wishes out to sea on tiny wood shingle “boats” lit with candles. Was there some old Indian magic in those waters to help those dreams come true? We think so.
Fire Place Lodge was a camp to nourish and challenge the spirit, specifically for the advancement of girls who would become strong women, and that has made all the difference in our lives, and why we remain a sisterhood today.
— By Liz Johnson Hanson, Fire Place Lodge Alumna who passed away from Covid-19 on 1/28/2021.
Fire Place Lodge Alums is the online Facebook community for former FPL campers and staff. There you will find old friends, stories, photos, and more.
All campers and staff of Fire Place Lodge are invited to join.