CASCO, Maine — Some years ago, no one knows when, Marjorie Lantos hid a treasure. It was a cardboard box of old photos from her father’s Jewish boys’ summer camp on Pleasant Lake. The box of curling, black-and-white memories then remained concealed for decades.
Nobody knew it was there or that it even existed. When Marjorie died two years ago, her secret died with her.
Then, this summer, someone found the box.
Now, the photos are being digitized and the Documenting Maine Jewry project is sharing them online through a Facebook group. Word of Marjorie’s treasure is spreading through the web. The long-lost Brunonia summer camp is coming back to life in the memories of those who spent youthful summers there.
Documenting Maine Jewry is an online database of documents, memories and photographs that tell the history and experience of Jews in Maine.
“She never told anyone. Maybe she didn’t remember she’d done it,” said Jessica Lantos of the DMJ project.
Lantos, who is scanning the photos, one by one, is also married to Marjorie’s son.
Being the owner’s daughter, Marjorie was the only girl to ever go to Brunonia. When she grew up and got married, she spent every summer in Maine. She and her husband even ran a girls camp on the same lake as Brunonia. That’s where she hid the photos.
Later, after it closed, probably in the 1970s, the land was sold for house lots. But one landowner kept the old bunkhouses untouched and as they were — until this summer. The owner, Jim Arsham, decided to have them renovated into guest quarters. That’s when he found the box.
Fortunately, Arsham brought the box to a dinner party to show people. Lantos was there, too.
“I begged for the box,” Lantos said.
Knowing her connections to the DMJ project, he agreed to give them to her.
“Finding these — close to 300 images — from 30 years worth of camp, is beyond exciting,” she said. “They’re in magnificent condition. There’s images that are funny and heartwarming and that connect with people today.”
The photos are mostly publicity shots by a professional photographer from Massachusetts. They show campers engaged in a variety of sporty activities.
“They did everything,” Lantos said. “You can see from photos there’s archery, swimming and golf, baseball — and a lot of shows in the rec hall.”
Among the images are also campers shooting rifles, water skiing, playing basketball and just goofing off.
Marjorie’s father, Dave Mishel, started the camp shortly after graduating college in 1929. At that time, Mishel was rather famous.
He’d been quarterback of the famous 1926 Brown University “Iron Men” football team. That year, according to NCAA.com, they went undefeated. Also, at one point, for two weeks in a row, the 11 starting players played every minute of the games. They played both offense and defense without leaving the field. It’s still Brown’s best football season, ever.
Mishel went on to play two seasons in the National Football League for Providence Steam Roller and the Cleveland Indians.
Brown University’s mascot is a bear. That’s the “bruin” in Mishel’s camp Brunonia.
Mishel’s camp was one of a growing number in Maine. The summer camp movement started in the late 19th century as eastern cities became more crowded. Every summer, deadly diseases like polio would sweep through the stuffy city neighborhoods. Parents with the means wanted to get their children “up north” to places like Maine for the healthy fresh air and exercise.
Brunonia was one of many camps in Maine at the time identifying as Jewish.
Camps called Jewish, then as now, could mean a lot of things. Sometimes it meant the director was Jewish. Others were kosher, and observed the sabbath. Some were completely composed of Jewish campers, some just had a predominance.
Mishel was Jewish, lived in a Jewish community and marketed his camp to Jewish kids in Massachusetts. But it was secular and based on sports.
“There were not a lot of places for these Jewish kids to go,” Lantos said. “There were a lot of regulations as to where Jews were welcome. Camping was very important for that reason alone.”
Brunonia closed in 1969. After that, it was another camp — Samoset — for another 30 years. After Samoset closed, it became a private home and all the camp buildings were destroyed.
That’s why the photos are so important. They’re the only remaining physical evidence that Brunonia existed.
The photos are also a great way to jog memories, to get conversations started online. Lantos hopes to be able to identify most, if not all, of the campers in the old photos. She’s already compiled an impressive list Brunonia alumni luminaries.
— Famous Hollywood producer Peter Guber.
— Northwestern University law professor Stephen Goldberg.
— New York Times journalist and medical doctor Lawrence Altman.
— Boston Celtics basketball player Bob Donham.
— Dana-Farber Cancer Center and Harvard College researcher David Livingston.
Beyond raw information, Lantos believes Marjorie’s hidden photos add life, in the form of faces, to old recollections.
“They add richness and dimension to the vague memories and dates we tend to call history,” Lantos said.