The pillaging of Camp Sussex

| 22 Feb 2012 | 06:54

Destruction at longtime summer camp blamed on children and others, BY CHRIS WYMAN VERNON — Traveling north on Route 565, Glenwood residents are likely familiar with the overgrown grass and closed gates of what was once a haven for underprivileged New York City youngsters. Just 20 feet from the roadway and hidden by the tall grass is the nearly skeletal carcass of a white-tailed deer. Perhaps it was struck by a passing vehicle. Behind it, a stark gray building bears the spray-painted name “Camp Sussex.” From the roadway, little can be seen of the camp other than the rear side of the kitchen and the 15 bunkhouses that line the driveway into the camp. Out of sight are about 215 acres of baseball fields, tennis and basketball courts, an infirmary, a cavernous recreation building, a large theater with elevated stage, an arts and crafts building, a boathouse and swimming lane floats on Lake Glenwood. In all, there are 36 bunkhouses, 18 for boys and 18 for girls. Each used to accommodate 12 children and three counselors. The camp has a dining hall with two kitchens, one regular and the other one kosher. There are three residential buildings on the other side of the highway. The camp is more than run down. It has been severely vandalized and the real estate broker who is trying to help its owners sell the property contends that local children are responsible for the destruction. Trying to sell Duane Paul is a Greenwood Lake, N.Y.-based real estate consultant and broker who specializes in land sales in New Jersey and New York. He is trying to sell Camp Sussex for what may seem like a bargain, only $2 million. However, the land sale may be difficult. Because of the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act, additional buildings cannot be erected, so the foundations that are in place limit development and potential uses for the property. To make matters worse, an unidentified party has a tax lien on the property for about $444,000. In addition, although the camp has been closed for over five years and there has been no electricity to the property for years, according to Paul, the Vernon Township Fire Prevention Bureau has issued $1.9 million in fire code violations to the camp. Still, a clever developer might find a way to circumvent these obstacles. However, according to Paul, the camp has been so heavily vandalized that selling the property as a children’s camp is nearly impossible without completely renovating every structure. Such a renovation could require millions of dollars for reparations alone. Paul blames the local children. Others think at least some of the damage may have been done by drug dealers or others using the site as a hang out. Every single building has been broken into and raided for whatever can be easily carried away. Nearly every window has also been shattered by vandals. Every bathroom has had its fixtures torn from the wall so that thieves could steal the valuable copper pipes that once supplied hot and cold water to the campers. The largest building, the recreation building, has had every closet and cabinet raided. Easily larger than the PAL building in Vernon, the camp gym’s floor has been used by vandals as the site of an open campfire. In a back room, the name “Niccole” and the year “2011” are crudely written on the wall. On the floor below, copies of Derek Jeter’s book "All-Star Manual, 10 Life Lessons" are scattered on the floor like garbage. A book aimed at helping youth find direction and inspiration had little impact on the raiders who destroyed Camp Sussex. What had been a two-story arts and crafts building was also ransacked. An expensive, kick-type potter’s wheel remains as well as three electric kilns. Beside one kiln, a dead and partially eaten rabbit lays on the ground below a table. Graffiti abounds on both interior and exterior walls. Although much of it are the various “artists’” initials, Nazi-era swastikas are included as well. Except for the copper piping and whatever else may have been looted, the extensive damage done appears to have been done without reason. What next? Paul is hoping that a non-profit group or perhaps Vernon Township will be interested in buying the property. “I definitely think I want to do a Community Open House. If people like what they see, they can work on getting the town to purchase and if for no other reason let them see just how bad their kids can be.” Vernon Mayor Vic Marotta, who coincidentally is a Glenwood resident, has visited the property on a few occasions over the last six weeks and has seen the damage firsthand. He recognizes that it is “a beautiful piece of property” with a valuable lakefront and beach. However, at this time, especially due to the economy, he does not feel the township is in a position to consider purchasing the camp. The Camp Sussex Web site remains active as if the camp is still in operation. The site was last updated in 2010, however. “It once served a very wonderful purpose,” Marotta said. However, he also said that as mayor, he has no intention of going into debt to purchase the property or any other until the township pays off its existing debt. The ultimate fate of Camp Sussex remains an unanswered question. In hard economic times and when the wealthy no longer appear to be interested in philanthropic gestures, institutions like Camp Sussex have become an endangered species.

Vernon historical expert Ronald J. Dupont Jr. is the author of Vernon Township (Images of America). According to Dupont, the camp opened in 1924 and was founded by a Jewish welfare organization based in Brooklyn. The camp was funded by well-to-do Brooklyn, N.Y., residents, most of them Jewish, and a number of prominent people were associated with it, including entertainer George Jessel, who was a trustee of the camp for many years.
The camp was non-sectarian, and was open and free to orphans and poor children from the city. At that time, it was considered the largest and finest summer camp in Sussex County. The theater could seat over 1,000 people, more than any other theater in the county. According to Dupont, Camp Sussex was greatly enlarged in 1927, by which time it was accommodating over 1,200 city children each summer.
Around 1933, Melvin Kaminsky, better known as actor, writer, director and producer Mel Brooks was one of the campers. In a February 1975 interview in Playboy magazine, Brooks was asked when he found out that he could be funny.
Brooks replied, “I was always funny. But the first time I remember was at Sussex Camp for Underprivileged Jewish Children. I was seven years old and whatever the counselors said, I would turn it around. 'Put your plates in the garbage and stack the scraps, boys!’ 'Stay at the shallow end of the pool until you learn to drown!’ 'Who said that? Kaminsky! Grab him! Hold him!’ Slap! But the other kids liked it and I was a success. I needed a success. I was short, I was scrawny. I was the last one they picked to be on the team.”
In June 2004, after the camp was no longer serving the poor, Derek Jeter’s Turn 2 Foundation for children signed a three-year agreement to create a special summer athletic program with the camp’s board of directors. However, after barely more than a week in operation, the Foundation pulled out and did not return.