by Gary M. Comins
This blog contains an overview of the Vanderkamp property compiled by the Cleveland Historical Society and a personal recollection of life at Vanderkamp authored by Dorothy Soule Milner. In the latter document, a few images have been inserted as supplement Dorothy’s story but the text is in her own words. At the end of the post you will find links to additional resources related to Vanderkamp.
by The Cleveland Historical Society
The name Vanderkamp has a long and rich history in the life of central New York. It comes from Francis Adrian Van der Kemp who was the first settler of this area of the north shore of Oneida Lake from 1794 to 1797.
A native of Holland, Van der Kemp was both a patriotic leader and pastor of a Baptist congregation in Leyden. As an advocate of civil and religious liberty he was imprisoned and exiled from his home country. He landed in New York City on May 4, 1788 with letters from Lafayette and John Adams. He was welcomed by such men as Washington, Jefferson (whom he had known when Jefferson was ambassador to France) and Governor Clinton. He settled first in Kingston in 1788, then at Oneida Lake from 1794-1797, and finally at Olden Barneveld (town of Trenton) where he died on September 7, 1829 at the age of 77 years.
Van der Kemp had large, though relatively little known, influence on the early life of our country and state. He was the first person to crack the wilderness off the north shore of Oneida Lake by establishing a small farm. The syllabus of a life of Jesus, which President Jefferson composed in 1803, was first sent to Dr. Van der Kemp and by him it was copied and sent to England and, without any clue to its authorship, published. He was a personal friend, correspondent, and advisor to President John Adams. Governor DeWitt Clinton credited Van der Kemp with inventing the route of the Erie Canal. He was a fellow of literary and scientific societies in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. In 1820 Harvard University conferred upon him the degree of LLD.
History and ownership of the land are sketchy between 1797 and 1901. The land was given to many different individuals as payment for services in the Armed Forces of this country.
From 1901 to 1931 many of these separate parcels were purchased by Frank Channing Soule of Syracuse. Mr. Soule developed the land as his private estate, farm and nursery. He had a keen sense of the beauty and value of the natural environment. The homes built for himself, his sons, Oscar and Robert, and other residents were designed to reflect a mode of gracious Adirondack type living. In addition to the family estate, there was a full scale nursery with many pine varieties and exotic flowers, a milking herd which at one time provided all the dairy products for the Conrad Hilton Hotel in New York City, prize beef cattle, horses, dogs, hogs and chickens. Mr. Soule loved raising trout, and fed them with powdered milk. He owned the first patent in the United States for powered milk. He also raised geese and other birds in a specially designed bird cage.
In 1965 much of the estate property was sold to the Central New York Presbyterian Conference Center, Inc. This corporation was formed by the Cayuga-Syracuse and Utica Presbyteries of the United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.; to establish a Camp and Conference program for its constituency. The Soule families were members of First Presbyterian Church, Syracuse.
In 1971, the Ecumenical Camp Association was formed to oversee the Camp and Conference program at Vanderkamp. The Ecumenical Camp Association is jointly sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Central New York, the Upper New York Synod of the Lutheran Church in America and the Cayuga-Syracuse and Utica Presbyteries of the United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.
by Dorothy Soule Milner
As I try to put these pictures in chronological order, I will record what I know or have been told of the history of Vanderkamp, or “the Farm” as we all remember it.
Oscar’s diary states: “In 1907, Father bought property north of Oneida Lake – Vanderkamp Pond with a few acres of contiguous property which he named “Chestnut Farms” because of the beautiful stand of chestnut trees. This property gradually expanded, and when the chestnut trees were known to be doomed, the name was changed to “Vanderkamp” after:
Frances Adrian Vanderkamp
Died September 7, 1829 – Age 77 years
A Native of Holland
A Champion of Civil and Religious Liberty
Trained in the Armies and [Universities] of the Netherlands
Pastor of the Baptist Congregation – Leyden
As Patriot Leader, Imprisoned and Exiled 1787
Landed in New York May 4, 1788
Settled in Kingston 1788
Oneida Lake 1794
Olden Barneveld 1797
Master in Chancery 1810
L.L.D. Harvard 1820
Fellow-Literary and Scientific Societies
Boston – New York – Philadelphia
Called by Governor Clinton
Inventor of Route of Erie Canal
The above was copied from his tombstone in Barneveld, New York
Vanderkamp was continually expanded as F.C. Soule purchased adjoining properties to protect his streams until it eventually included more than 3000 acres running from frontage on Oneida Lake on the south, Panther Lake Road on the west, Roosevelt Road on the north, and Martin Road on the east.
The upper farm developed first. There was an original house near the back gate where Loneas, the first caretaker lived. The house was later occupied by Muffin, the First groom. It was eventually torn down and a new house was built for George Lawrence, the head groom.
Next to this, where the double house now stands, was a house where the Joe Haskine family lived. Joe was the overseer of the estate. There were lots of chicken houses connecting the house over which Mrs. Haskine presided. The chicken houses were later torn down and the house was eventually rebuilt into a double house for the use of the teamster, Fleishauer, and the chauffeur, Mack and their families. The Haskines were moved toward Bernhards Bay on the Panther Lake Road.
On the same side of the road a substantial barn- was built and beyond that a Power House with a generator and well. This well supplied the water for the whole estate. The Blacksmith shop was later added to this and at lunch time the employees tossed horseshoes in exciting competitions.
In the early ’30s a small brick smoke house was constructed near the Power House.
Across the road a barn housing 4 Jersey cows at one end and 4 to 6 red pigs at the other was constructed. The Jersey’s milk and cream were used by the family as it was richer in butterfat than that of the Holsteins kept at the Lower Farm. The piglets were purchased each spring to eat the family garbage. They were spotlessly clean and were bathed regularly. They were slaughtered in the fall after the family returned to Syracuse.
The next structure was the kennels and beyond that a large chicken house and garage. The chicken house had long drawers which were pulled out to dump the manure. One fun evening pastime was spent with George Lawrence and his two Sealyhams, Bill and Betsy. We would pull out the drawers and rats would jump out. Bill and Betsy disposed of them in short order. Husky was good at this also.
Later, as the horse business developed, two barns were built just behind the main barn. One barn housed draft horses, usually Percherons, containing three box stalls and farm equipment, and the other for hunters containing nine box stalls. Still later, Oscar acquired a Remount thoroughbred stallion Desmon Dale and a large horse barn came into being. This contained an exercise walk, a large box stall with slanting sides for the stallion and a matching maternity stall at the other end. There were also 24 box stalls and a feed room where Lawrence kept his fighting cocks. To the south of this was a race and steeplechase course. After World War II when the horses had been disposed of, this barn was used by the Haskines as a chicken house.
The whole family [was] enthusiastic animal lovers and immediately started breeding and raising dogs, cattle and later horses. About 1910 a prize herd of Holstein cattle was purchased by F.C. Soule with the guidance of my other Grandfather, Wing Smith, an expert in the field. These animals were kept at the Lower Farm half way down to Oneida Lake where a beautiful Dairy barn was built alongside ample grazing land. Judge Segus was the prize bull. The milk from this herd was shipped by railroad from Cleveland to the Waldorf Astoria in N.Y.C. When it was discovered that this venture was a financial loss, the herd was sold and Aberdine Angus beef cattle replaced it. These animals came by railroad and it took all available horseback riders to guide the animals through Cleveland, up the back roads to their pasture land.
A flock of Shropshire sheep was also purchased and their wool was so fine it was sold under contract to Kennwood Blankets. [Scott] Smith was hired to care for these animals and lived in the house near the Dairy Bam. A baby ram was born during the very early spring when the temperature was 44° below zero and had to be thawed out in the oven. He later became a prize ram by the name of “Forty Four”.
The “Bungalow” which was the F.C. Soule cottage was built in 1910 with living rooms, bed and guest rooms for the Soules and their friends. The “Annex” immediately followed, housing the servants, kitchens, laundry and dining rooms. My grandparents wished no servants in the main house. A trellised walk was [built] connecting the two buildings.
Grandmother, Grace Soule, was an avid gardener and horticulturalist. Almost as soon as “the Farm” was purchased work began on her extensive gardens. She developed a round sunken garden outside their cottage, the trellis, rose gardens, flower gardens, and up to the shed which in 1913 became the green house, and then very extensive vegetable gardens. Two small ponds nearby were made into water gardens fed by a natural spring which was enclosed in stone. After Grace died in 1935 Grandfather (F.C) hired Professor Hugh Findlay from Columbia University to spend the summer reconstructing the water gardens in memory of Grace. Dr. Findlay had unlimited help and brought in huge native rocks on stone boats and built a spectacular garden filled with wild flowers and other rare plants.
There was a large tract of land behind the gardener’s cottage which was turned into a commercial tree nursery.
By 1911 a nine-hole golf course, designed by L.C. Servos was in the works as was a tennis court and croquet court in front of what was to be the R.G. Soule cottage.
Early in the development of Vanderkamp the Oscar Soule family, (Channing was born in 1914 and Dorothy (Sis) in 1916) lived in a farm house on the Oneida Lake shore property which had no running water. Although Dorothy had a nurse plus a maid of sorts, this was unsatisfactory because of the distance to Vanderkamp Lake etc. We then moved into large tents up near the F.C.’s bungalow. These tents were struck by lightning and burned. At this time the Robert Soule family (Hendrick was born in 1915 followed by Robert Jr. and Gracie) lived in a house near the Dairy Barn.
About 1920, the solution was to build what is now known as the Robert Soule cottage, which was built to be shared. Dorothy Sr. (Mother) always suffered from Hay Fever in the autumn and we therefore traveled to the mountains or the shore trying to alleviate her discomfort. Because of this the Oscar
Soules took the R. G. cottage in the early summer, and the R.G.s had it from August on. Sharing proved unsatisfactory so Oscar and Dorothy started looking for their own place and investigated [Skaneateles] and Cazenovia. Hearing of this Frank and Grace immediately drew plans for the Oscar Soule cottage which was built in 1924.
I t seemed that there was always something under construction, plans always being designed by Frank and Grace. The buildings made of native chestnut lumber were built by Mr. Barnes and Mr. Houser, well known in Cleveland. Mrs. Swift, Grace’s housekeeper, was Mrs. Barnes’ sister, I believe. I remember the popcorn balls Mrs. Swift used to make which were put together with molasses.
A boat house took the place of the temporary canvas covered slip at the lake. This structure had an outside fireplace intended for cookouts, but I doubt that it was ever used because of the worry of fire. The boat house had a pool table, fireplace, piano, and an open porch on the second floor and was decorated with moose and deer heads. The younger generation used this a great deal.
Eventually a large open shed housing automobiles, an ice house and an ice cream house were all built behind the Annex. Every Sunday each family’s kitchen made ice cream, the custard being sent to the ice cream house where it was churned and we children loved to lick the dashers.
The Cabin was built on a hill overlooking the lake, and was used primarily for weekending during the winter when the water was turned off in the cottages. The Cabin originally had one large room with fireplace, 3 double-decker bunks behind curtains, a small kitchen with running water, a screened porch, a storage room for skis etc. and [an] outside chemical toilet on the back porch where wood was stored.
It may be of interest to note that the original well on the place was up at the Power House at the Upper Farm. A deep well was bored at the Cabin which eventually produced all the drinking water for the place. The original pump house water was then used for the stables etc. Water for the gardens and lawns was drawn from the lake at a pump-house down below the Annex.
There was a farm house on the Panther Lake Road which housed the game warden, and out buildings contained kennels and cages for all species of fancy fowl: pheasants, partridge, etc. and incubators for the hatching eggs of rare as well as native birds which the Soule’s wished to raise and release. The game keeper had a tame charming California quail by the name of Billy who, when loose, would follow him (and us) everywhere. The farm house eventually became the home of Frank Howe and his family, his wife being a Haskine.
Some of the Soule dogs should be noted. Laddy, a Boston Bull, was Grace’s special pet. Diamond, or Dime as he was known, belonged to the Oscar Soules. Husky, one [part] wolf and [3 parts] Alaskan Husky, came to the Oscar Soule’s in April of ’32. Warned of his [ancestry], he was disciplined and was a wonderful, friendly, playful dog. He used to go sleigh riding with us, under buffalo robes, behind a team. He would dive off the sleigh into the snow copying the boys and would wrestle with them never using a tooth. His demise came when he reverted to his breeding and was found chasing sheep. To the sorrow of all of us he had to be destroyed. “Onward Bound” a black lab was bought by F.C. Soule from Marshall Field on Long Island and was educated at Cornell Obedience School.Â He was a fabulous dog. Beau, a standard French Poodle replaced Husky as Dorothy (Dode’s) dog. The Robert Soules had a little Poodle type called Cotton, later replaced by prize black Cockers. Inky was one of these.
Oscar became interested in Beagling while hunting in Geneseo. He purchased Vagabond, Vagrant, Valor and Vanity in 1934. After breeding the second generation the spelling became Vengeance, Vespers etc. Beagling was always good sport. We followed the hounds on foot and on horseback. If no game was found, Husky was used as the scent. He joined the fun and [led] us on good hunts. He would return on call trailing the hounds behind him. Occasionally, the hounds ran fox or deer which was disastrous because they ran straight and long, and we would lose hounds for days.
The trails at Vanderkamp offered great variety and many hours were spent keeping them open. There was a trail leading off the main drive to the right of the entrance which went to Sulphur Springs where there was an old stone well house. This was a corduroy road because it went through mushy woodland.
It ended at the Dairy Barn. There were numerous trails from the Lower Dam near Panther Lake Road up to Beaver Dam, past a pond on the left of the driveway where a small island was built as a refuge for birds. Wild flowers grew in profusion; Lady Slippers, Cardinal Flower to name a few.
On Labor Day the town of Cleveland celebrated a “Three Day Blow” which was like a Fireman’s Field Day. This was always a big event with a parade, games of all kinds and prizes. In 1933, the teamster, Dutch Fleishauer was dressed as Ben Hur and drove a chariot behind the three black Percherons as the Vanderkamp entry. Mr. McNish, the Episcopal preacher and an old friend of the family, rode Dick in his World War I moth eaten uniform. Sis was mounted on Recruit in a white satin Page’s costume.
The Fourth of July was always a day to remember. F. C. traditionally started off the day at 5 A.M. by lighting a 5 inch firecracker under Oscar’s window. Firecrackers of all sizes were ignited throughout the day by the boys. Gracie and Sis preferred sparklers and punk, a little pellet which, when lighted, silently grew out like a long worm. At noon there was a respite when the young people were required to assemble at their grandparent’s to hear Mr. Dyer, an old friend of the senior Soules, tell of the historical importance of the day. He also recited the Declaration of Independence. In the evening, all of the family, their guests and the employees and their families gathered on the porch and the lawn in front of the F. C.’s bungalow to watch a glorious display of fireworks aimed out over the lake. Occasionally a gas balloon would be lighted over the woods, being set off by people down on Oneida Lake, at their own displays. This caused great concern because, if these balloons landed in our woods, they could cause a forest fire which was the greatest fear at the Vanderkamp.
The State Fair in Syracuse was an annual event where the Soules always exhibited. Judge Segus the Bull, and “44”, the ram, were two of the winning entries. The Robert Soule’s black Cockers, Dime, Oscar’s [English] Setter, exhibited by 8 year old Sis, also won ribbons. In the Horticulture Building Grace, Dode and, later, Sis, won more than their share of prizes. Over the years, the Horse Show saw many entries from Vanderkamp. (See Oscar’s Diary: Sis on Rex, outclassed in the Saddle Horse division; the hunters Bambie and Major Smith. The State Fair in Syracuse was always a worthwhile exciting experience for the family.
When Channing, Hendrick and Bob were young, it was decided to hire Bob Shaffer to be their counselor. They pitched tents over behind the nursery where they could sleep away from home, learn to cook, etc. Later a man from the Boys Club came out from Syracuse and gave all the grand-children swimming and diving lessons and they all earned their Red Cross Life Saving Badges.
In 1931 Chan decided to dredge the outlet. He built a barge up by the Power House. It was quite a project and he spent most of the summer on it.
About 1934-35 Hendrick and Bob Jr. started Bam Dances in the old now empty Dairy Barn. Hendrick played piano, Bob the drums, and they got some local friends to join the band. Tickets were sold to the public and the Vanderkamp Saturday Night Bam Dances were a great success. Our friends came out from Syracuse. Pre-dinner parties were given even by F. C. and Grace, with their friends in attendance.
In 1946 Dode Soule was thrown from her horse Sprinkle. Her hip was broken, and she spent 8 weeks in Memorial Hospital. She and Oscar had ridden together almost every morning since 1928. Oscar reported in his diary that somehow he loss interest in riding and “we went to ground”.
During World War II the staff had shrunk to Joe Haskine, Frank Howe and George Lawrence. There were only a handful of horses left but they had to be fed. Ben Milner and I, his wife, brought in 14 tons of hay alone, with supervision from Joe. I drove the tractor and Ben loaded the hay on the wagon with the help of a rear hay loader. He suffered terribly from hay fever, but followed through with a wet handkerchief over his nose. Luncheons were more like dinners in those days as the work was hard.
In the winter the men would cut ice from the lake to fill the 2 ice houses. The ice was loaded on a sleigh pulled by a team. On weekends we would go for sleigh rides, the sleigh being filled with hay and then we would be covered with old buffalo robes. The dogs usually rode with us.
The Trout Pond was up the inlet from the lake. It was stocked with brook trout which were fed with KLIM, from the family powdered milk business. The powdered milk came in 100 pound cans which were left open so that it got chunky. Every Saturday evening the families and their guests would fish for their Sunday morning breakfasts. The lures were usually tied dry flies, but if the luck was poor, one could always put a chunk of KLIM on a hook which never failed to bring success. In the early days, it was a sight to see the ladies fishing with their parasols and long dresses. The gentlemen assisted them by baiting their hooks and removing the catch.
The Lake fishing was excellent. Big Mouth Bass being the most fun to catch on light lines with plugs. Perch and Sunnies were in abundance. Children could always be kept amused by fishing off the Boat House or raft using hooks baited with worms, clams or Ivory Soap.
In later years the State felt the lake was overstocked. The Conservation Department from Constantia sent men, boats with motors and nets to catch as many fish as they could in a period of two days. They left the bass and perch but took everything else. The men were delighted if they caught turtles which they immediately took home to their own kitchens. We all arose early when they came to unload the nets. They put the fish in large tank trucks with water from our lake and several times their destination was Whitney Pond on Northern Blvd., Manhasset, L .I. and Prospect Park, Brooklyn, where children had the fun of catching them. This, of course, was a State project.
By 1947 all the grandchildren were married and had produced 15 great grandchildren. Ben and Dorothy Milner and their three lived in the gardener’s cottage; Hendrick and Connie and their four took over one side of the double house, and Gracie and Neal Moylan with their three had the other side. About 1949 the Milner family took over the F.C. Soule bungalow putting in a kitchen in F.C.’s office. The Hendrick Soules moved into the Annex and Gracie moved down to the gardenerâ€™s cottage.
The Milners bought an old upright piano and a pump organ, each for ten dollars. The musical evenings were memorable. Hendrick played an inimitable rag, jazz and original style, and passed along his love for music to the rest of the family. Dorie and he played duets and everyone sang.
One of the great highlights for the great grandchildren was garbage collection day. A horse drawn wagon – later replaced by a John Deere tractor – collected all the trash from all the houses and took it to the dump, returning all the children to their homes.
Peppina, known as Peppy, a Sicilian donkey, was purchased from Isabel Brockway in Skaneateles about 1939. She came complete with an original donkey cart made in Palermo, Sicily, and a colorful harness made of feathers, b all fringe, tiny mirrors, etc. The cart was beautifully painted with panels depicting the life of Christopher Columbus, with heads of Isabella and Ferdinand carved on each post. Peppy was a very stubborn animal. The wheels of her cart had to be held until she was completely harnessed and ready to go with everyone aboard. Then off she went at a full gallop only to stop a hundred yards later having to be bribed to go further. Even though she was harnessed to her wagon, she would try to go through the door of the kitchen porch at the Oscar Soule’s where Elizabeth, the cook, always supplied her with fresh cookies. It was hard to get her past the vegetable garden for she loved to dig up carrots. After the “farm” was sold, the Milners took Peppy’s wagon back to Long Island, Miracle of miracles: it was finally sold to a man who had migrated to Calgary, Canada from Sicily and whose grandfather had built the cart himself in the late nineteenth century.
When the Milner’s (F.C.’s) cottage was closed for the winter, the beds were made up for the next summer with moth crystals placed on top covered by an extra sheet. When the family came back the next summer the beds felt like “Refrigerated Swamps” and the mice and chipmunks that were out of season residents, left many surprises. Nests made of Kleenex and toilet paper were everywhere.
An evening pastime enjoyed by the children was to open all the attic doors and bats would fly out. Armed with badminton and tennis rackets to block their radar system, it was great sport to “Bat the Bats.”
During the many years that Mrs. Robert Soule supported the work of Alcoholics Anonymous, she organized an annual picnic at Vanderkamp for recovering Alcoholics and their families. Hundreds of people came by bus and car from Syracuse, Onondaga County and Oswego County to participate in sports and games such as bingo, shuffleboard, fishing, baseball, potato races and the like. It was an all day affair and enjoyed by the entire Soule Family, as well as their guests.
In 1965 Oscar and Robert, then seventy five and seventy three respectively, were worried about the future of Vanderkamp. The buildings were beginning to need major repairs. Joe Haskine was also elderly and he was the only one who knew where the water and electrical systems were installed underground. Oscar and Robert were approached by the Presbyterian Church to buy Vanderkamp as a retreat and a summer camp for children as well as older generations. It seemed like a good solution. Many acres had previously been sold. As I understand it, “the Farm” left the Soule family for a total of $180,000.
For me, personally, the farm gave me a close relationship with my family – all four generations of us. I learned by [osmosis], just being with my elders, about nature, wild flowers and animals; wild and domestic. Sports of all kinds, particularly horseback riding, kept me busy. Vanderkamp was an exciting and happy place to live and grow up. All of us who lived at the “farm” and our friends, who enjoyed the beautiful surroundings with us, will never forget the fabulous years we spent at Vanderkamp.
In October of 2013, Gary Comins made a visit to Vanderkamp. A photographic essay featuring selected images from the outing can be found in our Vanderkamp gallery — Vanderkamp. You can also read more about Francis Adrian Van der Kemp on a previous blog featuring content from Janette Dunnigan and Tom Pierce. Vanderkamp’s official website is also available online.