Music, now silent, lives in memory

The hills were alive with the sound of music—even before Julie Andrews sang of them. In 1947 the New York State Music Camp opened its first summer season at the Otter Lake Hotel. The building is long gone, but a historical plaque marks the location. For nine summers hundreds of students and faculty from the United States, Canada, and overseas had classes in music theory, harmony, conducting, composition, and arranging. They performed in bands, orchestras and choirs. They gave concerts at Otter Lake but also at the Boonville Fair and Old Forge. Weekly programs were broadcast on WBIX, Utica.

A vintage postcard shows the Otter Lake Hotel.
A vintage postcard shows the Otter Lake Hotel.

The final concert was the evening of August 25, 1955—sixty years ago this summer. The music camp outgrew Otter Lake. Dr. Frederick Fay Swift, camp founder and director, moved it to Hartwick College in Oneonta. There it continued until 2012.

Some of those early campers share memories. Doris Stark Dequinze was solo trumpeter and bugler. “I got the kids up with reveille and put them to bed with taps. The last day of camp a group waited for me, then picked me up and threw me into the lake, horn and all.”

Dr. Merve Murdock writes, “I graduated from Town of Webb High School in Old Forge, where I received a scholarship to attend camp. I hitchhiked to and from Otter Lake from Inlet, toting my saxophone.”

Elaine Raudenbush diBrita writes, “Those were two of the best summers of my life. It was hard to explain to friends at home how much fun it was to rehearse and perform for eight weeks.”

Longtime Otter Lake resident Clark Wellman remembers [in 1955] hearing, at his camp across the water, vocalists doing their arpeggios and instrumentalists practicing on the point.

And John Norton, whose cousin “Viv” worked to bring the camp to Otter Lake, writes, “When I was in business in Otter Lake, the most often heard comments from customers would be recollections of attending concerts or sitting in boats or on docks, listening as music wafted across the water.”

The poet Shelley wrote, “Music, when soft voices die, Vibrates in the memory.” For those of us who were a part of those early years at the Otter Lake music camp that is indeed true.

Dr. Robert Swift, Plymouth, NH
The writer, the son of the music camp founder, is professor of music emeritus at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire.

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