A Family Affair

September 8, 2018

It’s a scene Norman Rockwell might have chosen to paint: rolling hills, rustic cabins and the largest natural lake in the state dotted with blue-green boats.  Camp Awosting, nestled in the bucolic woods near Litchfield, CT, is home to a blend of both old and new; a host of modern amenities and childhood activities that make it a special place to spend summertime for children all over the world.

The camp is the longest continuing of its kind in the United States, first founded in 1900 in upstate New York, before moving to its current location on Lake Bantam in Morris, CT.  Owned by the Ebner Family since 1948, It is also home to three Kean University alumni; children of the late Oscar Ebner Sr., who also graduated from the State Normal School at Newark in 1933.

For Oscar “Buzz” Ebner Jr, who graduated from Newark State College in 1965 with a degree in industrial design, running the boutique camp that prides itself on providing individual attention and teamwork is just a way of life. Although he retired in 2006, the 74-year-old Buzz still walks or drives through the camp every day, making sure all is running smoothly. “If we have a weakness, we try to work on that and make it a strength,” said Buzz in a recent interview. When it became evident that laundry costs were getting too high, they opened up a laundromat in town; when the usage of rifles became frowned upon by some parents, they replaced the riflery program with a blend of arts & crafts, ceramics and mountain biking.  The formula has obviously worked; in 2006 the business was named “Best Small Family Business in Connecticut,” out of about four thousand in the state.

The Ebner Family first picked up the camping bug in 1930, when Ebner Sr. was encouraged by a college professor to get a job in a summer camp as a way to secure a teaching job following graduation – a common trend in the post-depression era. So, that’s exactly what Oscar did by acting as a counselor at various camps in New York, Connecticut and Maine, including Camp Awosting. By the late-40s, the Ebners knew where their passion lied, so in 1948, Oscar and his wife, Virginia, purchased Camp Awosting from Preston Beaver.  From that day on, the Ebners, along with their family members and friends, continued to enhance the Camp Awosting experience.  Campers, who stay in one of 16 cabins on the premises, are introduced to a new activity during the morning instructional program, followed by an afternoon of elective periods.

In 1955 when parents expressed interest in a camp for their daughters, Oscar and Virginia founded the Camp Chinqueka located a few miles away in Litchfield on Mt. Tom Pond where the only buildings on the land were the Lodge, the boathouse, the carriage house (now the canteen building) and four cabins. It began with very few activities, weathering through two hurricanes that first summer, but with the help and creativity of Virginia, who was a true believer of teaching the arts, there are now over 25 different activities. Also, each year the Virginia R. Ebner Creative Arts trophy is presented to one camper. Prior to immersing themselves into the camping business, the Ebners – Oscar Sr.  and his wife Virginia, along with their children, Barbara ’59, Buzz ’65 and Robert ’70 – were dedicated to the profession of teaching; primarily in the East Orange school system.

Recognizing the need to focus more on their camping business in the late-50s, however, both Oscar Sr. and Virginia retired from teaching in the public schools. Their children retired in the 1970s and 1980s, also to devote all their time to operating the camps. The three children have since been licensed by the State of Connecticut as camp directors. “We knew we were all onto something when all three of us went into camping,” said Buzz, who remembered when he and his brother and sister made the transition from teaching into camping in the 70s and 80s.

Buzz and his wife of 52 years, Sherry, live next to Camp Awosting during the summer and are still active in the camp program. He is a director emeritus at Awosting, and Sherry, a Registered Nurse, oversees the health services and food programs.  Their children, along with two of Robert’s children, have all been involved in the camping business too, over the last 40 years. Today their son, Kevin runs the business. In addition to acting as the general manager of The Village at Boulder Ridge  and founder and co-director of Boulder Ridge Day Camp, he fills in as the cook some summers. Their daughter, Kristin is the treasurer and director of the Ebners’ other camp, Camp Chinqueka. Kurt, who started his own software business, returned to help with the business’s finances and marketing, along with his wife, Kristen.

Over the years, the Ebners have fostered an inclusive environment that emphasizes safety but also encourages other cultures. Campers from all over the world have stayed at their camps, some of whom have since become counselors. During our interview, Buzz recalled Ian Endersby and his wife, Rachel, who emigrated from the United Kingdom and are still working at the camp after 40 summers, and Steve and Pauline Jepson who first came in 1989 as college students and then returned as a married couple in 2001. They are the waterfront director and transportation director, respectively. “Pauline even helps out homesick campers sometimes,” said Buzz who clearly sees the value in not only his biological family, but also in the strong community they have built over the years.

Camp Awosting has run every summer, continuously, for over a century; through two world wars, the perils of polio in the 1950s, the flood of 1955, the tornado of 1989, and the ups and downs of the real estate market.  And it is still flourishing and evolving to meet the changing needs of its campers, today. From the early days, when gasoline was used to flush toilets, oil lamps lit your way, and an ice house kept the milk cold; to today, where trampolines and bungee jumpers flank the lake, the Ebners’ camps continue to preserve a philosophy of responsible fun, self-reliance, and a commitment to helping others.