Sylvia Dichner Weiss grew up on the near-southside of Indianapolis, in a neighborhood she called the “ghetto.” When she was about seven years old, a public health nurse sent Sylvia and her brother to a camp on the banks of the White River that served sickly and malnourished Jewish children who were at risk of developing tuberculosis. Initially homesick, Sylvia soon thrived in the outdoor environment. She returned the following year, and the year after that, and each year thereafter until she was grown.
“It changed my life,” Sylvia told me earlier this week when I reached her at home in New Jersey.
That didn’t surprise me. During a 12-summer span from 1918 to 1929, hundreds of impoverished Jewish children were given the chance to trade the coal smoke and dirt of the near-southside for a glorious week at a long-forgotten camp in Broad Ripple.
Long-forgotten that is, by everyone but Sylvia. At 100 years of age, she may be the last of the campers still around to tell the remarkable story of Camp Ida Wineman.
Even though I have walked by the former site of the camp many times over the years, I had never heard of Camp Ida Wineman until earlier this week when I was researching what I thought would be a Christmas-themed article about the People’s Outfitting Company, a long-defunct Indianapolis department store.
Based out of Detroit and not as well-known to Indianapolis residents as the homegrown department stores operated by the Ayres, Block, and Wasson families, People’s Outfitting Company was nonetheless a colorful and innovative presence in the city’s early retail sector.
During the first two decades of the last century, the People’s Outfitting Company frequently appeared in the headlines for its tongue-in-cheek promotions that ranged from staging a wedding in the store window to treating the citizens of Indianapolis to a free spectacular at Tomlinson Hall that featured dancing bears.
The People’s Outfitting Company was also one of the first stores in the city to offer installment plan purchasing for its customers and early Saturday closing hours for its mostly female store employees who longed to attend theatre and dancing parties.
But perhaps its most lasting contribution to Indianapolis was made by store president Joseph Wineman in 1918, when he purchased a two-acre tract of land just north of Broad Ripple and deeded it to the Jewish Federation in exchange for $1 and a commitment that the land be used as a place of rest and recreation for women and children.
Wineman also stipulated that the camp be forever known as”Camp Ida Wineman” in honor of his late wife, who had died three years earlier at the relatively young age of 60.
Camp Ida Wineman was bounded on the north by the White River and on the east by the Monon railroad tracks. Although both the trains and the campers are long gone, the former site of the camp is clearly visible to the thousands of walkers, runners and cyclists who each year pass over the White River bridge on the Monon recreational trail.
Situated on high ground above the river, the site was ready-made for a children’s camp when Wineman purchased the land. Six cottages and a large communal building with a kitchen had already been erected by members of the Home Circle Pleasure Club, a loose-knit group of some of the city’s leading German citizens who had leased the property for the past two decades as a summer vacation site for its members.
The Home Circle Pleasure Club was also a popular location for clambakes hosted by civic and fraternal organizations and for convention delegates who sought an outdoor adventure during their stay in Indianapolis.
The Jewish Federation of Indianapolis had been scouting locations for a children’s camp for some time when the riverfront property was offered for sale. Wineman, who was serving as the president of the organization, quickly snapped up the property in June 1918. Before the summer ended, Camp Ida Wineman had hosted its first group of sickly and underweight children who were restored to health under the direction of the camp’s resident physician and nurse.
Although it seems improbable in these days of rampant childhood obesity, Camp Ida Wineman was established for the primary purpose of helping impoverished children gain weight. Tuberculosis was raging in Indianapolis, and malnourished, underweight children were particularly at risk of developing the potentially fatal disease. With its closely packed houses, foul air, and abject poverty, the near-southside where Sylvia Dichner lived was an especially precarious site for sickly children with vulnerable immune systems.
Most of the children arrived at Camp Ida Wineman via a recommendation from a school nurse. The Council of Jewish Women provided transportation for the children, who were promptly weighed and examined by a physician upon their arrival. Many of the camp’s young residents were recent Jewish immigrants from Russia, Poland, Spain and Turkey.
During their stay at camp, the children were fed three square meals and were encouraged to drink at least a two quarts of milk every day. But when they weren’t eating or drinking milk, the children were doing the same things that campers have always done – singing, playing and enjoying roaring campfires under a starry sky.
Most children stayed for a week, although their stay could be extended if they failed to show improvement. With a capacity for 45 children, Camp Ida Wineman served nearly 200 campers each summer.
In many respects, Sylvia Dichner was a typical camper. Her father was a self-employed carpenter and her mother was a Yiddish-speaking immigrant from Czechoslovakia. Times were tough for the Dichners when Sylvia first arrived at the camp, although the family’s overall lot improved in subsequent years thanks to her mother’s uncanny skill in real estate investment.
Sylvia’s first year at Camp Ida Wineman was in 1921 or 1922, when she was seven or eight years old. She was accompanied by her brother Ben, an “Irish twin” who was barely a year younger than Sylvia. Camping was a new experience for the siblings, who usually spent their summer days playing on the dirt road in front of their small house with the other neighborhood children.
“It was a wonderful thing,” Sylvia recalled. “Once in a while we played baseball, but most of the time at camp we were really unsupervised.”
The children had the free run of the camp, and spent their days swimming in the creek, hiking in the woods, and playing on the swings and slides that had been installed by the Jewish Federation. During her grade school years, Sylvia generally stayed a week or two at camp, but by the time she entered Emmerich Manual High School in 1928, she was spending the entire summer at Camp Ida Wineman as a counselor.
During those days, Sylvia even had a “little love affair” with a fellow camper who claimed he kissed her, but in reality missed her because the only thing Sylvia recollects about that first kiss was a slight wisp of breath on her cheek.
Sylvia and Ben graduated from Manual in 1932. While Ben was known as the class clown, Sylvia’s fellow students recalled that she was “the kind of girl everyone likes.”
After graduation, Sylvia took a train excursion to the East coast to visit Washington, D.C. and see some friends from Indianapolis who had moved to Pittsburgh. Her friends introduced her to a young man named Isadore Weiss who worked full-time and also attended college at the University of Pittsburgh. They took an immediate liking to each other, and struck up a correspondence when Sylvia returned home.
One morning, Sylvia’s mother shook her awake. “Izzy is here,” she told Sylvia, who was astonished to learn that Isadore had travelled all night from Pittsburgh to Indianapolis so he could spend a few hours with Sylvia. “And so the romance began,” she said. Sylvia and Isadore were married on her 21st birthday.
How I started out working on an article about a department store in Indianapolis and ended up chatting with a delightful centenarian in New Jersey is the story within the story. Earlier this week, I was researching the history of the People’s Outfitting Company when I ran across a news article about Joseph Wineman’s donation of the land. I had never heard of Camp Ida Wineman. Nor apparently had Carol Street, archivist for the Ball State School of Architecture.
When I started searching for information about the camp, the first article I found was a May 2010 blog post from Street, in which she also sought information about Camp Ida Wineman. Street wrote:
While processing a collection of Monon Railroad drawings from the 1920s, we uncovered this interesting drawing of the section of bridge spanning the White River in Broad Ripple. Camp Ida Wineman is prominently represented near the bridge, complete with its two-story building, porch and portico, however we have found little information about the camp. One reference mentions it was a Jewish summer camp in the early 1900s. Anyone know anything else about it?
Street’s inquiry went unanswered for three years, until Marc Weiss posted the following comment:
My Mom, now 98 years old, attended this camp for several years, both as a camper and a counselor. I’m sitting with her right now — googled the camp name because she was remembering her years there. She’d be happy to share her memories by phone if someone is interested.
I was interested. Even though 18 months had elapsed since the comment was posted, I took a shot in the dark and emailed Marc Weiss to ask if his mother was still around and if so, would she be willing to talk with me. He emailed me back 20 minutes later. After a few emails back and forth, we set up a time for me to call Sylvia. I reached her on Thursday afternoon and we talked for nearly 45 minutes. She is a remarkable person.
There’s a final interesting footnote to the story within the story. Before I called Sylvia on Thursday, I realized with some embarrassment that the only thing I knew about her was that she was 100 years old and had a son named Marc Weiss who promptly responded to emails. At the time, I did not even whether her last name was still Weiss, because in his emails, Marc simply referred to her as “my mom.”
Given my Indianapolis-centric view of the world, I naturally assumed that both Marc and his mom still lived in Indy, despite the obvious fact that her phone number had a New Jersey area code. I thought I might be able to learn her name if I could find an obituary for Marc’s father in The Indianapolis Star. When that proved fruitless, I googled “Weblab,” the company name in Marc’s email address in hopes of finding out the city where he lived so I could look for an obituary that would shed some light on how I should address his mother when she answered the phone.
I was somewhat surprised, to say the least, to learn that the amiable fellow who had responded so quickly to my emails was the creator of the award-winning PBS series P.O.V. and a pretty remarkable person in his own right.
With that tidbit of information, the story of Camp Ida Wineman came full circle for me. Sylvia told me that camp changed her life, and as a second generation camper myself, I have no doubt that Sylvia’s positive experiences at camp also helped shape her son’s life. In turn, Marc Weiss’s work as a documentary filmmaker, environmentalist and philanthropist has impacted the lives of thousands of others.
It reminded me of a poem that we always read around the campfire during the final night at Camp Clements, a long-gone camp on the banks of the Whitewater River where both my mother and I spent one week each summer during our childhoods. I had the honor of reading the poem one year when I was a counselor, and for nearly 40 years I have saved a copy, faded and creased in a box with other childhood memories.