Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

A Leap and Some Lore

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

A Leap and Some Lore

Article excerpt

Summer unofficially arrived Saturday, as kids plunged into the water of backyard pools and municipal water parks, neighborhood swim clubs and muddy-bottomed swimming holes. But none of those scenes had the history and lore of opening day at the Highlands Natural Pool, hand hewn 80 years ago from Ringwood stone and constantly refilled with a mountain stream's fresh flowing water.

"It's refreshing, clean, magical and healing," said Sandra Ramos, one of the first in, after a ceremonial bell-ringing and friendship circle.

The pool was dug in 1935 by volunteers from the Nature Friends, an ecology movement with Austrian roots, in response to the lack of welcome their racially integrated group experienced at local swimming lakes, said Cindy Lightbody of Ringwood. She recounted the club's history to 40 members, gathered in a circle in the picnic area shortly after noon.

"This was the first racially integrated camp in all of the country," she said, adding that its membership remains diverse.

Steve Greenfield of Brooklyn said he first came as a 9-year-old from New York with his parents, who were members of the original Nature Friends. He's spent every summer since then in Ringwood. He remembers volleyball, basketball and tennis courts at the site, along with a maypole and an area for other games.

What was then known as Camp Midvale eventually became the Weis Ecology Center, which was taken over by the New Jersey Audubon Society.

For the past 20 years, the pool has been owned and run by a non- profit group, the Community Association of the Highlands, which offers day passes as well as seasonal memberships. The pool site was given to the association by the Audubon Society. Community members are trying to reopen the ecology center next door, which closed three years ago.

The camp's founders believed that working-class people needed places to enjoy the outdoors, as a way to cope with the stress of industrial life. Pete Seeger used to visit in the summertime, strolling among the camp's cabins and strumming his guitar.

"It was a very bustling place," Greenfield said of the camp, which emphasized "nature, the outdoors, and clean living. We'd really like to bring it back up. …

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