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Dr. Devitt’s Dream – Part III
October 22, 2009
ALLENWOOD - Devitt’s Camp, a tuberculosis treatment facility established in 1912 by Dr. William Devitt, was located a short distance from the village of Allenwood, just across the southern border of Lycoming County near Elimsport. The youngest of Dr. William Devitt’s four grandsons, Jack Devitt, now lives in Khon Kaen, Thailand. Born in 1944, Jack lived at the camp with his parents and three older brothers until the camp closed in 1956. He recalls his childhood fondly:
“My memories of these years are practically idyllic, perhaps short on playmates, but rich in natural surroundings, educated and interesting adults, and an array of hobbies from my older brothers,” he said.
Encouraged by his father, Jack developed a passion in ornithology (bird watching) and still owns the tattered and worn copy of the Roger Tory Peterson "Field Guide to the Birds."
“Many happy weekends were spent in the woods surrounding our house searching for forest and song birds, and off on my bicycle to the valley below to investigate raptors and migratory waterfowl.”
Jack collected and mounted moths and butterflies and remembers “smearing a mixture of molasses and beer onto tree trunks, where the moths would come to eat, get drunk, and fall to the ground, making easy catches.”
Movies were shown on Saturday nights in the recreation building where Jack and his brother, Mike, inherited the candy concession started by their older brothers. After the first television was purchased for the camp, patients and staff congregated to watch live coverage of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.
Jack says, “This was such a big attraction that Dad finally bought one for our home from John Ravert. John ran the Gulf gas station in Watsontown which included a budding new business selling TVs.”
Watsontown School Days
With his older brother, Bill, attending the same Watsontown school 13 years earlier, Jack also spent his elementary school years at the 8-room grade school on 8th Street.
“In grades 5 and 6, I was getting old enough to have a bit of a social life, so periodically, I would have one of my schoolmates stay overnight at Camp, and sometimes I would go spend a day or two at their house ‘in town’, which was a pretty big deal for a kid like me. In grade 6, I also encountered my first real girlfriend, Kaye, and I will ever remember our first real ‘date’ going together to the Watsontown movie theatre to see William Inge’s ‘Picnic’, and afterwards - being a fine summer evening – we strolled hand in hand along the canal bank, thinking that the world right then was pretty well perfect. Little did I know at the time that such moments were to be rare and treasured times in my life.”
But, according to Jack, the highlight of his 6th grade year occurred late one morning “when the fire alarms went off and smoke started drifting through the cracks in the doors to our classroom. We were all dutifully marched down the front steps, leaving all our coats and school things behind, and out of the building, where we watched for the next several hours while the fire trucks made a feeble and unsuccessful effort to extinguish the blaze.”
“Finally, the excitement being over, volunteers delivered the kids home who lived out of town.. I will never forget the puzzled look on Mom's face when she asked me what I was doing home at that hour. My reply, of course, was "The school burned down". Finally, after his mother was convinced that he was telling the truth, they piled into her spiffy green '49 Pontiac convertible and went to view the ruins. Jack finished the remainder of the school year in the basement of one of the local churches.
Jack recalls a favorite spot to go in Watsontown was the "BD" - the Blue Diamond café - for a cherry soda or a "CMP" (a chocolate-marshmallow-peanut sundae). Jay Muffley's barber shop was the place to go for a good haircut, and Ken Becker's 5 &10 cent store was the place to shop for odds and ends.
Jack recalls that Allenwood was “easily accessible by bicycle from Camp. A favorite ‘hang out’ for us kids was Butts Jamison’s café. It was on the river side of the main highway and almost across from the intersection where the valley road to Camp commenced. Butts was a great bear of a man with a jolly, round face and a bald pate, and an ever present mischievous smile, and would always try to bedevil us kids by serving our ice cream cones upside down over our heads. We would cringe and he would roar with laughter. He had a great pinball machine by the counter which was always a treat and challenge to play without setting off the "tilt" alarm. I still remember a sign posted on the wall facing the counter, ‘Don't knock our coffee. You may be old and weak yourself someday’.”
Trails to Spring Garden
Jack remembers another favorite haunt for bike riding was the old covered bridge crossing Spring Garden Creek. “We kids loved to race back and forth on our bicycles and play hide and seek in the massive support timbers underneath. Sadly, it is now gone, replaced by a modern bridge some ways distant from the old location.”
“We would always go across the creek and stop at Dave Jamison’s house. He had a huge asparagus garden between the back of his house and the creek, and, in season, always had plenty to give away. I was always interested in exploring the trails on the mountain above our house at Camp, and old Dave was the expert, so I would take my government topography maps down to him and get him to tell stories about the places on the maps that I was curious about.”
“Once, I asked him about a trail marked on the map as ‘Bridle Trail’, and he regaled me with a wonderful story about how, long ago, an Indian Chief Bridle had made this trail through the forests and was one day ambushed and killed there. It was not till long after, when the topic again came up with my Dad, that I realized that old Dave had been pulling my leg, and had made the whole thing up as entertainment for us, and probably more so, for himself!”
The End of Devitt’s Camp
By the mid-1950s, after penicillin was introduced as a treatment for tuberculosis, there were no patients to support the existence of Devitt’s Camp. With bankruptcy looming, the only option was to transfer the 220-acre property to Phoebe Ministries for a fee of $1 with a stipulation that the “Devitt” name be retained.
Jack says, “We left with heavy hearts, but, there being no alternative, tried to look forward to the move as a positive adventure, which, in most ways, it turned out to be. After a big auction of all of our household goods, we drove cross-country to the Pacific Ocean and back, headed for Florida, and arrived in time to begin the new school year.”
“Devitt’s Camp had been a passion and ‘labor of love’ for my grandfather, and Dad continued with this after Pop Pop died in 1948. It was their life, their creation, their baby--much more than a place to live and a job to do. Devitt’s Camp was as much a part of our family as the family members themselves.”
Next time: Devitt’s Camp Becomes Devitt Home
Auction flyer from 1956 as a result of the camp’s sale.