Rescuing the Past with Marie Camp
by Brian Thomas
(Marie Camp passed away quietly on April 15, 2016. )
Marie Camp thumped the arms of her easy chair. She said, “All of a sudden, I’m 96 and I don’t know how.” Along the way, she has become an accomplished watercolorist, a skilled genealogist, and — especially important for the Kent Historical Society — a meticulous recorder of her own past and others.
It’s a complex story. On her mother’s side, her great grandfather owned a tavern in Bonn, Germany. He drew the attention of the authorities by helping emigrants. Worried for his safety, he deeded the tavern to Marie’s great grandmother to sell and emigrated to the United States, and then she followed him to America. His name was Peter Anton Joseph Hittorff, and had a number of children.
Her mother, Matilda Caroline Hittorff, was one of a pair of twins. Nine years older, Marie’s father Gus Neels (Gustave Adolph Neels to the family) worked at the Post Office. “I was a girl in the Bronx,” Marie says, where she attended PS 23. Gus retired young on a pension as part of a New Deal program to make room for younger workers. They moved to Birch Hill in Kent and he sold real estate for a time. They had summer houses: “no insulation,” she recalls.
During the Depression, Marie was working at the Kent Inn, where the Patco station now stands, for about a year, but she didn’t like it. She also attended Kent High School for her final two years. There were 11 people in her class. She met her future husband there. She also completed Crandall’s Secretarial School course and went on to work for the town and South Kent School.
Marie married Phil Camp, a farmer, in 1942. He was five months younger than Marie. He was ordered to stay on the farm for his wartime service, which was called “frozen on the farm.” The young couple had a boy (Bill, who now lives in Myrtle Beach) and a girl, Dianne, in whose house Marie now resides.
Phil was proud of his registered Holsteins. His wife used to grouse that the cows got more care than the family – a chronic complaint in livestock circles. Marie remembers that the First Selectman at the time had a way of showing up a little before dinner time and not leaving, to wangle an invitation.
A shoulder injury forced Phil to give up the cows, and he took several jobs in Wassaic at the mental hospital. To occupy himself, he began writing memoirs of his life as a farmer and submitting them to the Kent Good Times Dispatch. These are vivid firsthand memories of a vanished life, sold as a series of booklets by the Kent Historical Society.
Throughout the years, Marie chronicled the life around her. In fact, she has been keeping records in one form or another since she was 12 years old, asking her uncles and other relatives questions and writing down their answers. “That’s how I got started. I’ve got quite a lot of material. I keep finding connections.”
As younger generations married, Marie’s circle of research expanded. She amassed information on numerous other families in Kent and New Milford. She filled over a hundred of loose-leaf notebooks and boxes with clippings, maps, documents, records, all meticulously organized. In fact, her personal archive is so large that it’s important for more than just Marie’s immediate or even extended family. Marie also acknowledges that her lovingly tended archive needs professional care. That’s why she has agreed to slowly transfer her trove to the Kent Historical Society. Curator Marge Smith said, “We couldn’t be more grateful to have this priceless record. We will make it readily available to all, which will help keep Marie’s project alive for everyone.”