Mahackeno: An Old Camp For A New Age

Mahackeno — the Westport Weston Family YMCA camp just south of the Bedford Center — has a long, storied history.

It’s as old as the Merritt Parkway. And as new as the work currently be done there, not far from the Saugatuck River site.

The Y opened its camp in 1938. Six years later they were offered 30 acres of land — including the site of the present camp.

Enjoying the Saugatuck River, at Camp Mahackeno back in the day.

F.T. Bedford — son of the Y’s founder, Edward T. Bedford — said his family’s trust would pay half the price, provided the town ponied up the other half.

Within a few weeks, Westporters pledged their portion:  $10,000.

In March of 1945, the Y took possession of the property. That summer, 72 boys attended “Camp Bedford.” One of the highlights: a rope swing, dangling from the nearby Merritt Parkway.

A year later — at F.T. Bedford’s request — the name was changed to “Mahackeno.” That honored “Mahackemo” (with an “m”), a sachem (chief) of the Norwalke Indian tribe who in 1639 met Roger Ludlowe and traded land between the Saugatuck and Norwalk Rivers — including that very spot — for wampum and other goods.

Over the years, Camp Mahackeno grew. It added girls, a pool and other amenities. It (reluctantly) packed away the rope swing (and an enormous military-style float that it’s a miracle no one ever drowned underneath.

Summer Camp has been part of growing up for decades. In 1953, Westport artist Stevan Dohanos used Camp Mahackeno for this Saturday Evening Post cover.

This year, Mahackeno opened its new, now 34-acre facility. After a year of construction there’s a new amphitheater,  archery range, climbing walls, 2 slides and 5 rainy-day pavilions.

A counselor gives an assist at a new climbing wall.

The basketball court, Beck Lodge and swimming pool have been renovated (with a new splash pad too). Playing fields were leveled.

The refurbished pool. Y members can register to swim for one hour slots on weekends.

Every tree of 8 calipers or more has been replaced by 2 new trees. Oh, yeah: the port-a-potties are shielded too.

Westport Weston Family Y CEO Pat Riemersma checks out one of several new wood chip paths.

250 or so boys and girls attend one or more of 9 week-long sessions. This being a pandemic, they remain in strict groups of 10, with the same (masked) counselor all week.

Scroll down for some photos of Camp Mahackeno, 2020. It’s not 1938 — but then again, what is?

Between canoe sessions, a counselor sanitizes railings.

Gaga is a ground-level form of dodgeball.

Two new slides are a huge hit.

The new amphitheater seats 360 campers and staff members.

No camp is complete without an archery range.

The newly renovated basketball court gets plenty of action.

Rainy day pavilions: shelter from the storm.

The all-new playground.

A classic camp scene.

18 responses to “Mahackeno: An Old Camp For A New Age

  1. What a well done historical perspective you’ve provided Dan, it sure is a special place. What a much needed transformation has taken place at the former Camp Bedford!. Congrats to the Y staff and volunteer leadership for another job well done. And special thanks to Ruth Bedford for having the confidence that this YMCA would perform great miracles with her generous gift she left behind, and they sure have. Where are all the “nay-sayers” now who battled and defamed the YMCA and the volunteer leaders for so many years, while costing their town and the YMCA many valuable dollars? Even after a sales agreement for the former location was signed and sealed, (and look what that has become?) they continued to verbally assault the many dedicated volunteers who persevered because of the vision they all had of what could be. Those short-sighted critics continued on with one goal only, and that was to make sure this treasured organization would fail which would have caused this YMCA to fold and cease to exist. I am so proud of the small part that I, and the many other dedicated and talented YMCA staff who came before me and who are working there now, was blessed to have played in what currently is one of the most beautiful and mission-driven YMCAs in our country. “Well done, Good and Faithful Servants!”

  2. My kids both went the first week and one of my kids is also attending Mahackeno this week. We did not take the decision lightly. The good news: I’ve seen what an impact some level of (safer) connection and (spread out) group activity can provide. I think the dozens of precautions the Y has taken has made this as safe as it can be, and still be camp. I signed them up after hearing the NPR news story about Y camps. I also knew our Y had months of planning to open the new camp and wellness facilities safely. They’ve been beyond careful…and have the luxury of space.

  3. My kids both went the first week and one of my kids is also attending Mahackeno this week. We did not take the decision lightly. The good news: I’ve seen what an positive impact some level of (safer) connection and (spread out) group activity can provide. I think the dozens of precautions the Y has taken has made this as safe as it can be, and still be camp. I signed them up after hearing the NPR news story about Y camps. I also knew our Y had months of planning to open the new camp and wellness facilities safely. They’ve been beyond careful…and have the luxury of space.

  4. Dana McCreesh

    How fortuitous that this new beautiful space is open just when families need it most. A wonderful renovation and 34 acres of creatively used outdoor space means that kids can get some fun in after months at home. The Y really stepped up, modifying virtually every aspect of camp for these Covid times. Kudos to the counselors smiling (behind their masks) at kids each day, and to the kids for adding joy to the new Camp Mahackeno. We all needed something to smile about!

  5. Amy Schneider

    This is a wonderful historical view of the Y. Kudos to YMCA staffers and everyone responsible who make the camp experience safe for our children at this crucial time in their lives for social and physical activity.

  6. John Greenspan

    The Y did such a wonderful job with Camp Mahackeno, thoughtfully incorporating the much needed updates into the camp’s natural surroundings overlooking Lee’s Pond…

    Thank You Bedford Family and all other donors…Generations Start Here…for the next 100 years!

  7. Barbara Wiederecht

    My children (now 29/27) attended Camp for many years including the younger being part of the CIT program. They loved it and have memories that will last a life time! I was fortunate to have a tour in June with Pat and my 27 year old daughter. It was fun to watch my daughter’s expression as she was in total amazement at the transformation. And yes-she too had a ride down the slide and was giggling at the end. Her final comment was that she wished she could go back now as a camper!

    And yes, I too can see the counselors smiling behind their masks! Congratulations to the Y. And I agree, at least for my family, Generations Do Start Here!

  8. charles taylor

    The Camp was Downshifters HQ during the winter. We worked on our cars (my ‘38 Ford Deluxe). We had welding tanks, and kept a pretty clean shop.

  9. I think we called the big inflatable raft that was a waterfront feature for so many years “Moby Dick.” It was great fun to play on and around. I got all my swimming proficiency badges at Camp M. “minnow”, “fish,” “flying fish” and “shark.” Many years later a train with a special car attached picked us up at the Saugatuck train station and took us up to New Haven to the Selective Service induction center where we were all poked, prodded and otherwise evaluated for service in Viet Nam. The great thing about what would have otherwise been a very sobering experience was that many of my old buddies form Camp M. that I hadn’t seen for years were on that same train! Fortunately, everyone I knew was either exempt or came home alive.

  10. I went to Camp Mahackeno between 2nd and 3rd grades in 1955 with my best friend, Jimmy Sipperly. Mr. Lockwood operated his school bus there. As I recall, there were two buildings down the hill in a common area with platforms for swimming and for launching canoes and rowboats. Up the hill they had platforms for our groups. A man named Jim Blue and a woman named Stephanie were our counsellors (while the campers were all boys, they had women counsellors). I recall field trips to West Point and the Bronx Zoo. I also remember Lou Dorsey being there. In retrospect, I can appreciate the opportunities Westport offers its children though few communities have the money (and the generosity of the Bedford family) to allow their children such opportunities.

  11. Long ago (summer of 1961) I was a camp counselor there. It has changed a great deal from those early days. I remember taking a life saving course through the Y and our classes were in the river. First night … swim 20 laps. By the end of the 2 weeks it was a lot easier.
    Anyway, great place and a really nice article. Thx.

  12. Mary Schmerker

    I love all the background information on Camp M. I grew up in the 1950’s and never attend camp. We lived on Calumet Road and would walk the river edge and could hear the joyful noise across the river of the buys at camp. And I did know as Charles Taylor mentions did know that the Downshifters did some amazing work on their cars there in the winter. ( My brother was Corky Cookman)

  13. Mary Schmerker

    P.S. Hate it when I hit post with a typo uncorrected! Blame it on old age sight……

  14. Nancy Powers Conklin

    Wish they had “adult” Day Camping experiences! I’d be the first to sign up!

  15. Eric Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    I was a staunch Mahackeno camper from ‘58-‘64. Among other great role models I had Mike Bacon, Charlie Taylor and his twin sister Ann as counselors. The huge float, which we called Moby Dick was in reality a war surplus pontoon similar to those used in the ETO to cross rivers on the way to Berlin. It was removed for reasons previously cited in Dan’s post. Later, I was a Mahackeno camp counselor as a high school sophomore and junior and can sum up my Mahackeno experience as the time of my life. As unfortunate as it may be, perhaps it would make sense to revert the camp’s name to Bedford, which is deeply historical to Westport and should be free of criticism at least until some “woke” person decides to accuse the Bedford family of being among the “robber barons” of the late 19th century.

  16. Jeffrey Jones

    I spent a lot of time growing up in Westport at the Y in town and for a couple summers at Camp Mahackeno. As Bill Staby said, I earned my swimming cred there. I loved being able to jump off the white aluminum docks and swim out to Moby Dick. All the cool kids were there! Shooting at the range into the dirt hillside, archery, crafts, canoeing, hiking…, I’m sure my parents loved my coming home exhausted every day. Mahackeno lprepped a scrawny, shy kid to get outta Dodge. Thanks for this wonderful 06880! [Now I feel really old]

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