by Margaret Worrall (printed in the January 2011 issue of The Equiery)
Each year the Maryland Horse Council honors a person who has had a long, productive career in the equine industry. The award has recognized teachers, trainers, breeders, riders, farriers, veterinarians, saddlery experts, and more. The vital link, however, is the honoree’s distinctive ability to inspire young people to join their love of horses with making a living. The combination of inspiration and career describes perfectly the life of this year’s winner, Robert Eldredge of Monkton, Maryland.
Born in 1929 to dedicated Salvation Army officers, Bob Eldredge came to Maryland in the depths of the Great Depression when his father, Brigadier Douglas G. Eldredge, was given charge of Misty Mount, a Salvation Army camp for children in the Catoctin Mountains near Thurmont. With World War II looming, the United States government chose the site for a presidential retreat, now called Camp David.
As a result the Eldredge family, including Bob and his two brothers and two sisters, was transferred to the Salvation Army base in Baltimore. Wanting to continue his camp work, Brigadier Eldredge prevailed upon the Gunpowder Youth Camps (supported by the Towson American Legion, the Towson Kiwanis, the Cockeysville Optimist, and the Towson Rotary) to lease a wooded portion of their 200 acres bordering the Gunpowder Falls near Monkton to the Salvation Army for their camp. In 1942 Camp Puh’tok (meaning “in the pines”) for Boys opened; Bob Eldredge was 12 years old.
“This was an old-fashioned camp, very rustic, not at all the big business that camps often are now,” says Bob. “My father felt very strongly about the outdoors, the environment. That wasn’t considered very important in those days, but he believed that camping offered a unique opportunity to learn about the world around us, especially for the city boys who would come to this camp. He himself was an old Boy Scout and he loved it.”
Another element that set Camp Puh’tok apart in that era was its multiplicity. From the beginning, the residential camp stressed diversity among the campers, ages 5-16; Puh’tok in 1942 was practically the only camp where African-American boys could participate alongside their white contemporaries.
In addition, the outdoors program was augmented with an emphasis on Native American culture. “It was a natural extension to the natural world,” Bob explains “In the 1950s Chief Sunrise (Rubin Jacobs), the great-grandson of the Sioux chief Sitting Bull, took an interest in our programs, and we integrated the Native American ideals into what we did at the camp. We used the culture of the Indian as a foundation; we just gave the Indians a fair shot.
The stated mission of Camp Puh’tok was and still is to emphasize leadership, teamwork, spirituality, appreciation of nature, discovering our American heritage, and the importance of giving back to the community. These same qualities, not to mention generosity, are the essence of Bob Eldredge the man as well.
The World Traveler
In his formative years, Bob worked at the camp in the summers and attended Baltimore City College during the school terms. At graduation, Bob’s sights were set on college, but the United States government had something else in mind. The Korean War was on and Bob joined the Navy, assigned to the Roosevelt, which at that time, was the biggest aircraft carrier in the U.S. fleet.
“It was really pretty tame,” Bob relates with his usual humility. “We sailed around the world several times and even around Cape Horn at the tip of South America, but we weren’t sunk or anything. I stayed in for four years because I really loved it.”
When his hitch and the war were over, Bob went to Springfield College in Massachusetts, and then returned to Maryland and the camp job he also loved. There he started yet another program.
“Judge Moylan told my father that the older boys in the city, 16, 17 years old, needed something to do in the summer, so I had the idea for Top Bar Ranch,” declares Bob, as if this were a casual undertaking. “We got some horses, the kind you rent out, not very good, but the boys worked hard with them. We also bought an old wagon to carry supplies so that we could camp out. The boys seemed to like it.”
With this background, horses became an integral part of the camp mix, thanks to Bob. “I always liked horses from the time I was a kid. I never had any real training when I started that program. I’m not a professional. I simply learned as I went along.”
Bob’s daughter Kim Wight recounts the story that Bob’s initial fascination with horses began at eight years old in 1937 when he and his brother watched Seabiscuit’s famous race against War Admiral through the fence at Pimlico, not far from where they lived at the time.
“My father agreed that it would be good for the city kids, so he gave me the job of working with the horses. The idea was successful,” Bob adds modestly, “because it’s just natural for a kid to be into horses.”
The Riding Director
Lou Kousouris, today the vice-president of the Baltimore Orioles, is boundless in his enthusiasm for Camp Puh’tok and what he gained from his experiences there. Yet, he admits that he didn’t start out feeling that way. Horses made the difference.
“I had ridden since I was five years old, and I used to go to the track with my uncle, who was a jockey,” Kousouris recalls. “But when I got to the camp, I didn’t like it. All I wanted to do was ride, but they said I was too young. Finally, Bob figured a way to make this work so that I could be part of Top Bar Ranch.
“The amazing thing about Bob is his personality. He could have built Disney World. He invented things the kids could be interested in, and he had a way of getting them to do things they didn’t know they wanted to do: cowboys and Indians, capture the flag, Blackfoot versus Crow, Indian dances. And all the time, we were learning American history, Native American culture, self-reliance, and independence.”
“This,” Lou adds, “was the right place for me at the right time. I came as a reluctant camper and stayed to work as a wrangler, and then ran the horse program.”
Today, as a matter of fact, Lou, a dedicated horseman himself, is chairman of the Camp Puh’tok board that purchased the camp property from the Salvation Army when that organization wanted to go in a direction more in keeping with their other camps that didn’t include horses. A volunteer board oversees the camp as a nonprofit organization. This too came as a result of Bob’s dedication to the ideals that had existed since the camp’s founding.
“Bob has been a part of everything that has happened here from the diversity (we have 25% of our campers on scholarship) to breaking wild mustangs that we adopt through the Bureau of Land Management,” Lou continues. “I like to say that Bob is the ‘thinker-upper,’ while I’m the ‘get it done’ person.”
From the other side of the equation, Bob is equally generous with his praise. “Lou was the foreman for the camp’s horse program when he was young. The smartest thing I ever did was to hire Lou. He saved the camp.”
Lou is also quick to point out that he is hardly the only person who has benefited from Bob’s creativity and quiet force of personality. He cites former campers Don Hutchinson and Ted Venetoulis (both became Baltimore County Executives), Nicky Venetoulis (aka Nick Venet, a producer for Capitol Records), Bob Pitman (head of the ceramics department at Towson University), and Charlie Nemphos (a certified public accountant), plus six West Point and Naval Academy graduates, including Lou’s own son.
The Family Man
During the summer of 1958 when he took up once again his job at Camp Puh’tok, Bob fell off ahorse and broke his pelvis. He contends that he wasn’t really all that hurt, but his recovery was extended because of the camp nurse, Peggy Schoepflin.
“She was very pretty. I was happy,” Bob quips, with a smile.
Peggy and Bob were married four months later. He took a full-time job with one of the Boys Clubs organizations in Delaware, where their daughter Kim was born. Subsequently, the couple moved to another club in Mount Kisco, New York, and welcomed a second daughter, Wendy, into the family. They returned to Maryland in the early 1960s when Bob took charge of the Middle River Boys Clubs.
During these years at Camp Puh’tok and the various boys clubs, Bob also developed his natural artistic talent. He painted the signs and created a multitude of art projects for the camp, especially those related to the Native American program. Although he insists that he does not consider himself a trained artist, at night and on weekends
Bob took many classes in design and fine art at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Lou Kousouris remembers Bob’s aptitude for creating authentic replications of Native American costumes from materials that one would expect, such as feathers and pinecones. “But Bob also scoured a local ice cream store for their large containers to make the headdresses. His creativity is unlimited.”
In 1964 that blend of creativity and interest in horses led to another career. Bob became the managing editor and art director of The Maryland Horse, responsible for layout and design of the magazine.
“I started at the Maryland Horse Breeders because of knowing Snowden Carter, the editor, and lots of Maryland horse people,” Bob states. “I was always attracted to horses, so I read the magazine which had a special interest in Maryland folks. It was fun to put the whole magazine together. The industry was booming at the time.”
Nancy Boyce, an artist in her own right who wrote for the magazine for many years and created a monthly page of very popular cartoons on the equine subjects of the day, was a contributor to the magazine at the time Bob was there.
“I learned so much from Bob,” Nancy says. “With his wonderful eye for design, he made The Maryland Horse what it was in those days: a prize-winning publication.
“What many people don’t realize is that Bob is a fine artist. Working in watercolor, not an easy medium, he is very talented. He created beautiful maps of the Maryland fox hunting country and maps of the Maryland Hunt Cup course that are treasured today. He is also the creator of the illustrations in Peter Winants’s book Jay Trump,” she adds.
Ross Peddicord, who also wrote for The Maryland Horse as well as reporting horse racing for The Baltimore Sun and is now the co-publisher of Maryland Life magazine, agrees with Nancy’s assessment.
“Along with Nancy Boyce and the photography of Peter Winants, Skip Ball, Neena Ewing, and Cappy Jackson, The Maryland Horse at that time was venerated nationally. Because of the quality of the magazine, it transcended being an equine magazine; it was a national model.”
Barrie Reightler, currently director of publications at the magazine, started her career under Bob’s tutelage.
“Bob’s concept was to give the magazine a National Geographic feel,” Barrie remembers. “This was the heyday of The Maryland Horse, with the emphasis on the great photographs of Winants, Ball, Jackson, and Ewing. They were cutting edge. Bob was very creative and the layouts were extensive and elaborate.
“Furthermore, Bob’s artwork is classic,” she adds. “His maps in watercolor of the hunting country and especially his Maryland Hunt Cup map are impressive. He was able to give them a depth perception along with the overview that moved them out of the ordinary.”
Between 1979 and 1986, The Maryland Horse won eleven first-place awards from the American Horse Publications organization, including five for general excellence. During that time, Bob was offered a position with the prestigious national thoroughbred racing magazine, Blood-Horse, but he turned it down. He didn’t want to move his family to Kentucky.
“In Kentucky, they are millionaires with a hobby; in Maryland it’s family,” Bob comments quietly. “I just worked on a horse magazine, nothing special.”
The Camper at Heart
Throughout his career of twenty-two years at The Maryland Horse, Bob continued to be involved with the work of Camp Puh’tok. Thus, it was a likely occurrence that he return there as executive director when he retired from the magazine in 1986.
About that time, Kim Eldredge Wight was in charge of the horse program at the camp. She and her sister Wendy were never “real campers,” because the program was limited to boys. However, the family lived at the facility during the summers, and Kim and Wendy were intimately aware of all the aspects of the camp life. Peggy, Bob’s late wife, was similarly engaged in the work. Therefore, it seemed almost predictable that Peggy would tell Bob one day in no uncertain terms that the camp “could no longer have just boys,” as Bob remembers.
Alexi Kousouris (Lou Kousouris’s daughter) made the trial run in 1984 when she was six years old. In 1988 she came back as a full-fledged camper with other girls. Since Bob’s retirement in 2007, Alexi has been the camp director.
“It is interesting to think that with all the emphasis on diversity, the camp was limited to boys,” Alexi muses. “Times have changed and again that change was realized because of Bob.
“Now, in addition to being co-ed, we have counselors recruited from England, Scotland, and Australia. We even have a group of campers who come for four weeks every year from the Basque region of Spain. This ability to mix children and cultures, a theme from the beginning and underlined always by Bob’s programs, motivates people to learn from each other and to get along.”
The horses, according to Alexi, are part and parcel of this complete experience. She said that many of the children who come to the camp have never even seen a live horse before. The interaction takes them from being completely afraid to being comfortable with a large animal. Alexi goes on to explain, “Bob’s creativity, his imagination, gives us a uniqueness. He has so many ideas, not only of how our programs can be educational, but how they can be fun as well.
“For example, Bob is a great storyteller. He tells stories of Native American legends with such authenticity and drama that the kids are spellbound. With him it is an art and he is so talented and enthusiastic.”
“And the setup of the camps as villages according to age and sex is all Bob’s doing,” adds Claudia Lentz, who came to Puh’tok as a 14-year-old camper and is now the office manager. “It’s all about American history. We have the stockade and barracks, an Indian village with Indian dwellings, and Silver City, which is a cowboy town, not to mention Top Bar Ranch, which is all about the horses. We have the Mustangs, Quarter Horses, reining horses; it all fits into the spirit and theme of the camp.”
In 2002 Bob added a completely different accomplishment to his long list: land preservationist. The 67-acre parcel of the camp was placed in a permanent conservation easement through the Gunpowder Valley Conservancy, a local nonprofit land preservation organization.
“It was Bob’s initiative that encouraged the Salvation Army to put this property into an easement,” states Charlie Conklin, president of the GVC. “Bob also promoted funding for the easement from the Abell Foundation on the basis that the camp provides a place for children to experience nature and the traditions of the Native Americans.
“This is such an exceptional environment,” Charlie continues. “I brought a group of people from a Russian exchange program to stay at the camp. They were enthralled. This is just another example of the human understanding that this camp has created under Bob’s leadership. “And let’s not forget the museum,” Charlie says, almost breathlessly. “That’s part of Bob’s legacy as well.”
“Oh, that,” Bob counters, brushing off the suggestion that a museum is something significant. “I’m just putting together some things about the Native American heritage. It’s what I’m doing since I retired a few years ago. I just keep an eye on the camp a bit.”
Today, this camp that his father founded and that Bob Eldredge has devoted his life to has grown. There is a day camp as well as the residential camp; boys and girls come to camp together; the horses are far better trained than the first ones that Bob found wherever he could; and some 5,000 Baltimore County public school students participate in environmental programs at the camp during the school year, such as studying our Native American heritage, making maple syrup from the camp trees, and identifying wild animals and plants on the site.
“It’s Bob’s incredible vision and artistic ability that is his true legacy,” Lou Kousouris concludes. “That theme of diversity and responsibility and love of nature is still growing at the camp. This will, indeed, remain part of Bob’s legacy, as will his artwork of the traditional Maryland countryside.”
Bob, in his quiet way, however, sees it differently, or at least in the way he persistently views any suggestion that he deserves the Maryland Horseman of the Year award.
“I don’t really deserve an award. I don’t know much about having an impact on the industry,” Bob remarks. “I just do a bit of everything and whatever is needed. It’s been a good ride though, a lot of fun.”