Historic Tails

The Cat Who Ran the NH Summer Camp

asst deanOn this date in 1935, Nellie T. Hendrick was preparing to step down from the post she held for 20 years as dean of the Northern New England School of Religious Education. Mrs. Hendrick, originally from Keene, N.H., and a long-time resident of Nashua, N.H., is credited with founding and running the summer school/camp. But what of the cat that really pulled the strings of the operation?  

For 20 years the school was fueled by donations, personally rounded up by Hendrick, and modest tuition fees paid by campers. In 1924, the fee was $13, for which attendees received opportunities for recreation and the chance to listen to informative lectures. Mrs. Hendrick is credited with creating a tantalizing mix of scholarship and recreation.

The 1924 program, for instance, pulled in attendees by promising: "hikes, tennis, ball games, swimming contests and other water sports made possible by the nearness of the famous Oyster River. Mr. Gilmore will also direct the stunts on Saturday afternoon when the classes vie with each other in producing mirth provoking feats. Picnics and a breakfast in the beautiful College woods add to the week's enjoyment."

Nellie T. Hendrick, Dean of Northern New England School of Religious Education

Nellie T. Hendrick, Dean of Northern New England School of Religious Education

Lest anyone be concerned that the event was purely hedonistic, a new pageant "The Birth of the Bible" was also to be presented, and evening lectures in psychology were also promised. Dr. William Byron Forbash of New York, noted author of The Boy Problem, attended and offered lectures for parents and teachers on 'Understanding Our Boys' and another on 'The New Girl Problem.'

It's easy to see why this program became so popular, and why in 1935 Mrs. Hendrick received plaudits for her work. Governor Henry Styles Bridges even attended her final program to offer his personal congratulations and best wishes.

But it was an open secret among campers that there was a feline power behind the throne, which explained why Mrs. Hendrick found herself unable to continue directing the school as its dean. The intrepid reporters of the Nashua Telegraph reported the death of Assistant Dean Astor on August 26, 1935.

"The untimely death of her cat Vanderbilt Astor while she was at the school bothered Mrs. Astor a good deal more than talking of the honors bestowed upon her during the closing days of school," the paper reported.

And she broke down and offered this startling revelation to the reporter: "Mrs. Hendrick recalled that she could not sit down at her typewriter in the study but what the cat would run to the room and start pawing over the typewritten letters as if subjecting all to its approval before they were mailed out. 'Practically every letter I mailed out was first mussed up by Vanderbilt Astor,' she said."

Further details of Vanderbilt Astor's contribution to the school are lost in the fog of history. Astor left no account of his own involvement in the school. Perhaps he wanted to remain anonymous for reasons of his own choosing. Or, perhaps he was unable to type. Now you know the full story of the cat who ran the summer camp.

–This has been an update from the History Cat Network.

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