After learning of the threat to the historic buildings and infrastructure, a group decided to incorporate as a non-profit so we could take over the Center and reopen it. In 2014, we officially became The Highlands Nature Friends, Inc., choosing that name to honor the original founders of the site, and were recognized by the IRS as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization. We then began discussions with NJAS about taking ownership of the property. After almost a year of dialogue and negotiations, we finally reached an agreement, and in November 2015, the Deed was signed and we were handed the keys!
We are now the proud owners of 150 acres of this beautiful piece of the Highlands, with its rich history and great potential. We have an expanded mission to make the center a vibrant cultural, historical and natural resource for the community. To reflect that vision, and to honor the family that endowed the center, we chose to rename it "The New Weis Center for Education, Arts & Recreation".
"It was a sanctuary for young and old, a real sense of community. The kids would have fun all day and were watched over by the elders. A more idyllic place, I could not imagine." ~John Matthes, grandson of early HNF member Adolf Matthes
In 1974, AEU members May H. and Walter M. Weis provided an endowment in order to realize their dream of preserving the land and buildings for the purpose of environmental education. May Weis represented the Women’s Alliance of the AEU at the United Nations and always had an interest in the care of the environment, and the property was renamed the Weis Ecology Center (WEC) in her honor. Many area residents have fond memories of taking part in the popular activities that the WEC ran, including summer day camp, a Halloween haunted trail, and maple sugaring.
In 1984, the May H. Weis Environmental Award was established with a generous donation in May Weis’ memory by her son, Leonard W. Weis, Ph.D. It is a joint program between Ramapo and the New Weis Center (formerly the Weis Ecology Center) in Ringwood, NJ. “My mother was a graduate of Barnard College in 1912,” writes Dr. Weis. “She and my father always stressed that no one can ever take one’s education away, which is why it is so valuable.” Recipients of the May H. Weis Award participate in a paid internship at the Center and receive a full tuition scholarship for one semester at Ramapo College.
In the mid-1990's, the New Jersey Audubon Society (NJAS) sought to establish a center in the New Jersey Highlands region, and in 1996 they assumed ownership of the WEC. Most of the wooded area of over 100 acres was placed under the New Jersey Green Acres program, to be preserved from development in perpetuity. The programs continued to be very popular, including the summer nature camp, which included hiking, crafts, identification of plants and wildlife, outdoor games, learning about recycling, and nature appreciation. There were also year-round family activities such as Easter egg dying using natural dyes and an egg hunt, an annual Christmas tree sale and holiday fair, and family classes on topics like fossil identification, building bird feeders, and learning to cook over an open fire.
At the end of 2012, NJAS closed several of their centers, citing financial reasons, including WEC. They entered into discussions with the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) about having them take over the property. In response to the closing of WEC, many local families and individuals, as well as people from around the country, who had fond memories of spending their summers at Weis (including some dating back to the Camp Midvale era), attending the day camp as children, and participating in the nature education programs, got together informally to urge NJAS and the DEP to preserve it.
In 2013, we learned that the DEP was not willing to take the land unless all of the infrastructure - including buildings, wells and septic systems - were demolished!
At that time, Ringwood was very rural and the Wanaque Reservoir had not yet been built. But Camp Midvale was reachable even for city dwellers without cars, because the Pennsylvania Railroad ran all the way to Wanaque, and from there it was a mere 3 ½ mile walk to the Camp on Snake Den Road - an easy stroll to these avid hikers.
The Nature Friends were a rugged and industrious bunch, and they did not mind hard work and roughing it in the outdoors. Besides their recreational activities, they spent a lot of time constructing buildings, landscaping the grounds, and blazing hiking trails in the surrounding woods. They built a large social hall and dining room that could accommodate hundreds for meals, various families built dozens of small private cabins scattered around the grounds, and in 1931, they completed a beautiful three story brick building to be used as a dormitory, which is now our main building. The “dorm”, like all the Nature Friends’ construction projects, was built almost entirely by volunteer labor. However, the construction was very sturdy and professional, as many of the Nature Friends members were builders by trade; carpenters, plumbers, cabinet makers, stone masons, and bricklayers, trained in the tradition of European craftsmanship.
The New Weis Center property was a farm in the 1800's. It was purchased by the Carrigan family in 1866, and we believe the old farmhouse (the ‘Nature House’) dates back to that era, if not earlier. The area near the entrance drive was once a farm pond, and there was a barn and apple orchard on the grounds.
In 1920, the New York chapter of an organization called The Nature Friends purchased the Carrigan farm, which then consisted of about 42 acres, and renamed it Camp Midvale. The Nature Friends was a group of outdoor enthusiasts who enjoyed hiking, skiing and other outdoor sports. It was made up of mostly working class German-speaking immigrants, who wanted a place where they could get away from the city and participate in sports, as well as cultural pursuits like music, dancing and theater.
In 1936, they carved the swimming pool, which now operates as the Highlands Natural Pool*, out of the hillside by hand, and purchased additional wooded acreage to protect Blue Mine Brook, the pool's water source. Following the brook upstream from The New Weis Center, along Otter Hole Trail, you can see remnants of Winfield Farm, an old horse farm dating back to the 19th century, which is now also part of our property.
The Nature Friends were strong believers in racial equality, and Camp Midvale was the first - and for a long time only - integrated swimming pool and recreation camp in the region. They planted the evergreen trees that you still see all over the property, built tennis and basketball courts, and a ski run on the hill at the back of the recreation field. They also built and maintained hiking trails in the surrounding woods and in Norvin Green State Forest.
Many of the Nature Friends members leased small plots of land at Camp Midvale to build private family cabins, which they used on weekends and during the summer, while other visitors rented a room or a bunk bed in the dormitory - now our main building. The cabins you see scattered around the grounds were mainly built in the 1920's.
Camp Midvale began to decline in the 1950's, and after the large wooden recreation and dining hall was destroyed by a suspicious fire in 1966, it was not financially possible for the group to continue operating. The members wanted the property to be preserved as a nature refuge and to be available for public use, so rather than sell it for commercial development, the Metropolitan Recreation Association, a successor group to the Nature Friends, donated the property to the American Ethical Union (AEU). The AEU pledged to preserve it, and used it as a conference center for a number of years.
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*The Pool was sub-divided from the camp property in 1996, and is now independently owned and operated by the non-profit Community Association of the Highlands, Inc., as “The Highlands Natural Pool”.
"In our turbulent world so full of cross-currents, we have found a tiny haven; a place to give a demonstration of how life begins, continues, and, with the wonderful interaction developed eons of years ago, re-creates itself and goes on in peace and beauty." ~May Weis