That continuity represents an important thread that runs through the history of the place, for the Bakers have always been thoroughly involved in the park’s common life, contributing in so many different ways, including leading the community through times of change.
David Baker, currently at #112, wanted to make certain that his father Irving Baker’s forward thinking role in these transitions would not be forgotten.
It has to be said that David Baker himself has served this community faithfully for many years – as a good neighbor, on committees and sub-committees, as a goodnatured rules keeper and referee at often tumultuous annual meetings, and as informal community historian.
He spoke recently with a retired reporter who happens to be a longtime resident, and here is the brief report.
Irving and Edith Baker bought #79 (“Hilltop”) in Laurel Park in 1921. She was a ramrod straight “schoolmarm” in the Victorian style and a Methodist church woman with a “strength of character” that you felt as a palpable power when she was in the room, recalls David Baker, who from the age of 7 would spend his entire summers here with his grandparents.
His grandfather was a Ford salesman and a Methodist pillar who served as president of the Social Union — the only organization of cottage owners at the time — and built the Checker House.
The Checker House served conveniently as a Chess House in the days in the late 80’s and 90’s, when Irv Baker, the son, would run an informal chess academy for the neighborhood children. Irv, a professor of children’s literature, had great rapport with all the younger generations, who knew him as a sharp, kindly and wise gentleman. David says that his father simply inherited a good measure of his own mother’s uprightness.
By this time, even as the community was changing over from mostly summer “camps” to year-round living, there was another formidable church woman and schoolmarm of the old school whose presence was mightily felt by many, and that was Irv’s second wife, Isabel Baker.
The two of them gladly served all the children in the park as substitute grandparents, cheering them on in ballgames and field games, recruiting them to help contribute to the community life, to the community dinners and to the church services if they felt so inclined. The campmeeting spirit lived on through them.
Irv and Isabel were pretty much the George and Martha Washington of the Laurel Park Association (LPA), which in 1968 became the owner of all the common buildings and the common land in Laurel Park (including the land upon which the private houses floated), conveyed to it by the Springfield District Camp Meeting Association. Irv could be found working hard on both sides of that deal — as the last president of the Springfield District Camp Meeting Association and as first president of the LPA of which he was the principal author.
Eighteen years later, LPA would sell all its common property except for the Post Office, Tabernacle, Normal Hall, the land inside the circle and the “Nine Acre Woods,” to the newly formed Homeowners Association at Laurel Park. LPA continued conducting and hosting summer church services in the Tabernacle and other community and arts events. It launched a revival of the Chautauqua here in 1987. Around that same time, and under Isabel’s leadership, the original tabernacle was dismantled and replaced with the new, smaller version.
Irv, with a strong second by the late Erwin Weston, on more than one occasion gave what came to be known as his “Siamese twin” speech on the importance to HALP of keeping LPA viable, if for no other reason than that the LPA was critical to the preservation of all the traditional lands and buildings, first as owner and now as principle lessee.
He also argued for strong support of the Social Union, a group that continues to promote community life through a host of programs and projects ranging from beautification of the front gate, upkeep of and improvements to the Dining Hall, managing the gardens, hosting community meals and more. Ilia Cornier (backed by a small but loyal crew) has passionately taken on that mission in recent years.
Fast forward about a quarter century, LPA sold the remainder of its real estate assets, with the exception of the “Nine Acre Woods,” to HALP on the recommendation of a committee headed up by the late Fred Brown. This was seen as a move to protect the integrity of the community from unwanted development in the event that LPA should fail. (Just to note, the fate of the Nine Acre Woods still hinges on LPA being in business.)
The LPA, meanwhile, was reinvented and revived under the leadership of Kate Richardson and Sandy Matthews. It converted to Laurel Park Arts which has carried forward and much expanded the old Chautauqua format with a wide offering of topical seminars, music, theater, sculpture and dance. It also hosts ecumenical religious services.
A Century of Bakers in Laurel Park is a big deal indeed, and a good time to remind ourselves of all the difficult, committed, practical and visionary work that has gone into keeping this community whole, vibrant and beautiful through changing times and circumstances.
Submitted by Judson Brown