Women of Keoka: Italia Tomes
by Brenda Hambleton
March is Women’s History Month, and we are using the opportunity to kick off a series of articles about women who contributed to life on Keoka Lake. Waterford, Keoka, and the Waterford Inn attracted an eclectic mixture of artists, writers, business people, society people, and nature lovers. Many of these were women. One woman who left a strong imprint on our lake was Italia Purdy Tomes.
Italia and her sister, Maud Purdy, were born in Philadelphia but grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Maud studied botany, horticulture, and painting. She was on the staff of the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. Italia was also artistic and used a pen and paintbrush to create many works.
Italia married George Tomes, and in 1925 the young couple bought Kokosing. They arrived in Waterford by stagecoach. For more than twenty years Kokosing was a girls’ camp, helping campers learn to swim, boat, hike, and build strong friendships. Kokosing was known for its “pageants” for Waterford residents. These events were advertised with hand-painted signs that still decorate the Kokosing buildings.
Italia wrote the following contribution for Mrs. Fillebrown, for the Waterford history that was being developed by the Waterford Historical Society:
“In 1901 we made an interesting trip to Waterford by boat, narrow gauge road, lake steamer, and mail coach, reaching Waterford on our third day. I do not remember if the mail coach had four horses or two, but it was a rough ride and we adored it….
In 1924, Mrs. Williams offered me her camp, as I had declined being her partner. In 1925, my husband and I bought Kokosing, but Mrs. Williams conducted it that year in order to benefit from the enrollment. Since then, beginning in 1926, we have spent every summer at Kokosing.
Do you remember the girls’ camps and also the boys of Passaconaway attending on Sunday all dressed in white? … Do you remember our Sunday evening services held for the village, on our waterfront?”
After World War II, the demand for summer camps decreased, and in 1950 the cottages were converted to housekeeping cottages. These cottages were made available to family and friends. George and Italia were the grandparents of Bette Miller, a Keoka legend, who recently passed away.
Kokosing is still a vital part of Keoka. You know it is summer when the dock goes in and fall is near when it comes out. Italia brought a liveliness and vibrancy
to Keoka that continues today.