At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the mountainous Adirondack region of northern New York was one of the nation’s premier resorts. The grand resort hotels, smaller inns, and boarding houses were concentrated on the region’s many lakes, nowhere more so than on the two large lakes on the region’s eastern edge. It is therefore not surprising that Lakes George and Champlain became the sites of some of the earliest experiments in the country in organized camping for children.
The First Camps
Ernest Balch, generally credited with starting the movement with his Camp Chocorua in New Hampshire, felt that summers at resorts contributed to softening up America’s youth. Elias Brown, founder of the Adirondack Camp for Boys on Lake George agreed in his 1906 brochure.
Observe the boy at even a first-class summer hotel. There may be something for him to do much of the time, but what does he learn, and how is he better at the end of the summer?
Balch and Brown were among a growing group of educators who felt that the United States needed to toughen up its boys in the great outdoors in order to maintain its place in the world. Children needed a summer away from the “dust, dirt, and dangers” of the city. An organized camp was the ideal place for them.
Camp Chocorua opened in 1881. Just four years later, Sumner Dudley took a group of boys from the Newburgh, New York, branch of the YMCA for a week’s camping on a nearby lake. They fished, went boating, and spent several hours a day in Bible study. Dudley found it such a valuable experience for the boys that it became an annual affair. By 1891, he had moved to a site on Lake Champlain. Camp Dudley, as it was named after Dudley’s death, still flourishes near Westport, the oldest continuously operating children’s camp in the country.
The Adirondack region was well suited for organized children’s camps. It had an abundance of wild lands and waterways and was relatively close to New York City, Boston, and other large cities from which most campers came. By 1900, Adirondack camps were among the most influential and well-known in the country, and Adirondack camp directors took active and important roles in the national movement. In the past one hundred and twenty years, over three hundred children’s camps have been founded in the region. Seventy exist today.
In 1891, Camp Dudley seems to have existed alone in the Adirondacks except for the brief existence of The French Recreation Class for Girls, surely one of the first girl’s camps in the country. An 1896 brochure for the Lake Placid camp promised outdoor exercise — walking and rowing — all suitably chaperoned — and, of course, daily study of French.
Aside from the French camp, most early camps in the Adirondacks, as elsewhere in the country, were for boys. Since men were held to be the moving forces in business and politics, it was their hardiness that concerned the early camp directors most. Between 1900 and 1910 at least nine other boys’ camps joined Dudley in the Adirondacks. Most were on Lake Champlain or Lake George. Two, Adirondack Camp and Pok-O-Moonshine, are still in operation.
The Progressive Movement in Education
The growth of new camps increased dramatically between 1910 and the stock market crash. At least one hundred had taken root in the Adirondacks by 1929 — twelve were founded in 1916 alone. The motivation for this remarkable flowering was due to a period of general prosperity in the northeast and the great optimism of the Progressive movement in education — part of a new scientific approach to childhood.
The Progressives felt that children needed to learn to solve problems, rather than just memorize information. Creative learning by doing was better than rigid “book-learning.” Childhood education should aim to provide miniature communities where children could learn to create and foster a just society. John Dewey, the leading philosopher of the Progressive Education movement, joined the faculty at Columbia University in 1906, and Columbia Teacher’s College (CTC) became an important institution in developing a philosophy of camping. Camps, as isolated communities where the educators had twenty-four-hour control of the students, were ideal for putting Progressive theory into practice. CTC students founded and worked at many camps in the Adirondacks.
The founding directors of Camp Treetops (1921), for example, had studied with Dewey. At Treetops, the children lived apart from the counselors, to promote independence. There was no camp store, to promote equality among the campers, and the daily program was self-directed, to encourage initiative.
The Architectureof Children’s Camps
The scientific approach to child-rearing was also reflected in the architecture of children’s camps in the Adirondacks. The development of sleeping arrangements can be seen to this day across the region. In the early days, when camping was closer to camping out, children slept in tents on wooden platforms, just as they still do at Tanager Lodge on Upper Chateaugay Lake. By the 1920s, practical concerns had led many camps to adopt permanent structures, which were usually distinguished by access to lots of fresh air. Small, home-like cottages were considered ideal at many camps. Fresh air came in through lots of windows or, as at Silver Lake Camp in the 1940s, children slept on sleeping porches. A less expensive alternative was a variation on the Adirondack lean-to, a structure with three walls, a roof that sloped towards the back, and a front that was almost completely open.
Another distinctly regional variation was pretty luxurious. Several camps, such as Girl Scout Camp Eagle Island and Camp Navarac, both on Upper Saranac Lake, were established in former “great camps” — complexes originally built as private estates. There, campers used the same guest cottages and lodges that had housed the movers and shakers of New York society a generation before.
The Woodcraft League
Mounted in scrapbooks or hanging on walls at camps across the Adirondacks can still be found the colorfully illustrated certificates of the Woodcraft League, each signed with the wolf print signature of the League’s founder, Ernest Thompson Seton. These certificates document the origins of some of the earliest and most enduring camp traditions.
Like the early figures in organized camping, Seton was concerned with a softening of the American character. His Woodcraft League, founded in 1902, was based on plenty of camping out and an eclectic mix of traditions and rituals from Native American culture. In the Woodland Indians system, Northwest Coast totem poles, Plains Indians teepees, and Woodland tribal structure all existed happily side by side. Seton’s “Indians” may seem at the least muddled and at the worst disrespectful a century later, but Seton saw himself as honoring the nation’s first inhabitants by identifying parts of their culture that he felt were superior to his own.
The council fire, perhaps the most enduring and beloved camp tradition, was a central part of Seton’s system of camp life. Seton’s model of gathering around a campfire to share stories, recognize achievement, and participate in ritual, survives in many Adirondack camps.
Adirondack camp directors of the 1920s adopted much from the Woodcraft model for several reasons. Indian lore and crafts seemed to fit naturally in the Adirondacks, and the children loved it. Seton’s version of tribal government and communication also fit well with the Progressive educators’ goals of community life.
Religious Affiliated Camps
Camps for Jewish Children
Religious observance at Jewish camps relaxed considerably by the post-war period. In the 1950s and 1960s, most Jewish camps had only one service on the Sabbath and that was abbreviated or fairly secular in nature. Most Jewish camps incorporated Jewish values in camp life, but basically they had the same goals and programs as most of the Gentile camps. This was in contrast to areas such as the Poconos and the Catskills, where Jewish camps were established to teach religion and culture and strengthen the Jewish community. Jewish camps were separate primarily because — until well after the Second World War — Jewish children weren’t welcome at most other camps.
From the movement’s beginnings in the 1880s, youth organizations seized upon the camp model as being well suited to their aims. Although the for-profit, private camps are the best known, the organizational camps undoubtedly have served far greater numbers of children. The Girl Scouts of the USA and the Boy Scouts of America have probably been the most successful in this regard. Forty-seven Boy and Girl Scout camps have been established in the region since 1918. A Scout historian estimates that 360,000-1,200,000 children have attended them.
The Boy Scouts of America was founded at almost the same time that organized camping really took off in the Adirondacks, and it is no coincidence that Scouting and organized camping share so much. The Boy Scouts of America had its organizational beginnings at the YMCA family camp Silver Bay, on Lake George, in 1910. British Boy Scout founder Lord Robert Baden-Powell attended, as did Ernest Thompson Seton, who was named Head Scout. Scout councils soon started establishing camps in the Adirondacks where their members could practice their wo