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
Almost one-fourth of the Adirondack camps founded before 1929 were attended primarily by Jewish children. The Schroon Lake Camp for Boys, founded by Rabbi Isaac Moses of Manhattan’s Reformed Central Synagogue, was the first Jewish camp in the state. The boys of Camp Swastika near Old Forge and the girls of Che-Na-Wah in the town of Minerva observed Jewish dietary laws in the 1920s. (Camp Swastika was certainly named for the Plains Indian symbol and was out of business before the symbol acquired a much more sinister association.) Che-Na-Wah, a camp endorsed by the Conservative United Synagogue of America, had both Friday night and Saturday morning services.

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.

Christian Camps
Relaxed religious observance was not peculiar to the Jewish camps. Just as there were few Jewish camps founded by religious groups for religious purposes, there were few “Christian” camps until after the 1960s. Many camps attended mostly by Christian children had regular Sunday services — often at an outdoor “chapel.” These outdoor chapels were part of a long tradition of seeing the Adirondack wilderness as a special abode of God that goes back to the early nineteenth century, Even more formal chapels incorporated nature. The chapel at Camp Jeanne d’Arc, a camp on Upper Chateaugay Lake attended primarily by Catholic girls, was built with one wall largely open.

Youth Organizations

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 woodcraft and camping skills.

Adapting to Change

After World War II, the nation experienced a period of prosperity that might have been expected to encourage a growth in Adirondack camping. However, only eighteen new camps were founded in the decade following the war and only twenty-three in the next fifty years. The lower numbers of new camps can in part be attributed to a level of “camp saturation.” Changes in American society also had an effect on camping in the Adirondacks. Some camps changed their programs, and others simply closed. There were many new things for children to do in the summers — particularly organized sports. School programs became more specialized and rigorous, sometimes calling for more summer study. Increased opportunities for women were reflected in the programs of some girl’s camps.

Adirondack camps have tended to remain oriented towards nature and the outdoors. Some, like Tanager Lodge, have hardly changed at all, right up to the present. Campers there still play games outlined in Seton’s Birch-Bark Roll (1902). But most other camps added activities, particularly organized sports, often decreasing or de-emphasizing hiking and canoeing. In the 1950s Moss Lake Camp for Girls offered classical ballet, riding, dramatics, and sailing, and Camp Eagle Cove had enough boys playing baseball that it had its own Little League.

There were few specialty camps in the Adirondacks, camps that concentrated on one sport or skill. Of these few, music camps were the most numerous. At Deerwood Adirondack Music Center (1943-1957), practice studios were Adirondack lean-tos. Campers could further their formal education with New York State Regent’s Exam credit for some of their music classes. At the New York State Music Camp, (which began its life in a former hotel in Otter Lake in 1947 and outgrew it in 1955 and moved to Oneonta), alumnae remembered the drama that thunderstorms added to musical productions — until the thunderstorms completely knocked out the sound system.

Ever since the days of the French Recreation Class in Lake Placid, Adirondack girl’s camps have provided healthy, outdoor recreation and educational opportunities to girls in the belief that they needed them just as much as boys. In the 1950s, two Adirondack girls’ camps made a particular point of designing programs that prepared the campers to take significant roles in business and society. At Camp Greylock on Raquette Lake, senior girls were expected to study their copies of the Sunday New York Times and be prepared to discuss current events in the evening. It was a standing joke around Greylock that “boys like girls who can discuss nuclear proliferation, Vietnam, and integration.” Camp Navarac’s director, Sara Blum, used The Little Engine That Could as the basis of every final Sabbath service. Both camps were run by major figures in American Jewish life. Mrs. Blum was a legendary fundraiser for Jewish educational and philanthropic causes. Naomi Levine left Greylock in 1971 to become the executive director of the American Jewish Congress. She, like Mrs. Blum, closed her camp when she left rather than see it change direction.

Adirondack Camps Today

As we have seen, organized camping in the Adirondacks responded to changes in American society with changes in programs and specialized camps. But as a whole, camps in the region have always been traditional in their approach. The factors that have given Adirondack camps their character are its location and the land itself — the same factors that made the Adirondacks ideal for camp programs over a century ago.

The Adirondack landscape itself, as remote and rugged as it is, has helped keep organized camping in the region traditional. A system of region-wide land use planning, which began at almost the same time as organized camping, has kept development restrained and preserved large tracts of public land. This is a particular boon to camps with significant trip programs since there is so much wild land to explore. The Boy Scouts of America have been particularly involved in combining use of public land with camp lands. The national Trek training program got its start in the Adirondacks in the late 1970s as the Voyageur program, which trained guides for Scout groups planning trips through the region. The public can now use some Scout camp lands, as well, as a result of cooperative use agreements with the State of New York.
In 1932, Fred Hackett, founder and director of Camp Riverdale for Boys on Long Lake, rhapsodized on the virtues of his camp’s location.

“This square mile of wooded land stretching back from a mile and half of lake front, is a paradise for boys. Beauty reigns everywhere. . . . Nature rarely affords an outlook more inspiring. The surrounding woods with an infinite variety of forest life, are a constant source of wonder and of learning . . . .”

While Hackett was speaking of his own camp, his descriptions of the natural environment might apply to any number of camps in the Adirondacks. Although Camp Riverdale closed in 1964, the woods, waters, and mountains that inspired Hackett remain, helping to keep Adirondack camps focused on the relationship of campers with the natural world.

Hallie E. Bond, curator of “A Paradise for Boys and Girls,” has been curator at the Adirondack Museum since 1986. She holds a B.A. in history from the University of Colorado, an M.A. in medieval studies from the University of York (U.K.), and an M.A. in American history with a Certificate in Museum Studies from the University of Delaware, where she was a Hagley Fellow. She is the author of Boats and Boating in the Adirondacks (Syracuse University Press, 1995). The author is indebted to exhibit research by consultant Leslie Paris.

Originally published in the 2003 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.