Many summers ago, as a young cabin counselor with new campers and programming to do, the last thing on my mind was the history of organized camping. I had places to go and people to see — and besides "that was then; this was now!" Boy, did I have a lot to learn!

It wasn't until many years later that I became curious about the leaders who created a foundation for camp administration, the standards for camp practices, and who were the wonderful camps and directors that led the way. It was through my membership in the American Camp Association (ACA) — reading Camping Magazine, attending conferences, meeting icons in our field, and becoming a student of organized camping — that I developed an appreciation for the many contributions that enabled us to pursue our camp missions and a career in organized camping.

The lessons learned in this adventure were many and worth sharing. A profession evolves through communicators — the use of language, a significant body of knowledge, and research and its impact on society. Without this foundation, we become just another "fringe movement" that fades away. So as we celebrate one hundred years of ACA, it seems fitting to revisit our past and witness how far we have come and appreciate just how visionary our forefathers and foremothers were. According to Miranda (1987),

The American organized camping movement began in the late 1870s as an educational protest movement against certain features of an increasingly urbanized and industrial world. The "city" had become an artificial place of affluence, decadence, and danger. Led primarily by private schoolmasters, ministers, and physicians, the movement expressed a pervasive mood of loss and a tenacious belief that the "out-of-doors" was the key to deliverance.

The pioneers of organized camping set out to preserve self-reliance — the pioneering spirit and loyalty to ideals. Their focus was to provide a counter to the ills of city life for the development of young men. Using the organized camp, they not only introduced boys to rugged outdoor experiences, but also provided outstanding camp administrators as role models with "contagious personalities" (Miranda 1987).

We are indebted to Eleanor Eells who wrote the History of Organized Camping: The First 100 Years in 1986. With ACA's support, she provided a fascinating glimpse of the various periods of organized camping's development:
The Beginnings, 1861-1910
Camping as a Growing Vital Force, 1910-1918
The Period of Challenges, 1918-1945
The Period of Acceptance, 1945-1961

She begins with the pioneers such as Frederick William Gunn and the Gunnery Camp. William, a school headmaster, saw the value in taking his students on two-week camping trips. According to Eells (1986), Gunn believed "that vigorous hiking and year-round sports strengthened not merely muscle, nerve, and self-discipline, but developed a masculine character as well."

Eells (1986) goes on to describe Camp Chocorua founded by Ernest Balch in 1881. Balch was concerned about the existence of wealthy adolescent boys in the summer. His aim was to develop hardy, responsible, independent, and resourceful youth by providing no servants, no class distinctions, and no snobbery in his camp's small, democratic, sharing community. In 1886, Joseph Rockwell added diversity by founding a camp for "weakly boys." Having experienced illness himself as a young boy, he believed in the power of health and fitness and his desire to help other boys.

Although the early camps were founded in the North East for boys; the girls were not to be left out. Enter Laura Mattoon, founder and director of Camp Kehonka for girls in New Hampshire in 1902. Mattoon a private school teacher camped with her family in Canada as a young girl and learned firsthand the value of the outdoor experience. She created opportunities for her students to interact with the natural environment during a time in our society that did not afford this experience as appropriate for girls. She created bifurcated garments for girls so that they could move freely in the outdoors. As a trail blazer in organized camping, her ideas were often misunderstood or were met with some social resistance. However, Eells (1986) states,

"She understood the place that women were to occupy in the 20th century and that the camp experience would prepare them for it. Her ideas about camping, education, and a woman's role were in advance of her time."

Other camps serving girls made their appearance in 1902 as well. These included Camp Arey Pinelands of Center Harbor, Maine, and Wyonegonic Camps in Bridgton, Maine. Others quickly followed such as the Aloha Camps in 1905 and Alford Lake Camp in 1907, as well as the Gulick Wo-he-lo Camp in 1910 and the Girl Scouts in 1912. As the movement spread, 125 girls' camps were established by 1925 (Eells 1986).

It should be noted that while private camps were opening and experimenting with philosophy and methodology, social service agencies began to see the value of the camp experience. In 1871, the Fresh Air Movement developed to address the needs and challenges of the poor in cities. Children were sponsored by corporations to spend time away from the city and receive education in the outdoors. Camps created during this movement were Camp Algonquin in Illinois, Hiram House in Ohio, Holiday Home in Wisconsin, and Trailblazers (formerly Life Camps) in New Jersey (Eells 1986).

Early in the 1870s, the YWCA responded to changing social needs when young women were employed in city textile mills and factories. To address these needs, Camp Sea Rest was developed so these young women without financial means could get away for much needed rest and rejuvenation. The YWCA went on to develop conference centers, established labor education in camping centers for girls, and group camps for teens and younger girls. Abbie Graham and Catherine Hammett lent significant leadership during this time, not only for the YWCA, but also for development of ACA and camps in general.

YMCA Camp Dudley accepted boys regardless of color, creed, or ethnic background in 1885. Christian values were evident in practice, standards, and programming. Founded by Sumner Dudley, the YMCA camps became an important part of YMCAs not only in America but around the world (Eells 1986).

As camps grew in number and found acceptance by a variety of social welfare organizations, the movement continued to spread throughout the country. At the turn of the century, owners and camp directors were beginning to see the need to share information and compare their camp practices. Led by YMCA "Boys Work" leaders and private camp directors, much discussion ensued about the need for an association that met the needs of camp directors. More informal discussions occurred from 1902-1910. As an outgrowth of these attempts, Alan S. Williams, YMCA and private camp directors of boy's camps, formed the Camp Directors Association of America (CDAA).

The newly formed CDAA was a close group who prided its efforts toward standards of practice. Membership eligibility was limited to men and often with a probationary period attached. The CDAA held meetings to share best practice, hear outdoor education speakers, and promote the "best outdoor life for American youth (Sargent 1924 as quoted in Eells 1986)."

Directors of girls' camps also held meetings and shared the need to have a more formal structure to share ideas, programming methods, and standards. Since many of the directors were female, they were unable to join the CDAA because of the gender rule for admission. So in 1916, with leadership from Harriet Gulick, Florence Marshall, Charlotte Farnsworth, and Laura Mattoon, the National Association of Directors of Girls' Private Camps (NADGPG) was formed. Later, as more camps joined, "Private" was dropped and it became the National Association of Directors of Girls Camps (NADGC). Charlotte Gulick served as its first president and Laura Mattoon as secretary. The thrust of the NADGC was to emphasize the methods and best practices to educate girls for their future role in society as participating citizens.

Of particular note was the NADGC 1922 annual meeting. Dr. Charles Eliot, president emeritus of Harvard, gave a speech entitled "The Value of Camping." Laura Mattoon's notes of the speech follow below (Eells 1986):

  1. Camps are peculiarly fitted to improve the physique carriage and posture of young America, now so disgracefully ugly.
  2. Camps provide experience in the use of hand tools in arts and crafts shop.
  3. Camps give valuable training in powers of observation and accurate inference. Our education system lacks training in seeing straight, in describing accurately, and in drawing correct inferences.
  4. Camps develop in young people a capacity for enjoying the beauty of nature and the life in the open. This grows keener with age and gives greater satisfaction.
  5. The organized summer camp is the greatest contribution America has made to education.

Both the CDAA and the NADGC continued to meet separately to develop and promote camps. As society became more open to women's potential for work outside of the home, representatives of both began exploring mutual interests and a possible merger with each other. In 1924, after much discussion, the CDAA and the NADGC merged forces to create the Camp Directors Association (CDA). By joining together in this new structure, camp directors and leaders believed that they could become a "major" power to make the American public aware of the educational contributions of the camp experience to our children and country.

Dr. George Meylan was elected president and Laura Mattoon, secretary. Ms. Mattoon served as secretary from 1924-1930, and often when funds were low, she and her camp would finance operations. According to Eugene Lehman,

The Camp Directors Association was founded with the purpose of creating a professional organization of educators whose object it was to help make ourselves and also one another better camp directors. We were strictly to avoid any taint of commercialism or contact with any political or economic pressure group (Eells 1986).

During the rest of the 1920s, organized camps continued to spread across the country. The CDA attracted new interest from directors who created camp experiences for the differently-abled and program experimentation with troubled youth. Camping the forerunner of Camping Magazine appeared in 1926, and the Sargent Handbook containing information on individual camps was published. Agency camps developed in large numbers, and there was a desire to explore philosophy and methodology of the profession. This was a shift away from individualism and a move toward common interdependence and common interests.

These interests included topics such as:

  • What denotes a good program?
  • How can camp be adventuresome, yet safe?
  • How can leaders be trained in understanding youth, the environment, and programming?
  • How can camps be evaluated for evidence of approved health and safety standards?
  • What code of ethics should the camp director follow?
  • Can we operate a counselor placement service?
  • Can we document through research the values of camp?
  • How can the general public be made aware of the value of camp?
  • Just what is the contribution camp makes to education? (Eells 1986)

One response to moving toward these common interests and practices in 1930 was led by Dr. Hedley S. Dimock. As a dean of YMCA College in Chicago (later named George Williams College) and with assistance from other camp leaders, he launched a series of institutes in the role that camps played in the "character education" of the child. These institutes were ground breaking for the profession and camp directors from all over the country representing Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, private, social welfare, YMCA, and YWCA camps attended (Dimock, et al. 1930). These institutes continued to be well received and added to the discourse.

The continued search and discussion by camp directors for creating an organization that would address all needs proved to be illusive. Some wanted a federation of separate organizations, while others wanted an all-inclusive organization to represent all camps. Questions continued to swirl around who should belong, what ratio of agency/private camp directors should sit on the board, and where the office should be located. For many years the CDA would struggle with this internal division. At times, members would drop their membership and then come back again. Finally in 1935, the CDA became the American Camping Association.

As the American Camping Association developed, it was challenged with membership changes, World War II, economic conditions, and politics within the membership. Despite these challenges, the late 1940s and 1950s witnessed an increased public acceptance for organized camping. The Association and camp directors wrestled with philosophical discussion topics such as:

  • The "individual versus the group"
  • "Skill emphasis versus not skill emphasis"
  • "Decentralization versus Centralization"
  • "Outdoor living versus urban activities programming"
  • "Competitive versus non competitive" (Eells 1986)

During these post-war years L.B. Sharp, Louis Blumenthal, Hedley S. Dimock, Roy Sorenson, Lois Goodrich, and others led philosophical discussions on employing "the small-group-centered method " at camp. Directors experimented with philosophy and methods, and made claims about the value of organized camps. The camp movement thrived as the public embraced "camp" as the thing for children to do in the summer. It was not until the early sixties that the public began to hold camps accountable for the claims made (Eells 1986).

In the meantime, the American Camping Association continued to make headway. The war effort had brought agency and private camps closer together in championing "organized camp." However, the economic times created funding shortages and ACA almost ceased because of a lack of operating funds. Rev. W.E. Hall, who operated a mission for itinerants in Minneapolis, offered himself and his office to support ACA and it moved to Minneapolis. The next move was to Chicago with the support of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, area agencies, and ACA leaders.

Finally in 1955 with the assistance of Reynold Carlson, it leased land from Indiana University's Bradford Woods and built its own national office in Martinsville, Indiana (Eells 1986). During the 1940s and 1950s, organized camps continued to evolve and become more diverse. In 1948, ACA adopted Standards, which are the basis for ACA camp accreditation. The ACA Standards became recognized by courts of law and government regulators as the standards of the camp industry. Camps for special populations emerged, school camping and outdoor education gained recognition as an extension of the classroom, and the national park service with camp partners advocated conservation education. Colleges and universities became involved in offering classes and later degree programs and conducting research.

The need for racial integration became more apparent af ter World War II. According to Leslie Paris (2008), "in 1945 the ACA promoted intercultural, interracial, interclass, and interfaith camps as a means to build democratic character, tolerance, and acceptance of difference." However, it would take many more years, the civil unrest of the 1960s, and intentional camp director leadership before progress was made.

In the 1960s, ACA and the camp industry faced new challenges. Among these were the increased cost of rural properties for prospective camp owners, fewer children to fill camps because of an aging population, and a deep recession which led to parents not enrolling their children. As a result, many camps went out of business (Paris 2008).

The 1970s featured successful camps with noted reputations and specialized camps. Short-term camps enjoyed success, and long-term camps began rethinking the length of their sessions. The 1970s also rang in a new era of the rebellious youth culture. Youth were disillusioned with adults, war, and politics, and engaged in countercultural experimentation. This proved to be more challenging in working with camp staff. Camp directors and the ACA responded by creating and sharing new staff training methods and techniques through conferences and Camping Magazine (Paris 2008).

During the 1980s and beyond camps entered the electronic age. According to Paris (2008),

American society has become ever more urban, heterogeneous, and distanced from its preindustrial roots. Camps continue to make modernity more manageable by channeling it in new directions, even as they connect children to older traditions of community and nature appreciation. The specific details have changed. Whereas an earlier generation of camp leaders fretted about camp movie nights, today's camp directors consider whether to allow campers to bring cell phones to camp or to stay in touch with the outside world via e-mail or camp computers.

During the 1990s, ACA began to integrate education and youth development outcomes in all aspects of camp operations. Camp standards changed to reflect the nature of year-round camps. Both the camp industry and ACA membership continued to request research and data on camp practices and outcomes. In response, the ACA national office, in partnership with higher education, began writing grants to fund research on the impact of the "camp experience" on youth. And as a result in 2001, ACA was awarded a national research grant by the Lilly Endowment Inc. based in Indianapolis, Indiana, to conduct research to quantitatively assess the youth development outcomes of the camp experience. The research has been published, and a set of research assessment tools made available to camp directors. Data collection continues (American Camp Association 2009). According to Paris (2008),

From the late nineteenth century onward, camps have served as important staging grounds for the development and expression of modern childhood. These institutions emerged at a time when children were beginning to exert more cultural clout. Reformers worked to protect and improve them, retailers increasingly saw them as an important market for their goods and services, and in an age of greater child "preciousness" and decreasing child labor, many parents sought to forge more intimate and less coercive bonds with them. These three projects have been central to American adults' approach to childhood over the past century. Equally consistent over time is the idea that camps foster better health, community life, personal development, and skill building, while providing children some degree of protection from the problems, dangers, and differences of the outside world.

As society has changed in the 21st century, both the camp industry and ACA have continued to change to meet the challenges that surfaced. In 2005, ACA rolled out its new brand identity and changed its name to American Camp Association® to reflect its mission: enriching the lives of children, youth, and adults through the camp experience. It also launched its first national parent magazine, CAMP: A Resource for Families, and a family Web site in English and Spanish. ACA has also undertaken a new 20/20 Vision — a commitment to serve twenty million children by the year 2020. In order to achieve this vision, ACA has initiated an energetic public awareness campaign to take the "camp experience" message to the American public through public service videos, advertisements, and a national billboard campaign through a partnership with the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, Inc. Although many details are still being worked out within the organization, it enters 2010 knowing its past and celebrating the present and future.

As Laura Mattoon stated at the ACA golden anniversary celebration:

The future worthiness and importance of this Association depend upon the kind of program we prepare, and the success of this program, whether broad in its scope or not, rests with the contribution and spirit of each member. Therefore, let us all give to the Association those qualities that we strive unremittingly to develop in our campers: good fellowship, which demands sympathy; co-operation, that embodies service; teamwork, that calls for energy expended for the good of many; individual responsibility for the success of any project; self-control, which is first aid to harmony, and finally, a satisfactory enjoyment in all that we undertake (Eells 1986).

Happy 100th Anniversary, ACA!

Author's note: This article is dedicated to Mary Ennis, an amazing past ACA assistant to the executive director and volunteer ACA archivist, who through her example, dedication, and service gave so much to our Association's success for fifty-three years.

Rita Yerkes, Ed.D., is president of Yerkes Consulting LLC, which assists camps with strategic planning, staff training, and risk management. Contact the author at

American Camp Association. (2009). [cited 12 November 2009] Available from

Eells. E. (1986). History of Organized Camping: The First 100 Years. American Camp Association.

Miranda, W. (1987). "The Genteel Radicals," Camping Magazine. American Camp Association, February. p 12.

Paris, L. (2008). Children's Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp. New York University Press. New York.

Originally published in the 2010 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.