Camp Arcadia: A Century of Family Values but Adaptable to Change

Anne Henderson Fritts
July 2015

I grew up at Camp Arcadia. I was so excited to finally be a real camper in 1942. My mother, Juliette Meylan Henderson, called Mum Mum by everyone, was directing the camp with her father, Dr. George Meylan. Arcadia, a camp for girls, had been started in 1916 and my grandfather, who already owned a boys’ camp, bought it in 1920.

Now, years later, as I have watched the pendulum swing from one year’s interests to the next, I am proud to say the values and objectives my grandfather and mother saw as critical to educating children remain as relevant today even if some of the ways we put them into effect have changed.

Grandpa Meylan grew up in New York City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is considered one of the founders of the camping movement in the United States. He was educated at a time of social change in America — increasing industrialization, urbanization, and immigration — a time when large numbers of Americans moved into the city from the countryside.

He, like many other educators, physicians, and parents during that time, was concerned about the moral and physical effects of urban living on children.

Dr. Meylan believed that being in nature would strengthen young bodies and build opportunities for companionship and attitudes of tolerance and respect for others. He believed a camp community would foster leadership, democracy, habits of simple living, and a sense of duty and responsibility.

And he was not alone: In 1922, the 40-year president of Harvard University, Charles W. Eliot, said, “The organized summer camp is the most important step in education that America has given the world.”

My mother believed that with “thoughtfully planned outdoor influences” the modern girl (in the 1920s) could become self-reliant and self-disciplined.

The values and mission of Camp Arcadia have remained the same from the beginning:

  • To build confidence and skills so that a girl may take her place in and contribute to her community.
  • To encourage positive risk taking through the exploration of new areas of learning and group living so she will have the confidence to face new situations and circum-stances with strength and not fear.
  • To create a sensitivity to and awareness of the importance of nature so she will respect and take care of living things and the environment.
  • To develop interpersonal skills, to establish lasting friendships and respect for others — skills she can use throughout life. The use of “life skills” will help her play, learn, and develop solid, positive relationships with others.

Following these principals, Mum Mum developed a program that encouraged the campers to enjoy the activities they already liked and knew, and to try new arts and sports to which they had not previously been exposed. The program focused on skills necessary to live in the outdoors — boating, campcraft, canoeing, and swimming — and also a selection of arts and other sports. This combination of individual aspiration and motivation continues to be a source of achievement for Arcadia campers to this day.

Special traditions such as the Opening and Closing Candlelight ceremonies, Introduction Night, the Fourth of July, and many others were developed early on and remain an important part of camp. They created a sense of belonging and closeness among generations of campers.

But with all of our ties to the early years, some of the experiences of camp have changed with the times.

With the publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson’s Silent Springs, an environmental awareness movement swept the United States. Camps all over took a harder look at how they could aid in the preservation of the natural world.

When I was a camper, we had Sunday afternoon Arcadia Beach Club when everyone would go to the lake and wash their hair and themselves in the lake. New knowledge in the second part of the 20th century led us to stop this practice to protect our lake. Likewise we learned that oil and gas from motor boats polluted our lake and we sadly stopped waterskiing. In the 1970s to 2000 we trained our campers in how to preserve the environment on our canoe and hiking trips. “No trace left behind” became our motto.

Joining me in 2000, my daughter, Louise Fritts Johnson, became a fourth generation director of the camp. We have continued to adapt and change and to teach campers about conservation. We have extended our trip program to new wilderness areas in Maine and New Hampshire. We started composting with just a few campers, and now all our campers compost during their stay. We have started our own small garden in which we use the compost. We use some of the harvest from the garden in our new program “Dirt to Dessert,” where the children cook outside. We no longer use paper plates or plastic cups when we eat outside, and we recycle from every cabin.

Reacting to what children want today, our activity program has also changed. While photography, with the advent of the digital camera, is no longer offered, we have added knitting, a ropes course, kayaking, and paddle boarding.

Technology, too, has affected our lives. We delight in the connections social media and the Internet afford us in communicating with our campers, our parents, and our alumni — and them in communicating among themselves during the “off” months. But we are technology-free as much as possible during the season — no cell phones or other technological devices for campers.Reflecting on my experiences, I marvel at how our camp has evolved, developing and sustaining our goals over the years while at the same time addressing the environmental issues that have emerged and changing our program to address the interests of our campers.Our past, we believe, foreshadows our future. We will continue with our goals, changing as appropriate to meet the opportunities and challenges of the ever-changing times.

Anne Henderson Fritts is a long-term camper, counselor, director, operator, and owner of Camp Arcadia for Girls in Casco, Maine.