The camp experience: An American tradition was born around a NH campfire

Sunday News Correspondent
May 26. 2018 10:38PM
Cynthia Robinson, director of the Museum of the White Mountains in Plymouth, holds a copy of the catalog for the 2017 exhibit on New Hampshire summer camps she co-curated. She will recount the history and the lasting legacy of summer camps during Thursday talk in Meredith. (BEA LEWIS/SUNDAY NEWS CORRESPONDENT)

Sitting around a campfire with friends on the shore of Squam Lake in 1880, Ernest Balch, a recent Dartmouth dropout, came up with an idea that would help shape the lives of millions of American young people.

In those days, New Hampshire’s White Mountains were becoming a tourist destination, catering to the wealthy elites of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Balch’s view was that the children of those families were being harmed by being kept in tow while their parents enjoyed the luxury of fashionable resorts.

Balch envisioned a different kind of resort for those kids — one where boys, in particular, could learn self-governance, the value of money, and a strong work ethic, while still experiencing fun and adventure.

In 1882, Balch founded a camp on Squam Lake’s Chocorua Island. His campers cleared trails, built cabins and canoes, cooked meals and washed dishes.

That model — of young people going away for an extended period in the summer to live in a rustic environment where their physical activity and adventures taught them lessons they could not learn in the traditional academic classroom — quickly caught on.

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Campers from Camp Mowglis in Hebron go for an early-morning paddle on Newfound Lake. (Camp Mowglis)

Cynthia Robinson, director of the Museum of the White Mountains at Plymouth State University, co-curated an exhibit on New Hampshire’s summer camps at the museum last year. She will recount their lasting legacy in a talk hosted the Lake Winnipesaukee Association and the New Hampshire Lakes Association on Thursday in Meredith. 

The program, part of the 2018 Lakes Congress, begins at 7 p.m. at the Carriage House at Church Landing. The talk is open to the public for a $5 fee. (Reservations are required; go to

Research for the Plymouth State exhibit and subsequent lectures was done by Paul Hutchinson, who earned his Ph.D. in American and New England Studies at Boston University. His dissertation traced the roots of the summer camp movement in nineteenth century America.

As part of the exhibit, one of Hutchinson’s students, Max Peterson, was tasked with making 15 video and audio recordings of people’s summer camp memories. But the memories and the photos proved so rich, Peterson spent more than a year on the project.

“They are glorious. Those voices are testimony to the impact of these camps,” Robinson said.

Interview subjects ranged in age from 60 to 80 and they vividly shared stories of how a summer (or multiple summers) at camp changed the direction of their lives.

One man recalled his mother putting him and his brother on a bus in Boston to spend the summer living in the wilderness of New Hampshire at golf caddie camp. 

And, “he said, ‘I’ve waited 50 years to retire to the place where I went to camp,’” Robinson recounted.

The man said several of his friends, all from a rough South Boston neighborhood, learned how to be responsible and discovered the significance of making money. Robinson said the camper recounted that the experience kept at least two of his friends from ending up in jail.

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Campers from Camp Pemigewassett in Wentworth hit the trail to ascend Mount Cube. (Courtesy of Camp Pemigewassett)

While there is an ongoing dispute as to what camp is the oldest, Robinson said, there is no doubt they were plentiful. As part of the research for the project, they identified 450 overnight camps that existed in the White Mountains and Newfound/Squam lakes area. They included caddie camps but excluded other specialty sports camps.

They all shared themes, traditions, and a variety of activities ranging from swimming, sailing and archery to woodcraft, archery and theater. 

Many former campers spoke of the challenge of learning a new skill and the joy of a shared celebration when they overcame self-doubt and passed a challenge test or earned a merit badge. Others spoke of the fear of the unknown that turned into love for a new home.

“You look at the old pictures, and campers are doing the same things they are doing today. The experience of nature, the experience of community still resonates today,” Robinson said. 

Among the things she learned while preparing for the exhibit was that the military feel of the camps is because their layout mimicked Civil War encampments that were designed to give battle-weary troops a feeling of coming back to home base.
In continuous operation since 1895, Camp Pasquaney, on Newfound Lake in Hebron, is one of the oldest summer camps in the nation. It hosts a single seven-week session for boys each year. (Courtesy of Camp Pasquaney)

Many of the summer camps of the Progressive Era began as remote campuses for some of America’s top schools. They served to broaden students’ learning and to prepare campers for life beyond the classroom. Many camps drew their staff of counselors from Ivy League schools, helping them become boot camps for college life. 

The Groton School Camp opened as an outreach project of the Groton School’s Missionary Society in 1893. The aim of the Groton School Camp was to join the wealthy elite students of the Groton School and the rough and ragged “street urchins” of Boston’s tenements. 

As a student at Groton, a young Franklin Delano Roosevelt learned formative lessons about the common ground between people at the Groton School Camp, an experience that Robinson believes played a role in his New Deal programs as President.

“It opened his eyes to the everyday man who didn’t have butler but were nice people and needed the same things that we all do,” Robinson said.
Camp Hale, located on Squam Lake in Sandwich, was founded in 1900 to serve inner-city boys from Boston. The camp established a session for girls in 2012. (Photo Courtesy of Camp Hale – United South End Settlements & Northeastern University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections.)

While the idea of summer camp came about in the 19th century, it maintains a robust 21st-century appeal. The American Camping Association reports more than 8 million children go to summer camp nationwide each year, with 82 percent of camps reporting in 2015 that enrollment was either steady or climbing.


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