HEBRON -- At the turn of the last century, long before Learn Everywhere became a watchword, Boston educator Elizabeth Ford Holt was concerned that young men growing up in the city were missing out on the important life lessons found in nature.
She found inspiration from Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Book” stories in which an orphaned boy named Mowgli is raised by a wolf pack and learns from native animals about trust, teamwork, patience, leadership, empathy, self-reliance, and kindness.
Holt wrote to Kipling and asked for permission to use a slightly altered version of the lead character’s name and in 1903 launched the Mowglis School for the Open on a 65-acre working farm on the shores of Newfound Lake. The author agreed, and maintained a lifelong interest in Camp Mowglis, which will complete its 116th summer season Aug. 11.
Last month, the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources announced that the camp has been named to the National Register of Historic Places, both for its contributions to the development of summer recreational camps and its architecture.
Camp Director Nick Robbins said preparing the needed documentation to secure the nomination took four years and the contributions of many people, but brings fitting recognition to its storied past.
A number of the camp’s rustic buildings share similar architectural features including gable roofs, porches, board and batten siding, brick chimneys, grid-patterned railings and multi-paned window sashes. Many are named for “Jungle Book” characters or settings including Mang, Kaa, Hathi and Waingunga. The recreational hall for the youngest “cub” campers, ages 7-9, is named for Kipling.
The camp’s lodge, outdoor chapel, craft shop, ice house, woodshed, pump house, chapel, rifle range, assembly hall, tennis courts and athletic fields all contribute to its historic significance. Most were built before World War II.
The six dormitory buildings each sleep 24 campers. All have a writing porch, a wash porch, windows along the eaves, and trap doors to ease disposal of floor sweepings. They carry such names as Toomai, Baloo and Akela. The most revered “Den” is named in homage to the home of the Pack.
Visitors can readily spot evidence of the camp’s early roots. Step inside “Jungle House” — the main headquarters, built in 1830 and one of the three buildings on the property when it was purchased by Holt — and you’ll find original copies of “The Howl,” the camp yearbook dating back to 1917.
Each Sunday, campers (ages 7-15) write reflections of their week that are published at summer’s end along with the results of hotly contested crew boat races.
The lessons in confidence, teamwork and sportsmanship learned at the oars, Robbins said, culminate in Crew Day Races in front of parents and alumni.
Mowglis’ history is dotted with tales of underdogs outrowing a heavily favored crew, only because the teamwork and unity of the oarsmen in the “lesser” boat made it faster than the physically stronger but disjointed crew they were racing against.
K. Robert Bengtson, who runs the camp’s well-equipped woodworking shop, recounted that his first summer as a camper he was so homesick he pledged never to return. Fifty-two years later, he has never missed a summer, including six years as Mowglis’ director.
Charlie Walbridge, who first came to camp 60 years ago, said the curriculum put into place by Col. Alcott Farrar Elwell, who trained troops for World War I, has stood the test of time. The program called “Industries” awards ribbons for successfully completing learned skills — like archery, axmanship, woodworking or riflery — based on a natural progression of experiences. After earning four ribbons at a particular “industry” a camper is inducted into the Inner Circle during special ceremonies and is given the privilege of occupying a chair closest to the campfire.
Walbridge learned to canoe at Mowglis and went on to become a nationally-known whitewater safety expert with 45 years of river-running experience.
“They want to learn to do real things. Video games are fun, but they aren’t the same as climbing a mountain or swinging an ax,” he said.
Robbins credits three factors for Camp Mowglis’ success: “It’s people, the place, and the program.”
Among the perks of his job, Robbins said, is hearing parents recount being stunned when upon returning home from camp their son made his bed, and was saying “please” and “thank you.” The most rewarding thing, Robbins said, is watching a new camper struggle early on and then, over the course of seven weeks, become both comfortable and confident an experience they will carry forward into the rest of their life.
In 1925, Holt passed the camp to Col. Elwell, her longtime assistant, who ran it for 27 years. Upon Elwell’s retirement, Darwin Kingsley and John Adams took over operations for five years. In 1962, the Holt-Elwell Memorial Foundation was established to acquire the camp and operate it as a nonprofit. Each year more than $100,000 in scholarships are awarded, according to Robbins, allowing campers from all walks of life to attend.