The Regional Review

Volume IV - Nos. 4 & 5

April-May, 1940

Organized Camping, Past and Present by Julian H. Salomon

C AMPING is an American tradition. From the earliest settlements down through pioneer days, as long as there was a frontier, Americans camped of necessity; and from early times they camped also for recreation. Families from widely scattered farms came together for a few days in camp for reunions and political or religious gatherings. Even though the program of the religious assemblies might include three or four two-hour sermons a day, there was always time for many other activities which could be classified only under the head of recreation. Some of these camp meetings are the oldest in the country. Here is a brief description of one that flourished in South Carolina more than a century ago:

light life-ring

"The Indian Field Methodist Campground was founded in 1800 and moved to its present site in 1838. The camp is a clearing in a pine grove. In the center is a large 'arbor' or auditorium, a sideless building with a capacity of 1200 people. All around it are rough board huts used as sleeping quarters. At intervals are pumps furnishing drinking and cooking water. In the circle between the cabins and the central buildings are a series of 'flambeaus'. These are stands about six feet high, topped with metal on which fires are made with lightwood pine knots to light up the campground. A few years ago one of the members donated and installed an electric light plant but the bright lights spoiled the quaint effect of the camp so the wires were removed and pine knots still flicker over the camp as they have done from the beginning. Every autumn hundreds of Methodists gather here for revival meetings. There are three or four sermons on week days and four or five on Sundays."1

(click to see an original copy of the first page of this article)

In this account is to be found a partial outline of the history of camp development in America: the simple and primitive beginning; the coming of modern improvements, and the turning back toward primitive simplicity.

Camps for boys and girls as we know them today probably had their origins in the period immediately after the War Between the States. Some accounts have come down to us from that time of school boys and their masters who went on wagon trips and short campouts that were inspired by the spirit of adventure and outdoor living brought on by the war. A great shift of population from the country to the city also began at that time. With the shift toward city life began a "back to nature" movement led by those interested in health, education and outdoor recreation.

By 1880, 25 per cent of the population was living in cities. From that year to 1900 the outdoor movement made rapid advances and the first organized camps fashioned on modern lines came into being. Camp Chocorua, founded by Ernest Balch in 1881 and located on Lake Asquam, in New Hampshire, is considered generally to be the first camp conducted as are our camps of today. The director, then a student at Dartmouth, sought to provide for youths from wealthy families a better way of spending their school vacations than lolling about summer hotels, as was then the custom. His camp continued nine years. Many of his campers and leaders started camps of their own in the years following. In this way the modern camping movement came into being.


A sharp contrast with organized camping methods, facilities and activities of the past is provided by the model centers developed by the National Park Service in its Recreational Demonstration Areas, which are distributed geographically throughout the nation. The top photograph shows some Girl Scouts at one of the sleeping cabins in the Montgomery Bell area, Tennessee. At the lower left is seen a camping group engaged in sketching at Hickory Run, Pennsylvania, and at the right is a child receiving speech correction training at a camp conducted by the Pennsylvania Teachers College at the Laurel Hill area.

Camp Chocorua was organized on simple and primitive lines. The campers cooked their own meals and did all the other camp work. They lived in tents and built most of their camp structures and equipment. Here are some of Balch's ideas and methods as he described them:

The first theory was that there should be no servants in camp; that camp work must all be done by the boys and faculty. Another was that the boys must be trained to master the lake . . . A systematic and complex plan was thought out to provide safety for the boys and teach them swimming, diving, boatwork, canoeing, and sailing.

A third idea which began the second year was to teach the boys the use of money. Practically all of them were sons of well-to-do people. A few of them were sons of wealthy parents and had a vague conception of money and somewhat snobbish tendencies. I designed the camp to be of a really democratic spirit . . . We began with clothes --- as soon as possible a uniform was prescribed for full dress and a standard set for camp accessories.

The best method of teaching the value of money to a boy is to have him earn what he needs for his pleasures. Very early the rule was made that each boy had an allowance of twenty-five cents a week, with a total of two dollars and half for the summer. . . .If he wished he could draw it weekly and throw it into the lake. It was his.... Except for his allowance he could not receive a cent as a gift during the summer nor use any money at camp saved or owned by him unless he has earned it at regular working rates.2

In another article written while the camp was still in operation we find a statement which indicates that in its leadership the camp had achieved an ideal which many of us still seek today:

"Freedom without license" might almost be the camp motto, so careless, happy and untrammeled were the lads, yet so perfect is the discipline. One of the first principles of the camp system is that in every way the faculty shall live the same lives as the boys themselves, sharing their work as well as their pleasures; the spirit existing between the two is therefore far less that of master and pupil than that of good comrades who are at the same time helpful friends.3

This "past and present" sequence on Recreational Demonstration Areas was made possible when a young camper at Cuivre River, Missouri, donned the beach attire of grandmother's day as a feature of a costume party, while the girl at Blue Knob, Pennsylvania, posed in a typical suit of today.

Following closely this first private camp came the first organization camp, Camp Dudley of the Young Men's Christian Association, founded in 1885; and the first fresh-air camp for slum children, Life's Camp, founded by Life Magazine in 1887. Both of these camps have continued to operate since that time and are therefore the oldest children's camps in continuous existence.

wallet making
Eight chapters in the making of a wallet are shown in this series of photographs made in an organized camp at Laurel Hill Recreational Demonstration Area, Pennsylvania. Top to bottom: 1. Cutting the pattern; 2. Cutting the leather; 3 and 4. Marking the holes; 5. Pasting the parts together; 6. Cutting the holes; 7. Putting in the lacing, and 8. Finished product.

The turn of the century marked the beginning of the next major period of growth in camping which came with the founding of the great outdoor youth organizations. One of the earliest was the Seton or Woodcraft Indians founded by Ernest Thompson Seton about 1902. Mr. Seton had written numerous articles on nature and outdoor life, and these brought him a stream of correspondence from boys who wished to camp out. He also had acquired a large estate in Connecticut where the neighbor boys, who formerly had used his land for a camp and playground, caused him no little trouble through trespassing and mischief. In an attempt to solve the problem he established a camp to which young neighbors and some of his correspondents were invited. It was organized along the lines of an Indian tribe with boy leaders, and with a program based on achieving honors in a great variety of outdoor activities. Out of this camp grew the organization later known as the Woodcraft League. To Seton we owe many ideas that have made camping colorful and romantic, such as the council ring and Indian fire-making and handicrafts.

Three years later Dan Beard, then editor of Recreation, established the sons of Daniel Boone which also had outdoor life and camping as its program, using the early American pioneer and backwoodsman to lend color. These two organizations and the writings of their founders aroused the interest of American young people in outdoor life and particularly in camping.

In a camp in England in 1908, Sir Robert S. S. Baden-Powell founded the Boy Scouts, shaping the organization in accordance with his experiences with the Army in South Africa and on the earlier experiments of Seton, Beard and others. Camping was given a prominent place in this organization which was designed to serve boys from 12 to 16 years of age. The movement was introduced into this country in 1910 with the founding of the Boy Scouts of America. In a short time it was followed by the Camp Fire Girls and Girl Scouts. Camping is so important in these programs that it has been said that "Scouting is Camping". The strong emphasis on camping led to the establishment of scout camps throughout the country. They were operated at low cost so that camping experience, which hitherto had been available chiefly to children of the wealthy, was made possible for the great middle class. Today these youth organizations are our largest camping group.

The expansion of opportunities for camping that began with the youth organization camps has continued to the present time, and many other agencies have contributed to the growth. The 4-H Clubs and the Future Farmers have brought camping to rural groups. Camps sponsored by churches and religious organizations also have had a recent rapid growth. School camps, municipal camps and those operated by other public agencies have come into being, although their number is small and their rate of increase quite slow. Camps are sponsored today by a great variety of agencies representing every aspect of our national life. These camps cover a wide range of age groups, and a noticeable present trend is toward upward and downward extension of the camp age. More camps for younger children and for families and adults are coming into being.

The variety of camps ins paralleled by a variety of camp practices and programs. The earlier camps made camping itself the chief objective. Simple life in the woods --- cooking meals over open fires, sleeping under canvas, fishing, and learning something of the art of woodcraft --- comprised the entire program and was an end in itself. In the next period, rewards in terms of physical health, the mastering of skills in organized sports, and character development were expected as results of camp experience. During that phase the emphasis was on physical activity. Desired educational results were assumed to come naturally as by-products of the set program that allowed no idle moments.

In recent years camping has entered a third phase that is deliberately and critically educational. The values of the camp movement for education in social living, personality, character, and health development are now more generally known. At the same time a camping-educational literature has been developed that has led to a better understanding of the means by which objectives in these terms could be achieved. The new methods have brought a return to many of the informal ways and activities of the early camps, while leading away from large groups, highly organized programs, set time schedules, intense competition, and systems of rewards and honors.

While these three phases may be cited to indicate the general evolution of camping, it should be observed that our camps today are in various stages of development and that they vary greatly in objectives, programs, physical equipment, and leadership. Camps in the average community appear to fit into three classifications.

First there are many private and organization camps whose practices are at a high level. Through long experience covering a wide field they have developed well informed and well-trained leadership. Their programs are broad and well balanced, and include mainly those activities which are suitable to a natural outdoor environment. They also have developed minimum standards for camping which, in the national organizations, are enforced in all camps. These camps cooperate in training leaders, in conducting studies and research, and in promoting camping generally through their affiliation with local and national camping councils and associations.

In the second group are the camps which are generally local enterprises and which own or rent their camp sites. Their objectives are generally purely recreational or sometimes educational, with emphasis on religious or vocational training. Little attempt is made to adapt activities to the environment, and programs are not well balanced. Campers are handled as a mass and have little or no share in program planning. The leaders lack specific training for camp leadership and are often entirely unfamiliar with conditions and practices desirable for successful camp operation.

The camps in the third classification are those that fail to provide leadership and equipment necessary to guarantee the safety and health of the campers. These camps come into being through the desire of individuals and organizations to carry out a camping program without realizing what is necessary in the way of finnance, leadership, and equipment. Camps of this type are a hazard to the children who attend them and to the entire camping movement.

Within these three classifications are found camps of many types. There are camps for boys, girls, boys and girls, family camps, private camps, organization camps, and camps which specialize in a single, activity, such as music or dancing. There also are camps for the ill and physically handicapped, such as those for crippled, deaf, cardiac and diabetic children. Camps for speech correction and psychiatric cases are among the newcomers in this field. These recognize and take advantage of the controlled situation and opportunities for social adjustment and simple living that are inherent in camp conditions.

Public camps include those conducted by municipalities and counties, public school systems, and the Future Farmers and 4-H Clubs. In one instance a state agency, the South Carolina State Commission of Forestry, conducts two camps. Federal activities centering in the National Park Service, through its Recreational Demonstration Areas, and in the United States Forest Service consist chiefly in supplying needed camping facilities. The Work Projects Administration conducts camps in cooperation with other agencies, and camps of the Future Farmers and 4-H Clubs likewise are federal-local cooperative enterprises. The promotion and sometimes the direction of these camps are carried out by federal officials, but the sites and operating expenses are provided by the local group.

In addition to these differences in constituency and sponsorship, camps differ also in the backgrounds from which they draw color and romance for their programs. These differences are mainly sectional. Thus in the north woods the pioneer, trapper, backwoodsman and Indian contribute activities, equipment and decorations. On the coast these are supplanted by things of the sea and ships, while in the far west the cowboy and his horse and saddle are used to appeal to the imagination of campers.

Despite the various differences mentioned, good camps are basically the same wherever they may exist. In them always are leaders whose underlying purpose is the guidance of children toward more effective living and a program of activities suitable to the environment and based on the interests of the campers. Here the physical well-being of the child is provided for and opportunities for the development and expression of spiritual qualities are not forgotten.


(1) Park, Parkway and Recreational-Area Study: South Carolina, Supplementary Report, May, 1939.

(2) E. B. Balch, "The First Camp Chocorua." Summer Camps, 1924.

(3) Elizabeth Balch, "A Boys Paradise." St. Nicholas, June, 1886.

<<< Previous
> Contents <
Next >>>
Date: 04-Jul-2002