The Camps

A decade ago, somewhat by chance, I started collecting postcards of Camp Fire Girls’ camps. I was searching eBay for copies of the Camp Fire Girls’ magazine, Everygirl’s when I found the first camp postcard and before long I had enough cards to start organizing them by camp and grouping the camps by state.

Concurrently I was collecting data about the number and names of Camp Fire Girls’ camps throughout the United States. This project started when I recalled an event from my first summer as a counselor at Yenis Hante. That summer, 1966, enrollment for the last camp session was so low that the director had to send half the staff home. I remembered the meeting when she told us that the Camp Fire staff had been calling camps all over southern California, looking for positions for these unneeded counselors, but all were suffering from the same problem of declining enrollment. Declining resident camp participation continued for the final decades of the century. As the baby boom grew up camp enrollment and school enrollments declined. At the same time, more mothers were working so fewer were free to lead the Blue Bird and Camp Fire groups which had always depended upon volunteers. In A Manufactured Wilderness Abigail Van Slyck notes that “By about 1960. . . traditional camps seemed to be on the decline, outpaced by camps teaching special skills and eventually outnumbered by day camps (which often function as summertime day care centers for school-age children). Although traditional camps began to enjoy a renaissance in the late twentieth century, camp – a term now used to describe any summer experience for youngsters – plays a somewhat different role in American life.” [1]

The initial purpose of my data collection was to examine the decline of summer camps but it also complemented my postcard collection, showing where and when Camp Fire Girls had been the most popular and successful. Libraries provided early editions of Porter Sargent’s A Handbook of Summer Camps and the American Camping Association’s Directory of Accredited Camps for later years. Although I did not have access to directories for every year, I was able to compile a list of over three-hundred Camp Fire Girls camps located in forty-three states. Some camps were ephemeral, a few tents, a fire circle in a clearing, and a name, in a borrowed campsite for a week or two, or a couple of summers. Others lasted ten, fifteen or fifty years. Eventually some were sold or given to other groups or to private owners.

Allegheny State park - girls on logs

Compiling a complete and accurate list of all the Camp Fire Girls’ camps would be impossible even if libraries had directories for every year. Not all camps were accredited and directories can have errors. The names of camps sometimes change and may be inconsistently spelled. Camps moved but kept the same name. In the 1920s some camps were simply called “Camp Fire Girls Camp” Sometimes a camp moved and kept the same name, or the name of the post office or nearest town associated with a camp changed.

Allegheny State park - tents

Most Camp Fire Girls’ camps have been located within or near their Camp Fire councils; almost always they are in the same states. Camps in different states include the Spokane, Washington camp, Sweyolakan, on Lake Coeur d’Alene in Idaho, Camp Trowbridge, in Vergas, Minnesota which was sponsored by the Fargo, North Dakota Camp Fire council and Chicago’s Kiwanis Nawakwa in South Haven, Michigan.

In his 1924 Handbook of Summer Camps Porter Sargent explains that the Camp Fire program “grew up in private camps. The organization has been developed by private camp leaders and the program of the organization is followed in many private camps today.” [2] The directory lists twenty camps sponsored by Camp Fire Girls’ councils in thirteen states. In some places, such as Cleveland, Ohio and Detroit, Michigan the Camp Fire Girls were using municipal camps. Others had names like “Camp Fire Girls Camp, Augusta” (Georgia) or “Des Moines Camp Fire Girls Camp.” Nebraska’s “Kiwanis Camp” at Milford, Nebraska, sponsored by the Lincoln Camp Fire Council and “Camp Kiwanis” with a Lincoln mailing address are probably the same camp, owned by the Kiwanis and used by Camp Fire Girls and other youth groups for any years.

Boat Landing, Camp Kiwanis (Nebraska)

Good Times Camp Kiwanis (canoeing - Nebraska)

The Boston Camp Fire Girls Camp, at Hanson, Massachusetts probably became Camp Kiwanis, later called Camp Kiwanee. (The number of Camp Fire Girls’ camps called Camp Kiwanis is some indication of how important the Kiwanis club was in the founding of Camp Fire Girls camps.) Among the twenty camps in this list are three on the west coast, California’s Minkalo, Oregon’s Namanu and Washington’s Sealth. A year later more than twice as many camps were listed in twenty states. This may reflect better data collection as well as Camp Fire’s growth. By 1935 Sargent’s Handbook of Summer Camps listed ninety-six Camp Fire Girls’ camps in thirty states.

Today Camp Fire councils sponsor fewer than three dozen resident summer camps in twenty states. Not quite a score of these can trace their history back as far as the 1940s. A dozen were established in the 1920s. Postcards provide glimpses of these Camp Fire Girls camps, and sometimes messages from long ago campers.

[1] Van Slyck, Abigail A. A Manufactured Wilderness :Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth, 1890-1960. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. p. xxvii.

[2] Sargent, Porter A Handbook of Sumer Camps: An Annual Survey 1924 Boston, Massachusetts, Porter Sargent, 1924. P. 97