California: Camp Minkalo

 

The Sierra Nevada mountains will always be a magic place. When I was growing up we would get in our car, or board a bus, in the hot, flat Central Valley and drive and drive, and then, finally, get out into a cool, shady forest of towering conifers, filled with the scent of sun-warmed pine.

My mountain days began when I was two months old, so I was well imprinted with pine forests by the time I went to Yenis Hante for the first time. The quintessential Camp Fire Girls’ camp is in the Sierra Nevada, where we could sleep outdoors every night for an entire summer, after sunny days among the pines, firs and cedars.

I have never visited Camp Minkalo, but I have a postcard that evokes the enchantment of a Sierra Nevada summer. The card shows sailboats, water, and granite rocks; behind them is a large building with a stone chimney. Another Minkalo card also shows boats, water, rocks and lodge but the color is unnatural and it lacks the beauty of the first card.

 

Minkalo 1
A postcard view of Camp Minkalo

Minkalo was one the earliest permanent Camp Fire Girls’ camps. However, before a permanent camp was established on Silver Lake, the Stockton Camp Fire Girls camped in several different places, calling each Camp Minkalo. These camps are recorded in four brown paper books preserved in the Holt-Atherton Special Collections of the University of the Pacific.

The first book, dated 1919, was written, and decorated by the girls and counselors at camp that year. For this camp, in August 1919, the girls traveled to the South Fork of the Tuolumne River, not far from Yosemite Valley. One day they visited Hetch Hetchy where the controversial dam was being built. They do not mention John Muir or the controversy over Hetch Hetchy.

On the evening of the tenth day, August 8, 1919, the name Minkalo, Meaning “Mountain Inn of the Starry Sky” was selected. [1] The girls conclude the record of their two-week camp with the words:

Tribute warm, sincere and tender

Do they bring to leaders splendid—

Mrs. Swenson, the great-hearted, Mother, sister, leader, friend,

With her strong and patient chieftain

Ever ready by her side;

To the citizens of Stockton, who in gifts

In time, in thought, forget self

In deeds of service, Made the

Way of Wohelo a pleasant path

To be remembered as the years may come and go. [2]

The name Camp Minkalo traveled with the Camp Fire Girls to Tomales Bay in Marin County in 1920 and 1921 and then to Silver Lake in 1922. [3]

Stella Swenson, the camp director praised in the conclusion of the camp record, was twenty-nine years old in the summer of 1919. A native of Nebraska, she and her husband Bert had first moved to River Falls, Wisconsin where she taught in the state normal school and became involved with the Camp Fire Girls, and where her son Harold was born in September 1915. [4] In 1918 the family moved to Stockton where Bert was Superintendent of City Playgrounds. Their daughter Helen Jean was born in September 1918, making her almost a year old when Stella Swenson directed the first Camp Minkalo. The camp record does not mention a baby, although babies spent summers at both Camp Sebago-Wohelo and Camp Sealth, and “babycraft” was part of the Camp Fire Girls’ program. In September 1925 the Oakland Tribune gave Stella Swenson credit for bringing Camp Fire to California. [5] This might be difficult to prove, however, Stella Swenson helped the Stockton Camp Fire Girls become leaders in California. The following May a national convention of Camp Fire Girls executives was held in Stockton. [6]

Everygirl's Minkalo 1
This photo and caption appeared in the April 1926 Everygirl’s, a magazine published for Camp Fire Girls.

 

Bert Swenson was among those who helped arrange for the City of Stockton to lease 30.2 acres of Forest Service land to use as a public family camp. Another member of this group was Edith Tubbs, a graduate of the River Falls State Normal School, whom the Swensons had encouraged to come to Stockton. She would also serve as director of Camp Minkalo.

Everygirl's Minkalo 2
A second photo and caption which appeared in the April 1926 Everygirl’s

In July 1922 when Camp Minkalo came to Silver Lake the Camp Fire Girls opened the new Stockton Municipal Camp on the south end of the lake. The Oakland Tribune reported that the 150 girls from Stockton and twelve girls from Lodi were “under the chaperonage of Miss Edith Tubbs, San Joaquin county Camp Fire Girl executive. Mrs. Stella S. Swenson, manager of the municipal camp, is in supreme charge,” and continued “The girls will occupy the camp during the pioneering period and on their return will leave their entire equipment for the use of Stockton residents who may pass part of the summer at the lake.” [7]

A year later Camp Minkalo moved to its own site a quarter mile from the Municipal Camp. In 1936 they moved again, to the northeast end of Silver Lake. Chuck Stewart, who worked at a camp on Treasure Island in the late 1930s, remembers visiting Minkalo and seeing the “lodge that was rather large and fitting well its location among the granite outcroppings.” Chuck also remembered that sometimes staff from Minkalo would come down to Plasse’s Resort at the south end of the lake, traveling “in a large ‘war’ canoe that the camp used for boating.”

Minkalo 2
Another postcard of Camp Minkalo with unnatural color

The 1966 ACA directory says that Camp Minkalo had cabins, and a tipi. There were four ten-day and one seven-day sessions for almost seven weeks of camp. The camp accommodated one-hundred girls, seven to seventeen years old. I have not found the reason for giving up the camp twenty years later; it may have been declining camp attendance, increased costs or a problem with the water supply. Lack of potable water was a problem for the Boy Scouts who could not afford to install the necessary water system and in the 1990s they also gave up the camp and the land reverted to the Forest Service. The large lodge is gone and today there is little left to tell the stories of thousands of girls who once sang and paddled their canoes across Silver Lake.

[1] “Register of the Camp Fire Girls (Stockton, Calif.) Summer Camp Scrapbooks, 1919-1922” 1919, 15. Holt-Atherton Special Collections, University Library, University of the Pacific, Stockton, California.

[2] Ibid. 23.

[3] Ibid. 1922, [1].

[4] “Marginalia,” California Historical Society Quarterly 28, no. 2 (1949): 190.

[5] “U.C. Girl Aids Camp Fire Head,” Oakland Tribune 25 September 1925; “Pioneer in Work Will Head Camp Fire Girls,” Oakland Tribune 27 May 1925.

[6] “Camp Fire Girls Prepare for Big Stockton Meet” Oakland Tribune 11 May 1926; “California Sparks,” Everygirl’s April 1926, 16-17.

[7] “Girls Camping at Silver Lake” Oakland Tribune 17 July 1922; Swenson, Stella S. One Hundred Years at Silver Lake – Amador County California: 1848-1948 –The Swenson Team (Bert & Ella) A Report presented to Doctor Rockwell D. Hunt, Director of California History Foundation, College of the Pacific, April 1948, 47-49.

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