California: The Lake Vera Camps

 

Lake Vera Postcard (color)
Postcard view of Lake Vera

 

 

Among my postcards of Camp Fire Girls’ camps are five green letters. Each one is a single sheet, folded like the blue airmail letters I used to send to friends in Europe and Australia; one side serves as the envelope and the letter is on the other. Unlike the airmail letters, these have the stamps affixed instead of printed, and the return address “Camp Celio, Nevada City, California” is printed on the envelope with a pine tree underneath. The letters were sent by fifteen-year-old Lorraine Peterson to her parents in Oregon in July 1938. In the first one she writes “Don’t you think the stationary cute? They gave everyone twelve of these and twelve Celio post card. They do not sell stamps here so would you please send me some.” I have no postcards from Camp Celio, but a brochure, published by the Artvue Postcard Co., and possibly from about the same time, includes 10 photos of the camp, accordion-folded and ready to be stamped, addressed and mailed.

Green Celio letter
One of Lorraine Peterson’s letters from Camp Celio

 

Lorraine was one of six exchange campers from Oregon’s Camp Namanu who were sent to different west coast camps in 1938. She traveled by train from Portland to Auburn, California where she was met and continued her trip to Celio by one “of those new streamlined greyhound buses”. Another Portland girl would go to the Sacramento camp, Minaluta, also on Lake Vera. Celio and Minaluta were two of the three Camp Fire camps on fifteen-acre Lake Vera near Nevada City in 1938. [1]

Ten years earlier, under the leadership of Lucia Searls, the Oakland Camp Fire Girls had begun looking for a permanent camp. They sought a site that was “located near a city where supplies might be obtained . . . free from poison oak, well wooded, [and] with a stream or pond suitable for swimming.” At the same time Nevada City leaders thought that a girls’ camp on Lake Vera would bring tourists to Nevada City. W. H. Celio and his son Gove, purchased twenty acres of land on Lake Vera, and gave it to the Oakland Camp Fire Girls. The land adjoined that belonging to Mills College. [2]

Celio folder 10
Photo from Camp Celio folder

 

In April construction of a dining room, kitchen and sanitary system commenced and on June 11, 1928 Camp Celio opened for three two-week sessions. In December 1929 the Oakland Tribune provided a detailed description of Camp Celio’s lodge which contained a forty by forty-foot screened dining room, an immense fireplace and a sixteen by twenty-four foot kitchen. With thirty tent platforms and a washhouse Camp Celio was equipped for 150 campers. That year the Oakland Camp Fire Council was able to purchase sixty more acres. The Kiwanis, East Bay Camp Fire councils and Camp Fire Girls all helped with the buildings and equipment. Girls could travel from the East Bay to Colfax by train and then transfer to the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad which ran to Nevada City where they boarded buses for the nearby camp. Oakland Camp Fire Girls, joined by Berkeley Camp Fire Girls in 1930, continued to attend Camp Celio for more than six decades. Activities and events at Camp Celio were well-covered by the Oakland Tribune and Berkeley Daily Gazette throughout the 1930s and 40s. [3]

Camp Minaluta, the Sacramento Camp Fire camp was also established in 1928 and was enjoyed for more than six decades, but I have found no information about it before 1940 when, twelve years after its founding, the Sacramento Camp Fire Council was able to pay off their mortgage on the camp. In the 1970s, when the Sacramento Camp Fire Camp Fire Council suffered from financial problems the Alameda-Contra Costa Council ran both Celio and Camp Minaluta, calling the two camps Camp Okizu. In 1982 Camp Fire Girls from as far away as Ukiah were attending Camp Okizu. [4]

In the early 1980s John Bell and Dr. Michael Amylon acquired Camp Okizu and started a camp for children with cancer. In 1999 they needed a larger camp and moved to a site above Lake Oroville. It is not clear what became of the original Okizu – i.e. Celio and Minaluta – property.

While the Berkeley, Oakland and Sacramento Camp Fire Girls were establishing their camps on Lake Vera, Piedmont Camp Fire Girls had been visiting various camps in California. Rhea Rupert, who had been in “charge of all Piedmont Camp Fire Girls camps” dreamed of a permanent camp on Lake Vera for Piedmont Camp Fire Girls. She was introduced to William and Charlotte Ehmann who had inherited $3,900.00 from Charlotte’s mother, Augusta J. Collins. The Ehmanns agreed to finance property on Lake Vera; this became Camp Augusta which Rhea Rupert directed from 1930 until 1947. Camp Augusta was the site of a Camp Fire Guardians’ course in the summer of 1939 and the Guardian, a Camp Fire publication for leaders of Camp Fire groups described the camp:

“Picturesque Camp Augusta is on Lake Vera (near Nevada City). It is full of surprises for the new visitor – delightful spots reached by winding trails. There is the outdoor theater, for instance, where a tinkling brook, separates audiences from actors and furnishes incidental music. In a pine grove overlooking the lake there is the Council Ring, guarded by a tall totem carved by campers with the symbols of their happy days. There is the beautifully proportioned and appropriately furnished rustic lodge given by Mr. E. W. Ehmann in memory of his mother. There is the Big Oak under whose branches campers and counselors gather to discuss their plans, and many other places of charm and interest which you will discover for yourselves if you attend this course.”  [5]

 

Lake Vera postcard B & W
Real Photo Postcard of Lake Vera – probably taken at one of the Camp Fire Girls’ camps

 

 

In 1993, after the national Camp Fire organization ordered the Piedmont Camp Fire Council to merge with San Francisco or Oakland, the Piedmont Camp Fire Council became a new entity called Camp Augusta Inc. They continue to operate Camp Augusta as a non-profit camp for boys and girls. [6]

In 1927, before Camp Celio, Camp Minaluta or Camp Augusta was established, Mills College in Oakland was looking for a camp site. W.H. Griffith offered the college trustees fifty acres of land on Lake Vera; an adjoining fifty acres, called the reserve, could be sold to faculty and alumnae. A rustic lodge one-hundred by thirty-five-feet was built on the Lake Vera property and called Gold Hollow Lodge. Mills College students sometimes spent weekends there and in the summer of 1928 the college opened a summer camp for girls aged fourteen to twenty and called it Gold Hollow. During the 1930s the Girl Reserves of the Y.W. C.A. held camps at Gold Hollow and in the early 1940s Girl Scouts used the camp. [7]

In 1944 Luther Gibson, a senator and newspaper owner from Vallejo, purchased Gold Hollow from Mills College for the Vallejo Camp Fire Girls. In July 1946 the four Camp Fire Girls’ camps held their “second annual all-camp water carnival”. The carnival included swimming and canoeing contests, as well as various kinds of races and each camp elected a Queen. [8] The Vallejo Camp Fire Girls, formally the Sem Yeta Council became the Camp Fire Golden Empire Council and still operates Camp Gold Hollow.

 

 

Camp Gold Hollow
Undated Postcard of Camp Gold Hollow

 

Piedmont Girls Community Services Inc. acquired land on Lake Vera in 1934. In 1955 the Alameda Camp Fire Council acquired forty-four acres of this land and in 1956 they opened Camp Watanda, which then accommodated thirty girls; by 1966 the camp had grown to accommodate fifty girls. In the late 1960s, Celio and Watanda were administered together by the Alameda and Contra Costa Camp Fire Councils as Camp Celio-Watanda. When the Alameda-Contra Costa Camp Fire Council merged with the Columbia Park Boys and Girls Club in 1998 the camp was too small for the Boys and Girls Club; they sold Watanda to John and Kathryn McNitt in 2002.

Lorraine Peterson was not the only girl to participate in a camper exchange among West Coast Camp Fire Girls’ camps in the 1930s. Their names are found in Oakland, Portland and Seattle newspapers, but their stories and adventures are mostly unknown. Lorraine’s five letters provide a glimpse of these stories.

In the spring of 2015 my niece and I visited Lake Vera. Driving from Nevada City we came first to Camp gold Hollow. Just past it was Camp Watanda. Across the road from Watanda was Camp Augusta, where crews were working on construction and maintenance. We did not find signs for Celio, Minaluta or Okizu. There was another camp, Camp Del Oro, which is run by the Salvation Army but I have found no history about this camp.

 

Road from Camp Augusta
Road away from Camp Augusta (left side) toward Camp Del Oro – Lake Vera on the right

 

 

[1] Mowrey, Freda Goodrich, “Girls Named to Represent Namanu at Neighboring Camps,” Oregonian 3 July 1938;

Lorraine Peterson, Camp Celio, to Mrs. W.C. Peterson, 8 July 1938, in collection of Mary Alice Sanguinetti; Kaiser, Marge “The History of Camp Augusta” October 2013 http://campaugusta.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/History-of-Camp-Augusta-Brochure.pdf

[2] Oakland Tribune 22 January 1928, 4 March 1928; Berkeley Daily Gazette 21 April 1933; Kaiser p. 14.

[3] Oakland Tribune 1 July 1928, 11 May 1941; San Francisco Chronicle 21 May 1930, 9 June 1930, 22 May 1932; Berkeley Daily Gazette 21 April 1933; Kaiser 21-22.

[4] Sacramento Bee 20 April 194, 25 April 1940; Daily Review (Hayward, California) 23 May 1974; Oakland Tribune 19 May 1974; Ukiah Daily Journal 16 April 1982..

[5] The Guardian April 1939.

[6] Oakland Tribune 29 June 1924, 14 July 1925, 12 June 1930; Kaiser p. 17, 24; “Mrs. Collins Leaves Bulk of Wealth To Daughter” Oakland Tribune 5 June 1930.

[7] San Francisco Chronicle 12 September 1927, 12 November 1927, 20 May 1928, 18 May 1937, 17 April 1938, 13 May 1938; Oakland Tribune 8 September, 1940, 21 June 1942; San Mateo Times 8 June 1944.

[8] Oakland Tribune 28 July 1946; Sacramento Bee 13 July 1946.

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