U.S. OLDEST CAMPS
This is a list not of campsites or camp facilities or legal entities, but of organizations and their programs. It is not a snapshot of a century ago, but a celebration of today's living elders of organized camping.
Tracing the Organization
The organization is like a human that grows, moves around, evolves, changes names, produces offspring. Some of these camps are sub-organizations within larger organizations or legal entities, but have still maintained their separate organization and camp program.
As camps evolve they may replace their facilities or even move to a new site, as most on this list have done at some point. The camp is its people and its activity, the organized program. That is what I have traced to the present.
Time, lost records, fading memories all contribute to the imperfection of the list. Each camp provided its own data. In some cases other literature or records were located. Each camp was interviewed to make sure that it met the "organized program" tests.
As camping has evolved so has the definition of a camp. Today the definition of camp has broadened considerably. A camp must be defined by the standard of the day. The first criteria (membership in the ACA) is today's standard. Are they camps today?
But were the older camps also considered camps in the past? Whose standard to use? Today's or the standard of the day then? In the early days of camping, it was much clearer what a camp was. So I have tried to use the standard of the day. This presents huge problems with evolving definitions and distance of time. In cases of uncertainty the test was simple: did the camp call itself a camp then? Paradise Farms and Mont Lawn, as far as I could tell, did not, and were placed on the Noteworthy list.
The ACA has the Pioneers of Camping Club which people there seemed to believe was all I needed. It turned out not to be a list of the oldest at all, but a list of camps that had been honored for 40 years of operation. So I ran a broader search and went through what history I could find and searched the full ACA database.
With a short list of camps that claimed founding dates before 1900, I started contacting each camp individually. Most were quite interested in the project. Many, unfortunately, had little documentation or if they did, it was not readily available. But one thing was true of almost every camp. Somewhere in its organization or among the alumni was someone (very often a past director) who had researched the history.
Finding this "talking history book" was more difficult than you would expect. Sometimes I had to call back five, six, seven times, before learning how reach him or her. For those whom I pestered, I'm sorry, but I hope you think, in the end, it was worth it.
If there is a flaw in this list, it is that it may have missed the church groups that run a short, week-long summer camp. These groups may use someone else's "campsite" or may own their own unobtrusive property, but are too small to join the American Camping Association (ACA), or simply have no need to as they do not reach beyond their own congregation. There may be among them a few that have operated their camp program continuously since before 1900 and have maintained continuity of the program since then too. If the ACA criteria were removed there may none or some that would qualify for this list — if they could be located.
Myth of the Oldest
Camp Dudley on Lake Champlain in New York seems widely recognized as one of the oldest, if not the oldest. But it modestly does not to go beyond calling itself the oldest boys' camp. It was a surprise, then, to find that it had a sibling in Frost Valley YMCA's Camp Wawayanda. Both camp's histories consider the pre-1901 Camp Dudley years as their roots. Prior to 1901, Camp Dudley jointly operated under the supervision of the New Jersey and New York state committees of the YMCA. Success had taken Dudley to 200 campers in 1900, stretching facilities.
The NJ YMCA decided to move back to Lake Wawayanda in New Jersey, where the camp had been for 1886-9, with the NJ Y campers and staff at Dudley. In 1901, the NJ Y actually operated two camps: one at Wawayanda in July and one at Dudley in August. The Wawayanda camp was called Camp Wawayanda and the Dudley camp was called Camp Champlain.
From Camp Dudley's viewpoint, those campers from New York attended in July and the NJ campers attended in August allowing a sharing of resources.
In 1902 the New Jersey organization appears to have run its entire operation at Wawayanda, using ex-Dudley staff and campers.
Temagami Youth Camps List (historical)
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