Culture  /  Origin Story

The Life Lessons of Summer Camp

A few weeks in the woods have taught kids to face new situations, make their way among strangers, solve their own problems—and live a more authentic life.

Everything important I know, I learned at camp.

The one thing they did not teach us at Menominee, probably because they did not know, is the history of the camp movement itself, which is too bad, as the history of the American summer camp is entwined with the history of the country. To understand one is to understand the other.

Though the seeds were planted by the Transcendentalists—Henry David Thoreau spent enough time in the woods to get himself a five-year jacket—the first American summer camp began as an act of wartime empathy. It happened in 1861, soon after the start of the Civil War. Frederick Gunn, the educator and abolitionist who ran the Gunnery, a boarding school in Washington, Conn., organized students into a kind of platoon. At the end of the spring semester, in an effort to show solidarity with the Union Army, they hiked 30 miles from campus to Welch’s Point in Milford, Conn., a crescent-shaped beach on the Long Island Sound, where they slept out and lived rough, fished, hunted, prayed. Ten or 15 New England boys telling ghost stories on a rocky shore beneath a starry sky—it was supposed to make them feel what the soldiers felt, make them suffer and understand. What they actually had was fun, and it’s a glee still detectable in the DNA of every successful summer camp. Getting away, getting lost in the woods, getting a taste of another, more authentic life—that’s camp.

Several of the students who bivouacked with Gunn in the early days—the spring hikes continued long after the surrender of Robert E. Lee—went on to found the first generation of summer camps, each organized in the spirit of the Gunnery. Only now, instead of several days on the Sound, it was eight or ten weeks in the forest, in tents or cabins, beside a lake in Massachusetts, New Hampshire or Maine, where campers were taught an ersatz pastiche of Native American culture, how to hike, cook on a fire, bead moccasins and belts, play baseball.

Keewaydin, a canoe camp “in the wilds of Maine,” was founded by Gunnery grad Gregg Clark in 1893—that was one of the first. Keewaydin, still going strong, has a powerful and loyal alumni. Michael Eisner’s book about Keewaydin and how it formed him carries a foreword by John McPhee, who says he grew up and learned to love nature at Keewaydin, which is, after all, the big mission of camp: to wean you from your parents amid a kingdom of kids.


Summer Memories

Tradition and storytelling are woven into life at many summer camps. But this article takes us all the way back to the beginning of summer camp itself, explaining that the idea arose in 1861 out of an effort to show solidarity with the Union Army. It turned out that roughing it for a few weeks with a bunch of other kids was actually pretty fun.