The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, January 29, 1999


Museum Review: Summer Camp Museum of Our National Heritage, Lexington through April 11, 1999

I was hoping there would be a platform tent I could climb into (there was) and maybe even a picture of Camp Pinewood (there wasn't). Of course, I hated Camp Pinewood so I don't know what I was after, perhaps the camp experience I wished I had had. For adults remembering (or wishing they did), this is a fun exhibit; for kids thinking about camp, maybe worrying a little, this should be a help.


Old and new photos, old and new videos, and camp songs on audio, support the displays on watersports and safety, nature lore, camp life, campcraft and even writing letters home. There's a place to try knot-tying (we mastered the square, figure eight, and surgeon's knots, and would have been glad of instructions for the monkey fist). You can see how good you are at gimp, too. In New York State, gimp is really boondoggle and I used to be good at it.

Summer camp in the United States began in 1861 with Frederick William Gunn, director of the Gunnery School in Washington Depot, Connecticut. He and his wife took the whole school of boys out to the woods for two weeks of camping that August and nearly every year until the 1880s. The first YMCA camp, Camp Dudley, opened in 1885 on Lake Champlain. It's still there. The exhibit text points out that in the 1920s, when camps were going strong, ninety percent of them were here in New England, probably because of the lakes, mountains and wilderness nearby. It doesn't explain what the matter was with the rest of the relatively wide-open U.S., but I would argue that with its late start, the Midwest was still fighting Dustbowl issues, and needed its kids for something other than leisure-time camping.

So this is really a camps-in-New-England story. You'll recognize the names: Abnaki, Camp Wigwam, Winnebago, Wyonegonic, Camp Belknap, Camp Hiawatha, Camp Agawan, Camp Billings, Camp Namequoit. To the northeast, organized overnight summer camps created a population shift each summer. In the '50s and '60s kids converged on major depots. One photo shows a single day at Grand Central Station, New York, when 10,162 children boarded overnight trains for the woods. Their counselors met them there, armed with hand-held camp signs for gathering their charges. Hundreds of extra trains were added to shuttle the New England kids headed out to their adventures.


The "campcraft" section features 1990s friendship bracelets and much older popsicle stick bowls, wood block prints, a beaded headband, mini totem poles (but two-ceiling-high ones, too), clay vase, the ubiquitous god's eye of yarn and sticks, painted rocks, woven belts, but no macramé.

Belonging and camaraderie

The exhibit did not explore camp food, but did talk about tent life, rainy days, and homesickness. Most of all it highlighted the pleasure of belonging: the camaraderie of tent mates, hikers competing a challenging climb, and campers surviving a whole session of cold-water plunges in water-safety training. Camp pennants cover the walls; camp songs come over the speakers. There's an honor band from one camp: it worked like Girl Scout sashes and Cub Scout badges, marking the child's first summer at camp and collecting the merit badges through the years. There is mention of parents and grandparents having summered at the same campscamp as an alma mater.

My boys were politely amused when I pointed out "my" collapsible mess kit in the Girl Scout section, but identified more with the s'more materials. Both liked the totem poles best of all, and the rock ring "fire" place near one totem pole. The exhibit highlighted two true native-American councilors for their decades of Indian-lore guidance at Abnaki and Hiawatha. I would have appreciated more discussion of the popularity of Indian themes, rituals, dress and skills as their primary characteristic. It's bigger than an Indians-lived-in-the-forest connection but doesn't get dissected here, just sampled through the bowstring firestarter, campfire drum and the ceremonial gown.

A busy exhibit schedule

The Museum has a very busy exhibit schedule. In addition to permanent exhibits on the Battle of April 19,1775 and the history of Masonry in America, planned exhibits include "Designing in the Wright Style: Furniture and Interiors by Frank Lloyd Wright and George Mann Niedecken" (February 13 - September 6, 1999); and "Cartoons Go to War: Posters of World War II (January 30 - May 16, 1999). All sorts of free lectures and workshops accompany the exhibits. The Museum also runs a Classical Heritage Performance Series and Second Saturday children's programs with reasonable admission fees. For particulars, call 781-861-6559 or visit

1999 The Carlisle Mosquito