Happy Campers

Michigan has a rich history of a wide diversity of summer camps. Photography Courtesy Vintage Views
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Chippewa Trail CampSummer camps for boys and girls have been around in Michigan since the 1900s. Early Michigan camps included Hayo-Went-Ha on Torch Lake, established by the YMCA in 1904, and Camp Owasippe near Whitehall, established in 1911 as the first Boy Scout camp in the nation.

The popularity of summer camps swelled in the 1950s with the baby boomers. A 1952 booklet published by the Automobile Club of Michigan lists 391 summer camps in Michigan; by 1956, the number was 404.

There were small camps, such as Vacation Valley on Lake Michigan near Maple City, which took only 10 boys. Larger camps like Camp Owasippe took 1,100 boys in six camps on Big Blue and Owasippe Lakes.

Although most camps were not coed, some camps, such as Tower Hill on Lake Michigan near Sawyer, welcomed 185 boys and girls from age 9 to 22. A few camps accepted children as young as 6, but most camps were for ages 9 to 16.

There were privately owned camps, camps operating under the auspices of religious organizations, Boy Scout and Girl Scout camps, camps for Camp Fire Girls, YMCA and YWCA camps, 4-H camps, and camps operated by governmental agencies.

Camp CharlevoixOther camps were run by such diverse organizations as the AFL-CIO, the Polish Falcons and The Detroit Free Press. Some camps were specifically for children with disabilities or for underprivileged children. There were day camps such as the Mt. Clemens Girl Scout Camp. Other camps like Interlochen Arts Camp, founded in 1928, offered eight-week sessions.

Most summer camps touted self-reliance, teamwork and “character-building” experiences through educational and recreational programs. Campers were expected to do their share of general camp duties, as well as take care of their beds and tents or cabins.

Recreational activities might include swimming, sailing, canoeing, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, archery, tennis, volleyball, baseball and nature study. Skills such as building fires, knot-tying, wood-chopping and lifesaving were often part of the camp experience. Some offered lessons in wood and leather crafts, music, photography, weather monitoring and Indian lore.

Osoha of the Dunes

In the summer of 1917, as the country entered World War I, Camp Hay-Went-Ha hired an instructor in military drill and encouraged the boys to show their patriotism by helping with farm labor on neighboring farms. In the early 1920s, Camp Caho near Northport offered driving lessons for the girls on the camp’s Model T Ford.

There were often daytime excursions into the surrounding countryside, as well as overnight camping and canoe trips. Some camps had special events such as beach suppers, water carnivals, parades or dramatic performances.

Camp Charlevoix horse ridingEvening campfires with songs, marshmallows and ghost stories were part and parcel of the camp experience. There was also time for rest and relaxation with reading, quiet games and walks, and letter writing. Sundays were a day of rest and worship for many camps.

Campers often returned year after year and some became counselors or junior leaders. Friendships were formed that lasted for years.

Today, some of these traditional summer camps remain, often with a focus on outdoor living, while others specialize in sports, theater, horseback riding, computer skills or even Legos.


BLUE Vintage Views columnists M. Christine Byron and Thomas R. Wilson reside in Grand Rapids. They are authors of the new book, “Vintage Views Along Scenic M-22 Including Sleeping Bear Dunes.”

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