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Colbytown Camp

Colbytown Camp was a four week summer camp run by Colby Junior College (and later Colby-Sawyer College) faculty, staff, and students.  The camp opened in 1940 and ran until 1989, one year shy of its 50th anniversary.  The camp was initially started as a camp for World War II refugee girls.  Later the camp would expand its pool of applicants to include all need based girls.  Read on to learn about how this camp started, what it was like to attend, and the benefits the camp had on campers and staff alike.


Why a Camp?

The initial idea for Colbytown Camp emerged from a discussion during a Colby Junior College religion class (possibly the class, Philosophy of Life) during World War II. The students, specifically Dorothy Candy, class of 1938, were curious about what happens to war refugee children and how they adjust to their new lives in a different country. In the class they learned about social activist Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s “New Americans in Vermont,” a program which helped to place refugees in foster homes. Fisher’s project inspired the students to push for the development of a program that would help refugees during their time of need; it was decided that a summer camp would be the best way for the college to help.

Colbytown Camp was created to help refugee and immigrant children adjust to their new life in America during World War II. It was believed the camp could help ‘Americanize’ the children, and therefore make their life in a new country easier. Each summer approximately 24 girls, between the ages of 8-12 were selected to attend camp based on their need, religion and race.

Creating Colbytown Camp would also provide Colby Junior College students with new opportunities to conduct real life experiments in the fields of social science and religion. The goal of the experiment was to prove that racism is a learned behavior and it was conducted by inviting 24 little girls each summer who came from a variety of races and religions and having them live among one another for four weeks.

The camp opened on June 27, 1940 and was initially named Camp Halekulani by the campers, meaning house without a key. A new experience for all involved, the camp raised concerns from both the campers and the town of New London.  Some of the campers were actually afraid to attend camp before arriving, because they had been in concentration camps and did not comprehend the difference until actually arriving at camp to see there was not a large fence trapping them inside and that they would simply be participating in the activities. At the other extreme, the town of New London was hesitant to have foreign campers around because there was a rising fear of communism coming to America.  After the town learned what the project was truly about, the community members accepted the camp and the name was changed to Colbytown Camp to reflect a partnership between the college and town.


Life at Camp

Daily Schedule Activity
7:15 Rising bell was rung
7:45 Flag was raised
8:00 Breakfast was served
9:30 Chapel service
9:50 Snack of milk and crackers served
10:00 First activity period
11:00 Second activity period
12:00 Table setters arrive to lodge to prep for lunch
12:15 Lunch was served
1:15 Rest hour
2:15 Third activity period
3:15 Fourth activity period
4:15 General swim
5:15 Table setters arrive to prep tables for dinner
5:45 Dinner was served
7:00 Evening program
8:30 Taps played indicating it was time to prep for bed

Colbytown Camp ran on a strict daily schedule, hoping it would provide a level of regularity in the children’s lives.On Sundays the schedule was a little more relaxed, allowing the campers to sleep in a little bit longer and providing them with more free time. Although the schedule featured some slight changes over the years as new directors took over Colbytown Camp, the overall sense of structure was unchanged.


Girls with a Story


The Cost of Admissions

Admission to the camp was free for the participants; the money to run the camp was raised through fundraising during the academic year and was also supported with contributions from local community members. Fundraising efforts allowed Colbytown Camp to offer free admission to its campers for their four week stay and the camp was able to upgrade facilities and make repairs. Each fall, Colby Junior College held an assembly where the campers from the summer would put on a show to help raise awareness about Colbytown Camp and to kick off fundraising for the following summer’s session.  Dartmouth College also helped with fundraising for Colbytown Camp by hosting a rugby game versus Williams College, where all of the proceeds from the tickets, t-shirts and buttons went to the camp.

Fundraisers were held in each dorm and students could pledge a certain amount of money. Along with the dorm pledge drive occurring in the dorms, other donations of games, records and books occurred. Clothing drives were hosted as well to collect clothing and shoes for the campers who did not have much. Videos were also made to help solicit funds and advertise Colbytown Camp. Other examples of fundraisers include a film festival,  a gymnastics demonstration, and a horse show. A dishwasher was donated in 1965 by an unnamed campus organization which made squad work much easier on the campers and the cook. After the cabins were built, Colbytown sold the used tents as a way to gain additional funds for the camp (see more on building upgrades below). Finally, an optional bill was sent to Colby Junior College students’ parents for six dollars with an explanation of what Colbytown was and why the funds were needed.

Many college and community members also volunteered their time to make the camp session possible.  Before and after the summer session of Colbytown Camp, the maintenance crew from Colby Junior College volunteered their time to help prepare the camp, including changing the screens on the lodge door, patching holes that developed in the tents, and picking up the garbage.  New London townspeople donated their time and money and they often hosted campers for a meal or took them on activities, including walking through the gardens, going on a boat ride, having a cook out, riding ponies, and seeing cows be milked.

Colbytown Camp also enrolled in the State of New Hampshire-New Hampshire Distributing Agency-State Agency for Surplus Foods program which donated to the camp lard, butter, flour, rice, wheat, raisins, corn meal, and cheese.  To receive these supplies, Colbytown Camp filled out an application each year and helped unload the delivery truck.

Money acquired through fundraisers and donations went towards numerous aspects of Colbytown Camp with the majority of it being devoted to the basic operations of the camp. The first and main area the money went to was paying the fee it would cost the campers to attend Colbytown Camp. The approximate charge for the four weeks was $40/camper.  A large portion of the money also went towards the camp’s food bill. If there were funds leftover, the counselors received free room and board at Colbytown as well. The money raised also went towards paying the camp directors after the position went from a volunteer one to a salaried one in 1956. At one point, the camp also paid a nurse to live at the camp during the session, but eventually decided it was too costly and they used an on-call, volunteer nurse instead. The donated money also helped to cover the $20 fee the camp had to pay each summer to become licensed.

Donations also let the camp make renovations.  Funds allowed the camp to replace the tents with cabins as well as perform building maintenance, such as replacing the screens on doors and patching holes in tents. The funds also allowed the camp to purchase bunk beds for the cabins, allotting more space than was available with the single cots, and a water fountain was added to the camp in the summer of 1971.  For approximately the first 30 years Colbytown Camp was running, the camp hosted its campers and counselors in tents placed on top of wooden platforms. During rain storms, the tents would become quite damp and at the end of each session, holes in the tents had to be repaired with patches.  After years of patching, a decision was made to build permanent fixtures in the form of cabins.  Constructing a single cabin cost approximately $3,000 to build and the camp required five cabins total.  Before the summer of 1969, enough money was raised to build the first two cabins. The Alumnae Association then donated the money to build the last three cabins before the 1970 session. Due to their generosity, the Alumnae Association was allowed to name the cabins; it chose to give the buildings the names of surrounding mountains.


She Works Hard for the Credit

In 1970, the Colbytown Camp committee suggested that counselors should receive academic credit for their work at Colbytown Camp.  Reasons for this suggestion included that counselors were giving up a month of their summer; that the camp was in fact an experiment; because they put time in before the camp session began, participating in mandatory training sessions; and they went to visit future campers beforehand in their home environment, in order to get a better understanding of each camper’s home life. In order to receive credit, a professor had to monitor and instruct the course. The summer of 1974 was the first year the counselors received credit for their work.  In order to accommodate this change, fewer campers were accepted to the program that summer.

The Colbytown committee also worked to ensure that campers had the opportunity to excel later in life, without having to worry about financial constraints.  Scholarships were offered to any camper who was accepted to Colby Junior College and agreed to serve as a Colbytown Camp counselor while attending the college.   In order to keep campers interested in Colby Junior College since most of them would not be of age to attend for almost seven years, the college sent brochures every year as well as an invitation to visit the college during each camper’s junior year of high school. The camp counselors began filling out evaluation forms at the end of each summer about that sessions campers, which helped to determine whether or not a camper should be recommended for the scholarship at Colby Junior College. Mika Canada, who attended camp in 1963, was one of the campers who attended Colby Junior College in 1971 after first being a camper and later, a junior counselor. It is unclear if this program continued after the camp closed in 1989.

Due to the majority of campers wishing to return for another session, a program for junior counselors was created in hopes to allow some campers to return in a different and more mature role.  The idea of having junior counselors was first tried in 1945 and the campers qualified for the program by being an excellent camper in the past, based on final evaluations filled out by the counselors. After the 1945 session, junior counselors were not used again until 1969 with the actual junior counselor program began being fully developed and was put in place during that camp session. After the program was in place, five junior counselors were used each session. The junior counselors helped take some burden off of the counselors by providing them with an additional day off and gave the ex-campers another opportunity to be back at Colbytown Camp. Mika Canada was also one of the first junior counselors.


Changing Lives

At the end of each summer, the camp directors and counselors were thanked for the changes they were able to instill in the campers during their four week stay. Most of the campers’ parents shared that, after attending, the girls were more independent and got along better with others who differed from them based on race and creed. Erny Pollinger, a social worker who recommended girls to Colbytown Camp, stated, “I have never seen a happier group, eyes shining, cheeks tanned and high spirit.” [5]  Pollinger added, a few years later, “The girls themselves were unanimously enthusiastic and are always pleading to be allowed to go back.” [6]  Rebekah L Taft, who also recommended girls for Colbytown Camp, commented on this stating, “You see, you are helping people whom you have not even seen,” implying that after Colbytown Camp the campers would take what they learned and apply it to their own life. [7]

It was not only the parents and recruiters who loved Colbytown Camp.  Campers loved their time at the camp and walked away with many fond memories.  Many wished to give back to the camp; for example, one year they made stuffed animals to donate to other children who did not attend Colbytown Camp. The experience made many campers wish they could return for another session. Numerous campers stated, “The worst thing about Colbytown Camp is you never can go but once.” [8]  Dina Bikerman, who was once a camper, asked if she could return as a counselor. Above all, the greatest benefit campers gained from attending Colbytown Camp was happiness. One observer stated, “May God Bless each and every one for bringing in so much happiness into her young life. It’s folks like you and your girls that makes this world a worthwhile place to live in.” [9]


Setting Limits

While Colbytown Camp was open, the age limit of the campers fluctuated between 6 and 14. This caused issues when accepting applications because no one was ever sure whether an exception should be made or what the age group should be exactly because there had been such a wide range. The age limit was finally strictly set to 8-11 in 1950 because the camp found that older 11 and 12 year olds want to do more adolescent things and end up needing more attention than the camp staff had to offer. The age limit and this comment suggest that younger eleven year olds were still accepted to the program.  One of the reasons the strict age limit came about was due to the fact counselor, Margaret Morse and other counselors found that the more adolescent girls probably would have enjoyed attending a co-ed camp because they were becoming interested in boys and distracting the younger children from the normal activities. [10]   The younger, six and seven-year-olds were also removed because they were viewed as too young to fully benefit from and understand the camp’s project.

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