Section 1: Children’s Resorts in the White Mountains

September 27th, 2017 by Rebecca

In the summer of 1880, Ernest Balch, a recent Dartmouth College dropout, and a few friends set up camp on the shore of Squam Lake in New Hampshire. There Balch developed an idea that would transform the lives of millions of American youth from all walks of life, the American Summer Camp.

In the last half of the nineteenth century, New Hampshire’s White Mountains were home to a rapidly developing tourist industry catering to the wealthy elites of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Balch believed this was harming the children kept in tow as their parents enjoyed the luxury of the fashionable resorts.

"Pemigewassett House, Plymouth, N.H." c. 1855. J.H. Bufford, Lith, (Boston MA). John Hession photo. Courtesy of Bryant Tolles, Jr. White Mountain Collection.

“Pemigewassett House, Plymouth, N.H.” c. 1855. J.H. Bufford, Lith, (Boston MA). John Hession photo. Courtesy of Bryant Tolles, Jr. White Mountain Collection.

Rather than let the self-indulgence of high society erode the character of these youth, Balch envisioned a different kind of resort; one where boys could learn self-governance, the value of money, and a strong work ethic, while still experiencing fun and adventures. In 1882, Balch created Camp Chocorua on Squam Lake’s Chocorua Island. His campers cleared trails, built cabins and canoes, cooked meals, and washed dishes.

The camp, along with Camp Harvard (which opened in 1885 after being inspired by Balch’s ideas), soon gained national recognition when St. Nicholas magazine ran stories on these innovative programs in their June 1886 issue.

They camp out at night and have many amusing adventures by day…[They are] jolly, brown-faced, red-capped lads, who make the hills ring cheerily with their songs and laughter…Were I a boy, the life at Camp Chocorua would be my idea of a thoroughly good time, combining as it does plenty of fun and a free, open-air life, with the acquisition of much useful knowledge for one’s self, and helpfulness
to others.

Finding opportunity in an eager public and inexpensive waterfront property, emerging summer camps looked to the model first formed on Chocorua Island in Squam Lake and over the next twenty years spread across New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

"Camp Wachusett." Litting & Co. NY. John Anderson photo. Courtesy of Ross Deachman and the Holderness Historical Society.

“Camp Wachusett.” Litting & Co. NY. John Anderson photo. Courtesy of Ross Deachman and the Holderness Historical Society.

As the idea of summer camp expanded, it also diversified, moving beyond the role of serving wealthy boys. But whether they served rich or poor, boys or girls, the educational experiences of summer camp maintained certain similarities. Youth left home for an extended period of time in the summer to live in a rustic environment grounded in the landscape where their physical activity and adventures together taught them lessons they could not learn in the traditional academic classroom.

Walk Through the Exhibit

Section 1: Children’s Resorts in the White Mountains

Section 2: The Literary Links to Experiential Romanticism

Section 3: Satellite Campuses for America’s Top Schools

Section 4: Camps for All, or the Egalitarian Worlds of Summer Camps

Section 5: Constructing Meaning and Finding Lessons from Native Americans

Section 6: The Technology Needed to Reject Technology

Section 7: The Legacy of New Hampshire Summer Camps

Return to Exhibit Information