Camp Keewaydin celebrates a century of summers (with slideshow)

SALISBURY — It was unusually quiet at the Camp Keewaydin campus in Salisbury last week. A tympanic symphony of raindrops echoed from the roofs of camp buildings across Lake Dunmore on this Monday. It’s Mother Nature’s prelude to the pitter-patter of many feet and voices that will charge into the camp beginning on June 28 for what will be Keewaydin’s 100th summer season.
More than 300 boys from throughout the country, ages 8 to 16, will spend from two to eight weeks at Keewaydin. It’s a tradition that has renewed itself each year through two world wars and 19 U.S. presidents.
“It’s really a special place,” said Keewaydin Foundation Executive Director Peter Hare, whose family has been involved with the camp for 86 years. “It’s a unique community of people.”
Keewaydin’s roots date back to 1903, when Gregg “Commodore” Clarke established a camp on Lake Temagami in the Canadian province of Ontario. The venture emphasized canoeing trips and wilderness treks.
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“The camp blossomed to the extent that by 1909, (Clarke) is thinking, ‘We have to start another camp in the States for younger kids,’” Hare said. “That’s when they purchased this property on Lake Dunmore and started Keewaydin.”
Keewaydin proved so successful that Clarke launched a girls’ camp on Lake Willoughby in the Northeast Kingdom called “Songadeewin” during the mid-1920s. And he launched others under the umbrella of “Keewaydin Camps Ltd.”
But the depression of the 1930s forced most of Clarke’s camps to go out of business. Those that remained — Keewaydin, Songadeewin and Temagami — fell under separate ownership.
Songadeewin went out of business at Lake Willoughby in 1975. It was re-established at its present Lake Dunmore location as part of the nonprofit Keewaydin Foundation in 1999.
It seems only appropriate that Peter Hare would be at the helm of Keewaydin at the dawn of its 100th season. Peter’s father, Alfred, got his first taste of Keewaydin as a camper in 1923. The experience struck a chord that has resonated in him to this day. The elder Hare, who is 94, will return for alumni activities later this summer.
Alfred Hare still bears the nickname “Waboos” — said to be a Native American word meaning “white rabbit” — assigned to him at camp. He met many lifelong friends during stints as a camper and counselor at Keewaydin. Two of those friends turned out to be Abbott Fenn and Harold “Slim” Curtiss, two Harvard University students who joined the camp as counselors during the late 1930s.
Abbott Fenn, now 88, recalled the lasting friendship that developed between the three men, who felt so strongly about Keewaydin that they acquired the camp in 1946.
The foundation for that purchase was built as bullets and shells were flying around Europe during World War II. Fenn, Hare and Curtiss were all serving in separate branches of the military. Fenn happened to be in Paris on an Air Force mission when he learned that Hare was in the vicinity on U.S. Army business. He decided to look him up at his hotel one evening. There was a wartime blackout, Fenn saw what he believed to be some U.S. Army personnel walk out of the building, and decided to give out a call that Hare would surely recognize.
“Is that you, Waboos?” he asked.
Sure enough, it was Hare. They reconnected and touched upon a lot of topics that evening — including the rumor that Keewaydin was for sale. “Speedy” Rush, then owner of the camp, had lost a son in the war, was in his 70s, and was ready to call it quits. Hare mentioned the prospect of the three friends making an offer for their beloved camp.
“I told (Hare) that if they needed any help, I had $2,000 or $3,000 I had saved during the war, and I would be glad to turn it over,” Fenn recalled.
Soon after the war ended in 1945, Curtiss, Fenn and Hare met up at Keewaydin and made an offer. Rush accepted, and the trio owned and directed Keewaydin until 1982, when they sold to a group of alumni as a nonprofit. Alfred Hare remained Keewaydin’s summer director until 2000, after which time his son Peter took over.
Keewaydin has grown a lot during the past 100 years.
“The first summer, one of the projects was to build a platform, over which they erected a large kitchen tent,” Peter Hare said. “They all lived in tents during that first summer, and then gradually, buildings were built.”
The centerpiece of Keewaydin’s 14-acre campus is its dining hall, erected in 1918.
“It is as much a museum as a dining hall,” Hare said with a smile, as he admired the weathered, wooden structure. The building bears the inscribed names of many “old-timers” — Keewaydin’s term for campers who attended for at least four summers. It is not unusual for campers to come back for around six consecutive years, Hare noted.
There are currently more than 50 tents on the campus and another 45 permanent structures, ranging from small bath houses to the dining hall, which can accommodate around 300 people. The camp owns around 450 acres on nearby Mt. Moosalamoo, which it uses for hiking.
“The way the campus looks has not changed dramatically in 75 years,” Hare said. “There obviously have been buildings that have been added on, and buildings that have been renovated or replaced, but we are very careful when we do that … that it is keeping with the same simple, rustic style.”
Hare said the Keewaydin Foundation’s board of directors is committed to keeping the two Dunmore camps, Keeywaydin and Songadeewin, sturdy and accessible to children of all backgrounds and incomes. Keewaydin is in the midst of a massive, $15 million fund-raising campaign. Half of that is to be placed in an endowment fund for camp scholarships; the other half is to be reserved for a capital fund. Thanks greatly to the generosity of the camps’ many alums, the foundation has already raised roughly $8.8 million toward its goal.
One of those generous alums is Michael Eisner, former CEO of The Walt Disney Company. Eisner penned a book about his experiences at Keewaydin. The Eisner family has annually sponsored eight campers — four each at Keewaydin and Songadeewin.
“(Eisner) actually finds campers for us,” Hare said. “He is terrific.”
It’s a devotion shared by the many alumni, who credit Keewaydin for some life-long, fond memories. Today, as in years past, students must come to camp largely “unplugged,” meaning they have to interact with other human beings and nature, rather than with cell phones and video games.
“They don’t miss it a bit,” Hare said of the high-tech electronics.
“A camp like this is really the Shangri-la for kids who come from places like Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., because their parents want them to ‘get out of Dodge’ and come someplace where they can breathe fresh air, get dirt under their fingernails, get a couple of mosquito bites, go out and paddle canoes, and get out of the rat race.”
It’s a recipe that has worked well. Half of Keewaydin’s counselors are former campers.
“When you come to a place like Keewaydin, it becomes a part of you,” Hare said. “The kids come back year after year.”
Campers and their parents have given some wonderful testimonials over the years.
“It brings tears to your eyes to hear the things that parents will say,” Hare said. “You’ll have a parent say, ‘My son just went through the trauma of seeing his father die of cancer this year, and Keewaydin is the one thing that is keeping him together.’”
Along with its summer camp, Keewaydin has also boasted an Environmental Education Center since the early 1970s, which in the spring and fall offers nature studies for fifth- and sixth-grade students from throughout Vermont.
Keewaydin’s summer season runs for June 28 through Aug. 22. Campers and staff will kick off the centennial celebration on July 1 with a “canoe flotilla parade” that will meander along the west shore of Dunmore and past Branbury State Park.
“The idea is to get every single Keewaydin/Songadeewin camper and every Keewaydin/Songadeewin canoe into the water, which will number around 200 canoes,” Hare said. “It’s going to be a logistical challenge to pull the whole thing off. We’re praying the weather cooperates.”
Once the young campers have dispersed for the season, Keewaydin will hold a special camp from Aug. 27 to 30 for alums who want to recapture some of their precious memories.
“We will turn the campus over to alumni; we are not going to take down any tents,” Hare said. “This place will just be jam-packed with alums. They will be here in all shapes and sizes, from age 20 up to probably 80, coming back. We will re-enact a lot of the old stuff they used to do.”
Activities will include a “P-rade” (a pronunciation and spelling that is yet another tradition among campers) during which former campers will process through the campus in order of the year in which they attended camp; some special campfires; and a show in the Keewaydin theater. More than 300 people have signed up for the alumni camp, due in from as far away as California. Among those present will be Alfred “Waboos” Hare.
Why has Keewaydin earned such loyalty?
“It’s a combination of the idyllic location, adhering to the core values of the camp, keeping it simple, not caving in to making it more of a specialty camp,” Hare said. “This becomes home.”

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