For many families, summer camp is a childhood rite of passage. For more than a century, children in Virginia have packed their bags and traveled backcountry roads to spend a few weeks or months living in rustic cabins, hiking mountain trails, learning to swim, singing songs around campfires, forging lifelong friendships, and connecting to the natural world.
Teachers and philanthropists began experimenting with the idea of summer camp in the 1870s and 1880s. The more urbanized the country became, the more Americans longed for the vanishing wilderness. By recreating the conditions of the pioneer frontier, many hoped physical activity and outdoor life would allow children to develop individual character and self-reliance.
The Richmond Area ARC founded Camp Baker in Chesterfield County in 1957. Campers such as those pictured here in July of that year enjoyed traditional camp experiences like swimming and arts and crafts.
Adolph Rice Photograph Collection.
Often credited as the first summer camp, Camp Chocorua was founded by Ernest Balch in 1881 in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Like other early camp founders, Balch was motivated by what he considered the healing effects of nature and by the “miserable condition of boys belonging to well-to-do families in the summer hotels.”
Set up to teach self-reliance, Camp Chocorua required its campers to live in rough wooden buildings and learn to use an axe, sail a boat, and survive in the wilderness.
By the end of the 19th century, more than a hundred similar camps existed in the United States. Camp Greenbrier, an educational and athletic camp for boys, was established in Alderson, West Virginia, in 1898, making it one of the earliest in the South.
Expansion of summer camps in the early 20th century brought camping to a much wider audience. By the 1920s, children could choose from more than a thousand camps nationally. Scouting and YMCA camps began targeting middle-class families, while charitable organizations and urban settlement houses developed programs to provide free camps for the most-at-risk children in the community. Camp Harrison, established in Clarke County, Virginia, by the Visiting Nurse Association, wrote to potential donors that 120 children, who had “no other opportunity of being in the country and who badly need fresh air, good wholesome food and a chance to play and grow strong,” were sent to the camp in 1915. At the close of the season, children at Camp Harrison were sent home “averaging a gain of seven pounds per child.”
Virginia campers explored nature by canoe.
1939 World’s Fair Virginia Photograph Collection.
By the early 20th century, summer camps were no longer just for boys. National programs like Camp Fire Girls focused on a traditional model where female campers learned household tasks, while Girl Scout camps stressed the importance of physical education and women’s empowerment.
A similar divide could be found in private girls’ camps such as Camp Carysbrook (1923) and Camp Mont Shenandoah (1927), two of Virginia’s longest operating girls’ camps. Camp Carysbrook originally focused on “esthetic dancing, dramatics, pageants, a camp chorus, hooked rug making and weaving,” while Camp Mont Shenandoah’s 1930s catalogs mentioned “horseback riding, basketball, volleyball, tennis, archery, swimming, and boating.” Even the more traditional camps, however, created a rare opportunity for girls to spend time away from home, and many returned feeling newly confident and independent. Correspondence from a parent to Camp Mont Shenandoah noted: “My daughter came home in splendid condition and in fine spirits. The summer with you seems to have put her in good condition to go through the coming winter.”
The 1938 catalog for Camp Mont Shenandoah in Millboro Springs, Virginia, illustrated how “handicrafts keep the minds and fingers busy during many a pleasant hour.”
Excluded from segregated camps, Black Virginians established their own institutions devoted to providing recreational and cultural opportunities. A June 1923 article in the Richmond Planet reported that a committee of the Phyllis Wheatley Branch of the Virginia YWCA had driven to Ash Cake, Virginia, to investigate a site for a summer camp “for the Richmond girls.” Three years later the YWCA of Richmond announced that they were planning a summer camp on the grounds of the Smallwood-Corey Institute in Claremont, Virginia. Activities for the two-week camp would include rowing, hiking, campfires, “stunt night,” games of all kinds, songs, nature hunts, trailblazing, and dramatics.
Northside Day Camp in Richmond, Virginia.
YMCA of Greater Richmond Records, 1854–2019.
Later in the 1920s, the YWCA of Norfolk established Camp Fellobe on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. The location offered a refreshing alternative to the typical mountain landscapes. As a local newspaper article pointed out, “If the breezes fail to cool the waterfront site at Camp Fellobe, the YWCA’s summer gift to sweltering girls at Little Bay, a few miles from Norfolk, it’s a consolation, the happy campers say, to know that the water is just a good run away.” The program at Camp Fellobe was also unique, including folk songs, spirituals, poetry, leatherwork, pottery, jewelry making, painting, basketball, volleyball, croquet, and swimming.
Over the years, summer camps evolved to reflect America’s changing attitudes toward childhood, as well as expanding to include day camps, which brought recreational activities to cities and suburbs. Growing in number and diversity by the 1950s and 1960s, camps took the form we recognize today. You can still find traditional outdoor camps that focus on nature activities, but contemporary summer camps often explore individual passions, the arts, sports, and social activities. Most of all, summer camps today are seen as a place for children to share new adventures, enjoy a little independence, and just have fun!
Summer camps offered activities that many children may not have encountered at home, such as archery training at Camp Overall, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia.
1939 World’s Fair Virginia Photograph Collection.