I used to bicycle past the Fresh Air Camp at Wilkinson Avenue and McCollum Road on the edge of Mill Creek Park just above the Lily Pond. I heard this was where “underprivileged” children, particularly from neighborhoods near the industrial heart of the city could come for a week or two of fresh air at this West Side camp upwind from the mills. All I know was that as I cycled past, it looked like the kids were having fun. On the other hand, the camp was surrounded by fences and I always wondered if the fences were for keeping others out, or keeping them in. Either way, I think I was glad to bike away.
The camp had a long history, being started in 1910. In 1919, a bequest from Henry Stambaugh provided significant funding for the camp. I found one recollection of the camp online at “Youngstown Memories” on the MahoningValley.Info Forums from “Mary_Krupa” who wrote,
“I went to Fresh Air Camp for one year in the sixties. I have great memories of the camp and absolutely loved going there. I remember their little library which had some old Nancy Drew books in it that I got to read.
It was a special place.”
I also learned that one of my former anthropology professors at Youngstown State, Dr. John White, served as a co-director of the camp for four seasons and was known as “Big John” (he was a big man) and was loved by the kids. He passed in 2009, and I learned this about him from the online tribute for him.
The camp is still in use, now named Camp Challenge. It is operated by Alta Head Start as a recreational camp for children with behavioral and social skill problems.
There were other camps around Youngstown that some of my friends went to in the summer time. The YMCA operated Camp Fitch over in Pennsylvania. Boy Scouts went to Camp Stambaugh. Church friends went to Camp Joseph Badger Meadows or Camp Lambec.
I’m not sure I would have been a great candidate for summer camp. I was (and am) probably much like Susan Cain, the author of Quiet, a book on the gift of being an introvert. In her TED talk, she recounts her own summer camp experience:
“When I was nine years old I went off to summer camp for the first time. And my mother packed me a suitcase full of books, which to me seemed like a perfectly natural thing to do. Because in my family, reading was the primary group activity. I had a vision of 10 girls sitting in a cabin cozily reading books in their matching nightgowns. Camp was more like a keg party without any alcohol. And on the very first day, our counselor gathered us all together and she taught us a cheer that she said we would be doing every day for the rest of the summer to instill camp spirit. And it went like this:”R-O-W-D-I-E, that’s the way we spell rowdie. Rowdie, rowdie, let’s get rowdie.”
But the first time that I took my book out of my suitcase,the coolest girl in the bunk came up to me and she asked me, “Why are you being so mellow?” –mellow, of course, being the exact opposite of R-O-W-D-I-E. And then the second time I tried it, the counselor came up to me with a concerned expression on her face and she repeated the point about camp spirit and said we should all work very hard to be outgoing.
And so I put my books away, back in their suitcase, and I put them under my bed, and there they stayed for the rest of the summer. And I felt kind of guilty about this. I felt as if the books needed me somehow, and they were calling out to me and I was forsaking them. But I did forsake them and I didn’t open that suitcase again until I was back home with my family at the end of the summer.”
Instead of summer camp, I spent summer days cutting lawns for neighbors, making trips to the library and reading on our front porch, the coolest place around our house. When not reading, some of my friends would come over for marathon Monopoly games, or trading baseball cards. Of course there were afternoons at Borts Pool, evening trips to the DQ, and sitting out on the front steps with my friend Jim, solving the world’s problems, or at least trying to figure out girls. Truthfully, I don’t think I ever missed camp, and looking back, I kind of wonder if I would have been a bit miserable.
This series is not just about my memories but the collective memory of those of us who grew up in Youngstown. Others probably have different memories about summer camps than I do. Did you go to camp? Where did you go? What were your best memories? Your worst?