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Manitowish Waters Camps

By Kay Krans

A view of the tent area at Statehouse Lake Youth Conservation Corps camp. Manitowish Waters, Iron County (Wis.) August 1962

Between the 1870s and 1880s summer camps in the U.S. were private camps for boys of wealthy families. By the 1900s, camps became accessible to middle class families. Camp was for boys to learn woodcraft in a wild setting and build character and independence.  Girls’ camps established between 1902 through 1924 and were created for girls to enjoy the outdoors and natural world as well as becoming an early step in the beginning women’s rights movement. Camps were for experiences outside industrialized cities to teach the importance of understanding nature and the land ethic.

During the summer of 1904, Harry Gilette, headmaster of the University of Chicago Laboratory School began the first boys’ camp in Wisconsin and the first camp west of the Alleghenies. It became Camp Highlands for Boys on Plum Lake in Vilas County. Camp Thunderbolt was a boys’ camp established on Rest Lake on the old Nash estate purchased by the Dengel Family. Camp Thunderbolt opened in 1948 with Mrs. Dengel overseeing the camp while Mr. Dengel commuted back and forth to his business in Milwaukee. The successful camp was sold to the Waukegan YMCA Camp in 1952 and became Camp Jorn which continues today. Camp Jorn is an important part of the Manitowish Waters Community and serves local families with much needed day care as well as offers the camp experience for boys and girls nationwide. In 1962, Statehouse Lake YCC Camp was established for high school boys ages 16-19 (later age 15 and girls were added in 1973) based on the model of the CCC camps of the Great Depression.  The campers were paid an hourly wage, built the camp, and accomplished work on state and federal land to improve the outdoor experience and enhance natural resource projects for the people of Wisconsin.

Early girls’ camps on the Manitowish Waters were created by families who wanted to have their own daughters experience camp. They were the Badger Camp for Girls and Camp Ontonagon, and the camps were run by Mrs. Badger and Mrs. Varney while their husbands commuted back and forth from work in Chicago.  The Badger Girl’s Camp on Big Lake was opened in 1917 when Badger’s daughter Frances was 13 and 50 girls attended camp for the whole summer. By 1929, the Badgers sold their estate in the midst of the Great Depression. Camp Ontonagon opened in early 1930s and lasted until the early 1940s. Camp Ontonagon was created by the Varney family on their Alder Lake estate.  The Varney’s had three young daughters and a son, and the camp ran summer long with 35 girls.  In the late 1950s, Harold Hiken, teacher from the Eastside of Milwaukee began Sidney Hill Camp for Boys ages 71/2 to 16 on the grounds of the former Koerner’s Resort. The camp experience focused on sports like baseball, tennis, water skiing, and canoeing.

The camp experience for children has been an important part of the Northwoods since 1904. Each camp was designed to help children learn their moral, spiritual, or physical potential while understanding the adventure of the living and learning to respect the natural world.

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