Readers of The Wall Street Journal learned a lot about Frederick Gunn recently. On July 8, the newspaper published an essay by Rich Cohen titled, “The Life Lessons of Summer Camp.” The piece was a reflection on Cohen’s personal experiences at Camp Menominee, an all-boys sleepaway camp in the North Woods of Wisconsin. In addition to providing the lessons and lifelong friendships he carried with him into adulthood, Cohen’s experiences inspired his research into the history of the American camp movement, and Mr. Gunn.
Cohen, who lives less than an hour from The Frederick Gunn School campus in Ridgefield, Connecticut, learned about Mr. Gunn serendipitously. He became familiar with the school, and Linen Rink in particular, having traveled all over New England for hockey games and tournaments with one of his four children, who grew up playing in area youth hockey leagues.
“We play in your rink at least once a year,” said Cohen, who is the author of six New York Times bestselling books, a co-creator of the HBO series Vinyl, and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone. “I’m always moved by the mystique of The Frederick Gunn School and Washington, which is such a great little town.”
The Saturday Essay was not the first time he has written about summer camp. “My own camp experience was hugely formative in my life. I went when I was very young for eight weeks away from home,” said Cohen, who grew up in Glencoe, Illinois, and keeps in touch with dozens of friends he met in his five summers at camp in Eagle River. They all remember their camp song, which includes the line, “Fill a stein, sing a song, to the camp I love,” and when they write to one another, instead of closing with “Yours Truly” or “Warmly,” their sign-off is “Fill a stein,” and their name.
“Everything important I know, I learned at camp,” Cohen wrote in his essay. But, he added: “The one thing they did not teach us at Menominee, probably because they did not know, is the history of the camp movement itself, which is too bad, as the history of the American summer camp is entwined with the history of the country. To understand one is to understand the other.”
His essay continued: “Though the seeds were planted by the Transcendentalists—Henry David Thoreau spent enough time in the woods to get himself a five-year jacket—the first American summer camp began as an act of wartime empathy. It happened in 1861, soon after the start of the Civil War. Frederick Gunn, the educator and abolitionist who ran the Gunnery, a boarding school in Washington, Conn., organized students into a kind of platoon.”
That “platoon” included 30 boys and a dozen girls, who hiked 40 miles from Washington to Welch’s Point in Milford, Connecticut, on Long Island Sound, where they fished, sang, played in the surf, organized ball games and camped in two or three big tents for 10 days. Stirred by news of victory and defeat in the Civil War, they also performed military drills in preparation for their service in the Union Army. As Cohen observed: “it was supposed to make them feel what the soldiers felt, make them suffer and understand. What they actually had was fun, and it's a glee still detectable in the DNA of every successful summer camp. Getting away, getting lost in the woods, getting a taste of another, more authentic life—that's camp.”
As those familiar with Mr. Gunn and the history of the school know, that first camping trip was a precursor to the summer camps Frederick and Abigail Gunn led in the 1870s at Point Beautiful on Lake Waramaug. The lake’s “nearer waters, good fishing, and picturesque shores made it an ideal spot for a summer’s holiday,” Clarence Deming, Class of 1866, wrote in The Master of The Gunnery. It is for these activities that the American Camp Association credits Mr. Gunn as the founder of recreational camping in the United States.
The first camping trip to Milford, which Mr. and Mrs. Gunn led again in 1863 and 1865, is celebrated every October, when the entire school participates in School Walk, hiking eight miles through nearby Steep Rock Preserve, established by another early alumnus, Ehrick Rossiter, Class of 1870. Through Gunn Outdoors, the school has extended Mr. Gunn’s legacy, providing current Gunn students with opportunities to engage with the outdoors, develop leadership skills, and gain independence, not unlike Cohen and his campmates. All of these experiences emanated from Mr. Gunn, a contemporary of Thoreau, whose love of nature, and appreciation for the natural world, was recollected with great fondness and passed on by some of the earliest alumni of the school.
As Cohen noted: “Several of the students who bivouacked with Gunn in the early days—the spring hikes continued long after the surrender of Robert E. Lee—went on to found the first generation of summer camps, each organized in the spirit of the Gunnery. Only now, instead of several days on the Sound, it was eight or ten weeks in the forest, in tents or cabins, beside a lake in Massachusetts, New Hampshire or Maine, where campers were taught an ersatz pastiche of Native American culture, how to hike, cook on a fire, bead moccasins and belts, play baseball. Keewaydin, a canoe camp ‘in the wilds of Maine,’ was founded by Gunnery grad Gregg Clark in 1893—that was one of the first. Keewaydin, still going strong, has a powerful and loyal alumni. Michael Eisner's book about Keewaydin and how it formed him carries a foreword by John McPhee, who says he grew up and learned to love nature at Keewaydin, which is, after all, the big mission of camp: to wean you from your parents amid a kingdom of kids.”
In his essay, Cohen traced the evolution of camping through the early 1920s, when the impetus toward enrollment shifted from character-building to finding an escape from city life for the children of immigrants arriving from Eastern and Southern Europe. Cohen painted a picture eerily similar to the first COVID summer of 2020: “The cities, where the majority lived, were swept by sprues and fevers in the fetid summers before antibiotics and polio vaccine. To parents, camp was therefore less about Frederick Gunn and frontier skills than about clean water and fresh air. This is when the YMCA, which had been running camps since the beginning, scaled up its operation, when the Fresh Air Fund began its work in New York City, when every church and synagogue organized summer retreats, most modeled on older camps which had themselves been modeled on the philosophy of Gunn, whose spirit runs like a ribbon through every summer.”
“Gunn,” Cohen asserted, “laid the cornerstone for an architecture that's become familiar to millions: white cabins on a green hillside, the mess hall clatter and the bathhouse showers, sand and wet concrete, the infirmary, the canteen where candy is held in the way of the gold at Fort Knox, Reveille and Taps, the sound of a speed boat in the distance, the way the lake turns glassy black at the end of the day, smooth as a mirror, the rot in the woods, the smell of pine needles in the sun. There were 10,000 camps by 1970, and camp itself had become an institution, a way of life for many of us. It lives in our minds as a shared memory—a new kind of childhood.”
His recollections clearly resonated with readers, who within days recorded over 80 comments on The Wall Street Journal’s website. Many shared their own memories of summer camp. For Cohen, the lessons he learned over the course of those five summers have been, as he said, invaluable: “There were all the advertised activities—water skiing, horseback riding, archery—but even better were the things that can never be described: the sense of remoteness and freedom, of dwelling in a land beyond the jurisdiction of helicoptering parents, of being left to settle your own feuds, fight your own fights, solve your own problems. Independence.”
When one of his sons went to summer camp, Cohen found the experience was markedly different, particularly due to the accessibility of cell phones and email. “And yet, in important ways, camp remains the same. It’s still not home. It’s still no parents. It’s still new people,” Cohen wrote. “It’s still your best chance of getting them away from the phones and the screens. It’s still paradisiacal and green, and it’s still what we need—now more than ever.”
Like boarding school, summer camp forges connections through shared experiences and memories. Cohen said even his editor at The Wall Street Journal went to summer camp in Texas. “I’ve heard from so many people, from all over the country who have said, ‘Camp meant so much to me. No one ever writes about it.’ If you feel something deeply, then other people probably will, too. It makes us one country. That was really true in this case. I felt it very deeply, and I’ve heard from all these different people who went to my camp and camps all over New England and the Midwest.”
As an adult, Cohen has continued to nurture his love of camp by spending time in Maine, which he said reminds him more of Menominee than what he found when he revisited it as an adult. “I went back to the camp at Eagle River, Wisconsin. Then we came to Maine,” he said. “The campfire in the woods, there’s nothing like it. Just the smell of it. It’s like the best smell in the world. This is like Wisconsin, too, in that it’s cold at night but hot in the day. I really like it.”
ILLUSTRATION: BEN GILES FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. SOURCE PHOTOGRAPHS: GETTY IMAGES; MAGNUM IMAGES; REDUX