A Tale Of Two Camps
Text by Leigh MacMillen Hayes
Wyonegonic Camps has withstood the test of time because of the values it honors, Camp Blazing Trail is still standing because of the people who value what it was.
Wyonegonic Camps, the oldest girls’ camp in the country, will celebrate its 110th season this year. Back in 1902, girls arrived via railroad, steamer and horse-drawn coaches. They wore bloomers and high-laced boots, but soon felt the earth between their toes.
Charles E. and Harriet Cobb founded the camp on Highland Lake in Bridgton. From 1904 until 1907, the Cobbs slowly grew and relocated it to the shores of Moose Pond in Denmark. Today, Wyonegonic Camps consists of three separate camps, which focus on water sports and outdoor trips plus a mix of traditional activities for girls between the ages of 8 and 18.
Part of the longevity of Wyonegonic is its ownership. Over the course of its history two generations of only two families have owned the camp. In 1930 Charles Cobb passed it on to his son Roland. Under his leadership the camp grew and changed, but its philosophy of educating girls through fun outdoor activities to help them feel comfortable both emotionally and physically stayed the same.
Carol Sudduth first came to Wyonegonic Camps as a counselor in 1956. Several years later she met George Sudduth. They married in 1961 and following his tour of duty with the Navy, worked alongside the Cobbs as assistant directors before purchasing the camp in 1969. After George passed away suddenly in 1991, Carol carried on as camp director. In the mid ‘90s, her oldest son, Steve, joined her at the helm. Today, daughter Susie also works for the camp. Carol loves working with her own children in this endeavor.
She knows that part of the reason Wyonegonic has been successful is that they’ve turned the atmosphere into a non-competitive camp. “Camp gives kids safe boundaries,” says Carol. Here the girls are given the time they need for self-discovery. In a rustic setting, they get to experience how they relate to others and develop leadership skills.
“It teaches them how to use their time without sitting in front of a screen,” she says. “It’s a bit old-fashioned—no cell phones, no computers, no electricity in cabins purposefully. It’s simple living . . . bed, footlocker, shelf. Kids can tune into themselves. It’s a big confidence booster that carries over into school.” A mischievous grin spreads across her face when she adds that after the girls return home, she hears that many campers appreciate their siblings and make their beds and are nice to their mothers . . . for at least ten days.
Over the years, Carol has seen so much change, yet so much stay the same. Today, they conduct criminal checks on all staff members and have files on such topics as sexual abuse, Lyme Disease, peanut allergies and nutrition. Working mothers look into things much more carefully than they did in the past. But she’s quick to point out that it’s their reputation that has allowed them to stay in business. “We believe in what we do,” says Carol. She’s been recognized for her work by awards from the Maine Youth Camping Association and the American Camping Association. What does Carol love most about camp? “It’s always a combo of things I love to do: education, love of the outdoors, pass on that love to kids, an opportunity to see what people do with their lives, helping people become better at what they do and who they are. Camp is more about values and relationships than improving tennis strokes or learning how to dive.”
Over the river and through the woods from Wyonegonic is a camp that lives on in a different manner. In 1930 Miss Eugenia Parker had a vision. Having worked in boys’ and girls’ camps, she wanted to create a place where girls would receive training and learn skills to survive in the great outdoors. “Camping to me, means an escape from the artificialities of urban life and the achievement of a modified form of freedom which is the chief joy of pioneer existence . . . Not only the pioneer but the modern boy and girl should be versed in the lore of the field, forest and lake, and able to construct many things for use and comfort,” wrote Eugenia in a 1937 issue of The Camping Magazine.
To make her vision a reality, Aunt Gigi, as she was known, purchased land on the eastern slope of Allen Mountain in Denmark. She hired Harry Jordan, a lumberman and Registered Maine Guide from northern Maine, to build cabins of notched hemlock logs.
The first four weeks of a season at Camp Blazing Trail were spent at base camp in Denmark, where “trail blazers” trained and prepared for “The Big Trip.” According to a camp brochure, under Harry’s leadership the girls made “canoes of birch bark, paddles of white ash cut on the place, bows and arrows, hunting knives, sleeping bags and tents . . . Skills in the use of the knife, the saw, hatchet and axe were developed.” On August first, the entire group journeyed north to an outpost camp on the shores of Chesuncook Lake, just west of Baxter State Park, and began a three week conoe trip intended to put “camping back into camp . . . preserve some of the free spirit of the frontier,” states an article in the Moosehead Gazette.
Aunt Gigi, a Maine Guide in her own right, was renowned as a leader in the Junior Guide program. After twenty-five years of seeing her vision become a reality, she retired.
The Boston YWCA acquired the property in 1955 and for twenty years operated the camp. Financial difficulties caused the camp to close in ‘78 and the land was divided and sold. In 1990, Jerry and Jeannie McDonough purchased a portion including the cabins at base camp. While they used a cabin near the road for their family getaways, they enjoyed picnics beside Sand Pond. With four young children in tow, Jeannie says, “We’d go down and swim all day and cook out. We didn’t do much to the cabins, but we enjoyed the ambiance of it all.” Last year the McDonoughs sold the base camp acreage to the Fatica family of Texas.
Astrea Fatica says, “We found it by sheer luck.” Spending time with her, I quickly realize how passionate she is about this lucky find. She immediately saw the potential of the aging cabins and overgrown field and had a vision to create a family compound. At the advice of the McDonoughs, the Faticas hired Henry Banks of Denmark to restore the camp. “It all needs work,” says Astrea.“Fortunately, Henry is available and brave and capable.”
Parker House, named for Aunt Gigi, was in the most need of tender, loving care. The porch had collapsed, the floor slumped, the building was off its foundation and interior walls were “kind of hanging together,” describes Henry. “It was a little scary.” Porcupines loved it. But . . . Henry is quick to point out the quality of the original construction in this and other buildings. Eight buildings have survived the test of time, including the main lodge, trading post, a couple of cabins by the water and the tiniest cabin, Statler, which stands sentry on the camp road.
Since last autumn, Henry, aided by George Erikson, has worked to restore three buildings initially. They’ve also built a new bathhouse on the site of the former washroom. Inspired by a photograph showing campers brushing their teeth at a trough, Astrea designed a common room inside the bathhouse. The end result is modern and practical and the craftsmanship of the building is in keeping with the period, right down to a wooden quilt pattern on a wall Henry made from bead board endpieces. “In the 1930s they didn’t waste anything,” says this self-described history nut. As they fix up the buildings, the plan is to retain as much “campiness” as possible, including hand written comments such as “I want to go home” on cabin walls.
Astrea visits once a month to check on the progress of this renovation journey. She, Henry, George and his wife Christine, lunch together while they discuss plans. Christine says, “It’s a real creative collaboration where even if an idea isn’t fully formed everyone is open to hearing it. This results in some interesting solutions and usually a few laughs too!” Astrea adds, “The trio of Henry with his craftsmanship and vision, George with his intense creativity mixed with practicality and Christine with her good sense and communication skills is absolutely perfect for our purposes.”
There’s much to do, but they find saving this historic camp doable.“This is definitely . . .” Astrea’s voice trails off while she looks around the cabins that will soon be her summer home and takes in the lay of the land as it slopes toward Sand Pond, “ . . . definitely a lucky find.”
Following the tradition from the Cobb years, at the end of the Wyonegonic season, candles reflect on Moose Pond as campers and counselors make silent wishes that express the camp spirit. This summer the spirit of Camp Blazing Trail will also shine through on Sand Pond as its energy is revived. While Wyonegonic has withstood the test of time because of the values it honors, Camp Blazing Trail is still standing because of the people who value what it was.