Under the section titled “The Youngsters Camp Out,” the 1929 annual report of Cleveland Metropolitan Park District notes that several thousand children who attended the summer camps in the parks “secured a new measure of health, pleasure, recreation and knowledge.” The “youngsters” themselves, and the generations of kids who followed, may not have spent time analyzing the benefits of soaking up the “fresh air and sunshine” they lacked in their city neighborhoods. They were too busy having fun.
Summer camps were a combined effort. The Park District worked with the Cleveland Welfare Federation to get applications for park permits. Social organizations, including the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Campfire Girls and YMCA ran the camps. Along with these local branches of national organizations, social welfare groups provided camps for the children they served at settlement houses in the city, including Karamu, the University Settlement and the Merrick House. Summer camps were active in the parks almost before the ink dried on the deeds creating the new park reservations. The West Side YWCA and the Phillis Wheatley Association operated camps along the Rocky River as early as 1920.
Original Philiss Wheatley Association "Camp Merriam" along the Rocky River, 1920
In addition to obtaining a permit, organizations had to submit annual reports to the park board. From these reports, we know that programs at the camps included the usual activities, swimming, hiking, nature talks, crafts, campfires, skits, etc. In the early years, some specific activities listed are more surprising or unique. In 1936, Karamu counselors instructed their campers in “experimental dancing,” and offered sex education for “interested” campers. In 1930, boys at Camp Hi-Ki-Wan in North Chagrin learned the value of “sun baths,” while Girl Scouts at Tinker's Creek were taught how to purchase food and plan meals on a budget. World War II activities included collecting tin cans for the war effort. One report also notes that during free time “the children could do what they wanted within reason.”
Members of local Kiwanis, Rotary and American Legions groups built many of the cabins and other camp structures. During the Great Depression, Public Works Administration, Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps workers built many other structures for the camps. Sadly, most of these buildings are gone. Fires, both from arson and lightning strikes destroyed some of the buildings, while others were demolished when usage declined. The romantic in me likes to think that, while the structures are no longer in place, the laughter and chatter of several generations of children linger in the air if we take time to listen.
As adults, even recollections of the occasional bug bite, bout of poison ivy or touch of homesickness don’t spoil the warm memories of time spent at camp. If you were one of the kids who spent time at summer camp in the parks and would like to share memories or photographs, we would love to hear from you. Send us a comment, or share your thoughts on our Facebook page.