Former Camp Fire camp resurrecting history in Sutton
By Susan Spencer TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFto
SUTTON — It was a place where girls learned not to be afraid of the outdoors at night, where they learned to swim, tie-dyed T-shirts with boiled roots for color, sang songs that they'd later sing to their own children and made friends for life.
From 1930 to 1987, Camp Fire Girls from around Worcester County — and a few boys after the organization became coeducational in 1975 — came to Marion's Camp on Lake Singletary in Sutton for day camp or overnight sessions each summer.
The town bought the former Camp Fire camp 20 years ago and over the last few years has brought the waterfront and field back to use as a beach and recreation site.
Now, town officials want to restore the two original camp buildings still standing, Goddard Lodge and the Winter House. And they want to share memories of camp from a bygone era. "The master plan for the property really intends to maintain its heart as a camp," Planning Director Jennifer S. Hager said.
Ms. Hager, Planning Department intern Stefan Forsberg and 20 former Camp Fire campers ranging from their 40s to their 80s met at Marion's Camp recently to talk about plans to restore the camp and to share memories and history that will be presented on interpretive panels throughout the site.
The roof of Winter House, where younger campers and winter visitors stayed, has been replaced.
But a structural evaluation of Goddard Lodge, named for Marion's Camp's namesake Marion Goddard, whose family purchased the property in 1928 specifically for Camp Fire Girls, showed the building was in bad shape.
Ms. Hager said structural repairs to Goddard Lodge were estimated at more than $185,000. Additional septic and water system renovations would be another $132,000.
But when she presented the report, and the option of tearing the building down, selectmen were adamant that they didn't want to lose this piece of local history.
Research by Mr. Forsberg traced the connection of Marion Goddard to Robert Goddard, known as the father of modern rocketry, and found the two shared a great-great-grandfather, making them third cousins. The family ties to other area cultural institutions such as Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Clark University may buttress efforts to raise historical preservation money for the building, Ms. Hager said.
While Ms. Hager and Mr. Forsberg are looking to fundraising plans to save the buildings, they're also seeking song sheets, photos and stories from former campers and other Camp Fire alumni to tell the group's history through a series of interpretive panels, or what Ms. Hager called memory boards.
So far, she's collected items such as camp brochures from the 1950s and candy award certificates, used to recognize Camp Fire Girl candy sellers.
At the recent gathering, Karen Dobson from Auburn showed off her Camp Fire ceremonial Indian gown with symbolic award beads and badges sewn on. Ms. Dobson first came to Marion's Camp as a camper in 1972, and later became a counselor, swimming instructor and then waterfront director.
Her good friend whom she met at camp, Sherry Salonis Jovan, now of Southbridge, also displayed her Camp Fire navy felt vest with beads sewn in symbolic patterns.
"We went by a lot of Indian lore," Ms. Jovan explained as she showed the embroidered bead symbols for water, the place that she first met Ms. Dobson. She also showed symbols for God, her country and her home.
"All these things really, really, really made the core of who we are," she said. "This is such an important place."
Ms. Dobson's mother, Sonia Dobson, also joined the gathering. Although Sonia Dobson didn't speak because of a medical condition, Karen said her mother was a role model for practicing inclusion, bringing deaf children from her Camp Fire group at the Mercy Centre in Worcester to Marion's Camp.
Gloria Whitehead, a camper starting in 1937 or 1938, displayed a picture of her best friend, featured in a brochure for the camp's 15th season.
A former day camp director and leader for Bluebirds, the youngest Camp Fire Girls, at St. Bernard's Church in Worcester, Eileen Clifford said she still lives by the words of the Bluebird song, which she also taught her daughters: "To remember to finish what I begin ... to want to keep my temper in."
"Our years were very important here. It was the essence of our lifestyle," Ms. Clifford said. "Camp Fire was the home fire. God bless you for what you're doing."
Katherine Plainte, executive director of the Central Massachusetts Camp Fire Council from 1971 to 1996, recalled telling mothers anxious about their young daughters' first overnight stay at camp: "They stayed all night at that Bluebird house and they were happy in the morning."
She continued: "It was hard to say goodbye to the camp. I was so happy the town of Sutton bought it. It will be used the way it was supposed to be used."
Ms. Hager said the town hopes to host a Camp Fire cookout at the camp one day a year, to keep the connection going. She would welcome more Camp Fire mementoes for the memory boards, too.
Connie Whitehead Hanks, a camper in the 1970s, was thrilled that town officials were preserving the historical as well as recreational resources of Marion's Camp. She said, "It's the right thing and it's coming back to life."