Wednesday, August 22, 2012

S'mores, Scouts and Summer Camp


      Anyone remember the taste of a campfire s’more? The taste of a gooey, slightly burnt marshmallow and melted rich Hershey’s chocolate nestled between two graham cracker squares as the flavors hit the tongue? Take a bite and rich sweetness oozed out the other side. I sure remember and I remember where I first tasted the treat that can send me back to my childhood with one bite.

     I spent parts of three summers at Camp Welaka, the Girl Scout Camp nestled next to the Village of Tequesta and Jonathan Dickenson State Park just over the Palm Beach/Martin County line.  These days, it’s a simple drive through a nice residential area to reach the camp gates. In the 1960s, the drive took a long time as we headed into what appeared to me to be total wilderness. I was excited to finally see the two pine trees that framed the road into camp. A wooden sign over the road declared that this was “Camp Welaka.”  “Welaka” means “Chain of Lakes” in Seminole and was the final choice of several suggested names for the camp. Generations of grown up Girl Scouts still smile whenever they hear that name.

We lived for letters from
home--even if home was
only fifteen minutes away!
     During my weeks at camp, the girls in my unit hiked, worked feverishly on crafts with yarn, popsicle sticks, paints and plaster-of-paris.  In the evenings, we gathered around campfires to sing songs like “Make New Friends (But Keep the Old)” in rounds.  With the pungent smell of mosquito repellent and suntan lotion in a thick cloud around us as we sang, we sat close enough to feel the heat on sun kissed faces and toasted our marshmallows on saw palmetto stems cut and carved to a sharp point. We cleaned up in open air showers, wooden walls for privacy and the often cold water helped wake us up.  We swam and took swimming lessons in the man-made lake safely within the three-sided dock complete with lifeguard stands. We piled into vans and headed over to Jupiter Beach to tip toe down the coast, flashlights unneeded in our hands in the bright moonlight as we hunted for turtles laying eggs and stood silently in wonder when we found one.

One of the more pleasant
visitors to our tent.
      The last year I camped there, we learned everything anyone could ever know about canoe safely in preparation of the big trip down the Loxahatchee River across the Jupiter Inlet that only the oldest girls took each summer.

       Girl Scouts came to the area long before my involvement. In a wonderful (but now out of print) book titled, Footprints in Time, author Claudet Benton, herself once a Girl Scout, fills us in on the story.  According to Claudet, it was January 1920 when the president of the national Girl Scouts “called a meeting at the Women’s Club on Flagler Drive in West Palm Beach to organize Girl Scouting in the Palm Beaches.” That meeting was followed by a national charter issued on May 5, 1920 which was the first in Florida. The initial troop had 47 teenage girls as members. 

       Claudet states that Camp Welaka itself is actually the third, and most successful of the Girl Scout camps in northern Palm Beach County. The first, Camp Schaum-a-Hatchee, was in the same area, but was destroyed by the hurricane of 1928 shortly after the first, and only, camp session.  It was followed by Camp Margery Daniels on the same property on the Loxahatchee. That camp was open from 1929 until 1935, when it closed due to the aftereffects of the Great Depression.  Soon thereafter, funds were raised and camp re-opened and stayed open until it property had to be expanded in 1939 to handle all of the Scouts who wanted to camp.  After closing briefly in 1946 during a polio scare, the Camp remained open until 1958 when “The New Site,” now known as “Camp Welaka,” opened for campers. 

          Meals not cooked over a campfire were and are served family style to campers sitting at large wooden tables in the main lodges. There is a stone fireplace in the room made with stones salvaged from the fireplace at Camp Margery Daniels. Over the fireplace is a polished metal plaque mounted to the wall that carries this inscription:
“I have given you shelter only. For the atmosphere and spirit which will prevail here you will be responsible. If you would make me happy bring from the woods the loveliest of flowers and shrubs and surround your camp with the beauty of growing things. Margery Daniels”
       Ten years ago, I sent my daughter to Camp Welaka and once again my feet touched the wooden  floor boards of the main lodge. The path to the camp has changed in the intervening years and the area surrounding the once remote main gate now has homes in all directions. But when I picked my daughter up from her week at camp and stood with her in a song circle next to the flag post at the main lodge, my mind took a leap into the past. If I had not been holding her small hand in mine, it could have been 1967 all over again.

There’s a good reason Girl Scouts continue to exist and continue to gather at Camp Welaka. The women who started this whole thing in Florida in 1920 saw the future and made it happen. Then, as now, girls head into the woods to learn all of those wonderful things about nature that we tend not to notice as we hurry about our day-to-day lives.

August 30 is National Marshmallow Day.  I’ve got some marshmallows. Who’s up for a s’more? 

Copyright (c) 2012 Ruth Hartman Berge
This article first appeared as the August "The Florida You Don't Know" column with Seabreeze Publications, Inc. 





2 comments:

  1. Nice story. My mother was a scout leader in the '50s in Jacksonville (my older sister was a scout) and since dad traveled for a living, I was the only boy who was allowed to come along, as sort of the troop mascot, on their camping trips. Mom showed the girls how to make "sterno" stoves and fuel out of cans, cardboard and and parrafin, and some of the girls earned seweing badges by stiching together tents. I remember sitting around watching the girls weave hats from palmetto leaves at camp cho win wa(sp?).
    Thanks for bringing back some fond memories.

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  2. Hi, Paul: I'm glad you enjoyed the story! My daughter had the same "tag along" experience with her brother's Cub Scout troop. Not necessarily a bad thing, huh? I didn't remember the palmetto hats until you mentioned it - I think I'll experiment and see if I can whip one up :) Thank you for sharing your memories!

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