100 years of Girl Scouts: part 4

This month, Girl Scouts of America celebrated its 100th anniversary. In the fourth part of our Girl Scout stories series, a Smithsonian mother and daughter each share their experiences attending Camp May Flather.


Sharing Summer at Camp May Flather

Kate Fox, Contractor with Smithsonian Gardens (and Gold Award Girl Scout)

After all is said and done,
I had really lots of fun.
Though I got in many a scrape,
I came out of them first rate.
I hope next summer I can go,
To camp instead of Chicago.

-Helen Sheets (age 13), Washington Post, June 29, 1930


Helen Sheets was one of one hundred and fifty girls in the summer of 1930 to set off from Union Station in Washington, D.C., on specially chartered train cars. They were headed to the first Girl Scout summer camp serving the D.C. area. When she returned, she wrote about her experience at the brand new Camp May Flather in Mt. Solon, Virginia, for The Washington Post. She detailed hiking trips, dish duty, and the joys of camp life. At the time, Lou Henry Hoover was National President of the Girl Scouts as well as First Lady. Speaking to the Girl Scouts in 1922, Hoover highlighted the outdoor experiences she had as a young girl, telling the scouts, “The happiest part of my own very happy childhood and girlhood was without a doubt the hours or days, and sometimes entire months, which I spent in psuedo-pioneering, or scouting … I cannot but want every girl to have the same widening, simplifying, joy-getting influences in her own life.”

Camp May Flather 1930
Historic photo of Camp May Flather, courtesy of the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital.

My first summer at Camp May Flather came in 1992, when I was eight years old. Oh sure, I loved my parents, thought my little brother was alright, but could not wait to go to camp. From the moment my mom signed me up, I thought about it constantly. That year I had read My Side of the Mountain, a fictional account of a boy who leaves civilization to live inside a tree, hunting and gathering to survive. Not that I thought we’d be fashioning our own bows and arrows and trapping squirrels, but even at that young age, I imagined a wild, free space where I could sleep under the stars and meet other girls who loved to run, jump, and play outside. I recall only a few memories of my first few summers at camp—the feel of the cool stone walls of the arts and crafts lodge on a hot day, hiking to the top of Eagle Rocks and having Jonathan Livingston Seagull read aloud to us, the ancient looms no longer in use, shedding tears at the final campfire—but I know that it was good enough to return for five more summers, then work at summer camp through college. My younger self would have certainly identified with Helen Sheets so many years before.

GS photo album scans007
Kate (back row center) and her fellow Girl Scouts at Camp May Flather.

The Washington Evening Star reported at the end of that very first camp season, the girls returned home on the train to Union Station with “111 salamanders, 11 tadpoles, 6 frogs, and one nice cuddly blue racer,” shocking mothers and fathers alike. I returned from my first summer at camp with a dozen (or two) lanyards, new friends I promised to write to every day, a few hikes under my belt, the knowledge that I could live with less and like it, and missing several socks. After seven raucous days in the woods, the first thing I said to my parents after disembarking from the bus was, “I want to go back for two weeks next year.”

Camy Clough, Senior Program Producer (and mother of Kate Fox)

Kate’s “two weeks next year” thrilled me. I, too, was a camper at Camp May Flather thirty years earlier. I so wanted to give my daughter the Camp May Flather experience. I only went to overnight camp once, in the summer after seventh grade. My family was not a camping family, and I knew even then that it was a financial stretch to send me there.

I set off with my best friend and her sisters, all veterans of Camp May Flather, and so I was already fully immersed in the rituals of camp. I knew what special activities each unit did and all of the special signals, songs, and cheers (I can still recite the Sinewa unit cheer). And all that I had anticipated came alive there.

Camy 1
Camy Clough poses for a photo at Camp May Flather.

We hiked the George Washington National Forest (and learned to make “bird seed” — an early version of trail mix), slept out one night in the woods (ughh!), swam in the swimming hole (such fun!) and took swimming lessons in the cold, cold pool (dreadful). The best part of each day was making crafts. One of my favorite memories is learning to use the big loom in the Stone Lodge. I made a bright orange and yellow striped placemat for my mother that she used under our kitchen phone for the rest of her life. I loved the gathering times—raising the flag in the early morning, Sunday service in the Woodland Theater, the end-of-camp bonfire with the singing, silly skits, and best of all, the s’mores. And I loved the peacefulness and sense of belonging at the end of each day as the flag was lowered and Taps was sung.

Day is done, gone the sun,
From the lake, from the hills, from the sky;
All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.

Tim Winkle is an associate curator with the Division of Home and Community Life at the National Museum of American History.

Posted at 11:11 am EDT in Women's History