Door County is a boomerang. I have heard this sentence repeated too many times to count in my 14 years here. People arrive, they stay, they get flung all over the world, but always-always they return. Why? Because there’s something indefinable about the county’s land and water, its inhabitants, and the culture that gets stuck inside visitors’ souls. Door County writer and icon Norb Blei described this when he wrote, “There’s a spiritual aspect to the landscape. When you try to write what Door County is about, it’s about something as elusive as that: spirit. That is the mystery that is all compelling.”
It’s that very spirit that inspired two determined and self-reliant women to open a summer camp for girls in Peninsula State Park exactly 100 years ago this summer. Alice Orr Clark and Kidy Mabley found they shared a similar dream of opening a summer camp and banded together, despite the challenges of the time, to create Camp Meenahga, a place that girls and young women would return to, like boomerangs, summer after summer from 1916 to 1948.
Clark and Mabley grew up in post-Civil War St. Louis. They were raised and lived with the austere and exacting Victorian societal expectations for women of the time. So when Kidy Mabley found herself a widow with three young daughters, and Alice Clark took her own children and left an unhappy marriage, they knew that beginning an endeavor without husbands would be a challenge. Clark would later remember, “We had no place to start a camp, but we went on ahead with all the confidence in the world.”
The place they would eventually find, far to the Midwestern north, would become the place that steered the course of their and many girls’ lives: Peninsula State Park in Door County. Clark shared with her friend Elizabeth Crunden that she and Mabley wished to open a summer camp for girls. Crunden and her husband Frank had built a summer home in 1898 on Cottage Row in Fish Creek, a very popular vacation place for wealthy Midwestern families. As Elizabeth described the beauty of Door County’s cool weather, deep woods and sandy beaches, Alice became intrigued. She did research and learned of a unique spot near Sturgeon Bay called Sawyer that seemed initially ideal; it was an area rife with blueberries. Clark recalled lines from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “The Song of Hiawatha”: “By the river’s brink he wandered…Saw the blueberry, Meenahga…” Before the women even decided on the precise location, they decided on the name for their new camp: Meenahga. The location would change, once Crunden urged them to consider Peninsula State Park, but the name would remain.
After a visit to the area, escorted by none other than Peninsula State Park’s first superintendent Albert Doolittle, the women knew they had found the spot for their camp. They had chosen a place along Shore Road, at that time, the abandoned Evenson family farm, and Alice noted how suitable it was for a camp: “That farm site seemed to have everything I could imagine a camp would need. A huge threshing barn for the dining room and recreational hall… Across the lawn was a farm cottage which seemed adequate for the living quarters of the two families, except for the camping girls who would live in tents.” While the buildings from the farm, and the rest of the buildings erected on the camp premises, are no longer there, some remnants of Camp Meenahga remain near the Skyline parking lot and Tennis Court Road. Those with a careful eye can still spot things such as building foundations, latrines, and a stone staircase that led down to the camp’s dock. This summer, Peninsula State Park’s Like to Hike program highlights the anniversary of the camp. The commemorative pin for Meenahga and more information on the camp can be found at the Park’s Headquarters.
The first summer in 1916, 30 campers boarded a train leaving St. Louis, making their way to Chicago, Green Bay, and eventually Sturgeon Bay, bearing trunks holding the camp essentials including woolen bloomers, white middy blouses, a yellow silk tie (the camp color), one pair high water-proofed boots for hikes, and one raincoat and Nor’wester hat. Some campers even arrived to Fish Creek or Ephraim by steamer ship.
At Meenahga, sportsmanship and camaraderie, along with decorum were stressed. Campers began every morning with a swim in Green Bay, played sports like basketball and tennis, learned and mastered swimming and canoeing, rode and competed on horseback, performed in dramatic plays, wrote songs and stories, and took wilderness trips. Additionally, they reserved Sunday for church in town, enjoyed trips to Folda’s Island (now Horseshoe Island), and practiced such etiquette as posture and letter writing. So much of what the girls spent their days on seemed motivated by developing the campers’ respect, tolerance, and cooperation. Camp Director Mabley was fondly remembered for coining her famous camp phrase: “Do it girls, because it’s good for your character.”
When summer’s end approached, with much anticipation came the Banquet. Mrs. Clark and Mrs. Mabley wore gowns, the counselors decorated the dining hall, and the magical evening would inspire songs, reflection, and the anticipated announcements of awards. All summer long, the campers had been separated into the Yellows and the Purples, two teams that competed earning stars along the way. At the banquet, the winning team would be announced as well as the coveted “M” awards, for the campers that excelled in areas like canoeing and horsemanship. However, it was the announcement of the Spirit “M” Award that was most anticipated. The award was given to the one camper of the season who best exhibited Meenahga’s spirit: loyalty, compassion, and tolerance.
One-hundred years later, this sense of Door County spirit remains. At the end of summer in 1919, camper Betty Fairfield wrote, “Through their sports and games, their gaiety and happy idleness, and wise and loving leadership, came a love of life, of the country, and knowledge of the close and friendly intimacy with nature. They learned a truer and deeper friendship based on play and working together, and mutual aspirations. And last and greatest of all, they learned not only to love, but to know their fellow men. Surely a greater thing cannot be accomplished in the world.”
For more information, stories, photographs, and relics of Camp Meenahga visit the Ephraim Historical Foundation’s 2016 Exhibit Two Roads Diverged: Camp Meenahga and Camp Peninsular in Peninsula State Park at the Anderson Barn Museum. Camp Peninsular was the CCC camp in the park from 1935-1937 whose men created much of the early state park structures like stone walls and campgrounds. Visit Ephraim.org for more information.
Lauren Bremer is an English teacher and volleyball coach at Gibraltar High School. She lives with her children in Baileys Harbor. Peninsula State Park Naturalist Kathleen Harris gave her the gift of knowledge and work in allowing Bremer to help research and edit a forthcoming book on Camp Meenahga, which will be available this fall. A former camper herself, Bremer loves the magic and memory that life at camp creates.