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The Fresh Air Camp

A fresh idea

Campers, circa 1923. (Image: Ann Arbor District Library.)

Fresh Air campers, circa 1923. (Image: Ann Arbor District Library.)

The idea occured to two idealistic young men in 1919.

Lewis Reimann, class of 1916, had been a football tackle under Coach Fielding Yost and Big Ten champion in heavyweight wrestling. Thomas Evans was general secretary of the Student Christian Association, then one of the most active organizations on the campus.

Both were proponents of a movement called “muscular Christianity.” They believed, as an admirer put it later, “that on the University campus there were virile men of Christian character who would gladly spend a large share of their summer vacation, not just for pay or for the outing, but to inspire, direct, and befriend boys whose lives were cramped.” Under such direction, the boys “would come to believe that there are men of ideals who care for them and want to make them good.”

With that, the University of Michigan Fresh Air Camp began.

After two years in temporary quarters, the camp put down roots on the shore of Patterson Lake ­— near Pinckney, twenty-some miles northwest of Ann Arbor. Private donors had contributed 170 acres, much of it unspoiled hardwood forest, as a permanent home.

From the beginning, the camp embraced an extraordinary dual purpose. On the one hand, it was a haven for kids with problems, with no restrictions as to race, creed, or national origin — though it was limited just to boys for many years.

On the other, it was a laboratory for researchers and students to determine how best to teach and help such kids.

“At risk”

Counselors with hawk

Handling hawks, 1947. (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

In the early years, the experts called them “troubled boys.” They were mostly white, a few black, all born to poor and working-class parents and living in “a condition of community, family, and personal disorganization [and] in conflict with and at cross-purposes with their parents.” Most were from Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Hamtramck. In later decades, researchers amended the description to “children at risk.”

The Fresh Air Camp, as expressed early on, had a clear mission: “to benefit boys of limited means and limited opportunities for outdoor life, and to afford a means of stimulating University men to an interest in intelligent leadership among boys.” They could “learn to feel the throb of nature, to learn games, stories, how to swim, fish and row a boat…”

Each summer through the 1920s and ’30s, 400-some boys spent periods of 10 days to four weeks at the camp. (Later the number was closer to 250 per summer.) Some came from foster homes. Most were selected by officers of the juvenile court, social-service organizations, and children’s aid societies.

Social workers and educators from U-M increasingly taught and supervised the camp counselors, many of them U-M students and recent graduates. In the late 1930s, the University began to offer summer-session courses to students working there. Staff members conferred with each boy’s sponsor before and after his time at the camp, coordinating plans for how best to help him.

“Healthful treatment”

Camper shaves at outdoor sink.

Camp in all its morning glory. (Image courtesy of the Ann Arbor District Library.)

Year by year, construction crews replaced tents with wooden lodges, cabins, and a clubhouse, even as the Great Depression tightened purse strings. By the end of World War II, the camp facilities comprised more than 25 buildings, including classrooms, a workshop, and an infirmary.

In the 1940s, another private donor added a hundred more acres to the site, and the private association that had held the property since the ’20s deeded the entire camp to the University. Generous private individuals continued to fund basic operations, while a board consisting mostly of interested U-M faculty oversaw the programs. From the 1940s to the ’60s, U-M’s Institute for Human Adjustment (later incorporated into the Mary A. Rackham Institute) oversaw camp operations.

The usual range of waterfront activities — swimming, diving, rowing, sailing, and life-saving lessons — consumed the daylight hours. At night, there were campfire programs, skits, and story-telling. Campers played softball and volleyball, boxed and wrestled, and jumped on trampolines. As they explored the forest, they learned about the state’s animals, insects, birds, and trees.

It wasn’t all fun and games, though. Some issues exceeded the counselors’ expertise, even with University-trained social workers and teachers on site. A history of the camp written in the mid-1950s described it this way:

“These boys present problematic behavior in a far higher incidence than would be true in the usual camp. Many times they are very difficult to manage. At all times they present a challenge to the insight and ingenuity of the adult.” Signs of “maladjustment, sometimes severe and deeply rooted,” were common.

“All he needed…”

No one believed that 10 days at a summer camp would turn troubled kids entirely around. But there were successes. “No counselor leaves camp without having experienced the satisfaction of seeing a boy respond favorably to healthful treatment and express his need for real affection. Often the attachment of a boy for camp and for counselor does not end with the close of the season, but continues for years.”

Another history says: “One of the boys had run away from three different camps under stress of acute misunderstanding. He was called a problem boy, yet all that he needed was to be given some channel in which to express himself. He was given the task of cheerleader, and got on famously.”

“Delinquent boys were not delinquent in camp,” a director noted in 1937, “and … one gang of boys, all delinquents, showed marked improvement after the camp experience.”

A new era

Boy in wheelchair with counselor.

In the 1960s, the camp shifted its focus to children with disabilities. (Image: U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

In the 1960s, the School of Education assumed control of the camp and shifted its focus to serve children with mental disabilities. Then, in the late ’70s, funding faded and the camp closed. For 25 years U-M used the property to host meetings, retreats, research, and classes.

In 2005, the University decided to sell the old campground. But Doug Armstrong, a nurse and director of clinical research in University Hospital’s transplant program, stepped in with a rescue plan. (Read: Doug Armstrong’s labor of love.)

Armstrong had been one of several transplant staffers who ran week-long summer programs for young transplant recipients at various locations. Now he saw a chance to base the programs in one spot close to Ann Arbor. He negotiated a lease with the University and began to seek support from foundations. Partnerships were arranged with medical centers across Michigan and in Chicago.

In 2011, a new nonprofit camp opened under the name North Star Reach. Cost-free to campers, every year it offers the programs of a traditional summer camp to a thousand children with serious medical conditions — new life for the old fresh-air idea.

(Top image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library. Sources: The papers of the Fresh Air Camp, 1922-79, are housed at the Bentley Historical Library. See also the entry for the camp in The University of Michigan: An Encyclopedic Survey.)

Comments

  1. Deborah Schmidt - 1978

    I was a counselor at the Fresh Air Camp during the summer of 1975. I remember it being a very challenging but rewarding experience. The camp was coed then and the children had a range of disabilities. I recall that a girl on the autism spectrum was especially difficult to manage. I had just graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a bachelors degree in psychology and wanted some experience before applying for graduate school in social work which I attended at the University of Michigan. I’m now retired and am volunteering at Easter Seals of Michigan so I guess I’ve come full circle.

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  2. Essie Johnson - 1971

    I was one of the graduate students at the big M who had an opportunity to work at the camp. It was a great experience and I am delighted that the camp is continuing the tradition of service to others. I still remember my experiences there and this story brought back great memories.

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  3. Jeff Squires - 1974

    The U of M Fresh Air Camp was my first of 40 years working with children. As a sophomore at EMU I was unsure of what direction / profession I wanted to persue. My sister Susan, who worked for the camp two prior summers, suggested that I work at the camp. It was life changing. I remember the three campers I was assigned, the dedicated staff, and the wonderful outdoor life Michigan offered in mid-summer. The camp was my first introduction working with children. That wonderful experience pointed me toward being a classroom teacher / administrator. The Fresh Air Camp on Patterson Lake was life changing.
    Thank You.
    Jeff Squires

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  4. Cynthia (Otto) Zech - 1982

    I had a great experience as a counselor in the summer of 1979 when I was included at Fresh Air Camp via the PE department at Michigan. I was awaiting admission to the UM Physical Therapy program when the program was still at the Ann Arbor campus as part of the Medical school. Dr Joseph Price and Dr. Vaughn were directing the camp that year, and guided my participation as the director of PE at the camp. Working with challenged children from a variety of backgrounds aided my professional growth but more importantly provided a lifetime of memories of some very amazing eight to ten year olds who faced lifetimes of adversity. I will never forget these strong young people.

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  5. Ralph Young - 1962 and 1965 (MSW)

    I met wife Dorothy Dentan from ASU there.

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  6. Samuel Simpson

    I remember being a participant of the Fresh Air Camp as a child of 10 years.

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  7. Howard Weinblatt - BA1968

    I worked at the Fresh Air Camp the summer of 1967. The camp was still for children chosen by courts, social services agencies and parole officers. Counselors were all working professionals on track for MAs or PhDs. I was lucky enough to tag on as an undergrad psych major helping with “camp craft” (teaching child arsonists how to start a campfire and knife fighters how to use an axe to chop wood) as an independent studies course; the most intriguing and useful 8 hours of credit during my eduction. The camp was run by Fritz Redl and David Wineman of the Psychology and Social Work programs respectively. Their books, “The Children Who Hate” and “The Aggressive Child” were classics of the time.

    At the end of July, the Detroit Riot began. On the third day, a late evening meeting was called for all staff. We were told that the White House had called the Camp Directors that morning and wanted answers on “what to do about the riots in the next 48 hours”. As you can imagine, that call itself said the most about why our society was facing increasing disruption from its racial, economic and wartime policies.

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  8. John Hunting - Masters in Education - 1963 (?)

    Thank you for writing this article as I always wondered what happened to the camp. One of the original donors of the property was my grandfather, Marvin Allen Ives. He bought it in honor of his late wife, Virginia Reno Ives, and if you go to the top of the little hill you should find a plaque honoring her unless it has been removed. (I believe Mr. Barnhart from Ann Arbor was the other donor.)

    When I was working on my Masters degree in the early 60’s I served as a counselor for a summer. It was one of the best experiences of my life and I sometimes regret I didn’t follow a different path that involved working with problem kids. My co-counselor was Kay Mobley and I hope she is well wherever she is.

    Dave Wineman was amazing in the way he handled the problem kids. At this period of the camp’s existence, it took in problem kids referred by social workers from around the state. In return, each kid was written up by staff and that report went back to the social worker – at least that’s the way I remember it. Since I could play the guitar, my role was to lead the singing at the meals and everywhere else. I loved it.

    Thanks again for the article and many many thanks to Mr. Armstrong (truly, an All-American) for bringing it back to life. I am sure my Grandfather would be pleased. John Hunting

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    • Steve Stocker - MSW from Wayne State Univ. 1967

      Didn’t work at the Camp but I visited there for a weekend one summer and met several of the counselors. I was a student of Dave Wineman at Wayne State School of Social Work in 1966 and 67 and used his book Children who Hate extensively in my work at the Wayne County Juvenile Court. I just did a Google search for Dave and found that he died of cancer in 1995 at the age of 79.

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  9. Larry Brendtro - Grad student 1963 and Senior Staff in 1964, 1965, and 1967

    The history and philosophy of the camp is described by long-time director Dr. William C. Morse of the University of Michigan (he was Fritz Redl’s graduate assistant when the camp became a therapeutic training center in 1941 and was my doctoral advisor). Bill Morse authored the book Connecting with Kids in Conflict: A Life Space Legacy in 2008 when he was 90 years old.

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