The 4 Most Confusing Points of Coniston History… Explained!

Answers To Some Of The Most Baffling Questions In Coniston History (You Might Not Have Known That You Had)

With over 100 years of Coniston history, it’s easy for even the most stalwart Conistonian to confuse the facts with fiction. Soangetaha? Interlaken? Churchill? Straighten out your Camp Coniston history and test your knowledge (or confirm what you already know) with these historical bits!

1. Did Winston Churchill Found Camp Coniston?

Those who know a little bit about our history have probably heard that at some point early on, Winston Churchill (but not the prime-minister one!) lent a hand in establishing our original organization. First of all, it’s fair to say that Soangetaha did not have one specific leader or founder from its outset. The genesis of camp depended on a variety of favorable conditions, including the growth of close-knit yet rural communities, generous philanthropy, and the societal acknowledgement of the importance of investing in the experiences of youth. This environment served as the catalyst for key figures to make an impact, each with their own strength.

Coniston (novel)

Camp’s copy of Churchill’s novel Coniston

Charles Alden Tracy was a local leader in community building and what we now call youth development who saw potential in an outdoor program. Ernest Baynes was an eccentric ecologist and esteemed communicator who inspired the region to embrace conservationism. Richard M. Colgate, of Colgate-Palmolive, was able to use his connections and resources to support the camp in its earliest, fledgling years. Additionally, author Winston Churchill worked among these figures, serving on the earliest camp boards and lending his first-rate writing prowess to the task of describing and marketing camp.

In 1906, Winston Churchill was one of the biggest authors in America. He wrote a wildly popular corruption-themed political novel, Coniston, which took place in a fictionalized version of camp’s current hometown, Croydon. Consequently, Churchill developed friendships with both Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, as well as local artists at the St. Gaudens studio, allowing him to meet and work with some other camp visionaries mentioned above. Furthermore, Churchill even led leadership discussions at Soangetaha with the then-governor of New Hampshire, Governor Robert P. Bass.

2. What was Camp Soangetaha?

The Sullivan County YMCA opened Camp Soangetaha in 1911, which operated for one summer at the Meriden Bird Sanctuary in nearby Meriden, NH. Known briefly as the “Rural Boys Institute,” this group of campers focused on hiking and outdoorsmanship. On August 3, 1911, beneath the tall pines of the sanctuary, they began hiking and exploring the wilderness.

Soangetaha Logo

The 1936 Camp Soangetaha Logo featuring Longfellow’s Hiawatha character.

The next year, Dartmouth students selected the name “Soangetaha,” taken from a line in Longfellow’s epic 1855 poem “The Song of Hiawatha” for the official camp name. At the time, the Sullivan County YMCA operated out of a building on the Dartmouth campus. The titular, fictional protagonist of the story, Hiawatha, eventually served as Soangetaha’s logo (not to be confused with the actual historical figure). Some of you eagle-eyed Conistonians may have noticed Peter Parker reading this poem in Spider-Man 2 (2004).

 

“All the village came and feasted,
All the guests praised Hiawatha,
Called him Strong-Heart, Soan-ge-taha!
Called him Loon-Heart, Mahn-go-taysee!”

–Longfellow, “The Song of Hiawatha”

 

Another massive change that occurred in 1912 shaped the direction of camp for the next half century. Due to the popularity of the program, camp was looking for a more permanent location. Consequently, the camp received a generous offer from a local doctor to use some of his summer property on Rand Pond in Goshen, NH, approximately 10 miles from where camp is located today.

This set-up worked for a few decades, but by the 1930s Rand Pond had begun to accumulate too many people, both on camp and around the lake. The shores remained crowded for another two and a half decades. Eventually, some key figures involved in Coniston history took action to relocate the camp (but we’ll get to them later).

3. Sooo Where Does Camp Interlaken Come Into Play?

Due to the increased activity and development on the lake, Soangetaha’s success necessitated a move. But what does moving a camp look like? Where to even start? Chairman of the board George Dorr and Director Doug Reed decided to start from the skies.

Camp Interlaken

Mid-century photograph of Camp Interlaken campers and staff.

Piloting a single-prop plane, the pair searched across western New Hampshire, scouting locations for the new camp. Certainly, serendipity struck when the owner of one of the favorite locations wanted to put it for sale! For decades, Camp Interlaken hugged the shores of Lake Coniston and operated as a private girls camp. Because of its ideally suited camp facilities, the categorical beauty of the Lake Coniston waters and surrounding habitat seemed the ideal location to house the future of Soangetaha. Above all, the Dudley family who owned the property wanted to sell. As the airborne duo was about to discover however, it is a lot easier to fall in love with a camp than it is to buy one.

Primarily, the board needed to focus on raising the capital for the move. Board Chair Dorr and others in the Newport community raised well over $50,000 for the effort. Consequently, Dorr flew between Switzerland (he was negotiating an update to the GATT treaty for the U.S. at the time) and D.C. to negotiate with the Dudley family to purchase the Camp Interlaken property. Finally, Dorr (on behalf of the YMCA of New Hampshire Western District) and the Dudleys came to an agreement. With additional funds from the YMCA, the land and facilities were purchased and became the new home for Camp Soangetaha. At last, after decades of discussion and years of planning and organizing, the Camp Soangetaha organization had room to grow.

 

Whatever happened to the property on Rand Pond? It’s still a campground today!

4. How did Coniston Get its Name?

You may think that Coniston is named after that famous book we mentioned above, and you’d be right.

But not in the way you’d think!

As mentioned in Question 1, Winston Churchill was a famous author who helped establish camp. His most famous work was Coniston, which took place in a fictional town based loosely off of Croydon, NH. A lot of people really liked it, and it contributed to molding some of the ideas of the progressive wing of the Republican party at the time. As a result, the novel worked its way into the hearts and collective memory of Croydon locals for years to come. Imagine how big a deal it would be if Netflix made a show about Croydon today!

Fast forward thirty-five years. Until 1943, “Long Pond” was the home of Camp Interlaken. However, New Hampshire had so many bodies of water called “Long Pond” at the time that the state requested for the Dudley’s to change the lake’s name. The family decided on the name of their favorite book, Coniston. Thus, Lake Coniston was born!

In 1969, the YMCA had operated camp on the Camp Interlaken facility for five years, but decided to change the camp’s name. Some candidates at the time included Camp Dorr (after board chair and camp visionary George Dorr), Camp George Williams (after the founder of the YMCA), Long Pond YMCA Camp, Camp Wilderness, YMCA Camp Timber Lake, and the continued use of YMCA Camp Soangetaha (which was voted second place). Eventually, the board decided to adopt the name of the lake for the name of the camp. Therefore, camp is named after the book written by one of its founders only through serendipity.

BONUS: How Did the Loon Become Coniston’s mascot??

The common loon (Gavia immer), sometimes called a great northern diver, has been a part of Coniston history and lore for generations. However, there was a time not too long ago when the loon almost ended up on the endangered species list!

Loon Logo

The first official loon logo, adopted in 1994

The mid-20th century was a troubling time for loon populations across the country. Peaking in the late 1960s through early 1970s, many of America’s waterways were too polluted to be suitable for loon populations. At this time, New Hampshire hosted as few as 10 successful nesting pairs of loons. Thankfully, the 1972 Clean Water Act marked a turning point in the improvement of water quality. As a result, the loon and other avian species, such as bald eagle and osprey, began to flourish again.

So where does Camp fit into this story? When other lakes were too polluted to host loon populations, Coniston’s pristine conditions served as a haven for loon families until they could spread back out through the region. The Sanders’ first associated the loon with the Coniston organization during the 1970s, and worked with protection organizations to help preserve the species. Director Nancy LaRue made it our official symbol in 1994.

Like the loon, no matter what is going on outside of our Coniston valley, we can always rely on this space to help teach youth so that they may take the lessons learned here on the lake and spread them far beyond. The loon still serves as our symbol today, reminding us how important it is to take care of our environment and community.

Hungry for more Coniston history?!?

If you liked this article and want to learn more, then you’ll REALLY like the Coniston history timeline, available here. Make sure to check back on the main blog page for updates.

What do YOU want to know about Coniston history? What did you find surprising? Comment below or send your ideas to jack@coniston.org!

 

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