From the Archives: The Summer That Wasn’t

In the Summer of 1918, Nobody Showed Up to Camp.

No tents were unpacked. No staff arrived. No campers were dropped off. For the first and only time in camp history, no memories were made or friendships grown. Then, like today, the magic of camp began when the worries and troubles of the outside world were left at the front gate. In the summer of 1918, however, not even camp could hide from the tumultuous events transforming the world outside.

YMCA Camp Coniston began as a small outing club for boys in 1911. Permanent summer camp programming began the next summer on Rand’s Pond in Goshen, NH, under the name Camp Soangetaha. Four years later, the camp made a successful transition into co-ed programming (as one of the first camps to do so). However, as camp grew in the years leading up to 1918, so too did a crisis in Europe and around the world. The impact of World War I on communities across the United States and around the globe is well documented. One such document, discovered over a century later, revealed just how much of an impact the conflict had on our own organization.

YMCA Relief Around the Globe

Although we don’t known much about our camp’s history during World War I, the history of the YMCA and our local Y involvement in the war effort is better understood. The YMCA in the United States began work in war zones during the Civil War in 1861. During the conflict, YMCA members worked together to provide relief services to troops at nearby military camps. Consequently, this commission became the first large-scale civilian service corps and was commended by President Lincoln. Thanks to the success of these efforts, the YMCA developed more programs throughout the second half of the 19th century dedicated towards troops services in war and peace. In the onset of the Spanish-American War, the YMCA sent 500 volunteers to Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.

“I sincerely hope your plan may be as successful in execution, as it is just and generous in conception.”

-President Abraham Lincoln, 1861

The U.S. military held the Y’s work in such high regard that they established a committee to work with the organization officially. Thus, as the United States’ entry into The Great War loomed, organizers in the American Y planned their relief efforts. They heavily recruited financial and volunteer support. Posters from this time, which hang in our office today (pictured in the gallery below), communicated the need for Y services.

Two decades later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt requested that the Y lead the effort to mobilize military support during World War II. In fact, it was the YMCA along with the YWCA, National Catholic Community Services, Jewish Welfare Board, Salvation Army, and National Travelers Aid Association that came together to form the United Services Organization (USO).

…And At Home

The United States entered World War I on April 6th, 1917. Although America had been neutral for the first three years of the conflict, it didn’t take long for communities across the country to rally troops and support for the new war effort. The Granite State provided 20,000 New Hampshirites for the conflict. After they were off to Europe, those who remained at home were left to contemplate how they could offer support to those abroad.

The results were extraordinary.

The state invested millions in Liberty Loans for the federal government. Citizens donated to aid organizations, such as the Red Cross and YMCA. At that time, the Sullivan County Y administered Camp Soangetaha. Together, Sullivan County Y campers, volunteers, and staff raised $155,000 dollars to aid the troops abroad. Due to inflation, that equals roughly $3,050,000 today!

The Discovery

Most of what we know about camp history is in the form of primary sources (first-hand accounts). Our main primary sources from the 1910s are town records, newspapers, and our own publications. Town records and newspapers lay out what we know about the formation of camp in the early 1910s. A beautifully intact Camp Soangetaha brochure from 1919 offers a glimpse into life at camp. Besides the fundraising effort in 1917, there was no evidence that anything was out of the ordinary at camp during that time… until the spring of 2019!

In the fall and winter of 2018, alumnus Paul “The Wall” Marcotte scoured the web for Coniston, Interlaken, and Soangetaha memorabilia and donated an excellent collection of post cards, letters, and publications from five decades to camp. Among these was a letter from Maynard L. Carpenter to a potential camper from 1919 (pictured in the gallery below). At first glance, the letter doesn’t look like anything groundbreaking. However, one line of text shifts the weight of this discovery from interesting to camp history-changing.

“As you know there was no camp last year on account of the War but I hope that you will be able to be with us this year.”

-Camp Director Maynard L. Carpenter, May 14, 1919

The letter is addressed to a Howard, who won a spot in camp thanks to a prize from the Boys and Girls Agricultural Club in 1917. Camp director Carpenter wrote the letter to Howard as a reminder. Carpenter writes, “As you know there was no camp last year on account of the War but I hope that you will be able to be with us this year.” The rest of the letter mentions a “booklet” (which we believe that we have in the archives) and how to apply (certainly not online like today!). Additionally, the margins of the letter offer a fascinating glimpse into camp life with pictures, basic personnel info, and a daily schedule.

So… What Happened?

The letter is a treasure trove of valuable information about camp. Nevertheless, it generates more questions than answers. What specifically about World War I caused camp to shutter for a summer? Was the Sullivan County YMCA, which oversaw Soangetaha, busy with the war effort? Had too many staff or potential staff members joined the military? Were families cutting back expenses? Was Camp simply in its infancy and thus was less flexible to open in adverse conditions?

The letter offers a specific reason for camp’s closing, but only reveals more mysteries. Is this the only summer camp has missed? As far as we know: yes. But camp has been around through seismic world events, such as World War II and the Great Depression. Twice as many troops served in World War II as World War I for the United States, only two and a half decades later and over a longer period of time. The Great Depression lasted over a decade. Yet it was only a part of an even longer history of economic decline and stagnation in the state of New Hampshire, as the local mills and farms became less and less profitable.

Surely if camp missed a summer during a comparatively shorter conflict like World War I, it is possible that it missed another summer in the following decades. Somewhere, a piece of evidence exists that answers these questions. But for now, the answers remain unknown.

President Woodrow Wilson called World War I the “war to end all wars.” It wasn’t. But we’ve been trying. So long as there is conflict and misunderstanding in the world, we all rely on places that teach and foster acceptance, inclusion, and understanding.

Places like camp.

 

 

Thank you to Paul Marcotte for the donation that kicked off this article. For further reading, check out this awesome timeline by Armed Services YMCA, or this blog that comprehensively yet succinctly talks about NH during WWI, or this official NH history. As always, the Coniston Blog is a great source of camp history. 

 

What do YOU want to read about Coniston and its history? Contact jack@coniston.org with questions and comments.

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