Rick Richter's Letter to Alumni/ae

Rick Richter (1).jpg

To all alumni/ae of Camp Rising Sun:

The first newspaper of Camp's first summer (volume 1, number 1, August 9, 1930) described a daily schedule quite different from the daily camp schedules of today -- Reveille at 6:30 AM, then only 5 minutes later either "morning dip" (in the ice-cold Sawkill water) or "exercises", then "personal inspection," and later in the day "club work," "washing," "berrying", "water polo," "boxing," etc. But 20 summers later the daily schedule had evolved into something easily recognizable today. A camper from 1950 (my own first CRS summer) could return to Camp today and would have no trouble understanding what was going on, even though Camp is now in a different location.  In 1950, and now 68 years later in 2018, and I think also in all the years in between, the typical schedule has included instructions and projects, teamwork (formerly called "squad work") and tent prep after breakfast, rest period after lunch, evening programs, Formal Council once a week, several Assemblies during the day (with tent reports and with everyone waiting for any missing campers to appear), and several free periods (now called "self-structured times") during the day.

But many details about how things are done have changed. In 1950, for example, any camper could attend any instruction and did not need to tell anyone in advance which one he had chosen. As a counselor I would go to the place where my instruction would be held (under the old catalpa tree was my favorite location for that) without having any idea how many campers would show up there -- sometimes I had almost the entire camp attending, and on a few occasions other counselors' instructions proved to be more attractive and nobody would show up for mine. Today attendance at instructions is planned in advance, with campers indicating on small slips of paper which instruction they preferred, and with a sachem reading, at Assembly just before Instructions, a list of the campers who would attend each. Projects are also centrally coordinated in a way not occurring in 1950. In 2018 the Projects Counselor handed me a list of 10 approved projects ("dining hall murals", "finishing up the tent hill picnic tables," "make the old tree house and dock safe again," and 7 others, with a list of campers and the counselor participating in each. That would not have been possible in 1950.

I visited Camp three days after the girls' session began, and again three days after the beginning of the boys' session. The girls sang their traditional welcoming song, which for many years was written on the dining room wall, but that wall which separated the dining room from the room called "Anatolia" has now been removed, creating a much enlarged dining area. The boys welcomed me with "On the banks of the winding Sawkill...", and they, as well as the girls, actually got to see the Sawkill, since overnight camping trips, which once took campers to the Catskills, are now relocated to the old Red Hook boys' campsite. Since the Old House, ED Hall, and the Camp Director's house at Red Hook are all closed and inaccessible, their camping trips to Red Hook were real outdoor experiences. I am told that the trail up tent hill at Red Hook is still usable even though it is beginning to be overgrown as a result of disuse, but one can still climb up to Chateau Rock at the top without difficulty, and, en route, can see the tent platforms, still standing and unused since 2014. However most of the Red Hook campus including tent hill has not been sprayed for ticks in recent years, and anyone visiting that campus should take precautions to protect against ticks which are very numerous there.

One new feature of the currently used Clinton campsite is a baby catalpa tree, planted in honor of Rick and Nita Luis, which had 28 leaves when I saw it in early August. But eight significant trees have been lost to disease in the past year. The lake on the Clinton campsite is as beautiful as ever, with beaver dams keeping the water level high. On tent hill there are now four lean-tos, one occupied by staff and three by campers. As tent canvases wear out, one by one, the tents are being replaced with lean-tos, each of which will be named after the tent it replaces. Since tent canvases last about ten years, there will still be tents on tent hill for several years to come, but fewer each year, and eventually "tent hill" will presumably come to be called "lean-to hill."  In the main building, the old Thunderbird rug from the traditional Red Hook campsite hangs on a wall near the main building entrance, and directly opposite from it is a rug that came to LAJF as a gift from the Tianjin (China) Foreign Language School, which has sent campers to CRS for about 18 years now.

The camp bulletin board contains attached folders into which a camper may place project proposals, instruction proposals, and publication submissions. Also on the bulletin board is a sheet on which a camper can indicate a topic that he/she wishes to learn about, and/or a topic on which he or she is prepared to teach. And information is posted there advising campers about how to tell what ringing bells mean. Three rings followed by two rings with this sequence repeated three times is a signal for the dining hall team to report. One ring followed by two rings repeated three times tells campers that they have five minutes before Assembly. The assembly bell involves two rings repeated five times. and continuous ringing means an emergency.


I gave the Instructions that I have been giving every year, on History of Camp and on The American College System, but the most important thing about this is not anything that I said but rather the audience reaction. At the end of each instruction I received applause in the form of clapping, which, as all alumni/ae know, has not been the usual way of expressing approval of something at CRS.

In the early 20th century, American boys were fascinated by what they thought (sometimes accurately and sometimes not) to be "Indian" ways of life, and CRS in its early years reflected this. That fascination faded later in the century, and CRS has abandoned, one after another, the various "Indian" traditions, rituals and words that it, along with many other camps, adopted long ago. "Indian" traditions have disappeared from Formal Council. And campers in recent years have begun to question the appropriateness of using real or imagined native American words and rituals in other aspects of Camp life. I think that the only recently remaining imitations of "Indian" traditions have been the word "sachem" for officially appointed leaders, and "howhow" to indicate approvals, and the latter now seems to be disappearing.   

Where did Camp's "Indian" traditions come from? Roland Sundown, a member of the Seneca tribe and a counselor at CRS, introduced some of them in the 1930s. But he did not introduce "sachem" or "howhow." These were introduced at CRS in the very first summer, 1930, a fact that is proven by their appearance in the camp newspapers of that summer (dated August 9 and August 25).  But in summer 1930 Roland Sundown was a counselor at Camp Henry, a camp run by the Henry Street Settlement House in New York City. He did not come to CRS until the next summer, 1931. These words, and some other "Indian" traditions, were introduced in 1930 by one of Freddie's friends who visited Camp often, Mr. Carol Stryker, Assistant Director of the Public Museum of the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences. And it seems likely that he got his information from a book, Camping and Character, by Hedley S. Dimock and Charles E. Hendry, published in 1929 and thus very new when CRS began in 1930. Freddie had a copy of that book in his library and one of the authors, Charles E. Hendry, visited Camp sometime in the 1930s (I forget which year, but not 1930). Camping and Character, in turn, got its "Indian" traditions from Camp Ahmek, founded in 1921 in the wilderness of Ontario Canada, a camp which claims among its alumni the now-deceased former Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and his son Justin Trudeau who is the current Prime Minister. The book Camping and Character is partially a description of Camp Ahmek as it was in the 1920s (it has undergone changes since then) and the book's two authors were both staff members there. The Camp Ahmek of the 1920s, in turn, got its "Indian" traditions from a book entitled The Birch Bark Roll of the Woodcraft Indians, by Ernest Thompson Seton, who grew up in Canada but later became a US citizen. That book, which appeared in many editions, was popular in the United States, Canada, and several European countries, and many camps obtained from it information about "Indian" customs.

Seton sought to identify what he thought were the "best" practices of the "best" Indians, and to create, among non-Indian American youth, imitation-Indian "tribes" using these practices, with these "tribes" united in what he called the "Woodcraft League." He influenced CRS indirectly through his influence on Camp Ahmek in the 1920s. There might also have been a more direct influence of Seton on CRS. We are not sure about this. But Freddie knew about Seton's work and on August 2, 1930, he wrote to Seton inviting him to "visit our camp and aid in the development and study of the Indian rituals." Seton declined, saying that "I am wholly tied up with the building of my own Indian Village out here" (in Santa Fe), and suggested that CRS "organize as a tribe of the Woodcraft League," which of course CRS did not do.

While real or imagined native American traditions have been disappearing from CRS, other traditions remain. A camper's birthday will still be celebrated by other campers singing "Happy Birthday" in many languages. People at Camp still hold up two fingers to call for silence. Campers still hold vigils, which are now conducted in accordance with detailed Health Department requirements. (While I visited the boys' Camp only three days after the boys arrived, they were taken on a tour of the campsite, a tour which included looking at 60 vigil sites.) And campers still sing songs familiar to campers of earlier generations -- e.g., Green Grow the Rushes O, The White Dawn, O Tempora O Mores, Down by the Riverside, Country Roads, Vive L'Amour, etc. And as in earlier years at Clinton and also in Red Hook, during free times one could often find chess games under way in the campers' lounge, and also the use of numerous musical instruments, piano, guitar, drums, flutes, accordion, and trumpets. When I asked whether it was still customary for a camper to sing if he/she received three letters in one day, I was reminded that letter-writing has become a disappearing activity in today's world, but campers still sing or dance if they receive packages.

In the first summer of 1930, Camp had 25 campers (all white New York boys), and the staff, according to a letter that Freddie wrote on October 15, 1930, consisted of "the cook and his wife, the farmer who raises the vegetables, the Camp Director and three counselors." This summer Camp had 63 girls and 63 boys (girls in July and boys in August) and a staff of 26 (which this year happened to include a relatively large number of 2012 alumni/ae). The large staff is partially due to numerous Health Department rules that either did not exist or were not enforced in the old days. Countries newly represented this summer include Cameroon, Liberia, and Iraq (Kurdistan). Campers have come from Greenland in recent years, and within the past few years there have been campers from Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan. Some countries that have sent campers to CRS for many years now have very large alumni associations. And, although I have discussed this elsewhere and will therefore not go into details about it here, a gigantic change affecting Camp in this century has been the emergence of new forms of communication via the internet, which now enables campers after they return home to remain in contact with their campmates and with the Foundation office, in ways that would have been inconceivable to campers of earlier generations.

There have also been great changes involving facilities and staff. In the early 1950s when I was at Camp, there was no infirmary, no camp nurse, no swimming pool (campers swam in the Sawkill, now forbidden by the Health Dept.), no hot water for campers' showers, no fire extinguishers on tent hill, no mosquito nets, no need to spray the campgrounds for ticks or to take other precautions to prevent tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease, no complex Health Dept. rules about the number of counselors who must be present at all times. It is no longer possible to run a camp the way CRS was run in those days. But as I have suggested here, many things remain the same or with only minor changes. And campers continue to report, after they have returned home, that they have had amazing, wonderful, life-transforming experiences at CRS.  

I am now revising the history of Camp that I wrote. The current version has 67 pages and the new version will be slightly longer. Would you like a copy? If so, send an email message to me at mauricerichter@gmail.com and I will send it to you when it is ready, as an attachment to an email message. And I am always pleased to hear from you anyway!

Best wishes to all of you!  Rick (Maurice Richter)