Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Brief History of Summer Camps in Kerr County

An early Camp Stewart yearbook
If I were to wager, I'd bet one industry brings more residents than any other to Kerrville and Kerr County: summer camps.
Over and again a new resident will tell me they first heard of our area when they were a child and attended summer camp here.  "I fell in love with the place then," they'll often say.  "And I knew one day I had to live here."
Often they've spent their entire career in a distant city, but the dream of living here continued, day by day, year by year.  And a lucky few make it here.
Imagine the experience of those early campers with me:
When the first camps in Kerr County opened, in the 1920s, there were no Interstate highways and air travel was extremely rare.  Most campers came from Texas's largest cities -- but especially from Dallas and Houston -- and they arrived by train.  Leaving the cities in the heat of summer, traveling half a day on the train, and then arriving here, where it's cooler because of the elevation, would have been a welcome trip.  Then campers were taken by automobile (or, occasionally, wagon) from the train depot to camp, traveling unpaved roads which dipped into the river, because there were few bridges.  Higher and higher the campers would travel, winding their way deeper into the green hills, following the ribbon of river.
When they finally arrived at their camp, and settled into their cabins, they found an enterprise hard at work, dedicated to their fun.  The green river beckoned.  Horseback riding was available.  Campers were taught to shoot guns, arrows; they were instructed in athletics; they learned to paddle a canoe.
And more than one camper wrote home to tell how good the food was at camp, how it was piled high on the tables, and how, after a day busy with camp activities, the food tasted so good.
Why wouldn't campers, even later in life, think of Kerr County as paradise?
Though Native American tribes were the first to "camp" along our river, summer camping as we know it today began in 1921 when Herbert Crate opened Camp Rio Vista between Ingram and Hunt.
Crate was the CEO of the Houston YMCA.  Knowing the "Y" had established camps along the eastern seaboard, Crate was certain the idea would work in Texas.
According to an article written by Jane Ragsdale in the "Kerr County Album," Crate called Rio Vista the "Summer Character Camp for Boys."
Crate attracted great counselors those early years, and many were university professors.  Camp Director under Crate was D. B. Calvin, PhD, head of the University of Texas Medical School's chemistry department, who devised meticulous diets and exercise regimens for each of the boys.
Rio Vista's gift for finding great counselors continues.  My long-time friend Philip Stacy, whose family had an ownership interest in Rio Vista when he was a child, remembers one of his favorite camp counselors from when he was a young camper: a young football star named Roger Staubach, who later gained fame with the Dallas Cowboys.
A vintage postcard featuring
Heart o' The Hills Inn
Crate's first summer was not what he expected: "100 men promised to send their sons if he opened a camp -- yet the first summer, Crate found himself with 21 counselors, and only 16 boys."  His words of wisdom for those who followed: "Never start a camp from scratch."
Despite his advice, other camps soon followed.
Edward J. "Doc" Stewart, the head football and basketball coach at the University of Texas at Austin in the early 1920s, is responsible for the beginning days of three well-known Kerr County camps: Camp Stewart for Boys, Heart o' The Hills Camp for Girls, and Camp Mystic.
Stewart started his first camp here, "Camp Texas" in 1924, using the old West Texas Fairgrounds as his site.  The fairgrounds were between today's Junction Highway and Guadalupe Street in Kerrville, in what is now neighborhoods behind the main Wells Fargo Bank location.
Given Stewart's career, it's easy to guess the focus of his camp: athletics.  He brought UT coaches with him, and even the director of the University Interscholastic League.  Football, basketball, track, tennis and volleyball were planned on the fairground's dusty old horse track, with water sports planned for the river.  Not surprisingly, the camp's colors were orange and white.
For three summers Stewart operated his camp in Kerrville, offering two 30 day terms.  In 1927 the camp moved to its present location, 16 miles west of Kerrville, above Hunt on the north fork of the Guadalupe River.
"No swearing, no tobacco, no gambling, no hazing" were among the first rules of the camp.  "The boys arose at 6:30 for 'setting up exercises or a plunge,' breakfast, inspection, and a morning of academic work for high school credits.  Athletics, swimming, horseback riding, riflery, and Boy Scouting were conducted in the afternoon.
I imagine the boys went to bed tired.
"Doc" Stewart started another camp in 1926, Camp Stewart for Girls, on the south fork of the Guadalupe; a year later it became Camp Mystic for Girls.  In those early days, Camp Mystic had 1400 acres, and the girls were housed in 18 log cabins constructed from cypress logs cut on the camp.
In those early days of summer camping in Kerr County, travel to the camps was not easy.  Most campers arrived by train ("only 12 hours from Dallas or Houston") and headed up the Guadalupe valley on unpaved roads which crossed the river numerable times in the river bed.
I am old enough to remember the highway past today's River Inn wandering in the water with only a line of stones to mark the boundaries and keep motorists from the deeper holes.
Sensing an opportunity, Stewart also built "Heart o' The Hills Inn" as a place for parents to stay after they'd dropped their children off at camp.  This inn later became Heart o' The Hills Camp for Girls, under the leadership of Kenneth and Velma Jones.
The front cover of an early
Camp Rio Vista brochure
The Joneses had two daughters, Jan and Jo, who attended camp at Mystic.  Jo especially loved camp, and urged her parents to convert the Inn into a girls' camp.  When Jo died at 15, in a car accident, her family remembered her wishes, and a few years later the inn was made into a summer camp, opening for campers in 1953.
Another pioneer in Kerr County camping was Miss Ora Johnson, who founded Camp Waldemar in 1926.  Miss Johnson was the principal of Brackenridge High School in San Antonio, and many of her early campers were from that city.  In 1926 she had 56 campers, who attended a six week session.
In 1928 Miss Johnson brought in from Mexico a "Russian-born German rock mason, Ferdinand Rehbeger."  It was Rehbeger, working with the Johnson family, who constructed many of the stone and cedar buildings that give Waldemar its distinct beauty.
Miss Johnson died in late 1931; ownership fell to her brothers, and eventually a niece, Doris Johnson, became director in 1934.  She continued in this role until 1978.
Waldemar was noted for its horseback program, and was, for a time, known as "the Texas Horseback Camp for Girls."  Connie Reeves, a noted instructor and rider, was hired in 1937 and continued with the camp for many decades.  Its beautiful waterfront has inspired many photographs, as has the beauty of its architecture.
Other notable camps begun during this time include Camp La Junta, Camp Arrowhead, and Kickapoo Kamp.  Later additions include the much-needed Texas Lions Camp, Camp Loma Linda on the grounds of Mo-Ranch, and Echo Hill Camp in Medina.
The camping business here hasn't always been easy sailing, and quite a few popular camps are no longer in operation.
In 1932 many camps were hit hard by a huge flood that occurred while camps were in session; most had buildings and property washed away overnight.  New structures were built -- during camp -- above flood levels.  Many campers that year slept in tents instead of cabins, and viewed these accomodations not as a hardship, but as a great adventure.
Another flood churned down the Guadalupe in 1935, and though most camps had rebuilt above the flood plain, questions arose about the safety of camping along the Guadalupe.  Attendance at some camps began to suffer.
The Great Depression didn't help, either, limiting the number of families who could send campers to our community.
A polio scare, and then World War II, also affected attendance.  In fact, several camps served as official "rest and relaxation" camps for servicemen and their families during the war, ceasing operations as children's camps until after the war.
A view of Camp Waldemar, taken
by Starr Brydden
Despite the hardships the camping industry in Kerrville and Kerr County grew and strengthened.  Soon children of former campers started attending camps here, then grandchildren of those first campers.  Today many camps can boast of multi-generational campers from the same family.
I'll admit there are many days, when I'm at my office and problems at work are causing me stress I wish I was once again a camper.  I attended Camp Stewart as a boy.  My memories of that place are very warm and happy, and if I had the chance, I'd be there again.
Summer camps in Kerr County are paradise, a paradise for children and young people, a paradise with a long and good history.  They provide jobs, help the local economy, and, in many cases, they bring Kerrville and Kerr County new residents. Sometimes, during the interval between camp and finally moving here, decades pass, hair turns white, and strides shorten.  But the memory -- of golden days on the Guadalupe, in a cabin with other youngsters -- never grows old.  And a lucky few make it back.
This article originally appeared in the Comanche Trace Lifestyles Magazine in August, 2012.
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  1. Kerrville's summer camps have always been a tremendous amount of fun.

    As stated in the article, the campers bring a great deal of business to the town of Kerrville.

    When those campers come to town, they go to the stores and buy, buy, buy.

  2. It's the camps/campers that gave James Avery Jewelry its initial boost.


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