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How a Single Girls' Camp in New Hampshire Grew a Generation of Women Leaders in the 1930s

Updated on September 15, 2014

The Small New Hampshire Camp that Grew a Generation of Women Leaders

In the 1930s, Forest Vale Camp taught girls traditional outdoor skills as well as developing a generation of women leaders. Located near Franklin, New Hampshire this camp drew from upper class families from New York City and throughout New England, as well as providing scholarships and work-camp opportunities for less well-to-do girls. The camp closed as a result of the economic realities following the outbreak of World War II, and the site is now flooded by the Pemigewasset River as part of the resevoir created by the Franklin Falls Dam.

The lessons taught at Forest Vale Camp live on in women, now in their 80s and 90s, as well as in their children and children's children who benefited from the unique program designed to develop girls through an appreciation of the outdoors, physicial activities like swimming, canoeing and hiking, service, and leadership training.

1950s view of Franklin Falls Dam wth 'x' marking former location of Forest Vale Camp for Girls.
1950s view of Franklin Falls Dam wth 'x' marking former location of Forest Vale Camp for Girls.

Where is Forest Vale Camp Now?

Forest Vale is with us no longer, except in spirit.

Forest Vale Camp was located in the foot hills of the White Mountains about four miles from the city of Franklin, New Hampshire, mid-way between Lake Sunapee and Lake Winnepesaukee. In order to control flooding along the Pemgewasset River, the Army Corps of Engineers began acquiring land along th flood plain in the late 1930s for the construction of the Franklin Falls Dam. As a result, the camp was relocated to an inland site west of the Pemigewasset River. When the dam was completed in 1943m, the original camp site was engulfed by the resulting reservoir.

The photo pictured here is a view of the dam area in the 1950s. The 'x' marked on the left of the photo is the approximate location of the former camp.

The spirit of Forest Vale Camp lives on in the lives of the women who attended the camp, and in the lives of their daughters and grand-daughters whom they inspired with a love of the outdoors and an understanding of what it means to be a woman of character and a leader.

Campfile illustration from A Glipse of Forest Vale Camp
Campfile illustration from A Glipse of Forest Vale Camp

What Was Camp Like?

A small girls camp with a focused mission.

The camp enrollment was limited to less than 40 carefully chosen girls who are divided into groups according to age and ability. There was one counselor for every three girls, and a program for counselors in training. All girls wore a simple camp uniform for the eight-week session.

Campers wer housed in sturdy, screened-in cabins, built of wood, set up on high posts, described as "cabins so well constructed their equal can hardly be found in any other camp." Overhanging roofs and inside shutters insured protection against the most severe summer shower. Large attractive lodges contained dining and recreation quarters and library. The camp was equipped with outdoor showers.

The camp fee included chaperoning to and from camp in groups starting from New York City and from Boston, as well as transportation of camper and her baggage between the Franklin Railroad station and the camp, instruction in the camp activities, materials used in craft work, and laundry. Although there were changes in price structure over the years of the camp existence, in later years the fee was $250 for an eight-week session.

Forest Vale Camp
Forest Vale Camp

The Camp Program

"A well-balanced program, with leisure for individual expression."

Camp literature explained to prospective campers and their parents that "years of study and research had evolved into a well-balanced program, with leisure for individual expression." Activities included camp-craft, crafts, nature study, swimming, Red Cross life-saving, first-aid, canoeing, tennis, archery, hiking, mountain climbing, folk-dancing, dramatics, and puppet plays.

The camp's counselor training program was a major component of leadership traning at Forest Vale Camp. It took the campers through the various degrees of apprentice, journeyman, and master-camper, and an impressive moonlight campfire ceremony marked the completion, by groups, of each step.

Riding and swimming come at stated hours, but the balance of the program was designed to be arranged by the individual camper to suit her own tastes and inclinations. Swimming classes were conducted at nearby Webster Lake and instructors qualified to give Red Cross tests.

Day trips were also made to nearby places of historic note, including Daniel Webster's birthplace as well as to the Old Man of the Mountain, the great Stone Face that juted out from a high cliff in the Franconia Notch until damaged by a rockslide in 2003 . The stone countenance was made famous by Nathaniel Hawthorne in one of his "Twice-Told Tales."

All activities were "closely supervised so that there was no over-taxing of physical strength or endurance." A mid-day rest hour was "regularly and faithfully observed." and a simple service was held each Sunday.

"The Beehive" was a the center of activity at Forest Vale Camp

A view of the interior of the cabins.

Water sports, including canoeing, were a significant part of camp activities.

A group photo of the girls attending Forest Vale Camp from the 1939s.
The two colors of uniforms indicated the upper and lower age divisions.

Forest Vale Camp - hiking
Forest Vale Camp - hiking

Natural Features of the Camp

Girls learned an appreciation for the outdoors and nature.

Situated in the Pemigewasset Valley and surrounded by the foothills of the White Mountains, it is easy to understand how campers developed an appreciation of nature at Forest Vale Camp. The peaks of the Presidential Range rise in the distance, with the loftiest, Mount Washington, rising to a height of 6,293 feet. Mountain climbing excursions from the camp included ascent of Mounts Kearsage, Cardigan, Belknap and Plymouth. A trip to Mount Washington also occurred yearly.

Forest Vale was rich in natural beauties, lavishly supplying materials and specimens for nature study. The camp wasn't afraid to tell parents that A natural pond supplies specimens of insect life and frogs. The love of nature was a focus at Forest Vale Camp long before the development of Earth Day or regional nature centers that we have today.

The birch was the predominant tree at the camp. In addition white pine, hemlock, sugar maple, beech, red oak, spruce, balsam, sassafras, hackberry, linden, witch-hazel, and ash were present. Among the birds that frequented the woods were the blue heron, the blue jay, bobolink, whip-poor-will, kingfisher, robin, wren, phoebe, humming-bird, red-winged blackbird, bluebird and vireo. The woods bloomed, in season, with the pink lady-slipper, trailing arbutus, devil's paintbrush, mountain laurel, sumach, anemones, azaleas, blue gentians, asters, goldenrod and monkey flower.

Canoeing at the former Forest Vale Camp, Franklin, New Hampshire
Canoeing at the former Forest Vale Camp, Franklin, New Hampshire

A Glimpse of Forest Vale

This creative narrative was written from the camper's perspective and used in promotion of the camp.

Come along quickly, auntie, to the swimming beach. Nearly everyone is down there now so it is the best place to start your tour of camp. You have missed the life-saving classes but some of the juniors are learning to dive, there is a crew of four in a canoe practicing paddle salutes, and two girls are climbing into a canoe from deep water. We have to climb into a canoe and be dumped overboard and do other things to prove we are good swimmers and level-headed enough to learn to use a canoe. That girl who is instructing the crew is one of the assistant counselors. She was a camper for several seasons and then went to the canoeing counselors' conference for special training. That is what many of us older girls hope to do, only of course we aren't all interested in the same thing. I think now that I should like to go to the nature lore school but of course that is a long way off, and I keep on discovering so many things that I enjoy and can learn to do well that I am sure it will be hard to make a choice when the time comes.

Here is my cabin. Come in and see how tidy my shelves are. Doesn't that make you proud of me? There is a phoebe's nest just outside the screen. The baby birds flew away yesterday. I will hang up my bathing suit now and there will be time to go to the archery field before dinner.

On the way you will see some of the trees we plant every year. Last year they were spruces and the year before white pines, and I think they were hemlocks the year before that. My pine has grown more than a foot in these two years. Isn't that splendid? This field of tomato plants was smooth and grassy last year with a great white birch in the center and we did our folk dancing there. I hated to see that tree cut down but of course there are so many lovely spots that we don't miss that one and we certainly appreciate the garden.

Let's stop in the beehive and see the new arrows I've been making. I finished them yesterday when it rained, but I didn't varnish them till the weather cleared this morning. My paddle is here too. I had to sandpaper that and varnish it after a day of windy paddling. You would never guess I had used that paddle nearly three seasons, would you? That is because we learn to take such good care of our equipment. Now I want to show you where I repaired a worn place on the gunwale of the canoe that four of us had nearly all one day. That was the time I got the last layer of this tan.

This is the room where we do most of our craftwork although we often go outside to paint or sketch. Here is a vase that is almost finished. No, it's not mine. My clay is just a shapeless lump. You know I'm not a bit artistic but I come in and work once in a while because I can't bear not to try everything there is going. I even tried my hand at the musical instruments everyone was making and the result was a very presentable drum, but of course drums are easy.

We cooked the best dinner you ever ate but supper was very simple - just bacon and things cooked on sticks. We paddled home in a blazing sunset and you must see the fine specimens we brought back. There is a mushroom and moss exhibit up at this lodge now that covers two tables. We have a sort of museum there with all sorts of things in it, perishable as well as permanent.

Doesn't that smell good? That is a Master Camper teaching two apprentices who were new this year. They want to go on an overnight trip but they must first build the fires and cook a good meal and clean up to prove they are capable of taking care of themselves, to say nothing of making their blanket rolls and outdoor beds. - No, I think four or five is enough for a trip. We get better acquainted in a small congenial group and the campfire is more intimate and charming. Then of course it is easier to plan a trip and choose a menu that is just what everyone wants most if there are not too many to consult. We do nearly everything in small groups like that. These cranes and fires were built by different girls who were practicing. The best ones generally stay up for awhile for everyone to see until the place or materials are needed.

There is the bell now. Our dinner will taste just as good as this smells. I know what it is because I saw the menu yesterday. Oh yes, it is posted just inside the kitchen door where anyone who wants to can see it. I usually like to be surprised but I had to know what that tantalizing smell was coming from the oven. You'll love the dining porch with its green tables and bright china and the gaudy hollyhocks just outside the screens.

I haven’t told you a word about our group system and I must for it is one of the unusual features of Forest vale. I know Miss Mayall can tell you better than I because she devised the plan, but I will do my best. There are three groups. We all start as Apprentice Campers and progress as fast as we please. Here is a chart that shows what we do in that group. We learn something about all these things: Campcraft, Nature Lore, Health and Hygiene, Land sports, and Water sports. – I guess you don’t know how plants make their food, do you, or what kind of butterfly has red bands across its front wings, or where Vega is in the August sky?

I was thirteen when I came here and I had been to camp before so I finished my apprenticeship the first season but it kept me hustling and lots of girls take two or three years if they haven’t had some training. I am a Journeymen now for the second season and I expect to be ready for the promotion ceremony at the end of August. Then next year and the next I can specialize in whatever I like best.

It’s going to be quite a responsibility to be a Master Camper but if I make good I shall be ready to go to the training conference. People who come here call this one of the great steps in progressive education, or something like that, and talk about initiative and resourcefulness and use lots of big words, but we think of it as always doing something we enjoy and always enjoying doing something.

Of course the Juniors can’t do all the things that we do so they have a special program of their own. They learn something about most of the things that we do and then a great many other things besides. They seem to learn easier when they are little. You were surprised at those ten year olds in the water but you ought to see them row a boat or shoot an arrow or dance, they sometimes win the competition when the different cabins write songs, and they do the most amazing things in art. You should have seen the play they gave last week. They made it up themselves one morning when they were out for a hike and played it for us all as soon as they had learned their parts. They even made their own costumes. But I must stop talking about the Juniors or you will think they are smarter than we are.

I’m sorry you aren’t going to be here for our water sports day tomorrow. It will be great fun – not very serious, you know, with lots of lovely foolish stunts that we don’t even rehearse. I am ever so glad you stopped in and I know you will have a great time in the White Mountains. When you get up to the main road turn and look toward the river. You will see two or three peaks in that range of hills that we find very good to climb. Two of them have fire towers on the summit and gorgeous views even from the open places on the trail going up. As soon as you’ve gone I shall probably think of hundreds of things I want to show you, but anyway you know now why nothing can persuade me to miss a summer at Forest Vale Camp.

Camp Director Ethel B. Mayall

The camp director was graduate of Radcliffe College

Use the feedback module below to share what you know about Ethel Mayall, camp director and formerly a teacher at the Spence School.

Tree illustration for The Hills - A poem by Olive Whistler of Forest Vale Camp
Tree illustration for The Hills - A poem by Olive Whistler of Forest Vale Camp

The Hills

A poem praising the outdoors by Olive Whistler and used in camp literature.

The Hills

Oh, I'm away to the hills again,

To the sun-flecked hills that lie

So green in the summer noon-tide

Under the cloud-blown sky, --

So green in the clear deep waters

Of the flashing sapphire lake,

Against the tremulous background

The flying cloudlets make.

Oh, I'm away to the hills again,

To the clear blue hills that lie

So near in the fragrant twilight

Against the evening sky,

Against the last hushed color

Of the slowly dying day,

As the blue hills turn to blackness,

And the sunset turns to gray.

Location of Franklin Falls Dam - The Pemigewasset River where Forest Vale Camp was located is still a wonderful recreation area.

Franklin Falls Dam: The original site of the Forest Vale Camp for girls was engulfed when the Frankl:
Franklin Falls Dam, 46 Granite Drive, Franklin, NH

get directions

Plan Your Trip to New Hampshire

Books & resources to enjoy your New Hampshire vacation.

The rest of this lens provides links to books and other resources on which will help you plan a weekend or a week in New Hampshire.

There's plenty ot do and see at all times of the year. Consider enhancing your trip by planning some hiking, bicycling or visits to historic or just plain unusual New Hampshire locations.

Touring New Hampshire - Plan your trip with these resources.

Explore the White Mountains - A must-see part of northern New Hampshire.



If you know anything about Forest Vale Camp, or know women who attended, please leave us a note. Plus, you can tweet your interest in this lens by clicking the Tweet button


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