Camps for disabled children pitched their tents a century ago 

Camps for disabled children pitched their tents a century ago 

Roll up a sleeping bag, pack a knapsack and get ready for summer camp. Minnesota children with disabilities aren’t left out of camping fun, with specialized campgrounds and accommodations. 

It took years to develop accessible camps. Some of the measures used to accommodate disabled children at camp years ago might raise eyebrows today.  

Summer camps began in our country in the 1880s, fueled by Victorian beliefs about the moral and physical benefits of time spent in natural settings. Most of the earliest camps were for teenage boys. Other types of summer camps sprang up in the years to follow. Camps were supported by organizations with a wide range of political, religious and social agendas. 

One early focus for camps was on health, for children with chronic conditions. The very first health-related camps for children are believed to have been held in New Zealand just after World War I. 

Many U.S. summer camps for children with disabilities began to emerge at about the same time. Minnesota’s earliest such camps include the Glen Lake Children’s Camp, started in 1925 by Leonora and George Christianson. As the parents of son with tuberculosis, they saw the specialized camp as a way to help other children who had the disease and to do hands-on philanthropy. 

Children with physical disabilities got camping experiences in various ways. In some cases regular summer camps were used to meet the needs of these young campers. One example was the Minneapolis Girl Scouts organization, when the Girl Scouts hosted girls with physical disabilities. 

The August 8, 1937 Minneapolis Journal article described how the Minneapolis Girl Scouts organization opened up their Camp Greenwood at Lake Charlotte to “crippled” girls. The girls were described as enjoying a camping experience with their “physically fit companions.” A picture showed girls in wooden wheelchairs, gathered with their new friends beside a campfire. 

Two Girl Scout leaders, Mrs. Harry T. Boyd and Mrs. John O’Keefe, came up with the idea of a shared camping experience. They were directors of two Girl Scout troops at Michael Dowling School, the Minneapolis Public Schools’ elementary school for children with physical disabilities. 

The girls shared cabin space, cooked their own breakfasts and lunches over open fires, and took part in a full schedule of camp activities including swimming, handicrafts and rest periods. 

The evening meal was enjoyed at the camp’s main lodge, with unique transportation. “Dinners at the main lodge found (the girls with disabilities) riding up the hill in trucks or being pushed up in wheelbarrows.” 

The Dowling family actively promoted camp experiences, Michael Dowling was a banker, political leader and newspaper publisher who’d lost both legs, one arm and fingers on his remaining hand as a teenager. Dowling’s wife, Jennie Bordowich Dowling, joined her husband in championing camps for disabled children. In 1938 she helped launch a camp for children with physical disabilities, at St. John’s Landing east of Hinckley. The camp was one of many efforts by the Dowling family and was a forerunner of Camp Courage and Courage Center. 

Camping experiences were supported for many years by proceeds from the sale of Easter Seals. The Minnesota Society for Crippled Children and Adults, later the Minnesota Association for Crippled Children and Disabled Adults, led sales efforts. 

The society worked with groups statewide to provide day and overnight camping for children and young adults. Partners included the Jaycees, Mrs. Jaycees, Lions, Kiwanis, Rotary and other service groups. Camps and outdoors-focused organizations lent or rented out campgrounds and cabins. 

The Kiwanis worked with the society to promote a camp for disabled children at Marine on St. Croix, starting in the 1940s. That camp for a time offered separate sessions for children with speech disabilities, children with heart conditions and adults and children with physical disabilities. 

Another partner was the Izaak Walton League, an environmental and conservation organization. in August 1966 that organization hosted 15 children at its Winona day camp. A 1966 Winona Daily News described the campers as four deaf children, seven with cerebral palsy and other children with visual disabilities, polio, spina bifida and muscular dystrophy. Volunteers to help at the day camp were sought and there was still space for a few more children. 

Not all the camps and cabins pressed into service for disabled children have stood the test of time. In fall 2021, Camp Greenwood was one of three regional Girl Scout camps that closed its gates. Others have been transformed for different uses. 

True Friends operates several of Minnesota’s historic camps for people with disabilities. See a timeline at https://truefriends.org/about/  

The History Note is a monthly column produced in cooperation with the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. Past History Notes and other disability history may be found at  www.mnddc.org