The sixties were an unusual period in the history of our country with civil rights, women's movement, Viet Nam, and the beginning of technical growth.
This might also be called the last series of a particular type of Girl Scout resident camp scouting, the long period resident summer camp. Over time competition would arise from camps for band, tennis, cheer leaders, computers and many other subjects coming to the interest of young people.
Amid this time frame there was Camelot, a magical name given to the camp sessions at Camp Scoutshire Woods. Margaret Ellis was named camp director of Scoutshire Woods for a three year contract which in her own words meant, "the first year I won't know what to do, the second year will go well, and the third year I'll think I know everything and it will be time to leave."
While serving as assistant camp director under Barbara Phillips, Ellis was known to say, "lf l were king..." So when staff members returned for her first term as director, they said, "OK, now you are the king. What are you doing to do?" And thus her camp nickname became, The King.
At that time Scoutshire Woods had 120 camper spaces. Ellis promptly took more than 120 reservations. "I oversold each session," she said. "Having worked for an airline for 12 years, I knew there would be no shows." And it worked, every time, each session, three times a summer, camp was completely full. That hasn't happened since then. "One time we did end up with 121 campers," Ellis said, "But we found another bed in storage and set it up."
Each session began on Sunday afternoon and ran until the following week on Friday, lots of days and nights to make new friends, renew the old, and learn new skills. Church services were provided on the Sunday in the session. More about that later.
There were four units-Whispering Pines (Whispers) a cabin unit for the youngest of campers, Innisfree, also cabins, for the intermediate age. The cadets and senior campers were in tent units called Gypsy Glenn and Four Winds. And yes, there were nice bath houses with showers. Many activities were offered: swimming, canoeing, horseback riding, archery, crafts, overnighting away from the units, and overnight canoe trips on nearby rivers.
Three healthy and delicious meals were planned by dietician Marguerite George and served in the pleasant Dining Hall. Campers handled the table waiting chores and clean up. Singing was always a big part of the meals. Flag raising and lowering took place every day, and a rest period after lunch as this was lower Alabama summer weather and there was no air conditioning. (Staff used to sneak into the walk in cooler in the kitchen.)
When Ellis took over, the Catholic girls were taken to Mass in Citronelle, clad in Sunday dresses. They did not like this return to civilization and a definite division with the other campers was created. Those left at camp would hold a devotional of some sorts. There was no unity of spirit. But Sundays became a highlight when Ellis arranged to have a priest from Spring Hill College in Mobile come and say a Folk Mass on the grounds of Scoutshire. Everyone was welcomed-in Girl Scout dress uniform-and no one was turned away from the communion table. (Jesuits at Spring Hill are known to be free thinking in such matters. Nobody asked and nobody told.)
This was the age of folk music and many of the counselors played guitars and banjos, and all of them sang. The sound of this music echoed through the clearing and rose above the pine trees which composed the "camp cathedral." This folk mass continued every Sunday as long as Ellis was camp director and has proved to be one of the most memorable activities of those camp days.
The first year of Ellis' direction was the first time summer camp had ever been integrated. Five girls of Cadet age were registered and the staff placed them in the tents without any regard to the color of their skin. (Ellis, however, made sure her daughter was in one of the tents with a black girl.) After several days it was obvious things were not going well. A unit meeting was called and the campers were asked to discuss any problems. The Afro-American girls said they were unhappy because they had come to camp to be with their friends and they were separated in different tents. At their request they were all moved to one tent and camp proceeded happily the rest of the session.
Last night ceremonies stay in nostalgic remembrance as well. Half-pint milk cartons were collected from the dining room and the last night of camp as darkness fell, campers put birthday-size candles in the cartons and floated them off the swimming dock to sail into Echo Lake. Songs were sung and last times were spent together and good byes said often with tears. (The following morning the canoe instructor picked up the cartons from the lake in keeping with the Girl Scout philosophy of always leaving a site cleaner than it was found.)
Taps were played every night by Ellis' nephew, who was on staff as handy boy. The sound of the bugle over the lake at bedtime is another memory most campers and staff carry for a lifetime.
Older campers who had passed swimming and canoeing skill tests were permitted to go on the overnight canoe trips, about eight or ten canoes. Most of the boating and waterfront staff went along. The Styx River in Baldwin County, and the Escataba in Mississippi, with their calm water and sandy beaches for camping were among the favorites.
Ellis vetoed the Tombigbee River from the previous year when she was assistant camp director. They discovered that a large commercial river with its motor boats and barge wakes was no place for a canoe with no keel and teen age girls. The canoe trip groups took tents, sleeping bags, and food and supplies needed for over nights.
Have Girl Scouts and other youth programs made any progress through the years? With all the competition for the time of Girl Scouts, camp has been reduced to three day events or a week at the most with many of the activities eliminated entirely. And can you imagine today's camp director bringing along her husband who came up from work in Mobile every night, two dogs and a four-year old son, who now likes to brag he spent three summers at Girl Scout camp? (Her two daughters were Girl Scouts and regular campers.) Or a priest allowing the Jewish campers to come to the communion table? Things don't always change for the better.
Most staff members returned year after year to spend ten weeks at Scoutshire Woods-one week of pre-camp training, and three sessions of two weeks. Some counselors remained for clean up after camp closed. (At that time Camp Seale Harris for diabetic children held a camp session at Scoutshire after the Girl Scouts finished their time.) The quality of the memories and friendships made during the three years of the reign of "The King" cannot be found today. Going on to nearly fifty years later, those girls of those summers continue to be the best of friends meeting again frequently. One of them still volunteers to do a program at camp every summer.
And why was it called Camelot? The time when John F. Kennedy was president before his untimely death was often referred to as Camelot. Some of the staff members picked up on this and compared the glorious days of summer at Scoutshire Woods to it.
Don't let it be forgot,
that once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.
Margaret B. Ellis
Camp Director, 1968-69-70