Camp White Earth

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Camp History

The following is a chapter from a publication written and published by Don D. Sampson.  It’s a terrific history entitled White Earth Lake.    There are no copyright indications, nor is there a publisher depicted.  I have been told that a few copies still exist for sale.  Note:  In 2006 a couple of campers/counselors provided a few ‘edits’ to bring a little more accuracy to the chapter.  I have incorporated those edits.  My thanks to Amos Deinard for his input.  Following the Camp History is a copy of a Letter to the parents of potential campers from 1948.  This is also from Amos.  


          We have two gentlemen, who in their younger days went to the White Earth Boys’ Camp: Jim Sherman and Jim Blodgett.  Jim Sherman attended the camp from 1939 through 1942; Jim Blodgett went in 1944 and 1945.

            There were two sessions, four weeks each, in the summer.  Boys could either go for the four weeks, or the entire eight weeks - in those days most of the boys went to both sessions.

            The Boys’ Camp was owned by Neils Thorpe (“Coach”), who was the swimming coach at the University of Minnesota.  His partner in the camp was Rudy Pedersen, known as “Pete,”  who taught and coached swimming and golf at Southwest High School in Minneapolis.  Coach and Pete got their supply of Counselors for the camp from the students at the University.

            Pete’s wife, Mildred, was a Home Economics major and was in charge of the kitchen, which served delicious food.  Coach’s wife, Johnny, ran the rest of the operation.  During the war years, some boys brought their food stamps (ration) from home so that the camp could get meat and butter, etc.

            Back in the 1930s they had the main lodge that was one story, and two cabins.  In the late 1930s they added a second story to the main lodge – which is what you see today (2006), and enlarged the two cabins or “wings.” They would separate the boys by age group, and each wing housed about 20-30 boys.

            The main activity was swimming – it was required that each camper swim twice a day, which could also include races from 50 to 100 yards, up to a mile – from Cedar Crest to the camp’s dock.  Almost every boy was able to swim from the camps dock to the dip docks near the cabins.  Nobody wore swim trunks…..nobody.  In later years the ‘big mile swim race’ was from Back Bay to the Swim Beach near the rifle range.

            In those days, the Detroit Lakes Water Carnival (or Aquatennial) was held, and the boys would be taken to Detroit Lakes for the water races.

            The camp had a rifle range, which was very popular.  Dave Baker got some of the highest honors of anybody, and became an expert marksman in all levels of shooting.

            Archery, camping, canoeing, and sail boating were also offered for activity and fun, as were crafts and hikes.  They had various motorboats, with a couple of single cylinder Johnsons, and a couple of two cylinder Johnsons.  The big one was a ten horse, which was used on an 18-foot long boat that held ten people – it seemed really big and fast at the time!

            The daily routine started early, and when you got up, it was off to the pump to brush your teeth, and maybe, you could have a quick swim before breakfast.  Then you ate, and had your morning activity – your activities were all posted on the bulletin board.  After that lunch, and rest period, then an afternoon activity, a swim, and then dinner.  If you wanted to, you could also swim after dinner.  They had something going on every evening, campfire, softball, or other scheduled activities.         

            The camp sessions would open mid-June and close in mid-August.  There was a time when the camp year was altered by the polio scare.  Campers stayed an extra couple of weeks before returning home.  In each of the cabins, including the main cabin, there were two or three counselors.  Others lived above the main lodge on the second floor.  There were two smaller houses – one for the Thorpes, and one for the Pedersens.

            The boathouse down by the Back Bay was where they kept their boats – it was a neat harbor, because the wind could not get down in there.  They had a knot board, about 3 feet by 4 feet, with every knot you could think of.

            Everybody would canoe over to Saw Mill Bay, and camp there for a couple of nights.  The boys would walk down to Wilkinson’s cabin to get water to make Kool Aid. 

            They had a good sailing program, using 3 or 4 old X boats (later 5).  Sailing was offered in the afternoons, with races on Sunday.

            Once a year, Mrs. Schermerhorn had the boys from camp over for a weenie roast in her front yard.  The boys all came by boats, and they had a big cookout, with pies, and big had-cranked ice cream freezer full of ice cream for the pies!

            A special person at the time was Don Picard, whose father was Jean Picard - the early balloonist.  Jean was from the University of Minnesota, and was the one who started hot air ballooning.  Not sure what year that started.

            Bill Thorpe got the island (Thorpe Island) from his father, Neils Thorpe.  As owner of the island, Bill built a cabin on it, which burned to the ground from an explosion from the gas propane tanks – it is said they burned like blowtorches!  He rebuilt on the same foundation, but cantilevered it out to give himself more room.  He actually never stayed in the new cabin, although he came up that summer and fooled around a bit – he just wasn’t happy – too many people on the lake.  In 1962 Neils and Pete sold the Boys Camp to the Red River Valley Conference of the Augustana Lutheran Church.  Currently (2006) the Camp is owned by the tribe as rehabilitation center.

            It should be noted that before it was the Boys Camp, Duane Bellefeuille’s grandfather ran it as a resort, around the 1920s and early 1930s.  Just a couple of makeshift cabins then.

            We also have John Kalin (“Poika”), who worked at the Boys’ Camp as a counselor, while going to the University of Minnesota in the late 1940s.  Here is what John has to say about the Boys’ Camp back then:

            My name is John A. Kalin, summertime resident of White Earth Lake.  In reference to the former Boys Camp on White Earth Lake, owned by Rudy Pedersen and Neils Thorpe – Thorpe was swimming coach at the University of Minnesota, and Rudy was a swimming coach at Southwest High School.  As I remember the story, Rudy and Neils picked up this property in the early 1930s, with the plan of eventually forming a kind of private boys camp.  Rudy’s wife was a Home Economics teacher, and the camp featured fine food and lots of recreation.  Basically, it was just “play time”, with two 4-week sessions.  In those days, when I was a counselor, you’d almost call it exclusive – they had sons of corporate executives, mayors, etc.  It had one of the nicest swimming beaches in the state of Minnesota, which was an integral part of the piece of property that Thorpe and Pedersen picked up.

            I was asked if I wanted a summer job as a counselor, because I had swum for Thorpe at the University.  I accepted, figuring there were lots worse thing I could do, other than canoe trips, and taking care of a bunch of boys, ages 8-14.  I think they had a limit of 45 boys per session (in later years it was 60-65).  The first year I was here, going over the counselor list, we had Gordy Soltau, who at the time was the starting end for Bernie Bierman in the 47/48 Gopher team; we had Cal Stoll, who ended up being the football coach of the University of MN Gophers; and Wayne Robinson who was a linebacker for the Golden Gophers and went on to star in Canadian Football.  Gordy, of course, went on to star in the NFL for the San Francisco 49ers.  Part of my job in the evening was to round up the boys after super.  We built goalposts for Gordy to practice kicking, and I’d hold the ball, and the 4-5 boys would chase his errant footballs through the poison ivy patch, up on the softball field.

            It was a wonderful camp- you got food, and exercise at that camp.  I was also the instructor on the rifle range – Thorpe and I won a couple of titles the years I worked there.  There was competition in MN (and national) on rifle matches, and Neils would enter this camp team, and we walked away with a couple of first prizes.

            That was my exposure to White Earth Lake, and I intended to have a piece of property here, sooner or later – it’s one of the prettiest lakes in the state of Minnesota.  The good Lord willing, we ended up with a piece of property here, too.

            In describing the facilities of this camp, it was very rustic.  In this day and age, you’d wonder how they could command the price they did, to lodge these young boys, with the almost crude facilities they had established – no indoor plumbing- we had outhouses for each bunkhouse (Coach would ‘lime’ them every Sunday morning, early); for showering and cleaning, you took your shower in the lake at the “dip docks” before breakfast.  It was unusual that there were no swimming suits allowed, even on the dip docks, and the beach was private, with little boys running around with no clothes on.  They had a

1 hour swim session in the morning and a 2-hour session in the afternoon.  Each 4-week session was capped off with a swim race….from the ‘back bay’ all the way around the camp peninsula to the swim beach, roughly a mile.  Most all the older or upper cabin boys participated.

            Another highlight was overnight camping trips on White Earth Lake.  Rudy and Neils had permission to use the beach that we now own, located near the southeast corner of the lake.  We took the younger boys on overnight trips on the McCraney River, and the older boys went on 2-3 night trips to Many Point Lake.

            The food was “top-shelf”, and the camp prided itself on sending the boys back home, well fed and exercised, with maybe even a few pounds added to them.

            We had the two cabins (in 1953 a third cabin was added) for the youngsters, and one main lodge that sat high on the hill (the original structure is still there as of 2008).  That was the focal point.  We met there for 3 meals a day; and there was a craft shop in the back bay that housed all the canoes.  We ran 15-18 canoes out of the back bay, and had 4 sailboats (you called them scows in that day) and taught sailing.  This was around 1949-1950.  It seemed that the top camper always worked his way into a job.  You had a boat boy, and he had to be 15 years old.  Cutoff for returning to camp was 14 years of age, but Neils and Rudy would always pick one to come back at age 15 and 16 to be the boat boy.  One of them is a doctor of psychiatry – Glen Lewis; Dick Turner ended up as Corporate Officer of Marshall Fields - so some outstanding biographies came out of that camp.  It was a very unusual and enjoyable experience.

            All of the counselors who were there during those two years were from to University of Minnesota, and with six counselors in camp. We tagged it the “Counselor’s Rest Home.”  It was also mandatory that you take a nap from 12:45 to 2:15 p.m.  There was also a requirement for the campers to write home every few days.  The counselors took the naps, but one had to stay awake to keep the noise down from the campers.  There were three counselors per bunkhouse – we slept in the central portion of the bunkhouse, and the campers were in the two wings.

            No transportation was allowed in the camp, and when I arrived at the Waubun Railroad Station at 3:00 a.m. I called the camp for a ride, and got Thorpe out of bed.  He said, “find a bench, and I’ll be in about 8:00 a.m. to pick you up!”  That was my introduction to the camp.

            On nights that we were off, we went to Merlin Trepps’ across the bay.  Each counselor would canoe over, and since we couldn’t date, and didn’t have cars, we talked to people, played poker – I played cribbage with my future wife’s mother.  And that was about it for the summer, which started about the middle of June, and ended about the end of August.

            I met my wife here, and Whitey Oberg, another counselor, met his wife, Louella Henderson, here, so there were quite a few romances that turned into marriages.

            At that time, Detroit Lakes Aquatennial was just starting, and they had an annual Northwest Swimming Meet, and being a swimming camp, we participated each year.  That was about the only time we saw any property other than camp, when we were hauled in to Detroit Lakes for the Meet.  We won the meet the two years I was a counselor, and I think the camp won every year it participated.



The letter depicted below is provided by Amos Deinard.  The boys pictured from left to right:  Alan Petersen, John Petersen, Jerry Gale, Mickey Crum, Amos Deinard, and Jimmy Bell.