In 1910, with Boy Scouts barely a year old, Scouts in Thetford, Vt., were preparing for a part in the town’s 150th anniversary pageant when some of the girls raised a question. Why no scouting organization for them? And from that simple question, Camp Fire Girls was born.
The town’s school principal took the problem of no scouting organization for girls to two progressive reformers, Luther and Charlotte Gulick. The Gulicks, both born in 1865, firmly believed in physical fitness and the importance of play for children.
The couple believed people needed to tend to their bodies, minds and spirits to be happy and successful. Together they had already planned to establish two summer camps — one for boys and the other for girls — near Raymond, Maine.
Their camps would focus on outdoor training and education, as well as physical exercise.
And so Camp Fire Girls took shape in Thetford as a club and on Sebago Lake as a camp. The Thetford club and the Maine camp formed the nucleus of the national organization, officially incorporated in 1912.
Luther Gulick served as the organization’s first president until he died in 1918. By then, the organization had exploded in popularity. Charlotte Gulick, who would live until 1938, continued her work with Camp Fire Girls after Luther’s death. In the beginning, she had come up with the Camp Fire Girls’ watchword: WoHeLo, which stands for Work, Health, Love.
Here, then, are seven fun facts about the organization now known as Camp Fire.
1. Glady Knight Was a Camp Fire Girl
From the get-go, the Camp Fire Girls welcomed black and Hispanic members. The Gulicks believed in diversity, and they founded the Camp Fire Girls as the first nonsectarian, multicultural, multiracial organization for girls in America.
Well-known alumni include contralto Marian Anderson, Empress of Soul Glady Knight, Today show hostess Sheinelle Jones, actress Rita Moreno, blues singer Janis Joplin and Madonna.
In 1975 the organization diversified to include boys.
2. Youth Fiction
Camp Fire Girls not only appeared in Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys series, they had their own. From 1912 to 1936, authors churned out dozens and dozens of young-adult books about Camp Fire Girls.
Irene Ellion Benson wrote the first book in 1912, titled How Ethel Hollister Became a Campfire Girl.
The most prolific, Margaret Vandencook, began writing for the Camp Fire Girls series after her husband’s death. She wrote 21 of them, some under the pseudonym of Margaret Love Sanderson. She also wrote for the Ranch Girls, Red Cross Girls and Girl Scouts series.
In the books they solve mysteries, visit lakes and lagoons, test their friendship, fly around the globe have a weekend party. Aunt Madge makes frequent appearances.
3. Tried To Merge With Girl Scouts
The Camp Fire Girls grew rapidly from the beginning, and might have grown faster had several merger proposals worked. In 1911, they planned to join with the Iowa-based Girl Scouts of America and the Washington-based Girl Guides of America. Together they would call themselves the Girl Pioneers of America. The deal fell through, though, due to personality clashes.
Then in 1912, Juliette Gordon Low proposed merging her Girl Guides group. But the Camp Fire Girls numbered about 60,000 at the time, far larger than Low’s outfit. So that merger didn’t happen either.
4. Parker Brothers Gets Into the Game
In 1926, Salem-based Parker Brothers came up with a Camp Fire Girls board game. Everyone started playing at the same time. Players collected Honor Beads on the way around the board. The game ended when someone entered the “Log Cabin Council Fire,” and the person with the most beads won.
Camp Fire Girls actually used beads to complete projects. When they collected 10, they got a larger bead. Different bead colors meant different things: red for sports and science, green for creativity and orange for home craft, for example.
5. Basketball Hall of Fame
Luther Gulick, Jr., was a medical doctor who founded the physical education department of the YMCA Training School from 1887 to 1900. The training school became Springfield College. Gulick designed a triangular logo for the YMCA, with the sides of the triangle representing spirit, mind and body. That logo lives on as the triangle in the letter “Y” in the modern YMCA logo and in the Springfield College seal. The sides of the triangle represented spirit, mind and body.
Gulick helped inspire James Naismith to invent the game of basketball. He also helped Naismith promote the sport by chairing the Basketball Committee of the Amateur Athletic Union and serving on the U.S. Olympic Committee. For his contribution to the sport, the Basketball Hall of Fame inducted him in 1959.
6. What’s With the Native American Dress?
The Gulicks were influenced by ethnological scholarship on Native American rituals and symbolism. They decided to appropriate Native American dress, ceremonies and symbolism for the Camp Fire Girls. Not only did Native Americans respect nature, but adopting elements of their culture was a way to promote inclusiveness. Or so went the thinking.
Campers would wear clothing inspired by American Indians and learn basic survival skills. They would also adopt symbols and choose names to help “guide them on their journey to self discovery.”
7. World Wars
By 1917, the Camp Fire Girls came into their own. When World War I broke out in Europe, they created the first “Give Service” emblem. When the Send Bundles Overseas project asked for help from the Camp Fire Girls, they were overwhelmed by the response. The girls sold Liberty Bonds, bought and sold Thrift Stamps, helped support French and Belgian orphans, made clothes for soldiers and refugees and maintained Victory Gardens.
During World War II, the Camp Fire Girls ran a Pledge-a-Plane drive, selling war bonds to buy an ambulance airplane. They raised enough to buy such a plane as well as 1,250 Army field ambulances. The girls also collected fat, wastepaper and other salvageable material for the war effort.
This story last updated in 2022. Springfield College logo By Springfield College Brand Book, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20726271.
The photo is worth some discussion. Both boy and girl scouts at the time promoted a fetishized vision of Native Americans and mimicked their (poor) understandings of Native American culture in the outdoor skills they taught and in their organizational structure, calling it “Indian Lore.” Some of the residue still survives in Boy Scouts’ terminology.
Scouting was an enriching experience for many.
It was enriching for me, for sure. But I’m really glad we have mostly left the days of confused Native appropriation behind.
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