Oneida Camp Fire Council celebrates centennial
At first glance the ceiling over the Oneida Campfire Council’s office appears to be supported by construction paper. The walls are covered floor-to-ceiling in artwork done by young Birchrock campers, photos from a half-century of activities, well-preserved newspaper clippings, and documents as old as the summer camp’s original Charter. The two-room office, just big enough for four modest working spaces and countless shelves of files, seems to breathe with a vernal excitement for the possibilities of long Northwoods summers.
Treasurer Jim Rice’s mouth is running—almost unbelievably—faster than his feet as he races around the office from box to box, folder to folder, trying to give a brief, illustrated history of Oneida’s Campfire chapter. “Here’s a picture of a camp leader’s dress from the 1920’s,” he says while rushing over to a carton under another carton under a table, “We actually have that same dress.”
Indeed they do. Jim carefully unrolls the outfit, sewn in a manner intended to mirror traditional Native American garb, and explains the significance of the various beads dangling from the sleeves and collar. “Camp leaders earned beads for different accomplishments and tasks. Kind of like Girl Scouts’ badges today.” The photo of the leader adorned in her intricate uniform is pasted inside a card, just above a single foreign word scribbled a century ago. “Hey Jim, what does ‘WoHeLo’ mean?”
Rice searches his mind for a moment before a distinct voice shouts through the doorway, “Work, Health, Love! Hi, I’m Steve. I’ll be in in just a second.” Oneida Campfire’s director fills the doorway with a friendly disposition and immediately sets to doing the same thing Rice has been doing, digging up log books with attendance lists from 1940s meetings and sharing what he knows from the history of Campfire USA’s presence in Oneida County.
Their mission in this, their centennial year, is to fill in the gaps.
The organization is best known in the area for running Camp Birchrock, a summer day and resident camp, but the camp has only existed since 1947. Campfire USA dates informally back to 1910. Incorporated in 1912, the organization was initially called the Campfire Girls of America, created as a sister program to the Boy Scouts which had been founded to great success just years prior. Then on Jan 20, 1914, the Oneida County Campfire Girls became one of the first chartered councils outside of New York state.
This is where the mystery begins. Campfire Girls from its inception was run on a volunteer basis. Lacking a central location for standardization, and without federal requirements for record-keeping, files were kept in volunteers’ homes. Although Sauer is quick to point out that they now have records going back decades, they are still missing a lot of information about what exactly the Oneida Campfire Council did from 1914 to 1947—when records began to be kept in a centralized location. “It’s likely that the information and files we are missing are just sitting in someone’s attic,” says Sauer.
“Campfire was just something you did back then,” says Rice. Much of the program was originally related to home economics, cooking, and sewing, but there was also an emphasis on nature and natural education. “The Law of the Camp Fire Girls” from the organization’s handbook lists the pursuit of knowledge, hard work, happiness, and honesty among the programs values and lessons.
The handbook describes the concept behind the foundation as filling a void as “a program for girls of all races and national backgrounds and religious beliefs.” In 1975 the organization became known as Camp Fire Boys and Girls when membership was expanded to allow boys. Sauer, who has children of his own, was initially attracted to the program for its inclusivity.
“I call Birchrock the ‘camp for kids who can’t go to camp,” says Sauer. “We’ll take anyone, and we also are able to provide scholarships for kids who want to come to camp but may have a family situation that wouldn’t otherwise allow it.”
Camp Birchrock has grown from its creation in 1947 to become the organization’s biggest draw. The camp had been controlled by the Rhinelander Girls Scouts’ Council in conjunction with the Oneida Camp Fire Council until a 1961 change to Girl Scouts policy would have required sending control of the camp to Wausau, rather than remaining in Rhinelander. The camp changed hands officially from Girl Scouts to Camp Fire, under whose direction it remains to this day.
The Oneida Camp Fire Council will be hosting a celebration of their centennial on 20 September at Camp Birchrock, located at 6648 Hwy K from noon until 5pm. All are invited for games, music by Scott Kirby, and a lot of food.
As one of the oldest chartered clubs in the country, the Oneida Camp Fire Council is hoping that people in the area can help them piece together missing pieces of the past that are just waiting to rediscovered right here in Oneida County.