A History of YMCA Camp Lyndon


Jeremy Shea

Part One: The Land: 23,000BCE - 1928

Dug along the trails of the Wampanoag people were small holes. These marked the site of a remarkable happening, the story of which was told by travelers. “Memory holes” both brightened the tedium of travel and kept alive the shared history of a people. 

For thousands of years, the Wampanoag have lived across Cape Cod and Southeastern Massachusetts, along the wide beaches and in the mighty forests, beside salt marshes and kettle ponds. In some Wampanoag stories, Maushaup the Giant dug these ponds, holes which filled with rain and became ponds. Full of fish and bounded by fertile soil, settlements grew, farms planted, and forests were hunted around these ponds. The history of a people turned these bodies of water into living memory holes that shifted through countless seasons. 

The summer sounds of a kettle pond on Cape Cod are unchanged since those of a thousand years ago. Bullfrogs sound deeply in the darkest hours of the night over a drone of peepers until, as the sky brightens in the east, the birds come alive. The mournful call of the loon is soon lost among the eager calls of chickadees in the blueberry bushes and peeps of ducklings who chirp through the grass as waves gently lap the rounded stones of the shore.

One such kettle pond sits further north than most, tucked behind the Cape’s highgrounds, the Sandwich Moraine. It became part of Sandwich in 1637, sold by Massasoit, sachem of the Wampanoag tribe, to a group of Englishmen from Saugus, through William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Colony, for commodities worth sixteen pounds, nineteen shillings. A tiny amount for such beautiful land, but the Wampanoag were reeling from a pandemic that killed thousands of its people, upwards of 80% of the population, while the destabilizing forces of European economies drove once peaceful tribes into a fierce conflict for survival. 


The name of this pond prior to European settlement is lost, but it soon became known as Lawrence Hole Pond, shortened later to Lawrence Pond. Initially, the land around the pond was common land for the settlers and Wampanoag neighbors alike. The mighty woods were good for hunting and the English soon found that native land practices meant sheep were content with grazing on the forest floor. Colonists continued the Wampanoag practice of “firing the woods” each year to care for the environment.

In 1682, the Plymouth Colony issued a notice to towns that all communal land must be divided among the inhabitants. The town had other priorities, so it wasn’t until 1698 that the process of splitting 20,000 acres of forest and field. By 1715, lots of 40 acres were surveyed and distributed to families, with the Percival, Meiggs, Jones, Lawrence, and Hoxie families the first to settle around Lawrence Pond. The map to the left, from 1857, shows many of these families were still holding property in the area.


With the privatization of the land came destruction. Certain areas around the farms were clear from native activity over thousands of years, but the colonists cut bare the forests. What stood, tended to by the people, for thousands of years, gave way to the ax and muscle of men who hacked a living out of the land. By the late 1700s, wood was imported to Cape Cod from elsewhere, as the mighty forests had fallen. 


For the next two hundred years, land around the pond exchanged hands as fortunes were made, families married, and newcomers arrived. The farms around the southern portion of the pond stayed in the Lawrence family until the late 1800s, when Benjamin Ewer bought 100 acres from Joseph Lawrence and settled there with his wife, Thankful. No matter the owner, farming was the primary activity on the banks of the pond, along with logging and the raising of sheep. The community that developed around Lawrence and Triangle Ponds became known as Farmersville. 

Entries for Farmersville from the 1880 US Census

With the closing of the Sandwich Glass Factory in 1888 and a decline in farming into the early 1900s, population began to decline in the town and young people were eager to find their fortunes elsewhere. Land changed hands quickly in these years, with two women, Nellie Macalaster and Jessie Stowe, owning large parcels around the ponds from 1907-1927 until they were sold to land speculators. 

In 1928, these investors called Central Cape Realty Corporation sold a 79 acre parcel of former farm and pasture land on the banks of Lawrence Pond to the New Bedford YMCA. Later that year, Camp Clark opened. 

DEED for YMCA LAND

Part Two: Camp Clark 1928-1972

The first YMCA summer camp was opened in 1885 on Lake Champlain, Camp Dudley. Massachusetts didn’t see its first camp until 1903, and in 1905, the New Bedford YMCA opened Sea Breeze in Westport. In search for new environs, the organization found a few large parcels of land for sale bordering ponds and an already established summer camp for girls. In 1928, they purchased 79 acres. In that same year, a larger parcel next door, the Spectacle and Triangle ponds, was sold by the same land speculators to the South Shore YMCA, which became Camps Burgess and Hayward. The New Bedford YMCA was founded in 1867. It was established not long after the founding of the Boston branch in 1851, part of a rapid spread by the organization around the United States. 


The money for this purchase was donated by Frank A. Clark, a local businessman in New Bedford who was well known in the sailing community. In the image here, he is seated in the middle, behind the dog. While his rationale for donating the funds to the YMCA is lost to time, Clark was a lover of the outdoors and clearly saw a need, as did many families in New Bedford, to get city children into nature. In honor of his donation, an all boys summer camp opened on the banks of Lawrence Pond in 1928, named Camp Clark. That name would mean a great deal to hundreds of children over the next forty four three years, memories that remain strong today in the hearts and minds of the alumni. 


Frank Clark, center, behind dog

The Origins of Summer Camp

Rural summer camps began in the late 1800s following the growth of urbanization and industrialization, as well as the so-called “closing of the frontier”. Wealthy families from the cities escaped the summer months to rustic settings with less crowds and cleaner air, but there was little formal organization of activities for the children. In 1881, Camp Chocorua opened in New Hampshire by a Dartmouth student, Ernest Balch, to serve the children of the upper class vacationers. 


The philosophy behind these camps was that a child, away from the distractions of busy city life and school, could better develop their character when placed in “primal” environs. To cook one’s food on fires, sleep under the stars, and socialize without the strictures of daily life was believed to build a child who would exhibit qualities of a well rounded individual: honest, caring, trust, respect, and resilience. Much of this belief was inspired by Henry David Thoreau, the transcendentalist writer from Massachusetts. To Thoreau, a return to the forests and wild areas of the world would help humans connect with the essential truths of existence. “Life consists with wildness,” wrote Thoreau. “The most alive is the wildest.”


However, it took a living inspiration, Theodore Roosevelt (seen below), to propel the expansion of summer camps. As an avid outdoorsman and adventurer, he was famous for camping in the newly formed national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite and displaying a rugged manliness that many saw as quintessentially American. With the Wild West closed, there was a renewed sense of discovery of the outdoors, especially in New England. 

Summer camps proliferated across New England and the United States from 1880 to the start of World War I. Though they began as exclusive experiences, camps soon attracted a wide variety of children from urban areas, funded by churches and organizations like the YMCA. 


The first camp to open on Lawrence Pond (and Cape Cod) was Camp Cotuit, established in 1918 by the Schumacher sisters from New Jersey. Regular visitors to Sandwich in the summer, they wanted to bring girls from their metropolitan area to the wilderness of the Cape. The sisters heard news that Jones Farm, on the north of the pond, was for sale, and they commenced to visit after a March snowstorm. There, they looked out across the pond and saw a hill in the middle that looked like a loaf of brown bread. Thus, one of the most notable locations gained its name: Brown Bread Hill. 

Camp Clark’s first summer was in 1928. Being former farmland, the first years would have had a similar view as the image above, with fields sloping down to the pondside. In the beginning, all campers slept in tents with bunks for eight. By 1938, two larger buildings were constructed: the dining hall and infirmary/office. 


The camp was laid out with two areas, the “Junior” and “Senior” sections of tents. The Junior section was in the southern area of the camp, where today the small and large cabins sit. In the same area, by modern Bathhouse, was located the Paul Favor chapel. Behind the infirmary and office stood Brown Bread, also known as Cross Hill, where Sunday vespers were celebrated. The field by the shore saw endless games played, while the archery range sat tucked into the hillside beside the field. 


By the 1950s, new construction included eight new cabins, a craft shop with junior bunkhouse above, and what became known as the “Candyshack”. On a hill by the lower ball field, where previously a totem pole stood, the camp store sold candy and snacks to campers who had money in their account (and no demerits to their name). Today the Nurse’s Cabin stands in its place. In 1953, the camp welcomed its first flush toilets, a fine improvement appreciated by all. 

In the morning, following a call from the bugle and a dip in the pond, campers and staff would trek to the dining hall. Food was reported to be good, with cereal a popular meal for breakfast. On some occasions when bacon was smelled upon arrival, campers would burst into song: 


“Ham and eggs,, Ham and eggs, I like mine nice and brown, I like mine upside down,,,, Ham and eggs , Ham and eggs, Flip em, Flop em, Flop em, Flip em, Ham and egggggssss....”


‍ The boys were expected to do chores around the camp, a property that needed a lot of care to keep the thorns out of trails and downed branches collected. After that, activities commenced around the property. 

This schedule was published
in a Camp Clark pamphlet

While much of the summer took place on Lawrence Pond, expeditions were mounted to further locals. Hikes to Sandy Neck were common, a 5.5 mile trip that took all day on foot and needed resupplying by vehicle. Campers slept in the dunes by the sea, then trekked back to camp the next day. 

Competitions were also waged against the neighboring camps, especially Camp Burgess. In the land separating the two properties a baseball field was built, the site of many games between the boys. Swim races were also staged, with campers writing home to update their families as to their exploits.

Mail was the most common way to communicate with the outside world, and campers were expected to stay in touch with their families. Sometimes postcards were required to be written before food would be served, giving added incentive for putting pencil to paper.


In the evenings, especially Saturday night, cabins would perform skits they’d rehearsed throughout the week. Not only were scripts well memorized, but the costumes of the cast were well constructed, depending on the cabin. One favorite was the Horribles Parade, which saw campers dressed in the most bizarre outfits. By the time everyone returned to their cabins, bullfrogs sounded from the shore and the stars twinkled in the skies above. In at least one instance, the Northern Lights could be seen above the pond, flickering in the distance. 


Of course, nighttime didn’t stop camp activities from happening, especially the pranks. In one infamous event, an outhouse was stolen and placed on a dock and floated into the camp cove, all while the rest of camp was sleeping on their slightly creaky bunks. 

The Sale of Camp Clark

In 1971, the New Bedford YMCA was in the midst of a capital campaign to fund the construction of a new facility in the center of the city. At the time, their main building was the oldest YMCA structure in the United States, and the leaders hoped both to upgrade the facility as well to serve more of the population. 

To make up for a $200,000 shortfall, Camp Clark was put up for sale. The property was coveted by a variety of developers, eager to turn the waterfront land into luxury condominiums. 

“The Committee to Save Camp Clark” was launched, with Pete Mandell serving as the chairman. Alumni of the camp flooded the local newspapers with pleas to halt the sale and campaigned to raise the money needed to prevent the sale.

 

Things looked dire, however. Reports surfaced that the property was marked with flags, designating sites where future homes would be built. The end of a summer camp on the western banks of Lawrence Pond was imminent and the end of an era near. 

Part Three: Camp Lyndon 1972-Present

The Cape Cod YMCA was established in 1966 by a group of locals intent on serving the youth and families of the area. The organization staged events around Barnstable and the surrounding towns, though it lacked a permanent home. In 1968, Camp Arrowhead opened on Triangle Pond, though it used land owned by Camp Burgess to stage its programming. 


When Camp Clark went up for sale, it can be assumed the directors of the nearby Y were interested, but they lacked the money to make such a major purchase. However, just as one group of people were resigned to the loss of their past, a local family suffered a tragic loss as well. 


Paul Lorusso was born in Walpole, MA, educated at the University of Maine and Harvard Law, and served as a fighter pilot in WWII. After the war, his path took him into business in Ohio, where he met his wife Lila, and returned to Massachusetts to build affordable homes for veterans. Eager for a change of pace after the birth of their son, Lyndon, the Lorussos moved to Cape Cod and Paul purchased the Hyannis Sand and Gravel Company and became one of the founding members of the Cape Cod YMCA. 


In 1971, Lyndon Lorusso died in an accident at the age of 17, devastating his parents. Upon returning from a trip to Europe to process his loss, Paul and Lila decided to devote their lives to helping the Cape Cod community, in memory of their son. Their first act was to offer up the money to purchase Camp Clark, $250,000 in all (after inflation, $1.8m in 2022). The New Bedford YMCA voted to accept this bid, and in 1972, Camp Lyndon opened its doors. 

After the purchase, the property underwent a variety of changes, overseen by the first camp director, Neal Pratt. Many of the old cabins were torn down and new structures erected. One of the biggest changes in the first year was the creation of the Upper Ballfield. This had previously been a wooded hilltop, logged for timber at the turn of the century. The Boathouse, built in 1954 with the assistance of campers, saw the interior upgraded and later a front deck added, affording fine views of the pond. The building is the center of the sailing, kayaking, and paddleboarding activities of the camp and in the upstairs room.

Camp Lyndon has offered horseback riding since at least 1975, but in 1983 Liz’s Stables were built in memory of a Falmouth family, the Mellens, killed in a car crash. Peter Dubey, Neal Pratt, and Camp Director Joe Leary oversaw the construction of the new structure, which replaced a facility that was built out of pallets.

Today, Alliance Equestrian Center leases out the stables and surrounding riding stalls, with over twenty horses in residence. The center offers local families a place to stable their horses and runs horseback riding lessons for campers in the summer.  

In 1976, the Indian Guides and Indian Princesses programs were established across the Cape, with two groups meeting at Camp Lyndon for campouts and activities. Though now viewed as a form of cultural appropriation, the intent of the program was to bring together families in nature to connect with each other. They used the inspiration of the local Wampanoag peoples to structure their activities, like craft making, hiking, and stories around the campfire. Today, the program operates under the umbrella name of Y-Guides, and Adventure Guides.

Over the years a variety of ropes courses have been laid out at the camp. At the south end of the pond, by the old Hoxie farm, one course was built in the 1980s. This included a zip line, aerial lilly pads, and three line bridges. However, like much of Cape Cod, this was destroyed after Hurricane Bob in 1991. The storm leveled magnificent stands of white pine trees, many of which were the bases of wires for the course. Today, a few elements of this old course remain hung in the trees, memories of long ago climbers. 

A new ropes course was built on the upper ball field, consisting of a rock wall, zip line, catwalk, two-line bridge, giant’s ladder, vertical playpen, and a flying squirrel. These elements attract school groups, adventurous wedding parties, and the sheriff’s youth program, among others eager to enjoy the premiere adventure course on the Cape. 

Sullivan Hall, once known as David W. Beamon Hall, built in 1938, was expanded to make room for administrative offices and rededicated in honor of John Sullivan, an influential member of the Cape Cod YMCA.


Today, it not only serves as the center of camp activities, but as a food program, which provides meals for child care facilities around Cape Cod, operates year round out of the kitchen. 

John Sullivan
as Santa

Much of the new construction at Camp Lyndon is due to the efforts of Doug Bohanan of Mid Cape Home Centers in the early 2000s. After entrusting his son to the care of the YMCA, Doug noticed the significant facility needs of the camp. Since the camp serves a wide range of Cape Cod, Doug reached out to other builders and suppliers in the area to solicit labor and material support. What ensued was a series of Build Weeks. These projects tackled a variety of needs, including rebuilding the nurse’s cabin, renovations of the small cabins by the water, pouring the floor of the gazebo, and construction of five new cabins. Without the support of the community, Camp Lyndon would not be able to maintain the quality of its programming and serve as many children as it does. 


Over the years, Camp Lyndon has hosted a variety of events, from Breakfasts with Santa, Easter egg hunts, triathlons, Nature’s Classroom, field trips, military tracking training, weddings, reunions, and even scuba diving lessons. However, the main attraction for the camp remains Summer Camp. 

A Day of Summer Camp at Camp Lyndon

For most, a day at camp begins at the bus stop. Over the years, seven bus routes have crossed Cape Cod, from Bourne to Brewster. Campers are greeted by a counselor when they step aboard the school bus, destined for fun rather than classrooms. Depending on the route (and traffic), campers have between ten minutes to an hour and a half to reach their destination, saving families the hassle of getting their children to Sandwich. 

Other campers are dropped off in the morning, some as early as 7:30am, and wait for the other campers at the basketball court, playing games while shaking sleep from their minds. 

After the buses arrive, campers head to the Amphitheater behind Sullivan Hall for Morning Ceremonies. This has long been a gathering spot for campers, back to the Camp Clark days. Songs are sung, announcements made, and groups are sent from here, broken into their age groups. The Campers are broken into five distinct units of children. 

Way in the Woods, Unit 1 (Pioneers), Unit 2 (Explorers), Unit 3, and Challenge Camp. At various points in Camp Lyndon history, a CIT program has existed as a way to train future counselors, some of whom have later taken leadership positions, including Camp Director. Altogether, for the current ten week summer, Camp Lyndon hosts over 600 different campers, with over 300 children each week. 


Throughout the day, campers travel around the camp to a variety of program areas: ropes, archery, arts and crafts, sports, nature, and boating. These activities differ little from the programs offered by Camp Clark, so despite changing fashion trends and growth of the surrounding forest, much of Camp Lyndon would be familiar to alumni visiting from the last 94 years. 

Each session of the summer revolves around a specific theme, such as Prehistoric and Cartoon weeks. The theme inspires daily activities and culminates in a Friday play, with a cast of characters pulled from counselors and campers who arrive in costume. This is a highlight of the week for all involved. The writing of the plays in recent years falls on program staff, volunteer counselors, and directors, and often occurs in the frantic hours before dismissal or during Thursday overnights. 

While Camp Lyndon remains a day camp, the opportunity to sleep over in tents and cabins has long been a core component of the summer program. Usually offered five times each summer, participants engage in evening activities like hikes to The Secret Campsite, bonus swim, and storytelling and s’mores around the campfire. Once campers have drifted off to sleep, counselors play The Game, a favorite of staff past and present. 

After the buses roll, counselors gather in the gazebo for announcements and Funk. This tradition began in 2005, under the leadership of longtime director Steven Wolfe. Funk grew out of the need to publicly validate the actions of the staff, to give thanks for help that was given, and the general celebrations of goodness. It is a place for storytelling, for being vulnerable, for sharing the good and the bad. Most importantly, Funk gives people a chance to laugh at the absurdities that childcare naturally sprouts each day. 

The life of the camp revolved around the pond, over which the morning sun rose and in the evening stars shone bright. During the day, sailboats (the camp had three in the 1950s), rowboats, and canoes could be seen crisscrossing the camp’s bay, while the daring, more senior adventurers headed around the shoal of the Junior side into the southern portion of the pond: Hoxie’s Cove, named for the farm that bordered the camp. 

Each summer, the arrival of September comes as a surprise to everyone at Camp Lyndon. It is a time for goodbyes, rehashing of memories, and plans for the next year. Gatherings occur throughout the year, from Christmas parties to meetups in Boston, ensuring the friendships and connections made and strengthened throughout the summer remain some of the closest Camp people know. 

Looking Ahead

Camp Lyndon celebrated 50 years of serving children in the summer 2022, with another 44 years of Camp Clark history behind it. For everyone associated with the property, it is reassuring to know that many more years of memories for children and counselors remain.


With such a long history, the facility will continue to grow and transform. New projects intended to upgrade electrical systems, building functionality, and programming offerings are in the works, which will be met with as much excitement as the first flush toilets were in 1953. 

Conservation

In 2003, the Town of Sandwich and Cape Cod YMCA entered into an conservation agreement to ensure the property would never be developed into housing. The land Camp Lyndon sits on is part of the Three Ponds District, an area of town recognized for its importance to biodiversity of plants, trees, and animals. Land which once was home to vast forests of mighty pine and oaks, hunted and settled by native peoples, will forever remain a place for people to visit and appreciate for years to come.