Chances are, if you’re reading this, camping is already special to you. You’ve probably been to Frost Valley or have had some sort of camping experience already yourself. What drew you to camping? Who took you on that first trip into the majesty of the wilderness? And why did you end up going back – again and again?

One reason I wanted to start this history blog was to help foster a deeper connection to something one might take for granted today. In the future I look forward to posting about the amazingly rich history of Frost Valley (whose story begins with YMCA sponsored teen camping trips in the mid 1800s, led by Sumner F. Dudley) with the hope that, having the experience of visiting these different eras, we will feel a sense of pride and belonging to an ongoing legacy.

(A photo of YMCA Camping founder Sumner F. Dudley from the Wawayanda Whirlwind, published in 1910)

How did Sumner F. Dudley fit into the culture of camping back in 1885? The YMCA, founded in London in 1844, and introduced to the USA in 1851, was already an important part of his life. But what inspired him to lead that first camping trip on Orange Lake, near Newburgh, New York? Was recreational camping in America already a pastime for families and groups by that time?

In the mid 1800s, American cities began to grow substantially. People were feeling cramped, and were looking for a way to take a break from the hustle and bustle of city life. The idea of a “change of air” to maintain good health, or recovery from bad health, had already been around for centuries. Decades later, doctors would actually prescribe “fresh air” to prevent and treat ailments from nervousness to tuberculosis. (Fun fact: There is an abundance of evidence today suggesting that spending time in nature has positive effects on one’s health, such as lowering heart rates, increasing levels of vitamin D, and even an increase in self-esteem and mood, which come naturally with the built-in exercise that comes with exploring the out-of-doors.)

(Find more photos of historic NYC at This image is intended for educational use and is provided by New York’s Public Libraries,

Was the appeal of “fresh air” enough to draw these city dwellers from the creature comforts of their own homes and the convenience of easily accessible goods and services? For many, the idea of “roughing it” in the wilderness was intimidating. For centuries, people had immigrated to the lands of America with the idea of conquest in their minds. Their main aim was to tame the wilds rather than live peacefully in them, and their disconnect from nature was catching up with them. Naturalists and conservationists like John Muir and John Burroughs, amongst others, produced publications that described the majesty and wonders of the natural world, usually including beautiful illustrations. Suddenly, the wilderness didn’t seem so foreign and scary anymore.

(Illustrations from Squirrels and other Fur-Bearers, by John Burroughs [Wikimedia Commons]. You can find this, and other free e-books at

It was quite the endeavor for city folks to leave behind the comforts of their urban homes, so they brought servants with them to transport supplies, do the cooking, and even build primitive shelters. Recreational camping, as you can imagine, was mostly available to those with the means to afford such an excursion. They enjoyed the perks of the great outdoors such as fishing and hiking as a way to renew the body and spirit.

(From the 1873 serial “St. Nicholas” [Flickr])

By the late 1800s, modern railways and designated camping destinations helped to increase the accessibility of camping for many families. In a series of tips published by author Katherine Chandler, advice was given on the style of primitive camping, which eliminated the need for anything but the most basic of necessities, and incorporated the use of pack animals to aid in the transportation of camping wares. As automobiles became available and more affordable, people loaded up their families and as many supplies as they wished, and set out for adventure. With the use of bicycles, cars, buses, trains, and airplanes, along with a simple Yelp or Google search, camping is now available to nearly anyone, anywhere. There are Muirs and Burroughs and Chandlers blowing up your Instagram feed on a daily basis. The technological age that drew people away from the cities in the first place has at the same time only increased the ease in which it takes to leave those places and find yourself comfortable in the natural world.

(1907 [Wikimedia Commons])

(Car camping in the 1920s [Flickr])

(Car camping in the 1970s [Flickr])

As for the origins of organized camping in our country, I was surprised to find that the oldest one on record still functions today. The Gunnery, a boarding school founded by Frederick and Abigail Gunn in Washington, Connecticut in 1850, featured a semester of camping as part of its curriculum. The school was very much ahead of its time, including classical and recreational education, as well as focusing on environmental awareness and ethical standards that embodied inclusivity and diversity.

(An early photo of The Gunnery camp [Public Domain])

In 1874, the YWCA (which has a different origin than the YMCA) started what is widely known as the second organized camp in America, in Asbury Park, New Jersey. It was called Sea Rest, and for the rate of $3 a week, hard working women could find an affordable seaside and lakeside retreat – the perfect place to rest and rejuvenate the mind, body, and spirit. The camp, which could also be considered a boarding house, or resort, eventually burned down. Eleven years after the founding of Sea Rest, YMCA volunteer Sumner F. Dudley established organized camping in the US.

(Asbury Park, 1902 [Flickr])

The popularity of organized outdoor recreation was growing. Organizations like the New Jersey Boys’ Club and the YMCA were becoming more popular, as well as the Boy and Girl Scouts of America. Parents were sending their children away for a week, or two weeks, or sometimes for an entire summer, to have them come back stronger and healthier in every aspect. They came back with stories of laughter, songs, and campfires. They returned with lessons learned and obstacles overcome. With each summer experience they gained lifelong connections to people and places, that could only be found with good company, and of course, a “change of air.”

(From the Frost Valley Archives)

I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey through time and the contemplation about our forbears that comes with it. I look forward to sharing many more insights and stories about the camping world, specifically pertaining to Frost Valley, its origins and wonderful history, in the posts to follow.



About the Author

Anna Morelli

Anna has been working at Frost Valley since 2008. She began as a Program Instructor for Environmental Education, as well as Group and Family Retreats. She started managing Frost Valley's historical archives as a side project and is now the camp's full-time Historian.

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